Observed through a socio-historical context that references a time with no internet, television, readily available music and books, medieval gambling easily positions itself at the heart of a great many medieval lives and the primary entertainment of both worker and king.
As Luck and Fortune did not have the habit (and still do not!) of making a distinction between poor or rich, medieval gambling games were known to be the folly and undoing of many. Lost clothes, money, lost horses, estates, and even halves of kingdoms through medieval card games and medieval dice that now pose as mere fun facts of past times mentioned in passing were once the everyday occurrence of many.
Extracts from King Henry VII's accounts testify of his love of gambling but rarely any luck in it, as he suffered enormous losses and debts from it. Although passing a law preventing "an apprentice, agricultural worker, labourer, or employee in craft" from gambling, he himself was known to wager on tennis, chess, and dice regularly.
But, were games played in medieval times just about money and winning? Hardly so. For the majority, medieval card games and similarly exciting gambling adventures were a way to have fun and pass the time in the absence of other entertainment. Despite being outlawed for the poor, gambling managed to seep into all pores of the society.
In this article, we talk about medieval gambling, the most popular games of the time, and how the history of gambling was created at royal courts and village taverns, respectively.
Gambling Houses in Middle Ages: Taverns and Inns
Inns appeared in England in the 12th and 13th centuries, only to become fairly common by the 15th century. They were primarily found in towns and cities (usually the town square or in places where trade roads met), especially in England. Inns quickly grew into the landmarks of the settlement they were in, and vital drivers of the economy.
In France and the Holy Roman Empire, inns became trade hubs at their own right, as merchants usually used them as meeting points where they exchanged goods without even having to reach a city.
Interestingly, even though inns' primary purpose was to provide lodgings for travellers, history explains that gambling was endemic in these types of establishments. Typically, innkeepers acted as bankers and pawnbrokers, holding a gambler's property in exchange for money, enabling them to continue gambling. Dicing was banned in many towns as countless men lost everything in this way, including their clothes. However, despite the prohibition of gambling, it kept thriving all through medieval times.
Unlike inns, taverns were primarily drinking houses, seeking to cater for the more prosperous levels of society. Still, they too encouraged gambling, together with other similarly enticing activities.
Tavern life was as necessary to life in an English medieval village as bread. Taverns encouraged drinking as well as gaming in virtually all its portions, providing medieval card games, table-top entertainment, and medieval dice games to patrons that were both men and women. Unlike today, medieval card games never had a dealer or croupier set; instead, the players were taking turns shouldering the role of a bank if the game's rules suggested one was needed.
Although medieval card games weren't as organised as they are today, they sure were essential to nightlife entertainment. But, medieval gaming in taverns wasn't just about cards and dice. It was also customary to set up archery shoots (very short range!) and bowling-like games in the alleys between the buildings (hence the now-used term bowling alley), making tavern life even more exciting and attractive.
As taverns were central spots of lewd entertainment such as gambling, (over)drinking, acting and singing, prostitution, physical fights, and other "immoral" things of the time, they were frowned upon by the nobility at large. Even so, medieval tavern games make for the most fun part of medieval history.
Were there any casinos in medieval Europe? In short: No. The first gambling house known as the casino was built in Venice, Italy, in post-medieval Europe back in 1638. It was called the Ridotto. Regarding modern-day types of casino games like Blackjack and Roulette, it is believed they were 18th-19th century developments. Presently, there is no evidence of these or variations of the same being played in medieval Europe.
Medieval Dice Games
In contrast to tactical board games, all dice-related games required only fortune, not intelligence or talent, which made them hugely popular at the time.
For a game to be considered a game of dice, it needed two or more players who roll the dice per that game's rules. Medieval dice games were, in effect, inviting people to gamble due to their enticing nature as well as their simplicity and diversity of application. There are records showing men losing clothing, sheep, wives, and children in games of dice! Even so, despite very common and grand losses, medieval dice games enjoyed the status of the most famous medieval tavern games, next to cards.
The most popular medieval dice games were:
- Glückshaus (House of Luck)
- Dice chess
As dicing and coin tossing were the games that came in for the most criticism as they were won or lost by pure chance.
Medieval Card Games
Over time, gambling gained a certain moral legitimacy despite its legal ban still in place. This helped an average medieval gambler enjoy various gambling activities of the time, such as dice, cards, various forms of betting, and similar.
Medieval card games became the most popular way to gamble during the 15th century as the popularity of dice games decreased. Cards came to Europe from Asia and the Arab world, and they spread all over Europe by the middle/end of the 16th century.
Cards were widely enjoyed by all levels of society, despite being prohibited to the lower class. The moment a game had been written to the prohibitive list, smart, medieval gamblers would make a little change to it, and start playing it under a new name. Medieval card games were entertaining in nature and more challenging than dice, but less cerebral than chess and other similar games.
As cards alone were means of play, rather than a game, we could argue there were as many medieval card games as there were people playing them – at least until decks were standardised. There could be no codified games without uniform decks, which made this gambling entertainment as varied.
The most popular medieval gambling games of cards were:
- Nine men's morris
- All Fours
- Triomphe (also known as French Ruff)
Other Popular Medieval Gambling Games
Although medieval card games and medieval dice are considered the two most popular gambling activities of the time, a plethora of other equally engaging games could entertain an average medieval gambler.
Medieval Sports Betting
As many men became Knights, sports and battle skills were very popular. This resulted in the development of games like:
In addition to these, cricket, football (soccer), bowling, and golf arose as additional betting habits.
Medieval Strategy Games
Strategy games were a standard entertainment of the "brainy" gamblers of the time. The rules for most medieval strategy games were acquired from the Libro de los Juegos commissioned by Alfonso X of Castile in the 13th century.
Some of the most popular ones were:
- Alquerque (the ancestor of draughts)
- Three in a row (the ancestor of the modern Tic-Tac-Toe)
- Mill (the modern Nine Men's Morris)
Medieval race board games
A few more gems found in the Libro de los Juegos, these medieval race board games were exciting and enjoyed by many a medieval gambler. Some race board games exist in over fifteen variants in the Libro de los Juegos.
- Table of the Four Seasons
- Table of Astronomy
All three games are considered the ancestor of the modern Backgammon. However, their strategies and the number of players differ, making them, in a way, completely different from their modern variations.
Medieval hunting game(s)
Out of all games played in medieval times, there was no leisure activity as loved as hunting. However, as hunting (in actuality) was reserved for the aristocracy, the lower class found a way to turn it into an indoor game. The result? The game of Fox and Geese. The game is much like a hunting simulation, with the aim of the game different for the two players. The Fox and Geese was mentioned in the Libro de los Juegos as De Cercar the Liebre.
Most Popular Medieval Gambling Games
Passe-dix is possibly one of the most (if not the most) ancient dice game in history. It was specified by Matthew's gospel (Matthew 27:35) and regarded as the game played under the site of Jesus of Nazareth's crucifixion by the Roman guards.
Passe-dix is played with three dice, always has a banker, with an unlimited number of players. The banker changes after each roll.
Hazard (an ancestor of craps) is one of the earliest English medieval dice games, mentioned in Canterbury Tales in the 14th century. It was played with two dice and had rather complicated rules but still remained one of the most popular dice games throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. Hazard was often played for money. The game craps developed from the hazard in the 19th through a simplification of the rules.
A simple and straightforward medieval game, Highest Points had 2 six-sided dice and 2 players: each roll the dice and the highest sum wins. As it was this simple with no tricks or high stakes attached to it, Highest Points was the least played of all dice games.
Cross and Pile
Cross and Pile was 2 players and 1 coin/sea shell type of game with each player choosing one of the two sides. After flipping the coin in the air, the top side wins. Strutt and Hone noted that Cross and Pile is: "a silly pastime well enough known among the lowest and most vulgar classes of the community, and to whom it is at present very properly confined".
However, before its degraded status, the game held a higher rank and was even introduced at court to Edward II. Historians first mention this game historians in ancient Greece as "nyx & imera" (night and day). As it's said, kids played in the street using black and white seashells.
Cubic dice appeared as far back as the seventh century B.C, and quickly became one of the most popular tools for various types of entertainment. Raffle was a top-rated dice game, where the winner had to throw all three dice alike or the highest pair. It was usually played in taverns, and it attracted cheaters who, if caught cheating, had to either have dice pierced into their palms or wear their false dice around their necks.
Wilkins speaks of raffle "a three-dice game that might be considered the ancestor of the modern slot machine," which puts the history of slot machines into a whole new, fascinating light.
One of the most popular dice games in the Middle Ages was Zara which was so in vogue to deserve mention by Dante Alighieri! In this game, the players would call out a number, and the one who threw the sum he had called would be the winner of the game while the loser would be zara.
The apogee of medieval gambling, thimble-rig was a game for all those players with more money than wit. Historians refer to it as more of a scam than a real game, but it was, despite that, very popular in the streets of medieval cities and towns. Thimble-rig was also alive and well in the 19th century. It was played with 1 peppercorn, 3 peas, 1 flat surface, a rattling tongue and a quick hand: 1 dealer, 1 player, 1 bonnet, 1 egger.
Basset, also known as barbacole and hocca, was a gambling card game mostly played by the people of the highest rank as it often resulted in great losses or gains. It was considered one of the most polite games of the time. Basset resulted in, essentially, a lottery. The big winner was the dealer (banker) who had a number of privileges, including having the absolute disposal of the first and last card.
Nine men's morris
A widely popular 2-people strategy board game in the medieval times, Nine men's morris was a game whose optimal strategy has been calculated. It traces its origins back to Roman Empire. In English, the game is also known as nine-man morris, the mill game, mill, mills, merels, merelles, marelles, merrills, morelles, and ninepenny marl. Nine men's morris results in a draw when played perfectly by both players.
Nine men's morris came in several variations, as it can be played by three, six, and twelve people.
Tafl games have roots in ancient Nordic and Celtic strategy board games and were probably based upon the Roman game Ludus latrunculorum. Tafl was also known as Hnefatafl, Tablut, Tawlbwrdd, Ard Rí, Brandubh, and Alea Evangelii. Games in the tafl family were played around the world, predominantly in Britain, Ireland, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Iceland, and Lapland.
In the 12th century, Tafl gaming was eventually supplanted by chess. However, tablut, tafl variant of the Sami people, was in play until at least the 1700s. Interestingly, tablut is still played today, and in accordance with its original rules.
A trick-taking card game, Karnöffel is believed to go back to the 15th century. As It first appeared listed in Bavaria, in 1426, this makes it the oldest identifiable European card game in the history of playing cards. The game is played to this day.
Shut the Box
Shut the Box, also called Bakarat, Blitz, Cut Throat, Canoga, Batten Down the Hatches, Klackers, Kingoball, Trictrac, Fork Your Neighbor, and Jackpot, is a game of dice for one or more players. It was usually played in a group of two to four for stakes. There are variations where the box has 10 or 12 tiles. Alternatively, dominoes and a deck of cards can be used for the tiles.
Glückshaus (House of Fortune or House of Luck) is a medieval gambling dice game going back to the 15th-16th century, intended for multiple players. It is played with two dice on a numbered board, traditionally the most popular among mercenaries. Glückshaus is a somewhat modern version of Games of Seven (games played with a stake board with fields usually numbered 2-12, and two six-sided dice) that came about when the dice game was combined with a stake board for a card game.
Fox and Geese
The game of Fox and Geese is a medieval hunting game imitating a typical hunting session; a sly fox attempts to capture the multitudinous geese. Meanwhile, the geese do their own tricks to upstage the fox, and the game goes on in such a manner. Variations of Fox and Geese can be tried with 13, 17 and 22 pieces.
Trionfi was a 15th-century Italian card game, featuring allegorical content related to those used in tarocchi games. Trionfi is the origin of the general English expression "trump card" and the German "trumpfen", both related to card games.
Medieval games relied on chance and divine will for most of their structure. With that in mind, coin flipping popularity doesn't surprise at all! To Romans, coin flipping was known as navia aut caput ("ship or head"), while to people of England, coin tossing was referred to as cross and pile. Coin flipping wasn't exactly a game with rules and stakes; rather, it was used as an addition to other games or as a determinant on a particular stake. Who gets the coin side they called – they win. Coin flipping still lives.
Gambling Cheats in Middle Ages
According to the Buda Right Book, the punishment for playing with false dice at the beginning of the 15th century was to pierce the dice through the cheater's palm. Today's dice is much larger than those in medieval times so it may be a bit hard to imagine how this would look like. However, Medieval cubes were small, and they had sharp edges, making them easily pierced into the skin.
Why such harsh punishment? To deter the criminal from cheating again and alert others not to play with a cheater (as the dice would be visible in their palm). However, there is no data confirming this punishment was actually used on cheaters.
As for other punishments, i.e. punishments for cheating in other games but dice, sources do not provide unanimous references. It is only referenced that punishments were severe.
Libro de los Juegos - Book of games by Alfonso X
Libro de los Juegos, or Libro de Axedrez, Dados e Tablas, The Book of Games, or The Book of Chess, Dice and Tables, is considered one of the most vital documents for researching the history of board games.
It was commissioned by King Alfonso X of Castile, Galicia and León in Toledo, Spain, in 1283 and is one of the oldest books written about board games.
Real Biblioteca del Monasterio de San Lorenzo de El Escorial (Escorial Monastery Library) in Madrid, Spain keeps the earliest manuscript, dating back to 1283. It is kept as manuscript T.I.6, featuring magnificent paintings of games and players of the time. It is a 40 cm × 28 cm (16 in × 11 in) manuscript bound in sheepskin. Real Academia de la Historia Madrid (The Spanish Royal Academy of History in Madrid) holds a 1334 copy of the manuscript.
In 2003, an English translation of the book saw the light of day, or better yet – the light of the internet. It was published on the internet by Sonja Musser Golladay, a doctorate student from the University of Arizona. The book was titled Alfonso X's Book of Games – Translated by Sonja Musser Golladay, 2003.
The book contains 97 leaves of parchment, numerous with colour illustrations; it also contains 150 miniatures. The content of the book is a thesis addressing the playing of three games: a game of skill, or chess; a game of chance, or dice; and a third game, backgammon, a combination of elements of both skill and chance.
The book is celebrated for giving an insight into what is believed to be the earliest known description of these games. All games are discussed at both an astronomical and astrological level in the final section of the book. Exploring further, the text can be interpreted as a highly allegorical initiation tale as well as a metaphysical guide for leading a prudent, balanced, and virtuous life. Correspondingly to the didactic aspect of the manuscript (which, objectively viewed, is not overly moralistic), its illustrations reveal a rich social, cultural, and religious complexity.
Final Thoughts on Medieval Gambling
Based on the read and researched, gambling seems to have always been a way to pass time, have fun and even earn some. From medieval times to today, gambling games have evolved through various forms but never abandoning their status as the spotlight of all entertainment. Even more so, they have grown to be true art forms, those we can't get enough of.
In our podcast, "How online slots work" we discuss player strategy, the mechanics behind slots, what draws players in, and so much more. Take a listen, and see if you can link modern slot craft to medieval games.