Just like today, people in the Middle Ages (5th to 15th century) liked to play games to pass the time. And where there’s games, there’s gambling.
Gambling in the middle ages was of course a lot different from pointing your browser at King Casino and clicking yourself to victory on Jumanji video slot, but no matter what time period you’re from, backing games up with stakes will get your adrenaline pumping that much faster and our ancestors would have experienced the same thrill we do.
Despite pushback from the church and law enforcement, gambling was an unrelenting force for people in all levels of society. Here are our top 10 facts about gambling in the middle ages.
They certainly didn’t have our modern take on casinos, but gambling houses have been around since at least the ancient greeks. The first known European full-on gambling house was Venice’s Ridotto, which lasted from 1638 until it was shut down in 1774 — because the city government felt it impoverished the local gentry. Side note: If you’re interested in Venice in this time period, Giacomo Casanova’s memoirs is a must read. You may know him for his reputation with women, but gambling defined him as much as anything else and he writes extensively about the subject.
In most of medieval Europe however, the local inn or tavern was the place to go for any kind of gambling or betting activities. The innkeeper often acted as a third-party pawnbroker, and if the game called for a bank, players would put the responsibility on one of their own.
There were few “tools of the trade” for gambling in the middle ages, which meant that betting, and particularly dice games — even the poorest and simplest man can easily carve some dice out of a little bit of wood or bone — were the most popular games for gambling.
Two of the most popular dice games were passe-dix and hazard, which both used the 6-sided-dice we still use today.
In Hazard, the dice-roller specifies a number from 5 to 9, then rolls two dice. Depending on the number they chose, the roller wins or loses. After 3 outs, the roller changes. There are a few other convoluted rules and variations as well, but that’s the gist of it. According to the French translation of prelate and chronicler William of Tyre (c. 1130 – 1186), Hazard was invented by the crusaders during the siege of a Syrian castle of the same name.
Passe-dix is a little simpler. There’s always a bank, and any number of people can play. The first gamer rolls: every time he throws under ten, everybody in the game lose the specified stake, which goes to the banker. Every time the player rolls above ten, the banker must return double the stake to all the players. After three losses, the roller changes. The banker changes after each roll.
Card games weren’t as popular as dice games in the middle ages since dice games were simpler and didn’t require a(n initially expensive) deck of cards. Card games reached Europe in the 14th century, and the variety and complexity of card games quickly became immense because of the numerous and oddly specific laws against it. When authorities banned a card game, the players would simply change the rules slightly and give the game a new name, thus making it legal again.
In the 15th century Germans started producing cards in large quantities at a low price, greatly helping to popularize these games. After producing all sorts of different cards, Germans eventually mainly settled on four signs for their cards: the heart, leaf, bell, and diamond. France’s own spin on this generated the signs we’re all familiar with today: club, spade, heart, diamond.
Coin flipping is perhaps the earliest game of chance known to mankind. During the medieval age, one of the most popular coin flipping games was cross and pile, known today as heads or tails. It was called cross and pile because one side of English coins had a cross. These simple coin flipping games were looked down upon and often played by poor peasant children, but King Edward II was addicted to it and often borrowed money from his servants so he could continue to play.
In the 1833 publication “The Sports and Pastimes of the People of England,” writer Joseph Strutt described cross and pile as a “vulgar” game:
Cross and pile, or with us heads or tail, 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; formerly, however, it held a higher rank, and was introduced at court. Edward II was partial to this and other such likewise frivolous diversions, and spent much of his time in the pursuit of them.
Gambling was popular among wealthy nobles and merchants. After all, they were the ones who had money to spare, and they certainly had a lot more time to spare than common peasants. Of course that didn’t stop peasants from getting together to play their own high-stakes games. And some of these games were really high stakes. Sometimes people would resort to risking the clothes off their backs just to keep playing. Keep in mind that clothes, like most other things at the time, were handmade and had much more value than in our throw-away consumer society.
In fact, a drinking song from the 12th century describes a priest wishing to be a gambler and winning someone’s clothes in a game.
The Abbot of Cockaigne I am, and this
my council’s all furnished with drinkers, it is,
to be one of the gamblers is my dearest wish,
and whoever at dawn seeks me in the tavern
come vespers, he’ll be stripped naked as Adam,
and thus relieved of his shirt he’ll cry:
‘Oh woe! Oh woe!
Lady Luck, oh what have you done!
The joys of my life are all gone,
you’ve stolen them all every one!’
Peasants who were already poor would sometimes end up with absolutely nothing left. This was before modern social nets, and so these games could become life-or-death situations. Also, good luck working your way out of debt from debtors’ prison.
During Europe’s Middle Ages, debtors, both men and women, were locked up together in a single, large cell until their families paid their debt. Debt prisoners often died of diseases contracted from other debt prisoners. Conditions included starvation and abuse from other prisoners. If the father of a family was imprisoned for debt, the family business often suffered while the mother and children fell into poverty. Unable to pay the debt, the father often remained in debtors’ prison for many years. Some debt prisoners were released to become serfs or indentured servants until they paid off their debt in labor.
People weren’t as educated about maths or odds, which meant that medieval people would unknowingly participate in games that were difficult or even almost impossible to win. In other words, people would get scammed a lot.
One such game was known as thimble rig, which was similar to modern cup-and-ball shell games. The rigger would place a peppercorn under one thimble and peas under two other thimbles and shuffle them around. One of the rigger’s friends would pretend to be a bystander and correctly guess which thimble had the peppercorn, and seeing him win would convince other bystanders to wager their own money. Of course, the bystanders rarely won, and that’s when the rigger wasn’t cheating. Which brings us to…
Where there’s games, there’s bound to be cheating as well. Some gangs roamed from town to town in search of new marks for their impossible-to-beat games, and others created rigged equipment to give them a leg up at the inn.
The Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research reported that a 15th century dice discovered in an old tavern quarter of Bergen had two fours and two fives, but no one or two.
– The dice were found close to a wooden street that dates back to the 1400s. So when looking at the context and the dice design, there is just as much chance that someone has got rid of it, as they have lost it, says Per Christian Underhaug who is the project manager for the excavations in Bergen,
– This part of Bergen was a densely populated district with several inns and pubs, and it is not unlikely that there were lots of games being played in them, says Underhaug.
Whether this particular dice was used for cheating is up in the air — it might have been used for non-standard distributions serving some other purpose — but cheating was rampant.
In a blog post, archaeologist Ingrid Rekkavik explained that medieval authorities in Bergen attempted to clamp down on gambling. A 1276 City Act gave the King’s Ombudsmen power to confiscate money on gambling tables and fine gamblers half a mark, equivalent to about 107 grams of silver. “However, there is no reason to believe that gambling was not widespread,” she added.
The dice, she explained, may have been used in a game called passe-dix that dates back to ancient times. The object of the game, which is played with three dice, is to throw at least 10. The first player to get less than 10 loses.
“It’s exciting to imagine this dice’s last game – was the cheater revealed?” wrote Rekkavik. “What happened to the dice? Was it perhaps thrown away by the nervous cheater eager to get rid of evidence? Or was it angrily thrown by an opponent, to where it ended up being found over 600 years later?”
Cheating was no small matter, and while gambling was usually officially illegal, cheating other gamblers could result in death. Anu Mänd, who teaches history at Tallinn University, examined Tallinn’s court records between 1394-1521 and found that weighed dice was a capital offense.
Gambling was forbidden on feast days and Sundays under threat of excommunication, however, the most severe punishments were reserved for cheats. If you used weighted dice when you gambled, you paid with your life. Despite heavy punishments, the authorities found little success in clamping down on offenders. Since gambling was associated with drinking, the games could often lead to violence.
Gambling had the power to bring all sorts of people together. In 1283, King Alfonso X commissioned the Libro de los Juegos (“The Book of Games”). The work is one of the most detailed records of Medieval games, containing 97 pages and descriptions for various games, as well as containing some of the earliest known descriptions of many forms of medieval board and table-top games.
One of the most fascinating details of the kingly book of games is that people of different cultures were frequently depicted playing games together, as were men and women.
The church and law enforcement often tried to crack down on gambling, but the measures were doomed to fail. For example, whenever a game associated with gambling was added to the ban list, the next day people would make a tiny change to it and started to play the game again, but under a new name.
King Edward IV even tried to ban all import of cards, which would leave card games exclusive to the wealthy. Later, King Henry VII also tried to enforce anti-gambling laws, but he ended up addicted to gambling himself (notice the theme of English kings and gambling?).
Henry VII was well-known for his love of gambling, a pastime at odds with his image as a miserly king. Today, we can look at the carefully-maintained Privy Purse Accounts to see the amounts Tudor royalty lost at cards. Though even royalty was not supposed to gamble during certain religious holidays, neither Henry VII or his son obeyed that rule.
In her paper, Crime and Punishment: Regulating Gambling in Livonian Towns (1440-1525), Tallinn University’s Anu Mänd provides a good illustration of typical medieval European gambling laws.
During her research Mänd discovered that guilds, confraternities and town councils in Tallinn, Riga, Tartu and New Pärnu all issued statutes regulating gambling, which was called “Dobbelen” or “dobbelspil” in Old German.
Fines for gambling depended on whether the offence was committed in the guild hall or elsewhere. If it occurred in the guild hall, the fine was usually higher. Guild and confraternity attitudes depended on the guild type so fines could range from minor to severe. Mänd examined the court records of Tallinn between 1394-1521. Gamblers were recorded as ‘de dabbler”. The actual fine for gambling in Tallinn was one mark, or half a mark in some cases. While this fine remained unchanged over the period, it could also be increased if the gambler combined their gambling ‘with other misdeeds’. Some court records included punishments for up to 30 people at a time! Examples of gambling with other misdeeds included (but not limited to):
- 1412: organizing gambling in one’s house
- 1435: grabbing a knife (during a game)
- 1458: tapping off wine after 9pm and organising gambling in one’s cellar
Needless to say, they never did manage to stop people from gambling — and they never will.