Medieval Gambling


Last week we looked at the games that medieval people played, and where there are games there’s usually gambling.  Most of the games played were games of skill, but dicing and coin tossing were won or lost by pure chance, and these were the games that came in for the most criticism.

It wasn’t just the risk of huge losses involved in gambling that caused it to be frowned on, but also the locations where it took place. Gambling during mass in church must have been fairly widespread, because it was something that had to be managed in several places. There were no pews or chairs in medieval churches and the parishioners stood whilst they were in church. This must have provided good cover for men who didn’t have anywhere else to meet without drawing attention to themselves.

Gambling was rife in inns, as innkeepers acted as bankers and pawnbrokers. They would hold a gambler’s property in exchange for money so that they could continue to gamble. Many men lost everything in this way, including their clothes. This is one of the reasons why dicing was banned in many towns. Men who had very little in the way of possessions could lose them all very quickly.

Great losses weren’t limited to the poor, however. The aristocracy also gambled and they could lose much larger sums of money. Edward III lost almost £4 in one day in 1333. Using our usual guide to the value of money – the 4 pennies that represented a day’s wage for a skilled labourer – the king’s losses represent 240 days of work.

Gambling wasn’t only considered a problem generally, but it was also recognised as a specific problem in armies. Richard I banned gambling in his army when he was in the Holy Land in 1192. If a soldier was discovered gambling, he was stripped naked and whipped for three days.

Problems with gambling weren’t limited to the English. Geoffrey de Charny, the standard-bearer of the Oriflamme (the French war flag), who was killed at the battle of Poitiers in 1356, wrote a book called The Book of Chivalry. It was a subject in which he was well-versed, although some of his actions seem less than chivalrous today. He was completely opposed to gambling, which afflicted the French aristocracy as much as it did the English. He also condemned tennis, because of the wagers made on the games.

Try as I might, I have no idea why this might be, but in 1343 playing with dice while wearing a mask was forbidden by a bye-law in London.



A Social History of England ed Rosemary Horrox and W. Mark Ormrod

The Time-Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer

By Sword and Fire by Sean McGlynn

Edward III and the Triumph of Britain by Richard Barber




Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Entertainment, Medieval Life

28 responses to “Medieval Gambling

  1. Playing dice while wearing a mask? The mind boggles. Who would want to? Then it occurred to me that a cheat might.

    If there was found to be something wrong with the dice, the cheat could grab his or her winnings and scarper. And next time they joined a dice game they wouldn’t be recognised.

    Liked by 2 people

    • That makes sense. My own thoughts were sort of in that direction, but I kept wondering why anyone would play against a masked man. There were situations where masks were perfectly acceptable, such as tournaments, celebrations and performing plays, so I could imagine those people gambling in masks during quiet moments, but those people would be known to one another. If someone wearing a mask wandered into the inn where you were staying and challenged you to a game of dice, why would you agree to play him, unless you were a complete innocent? Once more I’m struck by how very different the Middle Ages were.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Yes – people trotting around in masks when they had no good reason to be doing so would have immediately aroused suspicion, I should think. It still would.

    Perhaps there were occasions where professional crooks could slip in among legitimate maskers and get up to no good? Or maybe arguments erupted over who was, or wasn’t, at a dice game and therefore owed someone else money?

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Interesting article April, was trying to work out what was going on in the picture but can’t fathom it.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Fascinating!!! It is no surprise that gambling was very popular as they are now and old games are still played in “old cultures” especially found this in Turkey.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. A few years back I heard a documentary on Radio 4 about internet gambling which mentioned tennis as a favourite sport on which to bet. Plus ça change…

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Another very interesting post. I know there were a lot of concerns around the wearing of masks, but I don’t know why.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks. Dan. People liked to wear masks. I suppose that if you live in a very small community it would add an element of uncertainty about identity during times of play and entertainment, but could be taken too far by the criminal-minded.

      Liked by 2 people

  7. lydiaschoch

    April, do you happen to know if the (Catholic, I assume?) church had any qualms about gambling back then? Was it thought to be a harmless pastime? Was it controversial at all for some devout people?

    I’m asking because all of the (Protestant) churches I attended as a child believed that gambling was a sin. I know opinions on this topic vary a lot today depending on which church someone attends, so I’d be curious to know if it was the same back then. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Interesting that gambling can still be such a huge issue these days too. Addictiveness and big losses? Some things never change!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. When one reads about the crucifixion of Christ, one reads of soldiers dicing for Jesus’ clothing. It was meant to represent yet another reprehensible thing done to the Messiah on the Cross. I’m a bit foggy on my O.T. (do need to read it more), but I’m pretty sure gambling is not condoned.

    In an age when women & children usually had to depend utterly upon their husbands & fathers, gambling was seen as a scourge on society, as a penniless man could not provide for his family. ALL became destitute!

    Father might have to take his chances joining a band of thieves, be whipped at the pillory, &/or rot in debtor’s prison, while wife might have had to beg largesse for the children and do menial labor. The community was not expected to support children with a living father, so they might not not get the same meager aid that orphans received. Local courts might give the children’s care to another family, if the young ones were lucky (?). But since children were expected to end up behaving as their parents, giving a home to a gambler’s child was, in itself, seen as a gamble!

    So no, the Church was not generally benign about gambling. It often had to look the other way for the elite. And there could well have been gamblers within the Church & cloister! But no one wanted to talk about it for risk of sending his soul to Hell for the sacrilege of gossiping about clergy!

    Considering that imbibing in gambling usually coincided with imbibing in drink, a lot of natural caution probably flew out the window when dealing with masked persons.

    There were a great many reasons masks were worn or faces covered. Some examples:

    — Carnivals & revelries. (Just like today’s carnivals; hiding one’s identity gave freer license to live it up.)

    — Covering diseases of the flesh. (This could help pregnant women from looking upon them & “marking” the unborn child. Misshapen features were considered repugnant & people with them were expected to keep covered.)

    — Avoiding transmitting or receiving the various plagues. (Masks cold carry pomades designed to stop the disease from being breathed in.)

    — Cold weather.

    — Certain officers of the Inquisition. (Why this was done I don’t understand, but I saw it in pictures painted during Inquisition times.)

    I can see where gambling while masked could free up anyone to take greater chances. Maybe the very people who passed ordinances against it were the folks who were bilked by the dupes!

    Sure doesn’t SOUND like medieval folks led boring lives!

    Ah, Ms. Munday, you open worlds! So enjoy these posts!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Another fascinating insight April – thank you! Gambling it seems is still a scourge on society.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Pingback: Fortune’s Wheel | A Writer's Perspective

  12. Reblogged this on A Game of Chance and commented:
    Opinion on gambling has been divided since Medieval times, but one thing is consistent – there has always been gambling…


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