It’s been a while since I wrote a post about medieval leisure activities in general, so I thought I’d have a look at board games in particular. Board games have a very ancient history. When I went to see the Tutankhamun exhibition in the British Museum in 1972 I saw a lovely wooden board divided into thirty squares in three rows of ten. It was set on top of a box which presumably held the counters. It was probably for playing senet, a game which was already a thousand years old when Tutankhamun was playing it in the second millennium BC. I’m fairly certain that it made such a big impression on me that I bought a postcard of it, but I’ve no idea where it would be now if I did.
Board games were very popular in the Middle Ages. Some boards, like the one I saw among Tutankhamun’s treasures, were made by craftsmen for kings and nobles, and were lavishly decorated, others were scratched on a more or less level piece of rock or wooden board. The same games were played on both.
Chess was probably the most popular indoor game for medieval nobles. It had its origins in India in the sixth century and came to Europe via Persia and Muslim Spain. The English phrase ‘checkmate’ derives from the Arabic ‘shah mat’ – the king is dead. The first time it was mentioned in Europe was when a priest was disciplined by his bishop for playing it in 1061.
Chess sets could be lavishly decorated and that was the kind preferred by those who wanted to show off their wealth. Roger Mortimer, who was responsible for the deposition of Edward II in 1327, had a set painted with gold. Edward II’s son, Edward III, had a board of crystal and jasper, with pieces to match.
The rules of medieval chess were not quite the same as they are today. The queen could only move one square in each direction. Bishops (or elephants as they were sometimes known) could only move two squares on the diagonal, but they could jump over pieces.
Draughts was played on the same board as was used for chess. It’s a much simpler (and shorter) game, in which pieces move across the board, jumping over the opponent’s pieces and taking them.
Backgammon was another eastern game with a long history. It’s even older than chess, dating back almost five thousand years. It arrived in France in the eleventh century, where it quickly became popular with gamblers and was banned to court officials in the twelfth century.
Dice games were often played on a board, or on a marked table. There were games for two or three dice. It was often banned for the lower classes in England, along with other games involving gambling.
Playing with cards also came to Europe from the East. It arrived either via Muslim Spain or was brought back by the Crusaders. They were first recorded in Europe in Italy in the thirteenth century. The main pack of cards was very similar to the one in use today, but many other packs were used, sometimes in the same game. Tarot cards were just another pack used for gaming and it wasn’t until the mid-eighteenth century that they were used for fortune-telling. Playing cards didn’t arrive in England until the early fifteenth century. I have no idea why it took so long for them to cross Europe. Perhaps it was the fact that the cards were very expensive.
Merelles was a popular board game among the lower classes. It’s better known today as nine men’s morris. Like draughts, it’s a straightforward game which involves jumping over pieces. It was so popular in medieval England that boards were scratched into pieces of furniture, including cloister seats in monasteries.