Medieval Board and Table Games

KnightsTemplarPlayingChess1283

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.

Codex_Manesse_262v_Herr_Goeli

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.

Sources:
The Medieval World Complete – Robert Bartlett
Social History of England 1200 to 1500 – ed. Rosemary Horrox and W. Mark Ormrod
Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England – Ian Mortimer

 

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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20 Comments

Filed under Medieval Entertainment, Medieval Life

20 responses to “Medieval Board and Table Games

  1. Hi April, yes I can understand chess being a popular game. Still is with many. Les was a school champ so I’m yet to beat him!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Losing the Plot

    I used to play backgammon all the time, just recently rediscovered my set, I’ll have to remind myself of the rules. I’ve totally forgotten. Used to play merelles when I worked in Carrickfergus Castle

    Liked by 2 people

  3. You might like this post about the Lewis chess set April, https://howardwilliamsblog.wordpress.com/2017/03/11/king-78-and-the-dead-the-lewis-chessmen-in-the-walking-dead-season-4/ ignore the walking dead part, the history of it is good.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Lovely post and great pictures. John has a backgammon set bought when he worked in the Middle East. We rediscovered it in January and he has been teaching me. I am not great at strategic games, but I am enjoying it-the pattern on the board is very pleasing to me and I love the sound of the (Bakelite) counters even if I don’t play well!

    Liked by 2 people

  5. As a board game lover, I thoroughly enjoyed this post! Though I agree with you about backgammon, April—I found it baffling when I tried to learn it as a child. Perhaps I should try again now! Haha.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. lydiaschoch

    Wow, I didn’t know playing cards had been around for so long. Interesting!

    Is it safe to assume that games and cards were mostly used by the upper classes?

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s not at all safe to assume that. Cards would initially have been limited to the wealthy, because they were expensive, but they arrived in England shortly before the printing press, which would have reduced the cost. The rest of the board games could have been played by anyone who knew the rules. Chess pieces could have been carved from odd pieces of wood and, if it came to it, a board could be scratched on the ground.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Very interesting. I had no idea Backgammon was so old! I used to play it such a lot with my dad, many years ago, as well as chess. I don’t think I’d be able to remember how to play Backgammon now although I think Chess is a bit like riding a bike, you never forget. I’ve never heard of Merelles or nice men’s Morris, I wonder if it’s called anything else?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree about chess. It’s probably thirty years since I last played, but I still know how the pieces move. All the names of nine men’s morris I know are various spellings of merelles.

      Like

  8. Interesting note about tarot and fortune telling. I wouldve thought it had older origins. I learn something new every time.

    Liked by 1 person

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