Category Archives: Medieval Entertainment

Medieval Musical Instruments Part Three

Our third instrument is a bit like the recorder, except that it’s really two instruments. The pipe and tabor went together. The pipe was held in the left hand and the cord holding the tabor was looped over that arm. The right hand held the stick that was used to beat a rhythm on the tabor, or drum. The bear in the illustration has obviously been taught incorrectly.

The pipe is a simple wooden tube. Like the recorder it has a block and a windway at the top. The player blows into a narrow gap between the block and the tube. Again, as with the recorder, the air is split by a labium beneath a window. At the bottom of the tube there are two holes on the front and a thumb hole on the back. The pitch is changed by raising and lowering the fingers and by increasing or decreasing breath pressure. Despite the small number of holes, the pipe can produce a fairly wide range of notes and that range is sufficient to play some complex melodies, as you’ll hear.

The two holes are covered by the fleshy part of the finger between the first and second knuckles rather than the pads of the fingertips. The thumb hole is covered by the pad of the thumb. The pipe is held in place by the ring and little fingers of the left hand, leaving the thumb free to cover or not cover the hole without causing the pipe to fall to the ground.

The tabor could be almost any size, provided the player can still get the pipe to his lips, but I’ve only ever seen small ones in the flesh. As you’ll see in the second of the videos, the drum could have a string stretched across the surface that was being struck. This vibrated against the drum producing a similar effect to that of a snare on a drum today.

The pipe and tabor is still a popular combination in folk music, so the chances are good that you’ve already seen and heard them in action.

In the first video below, The Early Music Consort of London gives a short demonstration of what the pipe and tabor sound like.

In the second video, there are some tunes from the Renaissance as well as from the Middle Ages. If you want to join in, the steps are provided for one of the dances.

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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Filed under Medieval Entertainment, Medieval Music

Medieval Musical Instruments Part Two

Jan Klimeš / CC BY-SA (

Our second medieval instrument is the shawm. It’s another woodwind instrument and it makes the sound that you probably most associate with medieval music. It can be rather raucous and rough, but it can also be very sweet.

At first glance it looks like a cross between a recorder and a trumpet, but it’s not really like either of them. It’s a wooden tube, like the recorder, with a trumpet-like flare at the bottom. There are two reeds in the top of the tube and the player makes the reeds vibrate to produce the sound. It’s a precursor of the oboe.

These are modern double reeds used with a bassoon and you can see that there are two separate bits of reed in the bottom left of the photograph.

The tube of the shawm has quite a wide bore and it flares out at the bottom. At the top there is much narrower tube and this is where the reeds are inserted. This is called the pirouette. Although it looks as if it is stuck into the shawm like a cork into a bottle, the shawm was usually made from a single piece of wood. The pirouette has a small piece hollowed out from it and the reeds are inserted through it into the top of the tube. As you can see from the photograph at the top of the page, not much of the reeds stick out from the pirouette. There’s just enough for the player to get their lips around them and the lips rest on top of the pirouette. As with all wind instruments, the shape the lips make (the embouchure) is important in producing a good sound, because it changes the way in which the musician’s breath interacts with the part of the instrument that makes the sound.

Shawms were loud instruments, as you’ll hear, and were useful for playing outdoors.

Here is David Munrow’s Early Music Consort of London demonstrating the shawm.

If you enjoyed that and would like to hear more, with a bit of an explanation about the shawm as an instrument and medieval music in general, here is another video demonstrating the versatility of the shawm.

A History of Western Music by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout and Claude V. Palisca

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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Filed under Medieval Entertainment, Medieval Life, Medieval Music

Medieval Music

In the last post we saw that people are taking to medieval style music in a big way at the moment. That made me reflect a little on the kind of music that was around in the Middle Ages.

Music was very much a part of medieval life. Then, as now (well, not right now, but usually), there was music in church and music for dancing. Performances of mystery plays were accompanied by music. Pilgrims often sang as they walked.

It’s difficult to know now what medieval music sounded like, or even what some of the instruments used in the Middle Ages were. Much of what is known about medieval instruments comes from pictures and sculptures, which don’t say anything about what the instruments were made of or how they were made. They don’t even provide much information about how they were played. Sculptors and artists weren’t necessarily accurate in the way they depicted musicians and their instruments. If they weren’t musicians themselves, their representations of the instruments and how they were held and played could be flawed. There were some treatises written about music, though, which help.

Fortunately, there are those who have done the work to try to replicate what medieval musicians might have played. They reproduce the instruments and work out what the musical notation means. Musicians research performance practice and the music is performed.

The examples below are fairly short and come mostly from the twelfth century. The first two are from the Carmina Burana. This was a collection of poems by various authors mostly written in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Most are in Medieval Latin, but some are in Middle High German. Many of them are very bawdy, so you’ll have to go elsewhere to find the lyrics. Carl Orff set some of the poems to music in the 1930s, so the name and some of the poems might be familiar to you. He wasn’t the first, though. Many of them are accompanied by music in the original manuscript.

In taberna quando sumus means ‘when we are in the tavern’. Need I say more?

Tempus est Iocundum (The time is pleasing) is a celebration of new love.

This next piece is the sort of thing that pilgrims sang on their way to Compostela to the shrine of St James. Dum Pater Familias tells the story of St. James and ends as a prayer to him.

Finally, here’s a piece by Hildegard von Bingen, an extraordinary woman who was a nun in the twelfth century. Ave generosa (Hail thee, noble one) is a song of praise to the Virgin Mary. I’m sorry about the picture that goes with it, but you could listen with your eyes closed.

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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Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Entertainment, Medieval Life, Pilgrimage, The Medieval Church

The Life of Geoffrey Chaucer by Derek Pearsall – A Review

Chaucer life

Pages: 380
Published: 1992

More Chaucer this week. This time it’s the man himself rather than his work. The last time I wrote about his life on this blog (towards the end of 2018), Toutparmoi mentioned The Life of Geoffrey Chaucer by Derek Pearsall, so I bought a copy, and it has proven to be a good purchase. It was published almost thirty years ago, so there is a chance that some of what it contains has been superseded by more recent research.

The book’s subtitle is A Critical Biography and that’s the part that I found least pleasing. Pearsall ties what is known of Chaucer’s life to the supposed dates of his works. I say ‘supposed’, because no one really knows when he wrote which works. Some can be narrowed down to a decade or so, and The Book of the Duchess must have been written after the death of Blanche of Lancaster, the duchess it celebrates. There are some clues, but few of them clear cut.

Since I’ve only read one of Chaucer’s poems, these sections of the book meant nothing to me. The discussions about various interpretations of the actions of different characters, particularly in The Canterbury Tales, must be engaging if you’re familiar with them, but I’m not.

There are surprisingly few records of Chaucer’s life. Most of them are about annuities given to him, or expenses for clothing for special occasions while he was in service to various royal households. Some relate to court cases against him for debt and one for rape. This last raises all kinds of questions about Chaucer, but Pearsall offers no definitive answer, which is quite correct of him, given the impossibility of obtaining any of the facts, let alone all of them after more than six centuries.

Pearsall is very good at putting what is known (and sometimes what isn’t known) about Chaucer into context. There’s no information about Chaucer’s education, so Pearsall doesn’t jump to conclusions about his schooling, but describes the kind of education a boy of Chaucer’s class would have had. He does something similar at other points in the book.

The picture Pearsall paints of Chaucer is, of necessity, superficial. It’s also surprisingly unattractive. It’s hard to reconcile the (possible) rapist and constant debtor with the trusted servant of royalty and creator of some of the best poetry written in the Middle Ages.

I think Pearsall’s ideal reader is someone who has read all of Chaucer’s works, is interested in the fourteenth century in general and in Chaucer’s life in particular, in that order. Since I only fall into the last two categories, I don’t feel that I’ve reaped the full benefit of reading this book. Despite that, I’ve learned a lot from it.


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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Filed under Book Review, Fourteenth Century, Medieval Entertainment

What Did Pardoners and Summoners Do?

Canterbury Tales

Can you tell that I’ve finally started reading The Canterbury Tales? I’m reading it in Middle English, because I like doing things that are difficult. To be honest, it’s not that hard to get an idea of what’s going on, but you do need the vocabulary to understand the detail. Fortunately, the Penguin edition that I’m using has both a very good glossary and extensive notes. It’s a huge book, though, so it will take me a while to get through it.

I’ve only read a few pages so far, but I already have some questions that aren’t answered for me in the notes. To be fair, they might be answered later, but I’m beginning to suspect they might not be. This post will be the first in an occasional series about things relating to The Canterbury Tales. They might be things that I learn from reading the poem or questions arising from it about life in fourteenth-century England. Today’s post is the latter.

Although I haven’t come across them in the book yet, I know that two of the pilgrims going to Canterbury are a pardoner and a summoner.  What I don’t know is what they do, except the obvious that one pardons and the other summons. Who do they pardon and summon, though, and on whose behalf?

Here are the answers.

The pardoner was a secular clerk or friar, whose role was originally that of messenger, which we’ll come to later. By the fourteenth century he was carrying relics around with him, which he displayed for a fee. Anyone who knew anything about relics in the Middle Ages would have realised how unlikely it was that someone in such a lowly position would be travelling around with one, let alone more than one, relic. Even tiny fragments were kept in reliquaries or inside shrines and further secured within churches. Chaucer’s pardoner has a pillow-case he says is the veil of the Virgin Mary and he also has a bit of St. Peter’s fishing boat. I suspect that Chaucer’s contemporaries were very aware of what was going on with regard to false relics.

The pardoner also sold indulgences, which many people wrongly believed were pardons for sin. Their official title was questor (asker), since they asked people about their sins. The role was abolished by the pope in 1562, a little late, as the selling of indulgences was one of the abuses that figured largely in Luther’s ninety-five theses in 1517, which led to Reformation.

Indulgences were instituted with good intentions in the tenth century.  People confessed their sins to a priest and were absolved. They were then given a penance. Sometimes people were given penances that were beyond them physically and they could pay something in place of carrying out the penance. That was an indulgence. At first indulgences were specific to the person receiving them.

More general indulgences were introduced in the eleventh century. These could apply to anyone who met the conditions attached to them. The best known general (or plenary) indulgence is probably the one relating to the First Crusade in 1096 when Pope Urban II said that any man who set out to take Jerusalem for Christianity would have all his penance for the rest of his life cancelled.

Urban II also made use of partial indulgences for pilgrims visiting to specific churches and those who helped to restore a monastery in Normandy. During the twelfth century bishops started issuing their own indulgences to pilgrims visiting certain shrines in their dioceses. From that point it got out of hand.

An indulgence could reduce or cancel entirely the sinner’s penance. It did not forgive the sin or release the sinner from his guilt, although many people believed that it did. The finer points of theology might have been discussed in the great church councils attended by cardinals and bishops, but few parish priests understood them. Their parishioners had even less chance of knowing what the real purpose of an indulgence was.

Let us return to our seller of indulgences. The things that pardoners generally did were prohibited. They were not supposed to sell indulgences, preach in churches or forgive sins and they weren’t supposed to collect money for displaying relics. Officially all they could do was deliver the paperwork of an indulgence from the pope or a bishop to a repentant sinner.

As early as 1215, at the fourth Lateran Council, it was agreed that questors should be licensed. A licence could come from the pope or a bishop. In theory that meant that pardoners would be limited in where they could go and that they would have to show their licence as they travelled. In practice few people could read and most people wouldn’t have known to ask to see the licence anyway.

That obviously didn’t work and the behaviour of pardoners got worse. An edict was sent out in 1267 to say that pardoners couldn’t demand accommodation with clergy in the towns and villages they passed through, nor could they force a local priest to gather the parishioners to hear them preach, which was obviously what had been happening.

Even that wasn’t enough, though. By 1312 pardoners had to show their credentials to bishops in order to enter their dioceses. The Canterbury Tales was written towards the end of the century and things were clearly no better. To men like Chaucer, pardoners were clearly disreputable.

The other pilgrim whose job was a mystery to me is the pardoner’s friend the summoner. He was an official of the ecclesiastical courts and it was his responsibility to bring people to who were believed to have broken canon law to the archdeacon’s court. Lay people were summoned to the ecclesiastical courts for not paying their tithes or death duties, or after being accused of a sexual offence, or if they were involved in a marital dispute or were accused of perjury. By the end of the fourteenth century summoners were considered to be little more than spies and blackmailers.

They were introduced in England in the thirteenth century. It was widely believed that they threated people with non-existent crimes in order to extort money. They could also be bribed by those who were guilty to let them go. In this they were no different from many in the secular courts, although I think they were probably meant to be different.

Who Murdered Chaucer? – Terry Jones
A Dictionary of Medieval Terms and Phrases – Christopher Corèdon and Ann Williams
Pilgrimage – Jonathan Sumption


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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Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Entertainment, Medieval Life

Medieval Board and Table Games


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.

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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Filed under Medieval Entertainment, Medieval Life

Troilus and Criseyde

Troilus and Criseyde

Following last week’s post about The Decameron, I thought I’d write about an English work from the fourteenth century. It’s a story from the Trojan War that’s been used by many writers over the centuries. Criseyde is the daughter of a Greek who fled Troy at the beginning of the war, leaving her behind. She has been an exemplary citizen and is highly regarded, for her virtue and quiet lifestyle as much as for her beauty. Troilus is the son of King Priam, the king of Troy. He’s handsome, brave and a great soldier. One day he sees Criseyde in the temple and it’s love at first sight. He declares that he’ll die if he doesn’t meet her, worrying a friend of his, who happens to be Criseyde’s uncle. The uncle engineers a meeting between the two of them, but that’s not enough for Troilus. He and the uncle trick Criseyde into spending the night with him and they become lovers. They declare their undying love and continue to see one another in secret. Meanwhile, Criseyde’s father decides that he wants his daughter back. He suspects that Troy won’t be a safe place for her for much longer, so he gets a message to her telling her to leave the city. Criseyde doesn’t want to go and Troilus doesn’t want her to go, but he has to escort her out of the city and hand her over to her father. She says that she’ll find a way to run away from the Greeks and rejoin Troilus. He says she’d better not fall in love with the sturdy-looking knight who’s with her father. Diomede, the knight, sees a woman without friends and decides to seduce her. After a few days, Criseyde realises that escaping from the Greek camp is going to be more difficult than she thought and allows herself to be seduced. Troilus eventually admits to himself that she’s not coming back and goes out to die in battle.

It’s a sorry tale, in which no one mentions marriage, which would have allowed Criseyde to stay in Troy, although, given what happens later when the city falls, that probably isn’t a bad thing. You can probably tell that I’m overly taken with the story itself. Troilus wasn’t a hit with me either. He spends a lot of time weeping, which wouldn’t have bothered fourteenth-century readers at all, but annoyed me. It didn’t annoy me because I think men shouldn’t cry, but because Troilus is entirely without agency. He does nothing for himself, but his tears cause his friend to act on his behalf. In many ways, that shows how requirements for a good story have changed over the centuries.

In the elements and structure of the story, Chaucer follows Boccaccio’s Il Filostrato quite closely, although there are whole sections which are Chaucer’s own creations. Boccaccio didn’t invent the story, but took it from a twelfth-century poem, the Roman de Troie by Benoît de Sainte-Maure. It was a popular tale in the Middle Ages and the best-known retelling was by Shakespeare. Chaucer finished writing his poem around 1381.

In my Middle English edition, the poem is 347 pages long. That makes it too long to be read to an audience over the course of an evening,  the way in which most people would have experienced it in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. It’s divided into five books, though, each of which would probably make an evening’s entertainment.

Troilus and Criseyde is set during the Trojan War, but the world its characters inhabit is very much fourteenth-century England. As well as it being an example of something written in the fourteenth century, the poem can teach us a lot about the world in which Chaucer lived. The garden where Criseyde walks with her ladies is set out like an English garden and the house in which she lives was of a type that would have been familiar to Chaucer and his original audience. The furnishings in her house would have been found in houses of the well-to-do at the time. Chaucer refers to chess and tennis and other games played by fourteenth-century people in their free time. Like Boccaccio’s The Decameron, Troilus and Criseyde is worth reading for its own sake, but it’s also a good source of information about life in the fourteenth century.

You can read about Chaucer’s life in this post.


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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Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Entertainment, Medieval Life

Boccaccio and Chaucer


Those of you who have been reading this blog for a while will know that I’m fascinated by the Black Death. I want to know what people thought about it, how they coped while it was at its height and what life was like after it. One day, when I’m a much better writer than I am now, I hope to write a novel about it.

Last year, partly in the hope of getting a bit more insight into how people coped during the Black Death, I read Boccaccio’s The Decameron. It’s a collection of 100 stories told by ten refugees from the plague in Florence to while away the time until they can return to the city. It’s a fantasy, of course. They retreat to a lovely, secluded villa, where there are beatific grounds in which they wander until the evening, when they gather together to tell their tales, none of which has anything to do with the Black Death.

The main reason why I read The Decameron was because it’s one of the major literary works of the fourteenth century. Boccaccio had probably been collecting the stories for years and the conceit of ten young people entertaining one another gave him a structure for putting them together. Every evening (except Sundays and the day on which they move to another, even nicer villa) each of the ten has to tell one story. Apart from the first, each evening has a theme for the stories. There are stories about fidelity and infidelity. There are stories against the church and stories against ‘clever’ men. There are stories about revenge and about wives who know more than their husbands. Some of the stories are amusing and some of them are very dark indeed.

Some of the tales found their way into The Canterbury Tales. Chaucer visited Italy at least twice and he probably read some of Boccaccio’s works, as well as those of Petrarch, Boccaccio’s friend, while he was there. His Troilus and Criseyde is a retelling of Boccaccio’s Il Filostrato. The structure itself of The Canterbury Tales might be borrowed from The Decameron.

The stories weren’t, for the most part, created by Boccaccio. Some of them aren’t even Italian in origin. His genius lay, as did Chaucer’s, in the way he told them and in the way he put them together.

Although Boccaccio lived through the Black Death, it’s unlikely he was in Florence all the time. Apparently, he hated the city of his birth and preferred Naples, where he spent his early adulthood. He was born in 1313 and, while he was in Naples, he was apprenticed to a banker. Banking was very advanced in Italy and the rest of Europe borrowed from Italian bankers. Boccaccio wanted to write, though, and went back to Florence in 1341. The Black Death arrived in Italy in 1347 and had receded by 1349. Boccaccio probably started work on The Decameron around then. In later life, he travelled on behalf of the Florentine state, visiting Avignon, where the papal court was based, and Rome. He died in 1375.

As it turned out, reading The Decameron did give me some insight into life during the Black Death. In his introduction to the stories, Boccaccio describes what Florence was like in 1348. He describes the symptoms of the plague and what happened when people grew ill and died. It’s the horrors of this nightmare world that his storytellers want to escape and they do so by telling stories of life before the plague arrived.

In case you’re wondering, I enjoyed reading The Decameron. Some of the stories are very dark, but most of them are entertaining.


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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Filed under Black Death, Fourteenth Century, Medieval Entertainment, Medieval Life

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

The Games Medieval People Played


Last week we were looking at medieval holidays. It was all very well having time off work, but what did people do with it? Fairly obviously, eating and drinking played a part, but there were other activities which varied according to the time of year.

Some of them were of a fairly martial nature. Archery practice was important all year round, and men practised at the butts and at something called shooting at cock, which involved a live cockerel. I assume that this has less to do with cruelty than with the benefit of shooting at a moving target.

Other martial activities included wrestling, javelin-throwing and throwing a knife at a peg. These were fun, but were also developing skills useful in warfare.

There were ball games: handball, football and bowling. Football was a vicious game and injuries, even deaths, were not uncommon. Teams varied in size: a tithing could take on another tithing or a village another village. The distance between the goals varied according to the number of players. Bowling was a bit more sedate and took place out of doors anywhere where there was enough flat ground. A round stone was used as the bowl.

On the side of pointless entertainments were quoits, blind man’s buff and skittles. Again, these were mostly outside activities. In the summer boating and swimming were popular, but led to many fatalities.

More sedentary occupations were dicing and board games, which were played by rich and poor alike. The most popular dice games were raffle, with three dice, and hazard, with two.

One of my favourite medieval board games is merrelles, or nine men’s morris. It’s for two players who each have nine pieces in two colours, e.g. player A has white and player B has black.  The aim is for a player to get three of the pieces in a line horizontally or vertically, removing the opponent’s pieces until they only have two pieces left and can no longer play.


The board is blank at the beginning and the players take it in turn to place their pieces. If one of them succeeds in making a line of three, they can remove one of the other’s pieces. Once all the pieces are on the board, the players take it in turns to move their pieces trying to join three in a row. The piece can only be moved to an adjacent space and cannot leap over any other pieces.

It’s a very ancient game, dating back at least to Roman times. It needs no complicated equipment. The lines can be scratched on the ground and small pebbles used as the pieces.

Dancing was an activity in which everyone could take part. At certain holidays this was done round a bonfire.

The aristocracy hunted, feasted and jousted. Although these were entertaining, they also had serious uses, in that hunting provided food for the household, feasting ensured that the aristocracy were healthy and in good condition for war and jousting meant that they were well-practised when it came time to fight in a battle or skirmish. They could also play tennis. Tennis is mentioned in Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, dating from 1385, which shows that it was already fairly well-known in England. Tennis was the same game as handball, but was played with racquets.

Chess is another game mentioned in Troilus and Criseyde, as Criseyde reflects on how pleasant her life is without a jealous and controlling husband to shout ‘Checkmate!’, or ‘Chek mat!’ as Chaucer has it.

Aristocratic women probably had more leisure time than anyone else. They sewed, chatted to one another, listened to books being read aloud, or read books themselves.



Life in a Medieval Village – Frances and Joseph Gies

A Social History of England 1200 – 1500 – ed Rosemary Horrox and W. Mark Ormrod

The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England – Ian Mortimer


Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Entertainment