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