15 January 2016

What Games did People Play in Medieval Times?

Did the knights of old have a blackjack cardgame, pitting their wits against each other over the legendary round table?  We will never know if they did (or indeed if King Arthur’s knights ever really existed) but there is historical evidence of a lot of games from this period.  They may not be quite what we would be familiar with today but perhaps it’s time to revive one or two of them?

Even though we would not recognize any number of games which have fallen out of use over the centuries, there are a number of games that have persevered through the ages.  In the 1200s the King of Castile, Alfonso X, commissioned the ‘Book of Games’ which is now considered the pivotal historical record for games played in the thirteenth century.  Among the many gorgeous color illustrations in the book, a number show people playing a game we are all familiar with – chess.  There is a further insight – some of the illustrations show Muslims and Christians happily playing with each other.  So it wasn’t all El Cid battles at the time!

As the video above shows (rather comically!) things were often 'not much fun' in medieval times. There is scant evidence of card games from this period but before Gutenberg and his press got going they would have been incredibly expensive to produce, certainly in Europe.  So it is no surprise that their invention goes back to China in the ninth century, slowly going towards the west over the period of the next several hundred years.  Yet games could be dangerous as this article from the BBC History Magazine shows.

The Hazard dice game was also popular in medieval times – it is even mentioned in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.  It was immensely popular throughout Europe but particularly in England where huge sums of money could be lost and won at the throw of a dice.  The game is no longer with us but its modern form is the American game of craps which keeps the historical continuity of the games going in a way.

So although times were hard in the Middle Ages people still found time to have fun which is a relief. Although we often think of it as a fairly miserable time in history, disease, pestilence and the Spanish Inquisition notwithstanding, people still found ways to enjoy themselves!