Medieval Gambling: Pastime of Kings & Commoners

Dive into medieval gambling, where cards and dice games thrived in taverns and inns, showcasing its significance in society. Explore now!
Medieval gambling

Medieval gambling was a popular form of entertainment for both the rich and poor, as it provided a way to pass the time and have fun in the absence of other forms of entertainment. Card games and dice were the most common gambling activities, with inns and taverns serving as the central locations for people to engage in these pastimes.

Inns and taverns played a significant role in the spread of gambling during the medieval era. Innkeepers would often act as bankers and pawnbrokers, holding a gambler’s property in exchange for money, enabling them to continue gambling. These establishments would offer various forms of entertainment, including medieval card games, table-top games, and dice games, catering to both men and women.

Dice games were particularly popular during this time, as they required only luck and not intelligence or skill. Some of the most popular medieval dice games included Zara, Hazard, Glückshaus (House of Luck), Dice chess, Raffle, and Passage. As the popularity of dice games waned, card games began to take their place as the preferred form of gambling.

Card games arrived in Europe from Asia and the Arab world and quickly spread throughout the continent. Despite being prohibited for the lower classes, cards were enjoyed by all levels of society and became the most popular way to gamble during the medieval era. Some popular card games included Nine Men’s Morris, Cribbage, Karnöffel, Rithmomachy, All Fours, Hofamterspiel, and Bête-Triomphe.

In addition to card and dice games, medieval gambling also encompassed sports and battle skills. Activities such as hammer-throwing, jousting, archery, wrestling, cricket, football (soccer), bowling, and golf were all popular among gamblers of the time. Strategy games like Alquerque, Three in a row, Mill, and Tablut were also enjoyed by those seeking a more intellectual challenge.

Race board games, such as Tables, Table of the Four Seasons, and Table of Astronomy, were ancestors of modern Backgammon and enjoyed by many during the medieval era. Hunting, a favorite pastime of the aristocracy, inspired the indoor game Fox and Geese, which simulated the experience of a hunting session.

Despite the prevalence of gambling during this time, it was not without its consequences. Playing with false dice, for example, was a crime punishable by piercing the cheater’s palm. The Libro de los Juegos, or Book of Games, commissioned by King Alfonso X of Castile, Galicia, and León in 1283, is a vital document for researching the history of board games and provides insight into the earliest known descriptions of chess, dice, and backgammon.

In conclusion, medieval gambling was a diverse and engaging form of entertainment enjoyed by people of all social classes. It was not just about winning money, but also about having fun and passing the time. As gambling has evolved over time, it continues to be a significant source of entertainment in modern society, with games like slot machines and online gambling serving as contemporary examples of this enduring pastime.