Gambling and Lady Luck in the Medieval Period

Did you know that Australia holds the unenviable world record for gambling with more than 80% of the adult population partaking in some form or another at least once every 12 months? Who hasn’t heard the adage, ‘Australian’s will bet on anything – even two flies on a wall!’ Fortunes have been won and lost on a hand of cards or the toss of a coin and though the games and rules may have changed over the centuries, ‘Lady Luck’ remains the presiding factor when it comes to winning or losing.

Fortune or Fortuna (equivalent to the Greek goddess Tyche) was the goddess of wealth in ancient Rome and the provider of either good luck or bad. Often depicted as blind or with a veil over her eyes (as in the modern image of Justice) she was seen to represent fate and the capricious nature of men.

fortuna

During the middle medieval period, Fortuna was often associated with a wheel. The Wheel of Fortuna could rotate in either direction, with the random and often ruinous turns both inevitable and providential. The Wheel was depicted in many forms from tiny miniatures in manuscripts to huge stained glass windows in cathedrals, such as at Amiens.

amiens cathedral glass

Dice was the most popular form of gambling during the early and middle medieval period as die were easy to come by or produce, were portable and could be played anywhere at any time. Die did not necessarily appear as equal sided cubes as we see today, nor did the numbering conform to a standard pattern, with the 1 dot (or pip) appearing on the opposite face to the 6 dot, the 5 opposite the 3 and 4 dot face opposite the 2. On a modern die the opposite sides traditionally add up to seven, implying that the 1, 2 and 3 faces share a vertex. If the 1, 2 and 3 faces run counter clockwise, the die is called ‘right-handed’, and if the faces run clockwise, the die is called ‘left-handed’.

dice 1

There were many variations of gambling games involving die, including;

House of Luck

Played with 3 die, wagers are placed on possible rolled combinations. House of Luck is considered to be the medieval equivalent of Chuck-a-Luck or Birdcage, often played in casinos, where the die are contained within a device shaped like an hourglass.

Pig

Numerous variations of Pig have been played for centuries, but the basic concept involves each player repeatedly rolling a dice until either a 1 is rolled or the player decides to ‘hold’ –

  • If the player rolls a 1, they score nothing and it becomes the next player’s turn.
  • If the player rolls any other number, it is added to their turn total and the player’s turn continues.
  • If a player chooses to ‘hold’, their turn total is added to their score, and it becomes the next player’s turn.

The first player to score 100 or more points wins.

Hazard

As the name suggests, this was a game of extreme risk that involved both strategy and luck. With complicated rules and long odds it attracted large groups of players who could all participate at the same time by betting on the outcome. Hazard is believed to be the medieval forefather of ‘craps’ (which has established numbers for winning, losing or gaining a point) whereas in Hazard the player chooses his own winning number (then called the main) which had to be rolled before he throws out (in Craps called ‘sevening out’). Chaucer referred to Hazard in The Canterbury Tales, ‘set upon six and seven’ as putting one’s entire fortune on the outcome of a single roll of the dice.

Gambling 1

Backgammon

Backgammon is believed to have originated at around 3,000 B.C. in Mesopotamia and was typically played on surfaces such as wood, using stones as markers, and dice made from bones, stones, wood or pottery. The playing pieces are moved according to the roll of dice, and a player wins by removing all of their pieces from the board before their opponent.

Although luck is one of the determining factors in the outcome, strategy plays a more important role as players must choose from numerous options in order to out manoeuvre their opponent. Both players and bystanders wagered on the outcome.

backgammon

Gluckshaus

Gluckshaus is German for House of Fortune and was played in the late medieval period, but became very popular during the renaissance. The wooden boards were often elaborately carved and painted. Each square of the board contained a scene, and the rest of the board surrounding the squares was heavily illuminated. The board is divided in squares numbered from 2 to 12 (with 4 often left out), arranged in the form of rooms in a house. Each player rolls two dice.

  • On a roll of 3, 5, 6, 8, 9, 10 or 11, the player places a coin on the board in the corresponding room, if it is empty, or takes the coin if it is occupied.
  • If the player rolls snake eyes, he has rolled a ‘Lucky Pig’ and collects all the coins on the board (from all the rooms) except for whatever lies in room seven.
  • If the player rolls a 12, he is ‘king’ and wins all the coins on the board, from all the rooms.
  • If the player rolls a 7, a ‘wedding’ takes place and a coin must be placed in room 7 as a dowry. This builds up a jackpot until a 12 is rolled.

The game ends when one player has won all the coins

glueckshaus

Gambling or dicing in the medieval period was extremely popular and attracted players from all levels of society. Large sums of money changed hands, as did livestock and property. Those discovered cheating often ended up locked into a pillory, their weighed (or loaded) dice forced up their nostrils or imbedded into the palms of their hands. The same treatment was often dealt to the unfortunate player who was unable to settle his losses.

Just imagine a line of pillory posts located along the front of a modern day casino. I wonder if that would be sufficient to dissuade a gambling addiction.

Catherine A Wilson

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2 thoughts on “Gambling and Lady Luck in the Medieval Period

  1. Very educational! Perhaps I should have my students study the history of gambling so they have a better understanding of what it is all about. Thanks for sharing, this was an enjoyable read.

  2. Fascinating! Imagine having dice forced up your nose, or embedded in your hands! I wasn’t familiar with Gluckshaus. Wonderful post.

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