Despite that it should, the expression 'cost you an arm and a leg' didn't start with medieval gambling. Even with the sometimes cutthroat play style of early games, and the presence of early cheaters, few limbs were lost outside of the Crusades.
The early games of chance had surprisingly deep rules. Playing pieces were sometimes rudimentary and uneven, but were also varied and collected as works of art. Players invented and spread new games as they traveled for opportunities and war alike.
Gambling has existed in many forms throughout time. Before the concept of money, favors, goods, and livestock would be wagered on contests of skill and events of chance.
The so-called detriment to society rhetoric sprang up as early as the first Crusades and has found new avenues and strengths while never quite being convincing enough. Let's break down the appeal and the prohibitions against games of chance and how they spread and advanced through medieval society.
Medieval Gambling Pros and Cons
The idea fo betting on games of chance would take longer to develop as it would be a while before tools of chance took proper shape. Historians have found evidence of card games forming as early as the 10th century in China.
Dice show some evidence of existing as far back as 2,000 BCE. However, newer archaeological digs in Egyptian tombs have moved that number as far back as 6,000 BCE. The basis for several notable dice games started in Greece around 400 BCE.
Games of chance began to be noteworthy as civilizations tried to be, well, more civilized. this is where the compulsion for victory and the morality of an orderly society started to create an interesting dynamic that has fought back and forth for almost a thousand years.
Image credit: Egypt Musem (egypt-museum.com)
Image credit: Egypt Musem (egypt-museum.com)
The allure of gambling is deeply rooted in the human psyche. Psychologists have done numerous studies on what is called "random reward reinforcement'. It's generally understood that people look for chances to succeed beyond their limitations. The idea of luck permeates many behaviors to our overall benefit.
Hope is essential to getting your run of the mill peasants out fo bed each day and back to working int he fields. They can't be convinced that their lot is simply to toil day in and out and then die. They have to believe that they can overcome their fate and rise to a new station.
Stories of the normals that became knights and landholders, the soldiers that won against the odds, and the kings that led nations to prosperity all find purchase because of the intermixing of luck and hope.
Even in animal studies, it's shown that an animal would rather wait for a chance to win big than to work steadily at a sure thing. Getting what you deserve is fine, but getting more than you deserve activates powerful reward centers.
In medieval times, the idea that you could win a week's wages in a few minutes was every bit as compelling as it is now. Of course, at the time, they didn't have handy guides that helped explain the rules and odds. It wasn't uncommon for a few 'local' and 'house' rules to stymie an otherwise successful player in the olden days.
Knights and Nobles
Gambling wasn't for everyone, though. Even during times when it was openly permitted, it was only permitted to a few. During the crusades of Richard I only those ranking at knight or above were allowed to wager on any game or event.
Part of this was about morale and fighting ability. The other part was about ease of liquidity. A peasant or squire with a bunch of loose coin would more easily be considered a thief than a victor in a game.
Nobility also had more leisure time, allowing them to engage in and better themselves at these games. Betting on sporting events, especially tennis, was popular throughout England and France.
The ugly side of games of chance is that the chance to lose exists.
In modern society, losses are easier to mitigate. For one thing, you can't really wager things that aren't money. It takes some doing to risk your livelihood.
In the 1500s this wasn't the case. People who got on a losing streak could, and would, risk items precious to their survival such as their clothing, tools of trade, and objects that didn't strictly belong to them.
Gambling also brought about unseemly events and people. These complaints mirror those made today, but with some key differences. One, we've dispensed with some of the moral hand-writing associated with liquor, sex, and other leisure activities being adjacent to each other.
Two, sophisticated systems exist to prevent cheating on any side of a game and the existence of official establishments dry up the influence of unofficial ones. Like any prohibition, criminals found ways to exploit the rules and the people living with those rules.
The clergy were quick to want to see games of chance shut down for the usual reasons relating to the control of self and denial of temptation. They were also keen to curb gambling because it was a popular thing to do while IN church.
Parishioners, which in those days stood as there were no pews, used the proximity to each other to bet on events and outcomes. Because they were supposed to attend church, it was not frowned upon when they congregated as it would otherwise have been.
At the time, a man leaving the home to meet with others was always met with suspcisoun if not for a civic duty or work.
Issues over gambling also created strain between the few competing religions at the time. In Spain, prohibitions against gambling were principally about preventing fights between Islamic law, Jewish law, and concepts of blasphemy.
Gambling was popular among soldiers who risked their lives each day. It was also a terrible idea that affected their battle readiness. Soldiers did not own much of what they had, their arms, armor, and even clothing and food were all rationed to them by the nobles they served.
A soldier that lost his sword in a game of dice not only was useless in a battle but could be seen as a thief. mercenaries were not held by such laws, which is one reason that mercenary armies were so popular in the years between 1200 and 1600.
Wagers in medieval times were sometimes about money but more often about goods. The nobles could afford to wager actual money, with famous wagers from King Henry VII to Jakes Haute over a tennis game totaling £10. A day's wage at the time was roughly four pence.
This was the equivalent, then of nearly a year's wages over a single game.
Tavern owners and innkeepers had carte blanche to run their establishment and could take anything they deemed reasonable for payment for room and board. This made them an essential part of medieval society. They worked as hotels, bankers, and pawnbrokers.
Gamblers could offer their belongings to the house in exchange for a writ or promise of payment in dice and card games. This is both where 'the house' and 'losing your shirt' come from as terms.
Still, games didn't have strict recordkeeping attached. It wasn't uncommon for a few math errors to occur. You wouldn't find anything then akin to today's progressive jackpot system found in slots and poker games.
Though card and dice games are the ones most frequently thought of as games fo chance for gambling, board games had their role as well. In particular, chess and backgammon would see a lot of sets created and wagers made both by the players and onlookers.
Since these were games of skill, the wagers were often low and consisted of heavily favoring local talent over unknown players. It's funny to think about, but there was a time that roving chess players were held in the same respect as old west poker players.
Playing cards have an interesting history of their own, especially as they moved from China to Europe around the late 14th century.
In the days before the printing press, churches used idealized scenes in the forms of frescoes, tapestries, and stained-glass windows to tell Bible stories. Though paintings existed, playing cards were the first disposable art that anyone had access to.
This allowed playing card designers to create and deliver messages that rivaled the power of the Church in terms of ideological expression and dissemination.
It didn't help that the first playing cards were used for gaming and Tarot readings.
Early decks also used very different suits then you see today. Ideas such as feathers, acorns, leaves, horns, hounds and more would appear. The traditional suits would not be standardized until around the 17th century in France.
Cards were not cheap and some were inlaid with silver and gold paints and metal pigments.
The high cost to create a deck of cards and their ability to be lost and damaged, destroying the set and requiring the entire thing to be replaced, left them initially in the hands of nobles.
Prohibitions against card games rose quickly in cities, where idle card players clogged up eateries and loafed through the day. If you've ever wondered why there are so many card games with similar but slightly different rules, that owes to this time.
When a magistrate would declare a game forbidden, the local card sharps would add or remove a rule and declare a new game. This loopholing added to the confusion that travelers would have in playing a game and led to certain types of widespread cheating.
Construction of dice was usually of bone with some artisans making them of ivory. Wooden dice were not trusted because it was well known that the weave of the wood could make it favor landing on one side favor over another.
That said, it was common for cheats to load dice with drops of mercury. These were worked into bone dice to weigh them on an end, causing a high number to appear frequently.
Dice were easy to make and available to many. Of course, these dice were also notoriously uneven and it was not uncommon to find one or another of a players 'lucky dice' to be poorly crafted or even repeat some numbers.
The popularity of dice games owed both to the ease of creating new dice and also the higher element of chance. Even with card games, a level of skill and strategy was available to hone the game towards a victor.
Dice, in as much as they were crafted well, provide random results. Most early dice games were then about consistency.
Pub dice games could be as simple as rolling two dice and the highest roll between a set of players was the winner to complicated trains of rolls that required players to roll specific numbers in a pattern.
One such game was Hazard. This was a popular tavern game and one played with a small mat that players put bets on. This game morphed over time into modern-day Craps.
Cheats and Punishments
Cheating was always a risk with medieval games. It didn't matter if it was a street dice game or a group of friends at church.
Cheaters were punished severely when found out but had many avenues to ply their trade.
The game of thimble-rig, aka the shell game, was popular among swindlers that roamed from town to town taking the money of soldiers and nobles with more money than sense.
Punishment for soldiers caught gambling was especially harsh, with three full days of lashing being an oft-cited course of action.
It's been a nearly thousand-year road from the early designs of many of the dice and card games we see today. Medieval gambling represents a lot of the same promises and excitement of modern gaming but perhaps with more dire stakes.
The biggest advantages in today's gaming are the ease and relative openness of play. You don't even have to leave the home to enjoy gaming at any number of online casinos that exist just a click away.