European studies blog

Exploring Europe at the British Library

28 July 2014

Chess is good, dice are bad: but what about backgammon?

The Galway Museum  displays a city ordinance of 1528 setting a fine of 20 shillings for the playing of ‘cards, dyce, tabulls, nor no other unlawfull gamys, by young men, and specialle by prentisys nor Irishmen’;  ‘Tabulls’, ‘tables’, is backgammon.

Medieval and early modern fun-spoilers were unanimous in their condemnation of dicing and (later) cards, but less commonly, it seems to me, did they include backgammon in their sights.  

Mediaeval illustration of a man and woman playing backgammon

A King and lady playing a board game resembling backgammon, from the Luttrell Psalter (ca.1325-35), British Library MS Add. 42130

Two ideas informed much discussion of leisure activities. Both saw there was a role for entertainment, but such entertainment had to be limited. One such was the scholastic idea  of eutrapelia, virtuous leisure, invoked by fray Juan Bautista Capataz in his censor’s assessment of Cervantes’s Novelas ejemplares in 1612:

supuesto que es sentencia llana del angélico doctor Santo Tomás, que la eutropelia [sic] es virtud, la que consiste en un entretenimiento honesto, juzgo que la verdadera eutropelia está en estas Novelas porque entretienen con su novedad, enseñan con sus ejemplos a huir vicios y seguir virtudes, y el autor cumple con su intento...

[since it is a clear opinion of the angelic doctor St Thomas of Aquinas that eutrapelia is a virtue which consists in a virtuous entertainment, I judge that true eutrapelia is in these Stories because they entertain with their novelty, teach with their examples to flee vices and follow virtues and the author fulfils this intention].

The other was the distinction between games of chance and games of skill.

The condemnation of dicing was unremitting, but backgammon was not always included in such criticism.

A clue lies with the prologue of the Libro de los juegos de ajedrez dados e tablas of Alfonso X of Castile-Leon (1282).  

Segunt cuenta en las historias antiguas, en India la mayor hobo un rey que amaba mucho los sabios e tenielos siempre consigo e facieles mucho a menudo  razonar sobre los fechos que nascien de las cosas. […] El uno dicie que mas valie seso que ventura […]  Ell otro dicie que mas valie ventura que seso […] El tercero dicie que era maior qui pudiese vivir tomando de lo uno e de lo al, e esto era cordura […]
E desque hobieron dichas sus razones much afincadas mandoles el Rey que le aduxiese ende cada uno muestra de prueba de aquello que dicien, e dioles plazo cual le demandaron.   E ellos fueronse e cataron sus libros, cada uno segunt su razon. El cuando llego el plazo, vinieron cada unos antel Rey con su muestra.
E el que tenie razon del seso, troxo el acedrex con sos juegos, mostrando que el que mayor seso hobiese e estudiese apercibudo podrie vencer all otro.
E el segundo que tenie la razon de la ventura troxo los dados mostrando que no valie nada el seso si no la ventura, segunt parescie por la suerte, llegando el homne por ella a pro o danno.
El tercero que dicie que era meior tomar de lo uno e de lo al, troxo el tablero con sus tablas contadas e puestas en sus casa ordenadameintre e con sos dados, que moviesen pora iugar, segunt se muestra en este libro […] en que face entender que por el iuego de ellas que el qui las sopiere bien iogar, que aunque la suerte de los dados le sea contraria, que por la cordura podra iogar con las tablas que esquivara el danno quel puede venir por la aventura de los dados.

[As is told in the ancient histories, in greater India there was a king who greatly loved wise men and kept them always with him and very often made them discuss facts which arose from things. […] One of them said that intelligence was stronger than chance […] The other said that chance was stronger than intelligence […] The third said that the greatest man was he who could live by taking from both one and the other, and this was wisdom. […]
And when they had said their piece most vehemently, the king ordered each to bring before him an example proving what they said, and set them a time-limit, as they asked him.  And they went away and looked in their books, each according to his argument.  And when the time was ended, they came before the king with their example.
And he who spoke for intelligence, brought chess with its games, showing that he who had the most intelligence and was alert could defeat the other.
And he who spoke for fate, brought dice, showing that intelligence was powerless against fate, as was shown by luck, by which man came to advantage or harm.
The third, who said that it was best to take from one and the other, brought the backgammon board with its counters counted and placed in their places in order, so that they could be moved in play, as is shown in this book which speaks separately of this, in which it is made clear that he who knows how to play it well, even if the luck of the dice is against him, will by his wisdom be able to play with
backgammon so that he will avoid the harm that can come to him from the fate of the dice.]

The Alfonsine book, MS T.i.6 of the Escorial Library, is profusely illuminated with scenes of men, ladies Christian and Moorish, and nuns playing peaceably a variety of games; the games themselves are displayed from above, like the problems that they are.  

Alfonso’s introductory fable is of unknown origin, but like many a fable it encapsulates much in little.

Barry Taylor, Curator Hispanic Studies


El Ajedrez de D. Alfonso el Sabio [Chess problems from the work on the game of chess by Alphonso the Wise, solved by J. B. S. P.] (Madrid, 1929).  7916.b.11

Dwayne E. Carpenter, ‘Alea jacta est: At the Gaming Tables with Alfonso the Learned’, Journal of Medieval History, 24 (1998), 333-45.  ZC.9.a.7652

Alexandra Walsham, ‘Godly Recreation: The Problem of Leisure in late Elizabethan and Early Stuart Society’, in Grounds of Controversy: Three Studies in Late 16th and Early 17th Century English Polemics, ed. D E. Kennedy (University of Melbourne History Department, 1989), pp. 7-48.   5536.825000 no 9


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