GAMBLING AND MONKS

Gambling in Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Bodley 264

Gambling in Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Bodley 264

Introduction

Bernard of Clairvaux wrote his famous and massively sycophantic treatise on the Templars, ‘In Praise of the New Knighthood’, in the 1130s. In it, he wrote, approvingly and smugly, that ‘if they are caught speaking in an insolent way, or doing something unnecessary, or laughing excessively, or grumbling under their breath, or whispering, none of this goes unpunished.’ They also, he claimed, ‘hate chess and dice, abhor hunting, and get no pleasure from the common and stupid practice of hawking. They reject and abominate actors, magicians, storytellers, lewd songs and plays as being vanities and pure madness.’

Bernard clearly did not get out much. In this, he was not just being over-optimistic, but entirely wrong.

Religious Entertainments

Ironically, given the relatively rigid views of the Church, a disproportionate amount of the archaeological finds associated with gaming in the Holy Land (including boards, dice, tokens and gaming counters), come from religious houses and the castles of the warrior monks, the military orders. The Templars, and their comrades in the Hospitallers, are vastly over-represented in the surviving evidence. Far from sharing Bernard’s prudishness about such things, they were amongst the most enthusiastic gamblers of the Latin East.

Bernard of Clairvaux

Bernard of Clairvaux

Bernard of Clairvaux was right up to a point – at least in theory. Their predilection for gambling was certainly discouraged. The Templars were forbidden from playing board games such as eschaçons (which used counters or tokens), backgammon or chess. They were, however, allowed to play marelles (or ‘Nine Men’s Morris’), as long as there was no gambling associated with the game.

They were also allowed to play a game called forbot, if the counters, usually made of wood, belonged to one of the brothers. The implication is that if anything of intrinsic value was involved, even the counters, the brother knights would not be able to resist the temptation to gamble with them. This highlighted the underlying issue. The problem was not about the game, whatever that might be – rather, it was about the gambling that would inevitably accompany it.

The (Gaming) Rules of the Templars

Given the consistent disapproval and the inclusion of anti-gambling statutes in the Rules of the military orders, it is amusing to see how often they were honoured in the breach rather than the observance. Evidence of these games being played by the knightly classes is pervasive and, perversely, of course, is most prevalent in religious institutions. Multiple marelles boards, carved in stone, have been found in Templar castles at Jacob’s Ford (Chastellet) and Château Pèlerin (‘Atlit). At ‘Atlit one board was even etched out on the plaster of a stable roof, so perhaps the brothers played while they enjoyed a little fresh air and sunbathing, relaxing in the evening air. Or perhaps they just went onto the roof because they were gaming in secret.

Two marrelles boards have also been found at the Hospitaller castle of Belvoir – where, strangely, the board bears an uncanny resemblance to the building plan of the advanced, newly designed concentric castles, of which Belvoir was a leading example. Interestingly, one of the boards was found in the kitchen, where it may have been used for whiling away the time in the short gaps in the unremitting rhythm of preparing food in bulk for the large and hungry garrison.

Ecclesiastical Entertainments

At one point the Hospitaller order even tried to impose a blanket ban on dice, clearly aimed at stopping gambling, specifically ‘on Christmas Eve or any other time’ – strangely to our eyes, and contrary to the self-deluding rhetoric of Bernard of Clairvaux, the implication is that major religious holidays and festivals were an acknowledged peak time for gambling amongst the warrior monks.

Some religious establishments seem to have taken the instruction not to gamble more seriously than others – or at least they made more active attempts to stop it. For instance, one gaming board found at a Hospitaller castle was attached to the underside of a stone mortar which could presumably have been turned over quickly if someone in authority, who took the statute seriously, approached.

Most seem to have been in plain sight, however, so perhaps many of the senior monks turned a blind eye to the statutes. In the refectory (or dining room) of the Hospitaller garrison at Bethgibelin, for instance, a gaming board was even scratched onto one of the tables – there was nothing remotely secretive about this garrison’s gambling habits. Maybe, after a hard day patrolling and skirmishing with the nearby Egyptian garrison at Ascalon, it was felt that the knights deserved a bit of rest and recreation.

The fact that the statutes of the Templars and Hospitallers both felt it necessary to explicitly ban gambling is, of course, an indirect acknowledgement of its prevalence. We know that the Templars placed wagers while gaming because their regulations specifically tried to limit them to bets for items of no intrinsic value – an attempt to stop all gambling was implicitly recognised to be an ultimately quixotic project.

Even in the infirmary, while they were sick or convalescing, the brother knights were forbidden from playing games such as chess or, even more shockingly, from reading romantic novels – the mind boggles at the thought of these hardened, battle-scarred knights reading such books, but entertainment was clearly scarce.

The Gateway Drug

Gambling was so popular that it crossed all the obvious cultural boundaries. Monks did it, as did people of different ages, religions, genders and degrees of social status. This was not usually a problem – on the contrary, in an age without many material sources of diversion, it was often, in practice, seen as a harmless pastime for people who had precious little else to give them pleasure in their short, dangerous lives.
The problem, for those in authority who saw it as such, was similar to that of prostitution – in theory, one could ignore it, but it could become an issue when it started to interfere in military matters. For the crusader states, living on the permanent brink of disaster, anything that interfered with the war effort was extremely dangerous.

And, like alcohol, gaming could be seen – quite correctly – as a ‘gateway drug’. Once you had a gaming problem, you were in a milieu where you could readily acquire other vice-related habits – sex, drugs and alcohol.

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Crusader Criminals: The Knights Who Went Rogue in the Holy Land by Dr. Steve Tibble
Crusader Criminals: The Knights Who Went Rogue in the Holy Land by Dr. Steve Tibble

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SOURCES

  • Tibble, S. (2024). Crusader criminals: How knights went rogue. Yale University Press.

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