Medieval Legacy Includes Thousand-Year-Old Games We Still Play

chess, tennis, playing cards evolved but persevered

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

The history and culture of the Middle Ages still influence us today. These include concepts ranging from organized labor to chivalry. Even some medieval games have persisted to the 21st century.

Dr. Carol Symes
Dr. Carol Symes presents Wondrium’s new series, The Medieval Legacy. Photo by Wondrium

The Middle Ages was a time of great historical and cultural activity. This period brought revolutionary inventions like eyeglasses and mechanical clocks to the world, as well as the horrors of holy wars and anti-Semitism. It introduced humanity to universities, the scientific method, quarantine, and the modern English language.

It’s no surprise, then, that several games were invented or first popularized during the Middle Ages as well—many of which we still play today. In her video series The Medieval Legacy, Dr. Carol Symes, Associate Professor of History, Theatre, Classics, and Medieval Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, divulges the often overlooked origins and controversies of several medieval games.

Check and Mate

The earliest accounts of chess are in medieval Sanskrit or Middle Persian, including pieces that corresponded to local culture and government, such as an elephant and a royal vizier.

“As chess took hold in medieval Europe, the distinctive appearance of its pieces, their movements, and the rules of the game began taking on the forms familiar today, via a relatively rapid process of codification that indicates how widespread and universal the game had become,” Dr. Symes said.

This familiarity to modern pieces was most noticeable in the transformation of the vizier piece—which stood next to the king and could move just one diagonal square at a time—into the queen, which became the most powerful chess piece. According to Dr. Symes, this symbolized the “tricky movements of a powerful woman’s political maneuvers.”

“In addition to the king, the most stable pieces, over time, were the horseman, or knight, and the pawn, whose deliberate but vulnerable pacing matched the slow movements of medieval infantrymen,” she said. “Meanwhile, in Europe, the Asian elephant became a bishop (in English), a fool (in French), or a herald (alfiere, in Italian), but its role remained the same.”

Finally, the Indo-Persian chariot was also an Arab camel or rukh in other areas. In Europe, it became la Roche, or “rook,” a symbol of the importance of fortified castles in medieval Europe.

The Devil’s Breviary

Middle Ages clergy were highly critical of gaming, especially gambling.

“Dice, cards, and other games were condemned as blasphemous pastimes that subverted the order of God’s creation and made a mockery of Church doctrine,” Dr. Symes said. “This was a favorite topic in the preaching of a fiery 15th-century Franciscan reformer, Bernardino of Siena.

“In one vivid sermon, Fra Bernardino imagines a set of gamblers as participants in a diabolic Black Mass; the priest is the devil himself and his missal is a set of dice whose markings are made with his own excrement.”

Bernardino declared that playing cards were the devil’s breviary, with clubs symbolizing savage weapons, coins for the greedy, cups for drunkards, and swords for killers. He said that the depicted two-headed kings and queens were “sordid lords of misrule” and that cries of “Glory to God” would be drowned out by the sighs of losers and self-aggrandizing proclamations of winners.

Dice, in one form or another, are as old as civilization itself. But what about cards?

“Cards, for gaming and divination, do appear to be a medieval innovation, beginning in China around the 9th century and making their way to western Asia by the 11th,” Dr. Symes said. “Examples from medieval Persia suggest that there were a range of different suits, or patterns, with 12 cards, originally, in each: 10 pip cards and two court cards, usually a king and vizier, as in contemporary chess sets from the region.”

A vizier’s deputy was later added as a third court card.

Before printing, a deck of cards would have to be specially commissioned and produced. The earliest printed decks come from German towns that manufactured printing presses at an early stage. Some surviving decks show that the Arabic-Persian-Latin suits had been replaced by hearts, shields, acorns, leaves, and bells. Like in chess, the vizier became the queen, and the vizier’s deputy became the knave or jack.

The Medieval Legacy is now available to stream on Wondrium.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily