Medieval London


die MOL.jpg

Loaded dice were all too common in medieval London. This set of 24 cubic die from the late fifteenth century is a perfect example of the kind of objects that might have been seen rolling across the table in a medieval tavern. The die are made from bone and according to X-ray many have been loaded with drops of mercury so that their outcomes were always the same. Three of the die have the numbers one to three repeated and three others have the numbers four to six repeated. Dice with repeating numbers were known in the Middle Ages as low and high ‘despatchers’. Eighteen of the dice were loaded with mercury, eleven of those tend to land on five or six, and the rest tend to land on one or two. The dice were found on the Thames foreshore inside of a pewter bird-seed pot.[1] The owner of the dice remains unknown, but according to the history of loaded dice, that owner may have had lots of blood on their hands.

These dice, like many others from the Middle Ages, were crafted out of bone. Dice were made out of bone since ancient times, a tradition which carried into the later Middle Ages.[2] As described in a thirteenth-century manuscript on games written by the King of Spain, “dice can be made of wood, or of stone, or of bone, or of any metal,” though, according to the manuscript, dice made out of bone were preferable because they tended to “fall more equally and more squarely on any type of surface.[3]If this is assumed to be the case in fifteenth-century medieval London, these 24 dice would have been a valuable set due to their bone composition, and of course their modifications could make the owner more money. Their value on the black market might have been high, but according to most Londoners, they were items to be avoided if one wanted to live an honorable life.

In the late Middle Ages dice were usually used for games and gambling. They were thought to be perfect for gambling and were almost always played for a stake because they relied on chance rather than skill.[4] Though historians know that there were a variety of games played with dice, few have been recorded in detail because their rules varied so much. One of the more popular games was known as ‘Hazard,’ played with two dice; onlookers would bet on the outcome of each roll. The goal was to roll two of the same, or at least roll higher than your opponent.[5] This particular set of die would have been perfect for a game of Hazard because they were loaded so their user could ensure that they rolled two of the same, winning them money if they were gambling. Other popular games included ‘Highest Point’[6] and ‘Shuffle’.[7] 

Despite their popularity, dice were heavily associated with violence and blasphemy.[8] Gambling with dice was condemned by the Catholic Church and most secular authorities because it was often associated with violent conflict.[9] One medieval poet described dice as “the root and branch of every deterioration”.[10] A fifteenth-century English manuscript, which outlines manners for young women, specifically says to avoid dice in order to keep good character and eventually make a suitable wife.[11] In late medieval London, the merchant class was discouraged from the temptation of gambling, so much so that apprentices were not allowed to use dice at all, though these rules probably did not stop them from secretly partaking.[12] Loaded dice were common, and contributed to violence and crime in medieval London. They were referred to as ‘Fulham’ dice, probably after the London neighborhood where dishonorable gamblers were often found.[13] In late medieval London, using false dice was a punishable offence for the lower classes. The offense was not considered too serious to send the offender to prison but serious enough that those caught with loaded die were subjected to public humiliation (this helped take the strain off of prisons).[14] 

[1] “Die,” Museum of London, last modified June 26, 2017, description.

[2] Compton Reeves, Pleasures and Pastimes in Medieval England (Stroud, Gloucestershire: Alan Sutton Pub., 1995), 74.

[3] Alfonso X, The Book of Games, trans. Sonja Musser Golladay (Ludus, 2005), 15, e-book.

[4]Albrecht Classen, Handbook of Medieval Culture, Vol. 1 (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2015), 603, Google Books.

[5]  Reeves, Pleasures and Pastimes, 74.

[6] Classen, Handbook of Medieval Culture, 604.

[7]  Reeves, Pleasures and Pastimes, 74.

[8] Classen, Handbook of Medieval Culture, 593, 

[9] Ibid, 604.

[10] Ibid, 593.

[11] Reeves, Pleasures and Pastimes, 158.

[12] Sylvia L. Thrupp, The Merchant Class of Medieval London: (1300-1500) (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996), 167

[13]  “Die,” Museum of London, last modified June 26, 2017, description.

[14] Thrupp, The Merchant Class of Medieval London, 24


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