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Checkmate! Medieval People at Play


Games

detail of man and woman playing backgammon

Nothing is quite so satisfying as winning a game of chess against a worthy opponent or solving a puzzle on your own through patience and mental prowess. This was just as true a thousand years ago as it is today, and the importance of these games to medieval people is evident from the fact that they chose to spend time and money illustrating them. Not only were the images of people playing games costly, but the game pieces themselves could be intricate works of art made from precious materials. However, while these objects could be expensive, they did not have to be—the beggar shown playing dice clearly knows the game, and the playing cards displayed here are printed on paper and would have been relatively inexpensive. Games were, and still are, something to be enjoyed by all: through strategy and luck, anyone can be victorious.

(image: W.269, detail of man and woman playing backgammon

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Playing Dice Title
French (Tours?), ca. 1524 Period
W.449, fols. 2v–3r Accession
Dice players make an unexpected appearance in this calendar, for gambling is a rare theme for January. They are playing “raffle,” a game won by rolling three matching numbers at once, similar to modern slot machines. There seems to be some debate over the winning throw of three 3s, for both players point at the dice, but the peddler’s smile suggests he has the upper hand over his disgruntled wealthy opponent. Perhaps he is using weighted dice, a common trick still used today! About
medieval playing cards
Uncut Sheet of Printed Playing Cards Title
1491–1524 Period
93.36 Accession
Playing cards were invented in China 1,000 years ago but were unknown in Europe before the mid-14th century. It is believed that cards as we know them were introduced to Spain from North Africa when both areas were under Muslim control. French cards, such as those displayed here, are the closest visually to those we use today. These paper cards have yet to be cut and were never used, but the final product would have been fairly affordable. About
Chess Piece of a Queen
Chess Piece of a Queen Title
Spanish, 12th century Period
71.145 Accession
Chess, known as acedrex in medieval Spain, came to Europe from the Middle East during the Crusades. In Europe, it underwent a transformation: the board became checkered, elephants became bishops, chariots became castles, and the king’s counselor became a more powerful figure—the queen. This piece, depicting a queen seated in a castle, is based on earlier Arabian objects, but the figure’s garments are typical of 12th-century Spain. This is the only medieval chess piece of a queen in an American collection. About
The Count of Edessa and the Prince of Antioch Playing Dice
The Count of Edessa and the Prince of Antioch Playing Dice Title
French (Picardy), ca. 1295–1300 Period
W.137 Accession
We usually associate playing games with relaxation and fun, but in certain contexts, they can be deadly serious. In this image, the count of Edessa and the prince of Antioch, Crusade leaders in 12th-century Syria, use game playing as an act of defiance, for they sit in their tent playing instead of fighting alongside an ally in an important battle. Although the checkered board suggests a chess game, close examination reveals not chess pieces but dice—perhaps more fitting as they gamble on their future. About
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Ape Playing with Puzzle Title
1412 Period
W.300, fols. 358v–359 Accession
Hidden within a jungle of flowering vines, an ape attempts to unlock the secret to a three-dimensional puzzle. Medieval artists were fond of depicting animals, in particular apes and monkeys, engaged in human activities. In medieval Europe, the term “aping” was used to describe the mimicking of human nature, so showing apes acting like people was a play on this idea. There is another example of apes playing a human game in this exhibit—try to find it! About
Book of Hours
Couple Playing Backgammon Title
ca. 1460 Period
W.269, fols. 15v–16r, acquired by Henry Walters, between 1895 and 1931 Accession
In the margins of this Book of Hours, which contained prayers and psalms for private devotion, a garden party is underway, with lovers playing music and games together among the flowers. A beautifully dressed couple plays backgammon on a golden board, and although their facial expressions are nonchalant, the man strains to play footsies with his lady under the game board. The game of backgammon involves strategy and luck, as does the game of love; here, one game perhaps alludes to the other. About
Game Piece with Enthroned Figure
Game Piece with Enthroned Figure Title
Anglo-Norman, mid-12th century Period
71.141 Accession
This game piece is an example of the kind that would have been used in board games like backgammon, as pictured in the Book of Hours displayed in this case. Unusually well carved and ornate for this type of object, the game piece depicts armed soldiers presenting a sheep to an enthroned figure, possibly a king. More often, these pieces would have been simpler, carved of wood or bone with minimal decoration. About