A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Medieval Europeans may have had more fun than you think.
An English nobleman of the early medieval period, weary of the hard benches in the cold royal hall, bored with the old stories that filled the dark winter evenings, might well have felt a bit glum. If he found a friend, he could dispel his malaise the way an Old English poem, from Maxims, recommends: "Two shall sit together at a board game until their misery leaves them/they shall have joy on the board."
In medieval northern Europe, board games were a combination of amusement and intellectual challenge, a way to sharpen one's wits with other people in a culture where few could read and community was paramount. For the upper class in particular they were important as well as entertaining, fun but also symbolic. The power to order the pieces on the board often signified the power to order the world. (Because non-nobles were rarely buried with grave goods and the period's literature focuses on the elite, we know less about the role of games in lower-class life.)
Though some medieval manuscripts mention games, without archaeology scholars would have a blinkered view of their popularity and meaning. Hundreds of playing pieces have been excavated at sites all over Europe, giving us evidence of the ubiquity of gaming and what playing pieces looked like.
Though scholars usually speak of tafl, tabula, and wood-sense as the dominant early medieval games, it seems clear from the diversity of pieces and boards that there were many more. Archaeology has been vital to unveiling this range, because texts of the period can be vague: Anglo-Saxons called all their board games by the Old English term tæfl, just as we now denote a variety of games by the name "cards." Without artifacts we would be making wild guesses as to the variety and popularity of each.
Martha Bayless is a director of medieval studies at the University of Oregon and the author of many articles, including "Alea, Toefl, and Related Games: Vocabulary and Contact," in Anglo-Saxon Literature (forthcoming).