At least one form of backgammon was played in the Middle East long
before the Crusades. The source may have been ancient Sumer, Egypt,
India, or all three, but the game the Crusaders encountered among the
Saracens and enthusiastically adopted was called nard or nard-shir.
The Arabs had learned the game from the Persians, and it was supposedly
named after Ard-shir Babakan of the Sassanid dynasty of the ancient
Persian empire, who was said to have invented it. Using two dice
instead of the Roman three, the game was played on a chequered cloth
that contained twelve divisions corresponding to the solar months of the Persian year.
The total number of men, or muhrahs, corresponded to
the number of days in the lunar month; half the counters were black and
half were white, since during half the month the nights were dark and
during the other half the nights were brightly lit by the moon. The
names of the seven points in the game were richly suggestive: Kad (quantity), Ziyad (growth), Satarah (fortune, curtain or veil, or star), Hazaran (thousands), Khanah-gir (possessor of the house or chamber), Tawil (tall, or long), and Alansubah (scheme, plan, or game).
Various early versions of backgammon seem to have been popular in
Britain. Though the game was known in Anglo-Saxon times and is
mentioned in old English glossaries of the eighth and ninth centuries,
its great popularity apparently dates from the Crusades.
In fact, this and other gambling games were so popular with the
Christian soldiers in Richard the Lion-Hearted's army that he and his
ally, Philip of France, issued a joint act during the Third Crusade in 1190.
In the words of the historian Joseph Strutt, whose book Sports and Pastimes of the People of England was published in 1841:
"It prohibits any person in the army beneath the degree of a knight from
playing at any sort of game for money: knights and clergymen might play
for money, but no one of them was permitted to lose more than twenty
shillings in one whole day and night under the penalty of one hundred
shillings, to be paid to the archbishops in the army; the two monarchs
had the privilege of playing for what they pleased; but their
attendants were restricted to the sum of twenty shillings; and if they
exceeded they were to be whipped naked through the army for three days."
Richard's brother, King John, also liked to play the game, which by now had acquired its English name "tables", after the Roman tabulae. King John played his court favourites for modest stakes, if he lost, the amount was faithfully noted in the record of his daily expenses.
It remained a favourite game of the upper classes in Europe throughout
the middle ages. Robert of Gloucester's thirteenth-century chronicle
portrays knights playing "atte tables", and there is a similar passage in the Song of Roland.
Tables spread from the upper classes throughout medieval society in Europe.
Innkeepers attracted customers by providing them with boards, men, and
dice, Apparently the medieval board was twice the size of the usual
chessboard, and the men were larger than our modern playing discs.
The Church, which of course did
not approve of any kind of gambling, waged a long and losing war
against the popular game. In 1254 Louis IX of France (Saint Louis) forbade the game to his court officials and extended the ban to all his subjects.
Playing Backgammon, Artist unknown (Dutch, about 1650 British Museum)
One hundred and fifty years later the Archbishop of Tournai was busy prosecuting
people caught playing tables. The schools of Bologna decided that
ecclesiastical canons did not apply to chess but tables was still
classified with the "inhonesti ludi" (dishonest, or dishonourable, games), and attempts to suppress it continued until the end of the fifteenth century.
By then, towns in France, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, and Holland were exempting
tables from municipal censure so long as the stakes were kept small.
However, the game remained forbidden to university students and
apprentices learning their trade. One scholarly sleuth, H. J. R.
Murray, has discovered at least twenty-five different kinds of "tables"
played in various parts of Europe during the Middle Ages. In an article
on "The Medieval Game of Backgammon", he wrote:
"In Spain and England the game emperador, or the English game, stands out as the leading variety of tables, in Germany buf, in the Low Countries and Scandinavian countries verkeer or kotra ... Testa was the game most frequently played in Italy ... In France trictrac, which has a certain resemblance to the Spanish laquet, came to the front from about 1500.
The most interesting of these games is emperador,
because both in Spain and England there were special terms for
different ways of winning comparable to the distinctions made in modern
backgammon between the win, the gammon, and the backgammon. In Spain,
the blocking of six consecutive points gave the winner barata;
in England there were two special wins known as limpolding and lurching".
We suspect that, in mentioning "lurching", Mr. Murray, may have confused
backgammon and cribbage boards. Though cribbage is a card game, the
score is kept by moving pegs around the board as points are made. The
first man to score 121 wins, and if his opponent's more advanced peg
has not yet reached the home board (the last 30 holes), the loser has
been "left in the lurch", or "lurched", and loses double the stake.
The modern board appears in pictures in Europe as early as the
fourteenth century, and after that widely throughout the continent as
the game flourished and spread. Very ornate
boards survive from this period, and even church decorations some of
Germany's medieval cathedrals contain depiction's of backgammon boards.
And there were many treatises and illuminated manuscripts to explain
English history and literature are full of references to tables and,
later, backgammon. One fourteenth century English tract describes, in
Latin, several different "ludi ad tabulas". Here is one interesting variation, translated by Strutt:
There are many methods of playing at the tables with the dice. The first of these, and the longest, is called the English game, Ludus Anglicorum,
which is thus performed: he who sits on the side of the board marked
1–12 has fifteen men in the part [point] marked 24, and he who sits on
the side marked 13-24 has a like number of men in the part 1.
They play with three dice or else with two (allowing al- ways [a roll
of] six for a third dice). Then he who is seated at 1-12 must bring all
his men placed at 24 through the partitions from 24 to 19, from 18,
into 13, and from 12 to 7, into the division 6-1, and then bear them
off his opponent must do the same from 1 to 7, thence to 12, thence to
18, into the compartment 19-24; and he who bears off all his men is
The same treatise goes on to describe other variations of tables, including Paume Cane, played with two dice and four players.
Chaucer alludes to the game in The Canterbury Tales: "They daucen, and they pleyen at ches and tables". Spenser refers to it in The Faerie Queene, and in Love's Labours Lost Shakespeare has Biron say:
"This is the ape of the form,|
Monsieur the Nice,
that, when he plays at table,
chides the dice
in honourable terms".
In 1579 John Northbrooke published a
sober treatise reproving "idle pastimes" on the Sabbath Day "by the
authoritie of the worde of God and ancient writers". He has rather a
good word to say for our game, or at least he condemns it with
faint praise: "Playing at tables is far more tolerable (although in all
respects not allowable) than Dice and Cards are, for that it leaneth
partlie to chance, and partlie to industrie of the mind".
At least Northbrooke recognised that tables was a game of skill,
and perhaps his attitude was more liberal than it looks, since as
recently as 1526 Cardinal Wolsey had decreed that all tables, dice,
cards, and bowls were illegal and should be burnt.
However, since people are both stubborn and resourceful, some artisans disguised backgammon boards as books inside were dice, men, and dice boxes.
The game continued to flourish at
royal courts, even in Scotland. James the First is reputed to have
spent the last evening of his life, before his murder in 1437, "in
reading with his Queen and the nobles and ladies of his Court, and in
playing at Chess and Tables".
The tables were turned, so to speak, in 1479. when the Duke of Albany
brother of James III of Scotland, was confined in Edinburgh Castle. One
night he invited the captain of the guard to supper, and they spent a jovial evening drinking, singing, and playing at tables. In the morning the royal captive had disappeared, and his jailer was dead.
Playing Backgammon. Painting by Adriaen van Ostade. (Dutch, 1672 British Museum)
The game remained one of the most popular sports among the Elizabethans. A
generation later King James I of England observed, in A Kinge's Christian Dutie Towards God, the interminably moralistic
guide book he wrote for his eldest son, Henry, the future king: "As for
sitting, or house pastimes since they may at times supply the roome,
which, being emptie, would be patent to pernicious idleness I will
not therefore agree with the curiositie of some learned men of our age
in forbidding cardes, dice, and such like games of hazard; when it is
foule and stormie weather, then I say, may ye lawlully play at cardes
And apparently the game continued to flourish among lesser folk, in fair as well as "foule and stormie" weather. Robert Burton, in The Anatomy of Melancholy,
gives a general view of seventeenth century sports: "Ordinary
recreations we have in winter, as cards, tables, dice, shovelboard,
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