Long before the Roulette wheel was invented by Blaise Pascal in 1655, the culture of the European Middle Ages had the concept of the Wheel Of Fortune, which underpinned the world of Medieval gambling.
The Wheel of Fortune was better known then by its Latin name Rota Fortunae, and was a philosophical concept that embodied the ups and downs of one’s Fate. Not only did it represent gambling and gaming but it illustrated that all of life was a game whose outcome was beyond the control of the players inside of it.
These days we are more likely to come across the Wheel of Fortune game show, but the term itself is actually gleaned from the Tarot card Wheel Of Fortune, which is part of the Major Arcana section of the Tarot deck. The Major Arcana is the section of the Tarot deck that has the famous concept cards like Death or The Lovers, and represents large arcs of meaning or the ‘divine’ influence over a person’s life, whereas the Minor Arcana (where the common deck of cards is derived from) would describe the smaller day-to-day events that the individual’s free will is in control of.
The division of the Tarot deck is symbolic of the way Medieval people viewed their world. While everyday decisions were up to each man, their overall fate was governed by forces outside their control. Christianity went hand in hand with mysticism in this view, especially in the lower classes of society, where Pagan practices such as fortune telling were more acceptable than in the aristocracy.
The Wheel of Fortune was attributed to the Roman goddess Fortuna, and a human being’s fate was attached to the wheel which she spun at random. When the person settled on the top their luck was good and fortune would smile upon them; when they landed at the bottom their fortune was bad.
While this may seem somewhat disempowering compared to the secular view of the universe that Western civilization has now, it may also be seen as a slightly healthier approach to life. Instead of believing that through hard work and perseverance they could control everything (therefore attributing any failure to personal weakness or incompetence), the Medieval perception of reality was that no matter how hard you tried, if the Wheel of Fortune spun you towards the bottom of the world there was nothing you could do about it – because it wasn’t up to you, you just had to do the best you could with your lot in life. This mix of divine influence and individual freedom made the Medieval culture quite interesting, and informed the view of many forms of entertainment in everyday life.
While there were many forms of wholesome entertainment in the Middle Ages, such as music, archery and chess, gambling was quite popular amongst both the higher classes and the lower classes of society. Gambling as we know it today is dominated by electronics, from slot machines to entire virtual casinos you can get online. But back in Medieval times the most complex tools used to gamble with were a pack of cards and a pair of dice.
Dice games were quite popular with the lower classes and where often called “knuckle bones” because the dice themselves were carved from the knuckle bones of a pig. The expression ‘throw them bones’ is still around even though bone-carved dice have gone out of use many years ago.
The most common dice game of today is Craps, and its ancestor was the Medieval game Hazard, which was brought over from the Arab world by English crusaders. Hazard was a far more complicated game than Craps because while in Craps has established numbers for winning, losing or establishing a point, whereas in Hazard the player chooses his own winning number (then called the main) and had to throw it before he throws out (or as Craps calls it, sevening out.) Hazard was not played with a marked table like Craps is today, and the players all bet on the shooter winning their point before rolling the losing numbers. This mobility meant that Hazard could spread throughout Medieval Europe with minimal fuss, and it branched out into other games such as Grand Hazard (which used three dice and was even more complicated,) and the ancestor of the modern game Sic Bo.
Chaucer refers to Hazard in The Canterbury Tales, where he describes a situation “set upon six and seven” as putting one’s entire life fortune on the outcome of a single dice throw. Culturally speaking, while gambling was common and generally accepted by both higher and lower classes of society, it was frowned upon by Christian and Jewish religious authorities, who especially disliked that loaded dice were used in many games of Hazards to cheat players out of their money.
Gambling in the Middle Ages was not entirely legal either. There were restrictions passed in the Third Crusade to limit gambling amongst King Richard The Lion-Hearted’s troops. The knights and clergymen amongst the crusaders were allowed to play dice games but were to be cut off once they lost more than twenty shillings. The foot soldiers were not allowed to gamble at all. Later in the twelfth century, a seemingly bizarre law was passed in England forbidding masked men to arrive at people’s houses for a dice game during Christmas.
Medieval aristocrats enjoyed card games which were often played for money. Incredibly intricate and artistic cards were painted or carved out of thin slivers of wood for the higher classes to gamble with. These games were played with either a regular playing deck or a full Tarot deck. Games that we know such as Poker and Baccarat evolved throughout Medieval times, from the French Poque and the Tarot game Zero respectively.
Medieval Europe was a fascinating moment in history, and its gambling facet was no exception. Though there were many variations of gambling games throughout society, it was all underpinned by the idea of the Wheel of Fortune, which insisted that life itself was one big gamble.