In the 21st century we are well-acquainted with the use of dice as randomizing devices for playing board games. We have been entertaining ourselves with such games for centuries. Indeed, in Monopoly, one of the most beloved board games of our era, players move around a board according to the rolls of dice and acquire, sell, and rent properties as they proceed. The goal of the game is to become the "wealthiest" of the players by monopolizing the available properties and bankrupting one's opponents. In Dungeons and Dragons, another wildly popular role-playing game, participants use polyhedral dice to advance play.
Would you be surprised to learn that another game of dice, the Ludus Regularis (Canonical Game), was created in medieval France more than a millennium ago by Wibold, the archdeacon of Noyon, for the diversion and moral instruction of Christian clergy? And while there is no evidence that Wibold had any influence on the 20th century American inventors of Monopoly (see note 1) or Dungeons and Dragons, the existence of such a modern-looking board game at such an early date attests to the appeal of this sort of diversionary activity, one that employs dice to introduce chance variation into a sequence of plays based on simple rules.
Although board games are known to have been played with dice during the Middle Ages in Europe, generally very little is known of the rules of play of many of these games. Some appear to have been games of capture, like chess or checkers, but with moves dictated by the roll of dice. Others may have been games of chase like backgammon in which the goal is to race the other players around the board toward a finish line. The game to be described here, Ludus Regularis, seems to be unique in its structure for its time.
Concerning the Use of Dice
Dice, as randomizing devices, were used in the ancient world in games of chance for the enjoyment and diversion of players but also as means of divination to discern the will of the gods (or God). Casting of lots by means of dice or knucklebones was used to render decisions, the petitioner believing that a supernatural power was speaking through the dice. Pausanius (c. 110 - 180 CE) in his Guide to Greece described the shrine of Heracles at Bura where four knucklebones were cast to determine an oracle which was consulted by the supplicant. There are numerous examples describing such practices in medieval Europe as well.
Consider the Sortes apostolorum (Oracles of the Apostles) of tenth century France . The petitioner consulted one of 56 oracles (see note 2) determined by reference to the outcome of the cast of three cubical dice. The last of the listed oracles, the one corresponding to the outcome of "1" on each of the three dice, was (see note 3):
These are the lots of the saints which are never mistaken, nor do they deceive, and so pray to God, and you will obtain what you desire. Give Him thanks.
As today, gambling was viewed by many in medieval Europe as a vice which led to idleness, sexual promiscuity, parasitism, and crime. Attempts to proscribe gambling have always failed, then as now. It was generally condemned by Church councils from the first centuries of the Christian era. Indeed, what is conjectured to be the earliest papal encyclical was devoted exclusively to theological arguments against the evils of dicing. The encyclical, De Aleatoribus (Concerning dicing), was formerly attributed to St. Cyprian of the mid-third century, but was possibly written by Pope St. Victor of the late second century. Regardless of its authorship, it was composed no later than the fourth century.
What was proscribed of the faithful was especially forbidden to clergymen. The Regulæ ecclesiasticæ sanctorum apostolorum (Ecclesiatical Regulations of the Holy Apostles), attributed to Dionysius Exiguus (see note 4), which regulated the behavior of clergy, was important in this regard. Here we find, in particular ,
Canon 42: A bishop, or priest, or deacon devoting himself to dicing and drunkenness must either desist or be certainly condemned.
Canon 43: A subdeacon, or reader, or cantor, doing likewise either must desist or be excommunicated; likewise, even the laity.
In 774, Pope Adrian I issued a collection of these canons to the emperor Charlemagne who adopted them as laws of his empire in 802 for the purpose of raising the morals of the clergy at the Synod of Aachen .
The dicing to which the canons spoke is thought to be derived from the Roman game of alea (later called tabula), a board game ancestral to today's backgammon, which was played with three cubical dice .
1. Monopoly is produced and marketed by the American game and toy company Hasbro.
2. The reason for 56 oracles will be explained later.
3. Hæ sunt sortes sanctorum quæ nunquam falluntur, nec mentiuntur, id est Deum roga, et obtinebis quod cupis. Age ei gratias. Translation of this and other Latin texts quoted in this paper are by the authors.
4. Dionysius Exiguus is also known as Dionysius the Short, perhaps best known for having invented "Anno Domini," Christian era dating, to replace the Roman imperial method that was in use in his time.