Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Evening all...

Just to let you all know if you happen to find yourself here that this blog is in fact no longer being updated here (boo hiss!)
The good news is that this is because it has moved to a new location with a new lease of life (nothing against the good people of Blogger, just that I wanted all my blogs in the same location). So for the latest exciting news on our now National Lottery Heritige Fund backed Medieval Past-times project, come and join me at http:\\abbotofmisrule.wordpress.com

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Rough Draughts

Trying to be authentic can be a pain in the jacksie, especially when trying to carve your own furrow in living history. As far as I am aware I am the only re-creationist who specialises in board games. I'm almost certainly the only recreationist who specialises in early 14C British ludology. Consequently I have to, if not discover the information, certainly compile it for the first time. And that to meet the rigorous standards of authenticity of Samhain.
Sometimes I think it might be nice to not be tied to a specific geography or time period. For example, I cannot have playing cards, for although they have appeared on the continent by now, there is no reference to them in Britain until after Chaucer. There are some other interesting games like Gl├╝ckhaus or Bocce which never made it to these islands at all.  But then why worry? When there are plenty of games out there which everyone knows were here in medieval times. Lets take a case in point, the authentically medieval game of Draughts.

Can anyone feel a draught?

Draughts is as old as the hills, everyone knows that. It's listed in finds from Ancient Egypt. Many of the books I refer to regularly for my games say it was played in Ancient Egypt and boards and pieces have been found that seem to bear this out. There are images of it being played in medieval manuscripts. We hear tell of "checkers" in contemporary accounts. It is listed and sold as a medieval game by people who make for the living history trade. So where's the problem? Well, in our house we call it Pennant's Disease.

Pennant's Disease

Tommy P. 18C Babe-magnet.
Thomas Pennant (1726-1798) was a naturalist antiquary from our neck of the woods, and in the course of things wrote a number of books including a couple of volumes called Tours in Wales. Although we name it for him, it could in truth be called Antiquary's Disease, Morganwg Disease or perhaps in a more modern idiom, Wiki-disease.
Now I'm sure that Thomas was a decent sort, did his best at school, brushed his teeth regularly and all that, but whether by misunderstanding, misprint, or deliberate colouring of details for artistic purposes, errors were bound to creep into his works.Well this is unfortunate, you may say but completely understandable, what's it got to do with the price of fish? Well what if the price was never corrected, and after a hundred years or so no-one could remember fish being any other price, and Pennant's Fish Index was taken as the Gospel truth it never was? Piscine chaos.

A Healthy Draught

Authentic Medieval Draughts
But draughts is medieval, surely? Everyone knows it is, don't they? There is, after all pictorial evidence like the picture on the right. The image comes from a book called Old England: A Pictorial Museum (1845) (made available thanks to fromoldbooks.org) and is a reproduction of an image from a medieval manuscript, in the book it is even listed as 1145 - Playing at Draughts so that should be conclusive shouldn't it? The pieces are all circular counters and placed only on white squares. However, to take this image on face value is pure Pennant's Disease, and the thought of having our society's fact-checker hovering over your shoulder is enough to turn any one into a right suspicious bastard.
So when presented with these 19thC reproductions I have to ask myself some serious questions such as; If this is draughts, why are the pieces all the same colour? And why is the figure sitting on the left holding a different style of playing piece in his hand?
We are more fortunate these days in that we are, thanks to the Internet, able to trace primary sources more easily than ever. The libraries of the world have gotten tired of us the grubby public running our dirty, acidic fingers over their precious manuscripts, breathing our damp breath on the pages and exposing them to the fading daylight. Their answer has been to put most of their archives online this includes the manuscript from which this picture was copied. The source is given as Harleian 4431 which has been digitised by the British Library, the appropriate page is here, and below is the image of the illuminated page.
Authentic Medieval Dr- what the ...?
The one thing that is immediately obvious is that this is no game of draughts, the listing by the British Library even says Ulysses Playing Chess. And this is what I discover when I chase up any references to medieval draughts, it's another game such as chess or chequers [a gambling games where coins are flipped onto a chequerboard and bets are placed on black or white, like roulette without David Niven. This is not, Not checkers, which is confusingly, the name for Draughts in America and some other countries. Hello, America, by the way, you have a nice day, now.] 

The Naming of the Animals
Adam and Eve are walking in the garden of Eden and Eve sees an animal and asks Adam, "What's that?" (a tradition kept up by women today during films). "It's a Rhinoceros" says Adam, smugly, probably scratching himself inappropriately. "How d'you know it's called a Rhinoceros?" ask Eve, beginning another tradition of questioning everything a man says. Adam thinks for a minute (this did not catch on) and says "Well, it looks like a Rhinoceros, doesn't it?"

So with this break in the draughts fossil record, what are we to make of the Egyptian boards and pieces? These boards are almost never 8x8 chequerboards with 12 pieces a side as chequers. Archaeologists are not often Ludologists as well. It looks like a thing I know, so it is that thing. This kind of misnomer happens across the board from American Buffaloes (really a Bison) to Lutes (cittern, citole, lyre, etc.) and can, as in the case of the American Buffalo become the actual name for the thing. Had the Archaeologists been familiar with the game Latrunculi which was played in Ancient Rome and Greece (contemporaries to Egypt) with a similar layout.

Last Nail in the Coffin?

Strutt, in Sports and Pasttimes of the People of England who is not bad, as authorities go, describes draughts as a modern game although popular and widespread when writing in th early 19thC.
So is that the end of draughts as a medieval game? Perhaps not, but it does look doubtful based on any evidence that I can find. No-one seems to truly know what the origins of this game are and absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, so there is still hope I will turn a page one day and find something irrefutable.

Am I, then, advocating that all medieval reenactors who have beautiful, hand-made wooden draughts sets shouldn't use them? Of course not, something may yet come to light that removes all doubt as to the game's provenance, but what I am saying is until it does it will not pass the authenticity litmus test of Samhain. That should not detract, however, the simple elegance of what is a real classic. .

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Lost: Marbles, reward if found...

I have been putting off this post for some time, and I will tell you for why. The trouble with a post on marbles is the same as that with one on balls, playing cards, or the opposite sex; these are things we play games with, rather than games in and of themselves.

So, for my first ever attempt at making a medieval game I thought I'd be as simple as possible. And what could be more simple than a sphere! Yeah, okay, I know, I know.

Period Pieces.

According to posterity* marbles are as old as the hills, literally. Marbles games have been played since vaguely round stones could be found in streams or made from clay. They have been played for thousands of years with examples being found on archaeological sites across the ancient world, from t'Egypt to Pakistan.

So marbles are old then?

Right for the medieval period, certainly. At this time the majority of marbles available to a peasant like me would be of clay; agates did exist but were expensive and glass not happening until the Renaissance.

The game of Three Holes, played
here with four holes. Bloody Flems
confusing matters.
So what of playing marbles? Well, we can't be sure exactly what they games they played with marbles but it is almost certain there would have been more than one. The Bruegel painting seems to show a game which has been called Three Holes, which is a simple target game with a number of holes, although I forget now how many.

But in order to draw in the parents who probably played marbles themselves I tend to show the most common "Game of Marbles", when demonstrating.

How to play.

You have two types of marbles, mibs (the little ones) and shooters  (the big ones). The rules are really simple you draw a circle on the ground or in the dirt (I make the circle smaller in this instance), pour in the mibs (retrieving any that might fall out) then attempt to knock them out of the circle with the shooters. How you hold/throw/flick the shooter depends on you, although it's best to come to some agreement among the players. Players score one point for each marble knocked out, or double points for knocking out more than one in a single shot. There, that wasn't to hard now was it. 

Of course the tendency among school boys in years past was rather than taking score was to 'play for keeps'. Which I believe is where we get the expression.

 Making Medieval Marbles

So I figured that the simplest solution was to employ some air drying clay roll it into balls of roughly even size, lay them out to dry, and Bob's your mother's brother. It sounds so simple doesn't it! And yet how utterly and buttock clenchingly frustrating is it to try and roll a perfect sphere, especially when you keep flinging them at the wall. In the end you either have to buy them in, or compromise. 
Things to remeber for next time include;
  • Wet the clay before use to meld the clay and give an even surface.
  • Clay marbles are much lighter than glass ones, so have less momentum to knock each other out of the circle which makes for a slower game.
  • Don't forget to make a few shooters as well as the mibs.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Tablas Bar

Hello, again, perishinkers. Time for another game of yesteryear with yer auld Uncle Bilbo. And hasn't it been ages?! How're you? How's your old Dad?

This time I'm turning my pyrography pen on a member of one of the oldest family of games which will be known here and ever after as tables. The member of this family that survives down to us is backgammon, a version that certainly already existed in the middle-ages and is listed in Alfonso X's book of games as Todas Tablas. 

Incidentally, I read in an actual book, and not just on t'internet, that the name backgammon is actually Welsh from bach - little and garthan - battle. [Cue swell of national pride, chest out to the tune of Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau. SFX of record scratching to a stop and return to reality]. Unfortunately this does not stand up to any scrutiny. Books! Feeding misinformation since before the Internet.
But I, along with most other humans who are human, can never remember the proper set up of backgammon so instead I either introduce the game using the rules of the Roman game Tabula or, more recently I use the set up and rules of the first of these games in the Alfonoso MS, Quinze Tablas or Fifteen Pieces. 
Illustration from Alfonso X, (a distant ancestor of Malcolm?)

Quinze Tablas; 
The set up for this is as above, the rules have much in common with backgammon and below I present, for your delectation and delight, my interpretation of these rules.

Yellow plays clockwise,
red anti-clockwise.
  • You have three dice. Roll them. There, didn't that feel good? Now, these dice all count individually so you can split them among your pieces. eg. The gentleman in the blue above has rolled 1, 2 and 4. Now he can move three pieces, the first 1, the second 2, and the third 4 spaces. He could move the same piece 1, then 2, then 4 spaces. But he can't just move the same piece 7 spaces, it has to be done in stages, and if something blocks one of the stops along the way. 
  • The two players move in opposite directions around the board until they have moved all their pieces to the last space (6th) of the board. They earn 1 point for each piece born off the which arrives on their 6 space. So each player can earn fifteen points you say? Not a bit of it. Get ready for the twist. 
  • You can move your pieces to any empty space or any space occupied by any number of your own pieces. If the space is occupied by two or more opposing pieces you cannot land on it, which is what restricts your movement when combined with counting dice individually above. I will return to this issue below. 
  • To borrow a term from modern backgammon a lone piece on a square is a 'blot'. If you land on an opponent's blot with an exact dice roll, you can take it and unlike in backgammon, that piece is permanently out of play, gone, forget about it. Which is tricky because in order to finish you need to score a minimum of six points, so it is possible to win without finishing all your pieces if you reduce your opponent down to five pieces. 
  • Although it does not specify it in the original MS, play must cease when a player delivers the last of his pieces to his 6 space. This is when the points are totted up so the player who ends the game is not necessarily the winner. 
  • There is one other possible outcome; if; as mentioned above, both players find themselves unable to move in consecutive turns due to blocked spaces, then a draw is immediately declared and any points that may have been scored up to that point are declared null and void. 

A player's 6 space is on the opposite side to their beginning.
This is at least how I read the rules, so by no means definitive I think we could call it definitive for now. I would be tempted to agree with my opponent to play to a set number of points, say thirty or fifty, and play a number of games until the goal is reached. 

To close, I promise I'll write sooner this time, my love. Until then, Darling I promise you this, I'll send you all my love, everyday in a letter, and seal it with a kiss. Or possibly not.


Oops, in my rush to get this post out I forgot to tell you about my board. And that's what all this is supposed to be about ain't it? The board I've elected to show is not the most elaborate or traditional chevron-ed job, instead I've gone for one found carved into stonework in Norwich Castle in works in or before 1892. Norwich Castle was used as a prison, so the suspicion for carving the board obviously fell on the prisoners. However the board was in such an inaccessible spot that it was concluded that the only people who could possibly be responsible were the original builders or masons working at the castle. You can picture them knocking off early or skiving round a corner with a mug of small beer and their wages. So if the building work on your new kitchen or extension comes to an inexplicable standstill, the workers sitting around with pints of tea and the Racing Post; they're not slacking off, they're Traditionalists! Engaging in an age old ritual that has gone on for hundreds of years. I'd let them get on with it I were you, it's an ancient mystery. 

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

King's Table

We have now arrived at the point where my makes have overtaken my blog posts but I'm just going to witter on until things even out again.
So, Hnefatafl then.
     Sometimes referred to as Viking chess, Hnefatafl was once popular throughout all of northern Europe up until its popularity was eventually usurped by chess with its hierarchy of pieces appealling to the medieval mind (and who doesn't love the horsies). Boards and written records have been found all over from the Balinderry Board to the laws of Hywel Dda. I am told the name translates to King's Table, and it is actually the basis for the Discworld spin-off game Thud. It is also the head of a family of games known at Tafl games. The board looks like this...
The first thing you will notice, unless you're odd, is that the opposing sides are not opposite; instead the white pieces are ensconsed within a threatening ring of red pieces. The second thing you note is that the white pieces are vastly outnumbered, to the tune of two to one. Lastly you will probably note that the central white piece is different to the others. This is the only king on the board. All these features are common to, and define all Tafl games. 

Corner Square,
the Holy Grail
The rules of all Tafl games are remarkably similar as well, so by outlining the rules of Hnefatafl you will have the basics of all them. The aim of the game is different for both players, the white defender is trying to allow the King an escape, vikings clearly believing discresion to be the better part of valour. The red attackers are trying to stop him, as simple as that. All the pieces, without exception, move as rooks in chess. That is to say in a straight line orthogonally any number of squares as long as nothing blocks their path. They cannot pass through the centre square whether it is occupied or not. The king escapes by landing on any of the four corner squares, which red pieces are not allowed to enter. Pieces are taken as in Latrunculi, that is one piece must be surrounded on two sides orthogonally by opposing pieces. Unlike Latrunculi, however, the king must be surrounded on four sides, or on three sides with a board edge/centre square blocking the fourth side.

Sound straightforward? Simple? Oh, dear. That's what I thought at first, too. But I took a copy of a Tafl game, Tawlbwrdd, to an event recently and actually got a chance to play! Rather than setting things up for the public to play.

My Tawlbwrdd game.
That all important first move.
Tawlbwrdd is one of two Welsh tafl games and the only one thought to be unique to Wales. It is mentioned in the Laws of Hywel Dda in the tenth century as a job perk for Judges and mention crops up again and again until the thirteenth. It is one of the a larger member of the tafl family, although not perhaps as big as Alea Evangelii or Large Hnefatafl. It has four more defenders and eight more attackers to maintain the ratio and is played on an 11x11 board, because the board is bigger you only need to get the king to any edge square to win. From the games I played on the day I noticed that this does give white a distinct advantage.

In the three games I played on the day I played white only once and won only two out of the three games, once as red. The game above led to me having my backside handed to me by a member of another Re-enacting group, as she managed whether by luck and flaw or design to set up the equivalent of a rolling mill where I blocked the king, she took my piece, I moved a piece up, she opened a path for the king to the edge, I blocked the king, she took my piece, I moved a piece up, she opened a path for the king, I blocked the king and essentially kept this up with very little variation until I eventually ran out of pieces. It was like playing against a mincing machine. This could not have happened anywhere near as easily if she had to get the king to a corner. But thats war and Tafl and I even enjoyed being beaten, it has given me a tactic to try when I am next playing white.

The board construction is covered here. The construction of the pieces was easy although not too tidy to begin with. I simply used a floreat cutter, but in order to give a more pawny (is that a word? Should be) quality rolled a ball of clay and cut into that. It did take quite a few attempts to get right and the finished articles are a bit rough and ready but I quite like the whole look of cheap, cobbled together pieces, I feel they are more authentic for a peasant like me. And the abstract designs match some of those of the medieval and earlier periods as on display at Jon Crumiller's page.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Ludicrous and Truculent

This make is of a Roman game. I hear there here are some accounts of this game being played in Scandinavia in the middle ages and if ever I find them I will link them here. For now take that with a pinch of salt. What is certainly true is that there is a lot to be recognised in this game, the equal sided opposition of chess, the lack of heirarchy of the playing pieces as in draughts and the capturing method of the tafl games. The game is Ludus Latrunculorum,  or Latrunculi or Latrones, which means the Game of Brigands, or Bandits or Mercanaries or Soldiers.

Not a chess board.

When it came to making the game I already had the board! I covered this in a previous article (Article! He calls it an article now!) I picked up some Fymo cutters and some self drying clay, and cut out some simple shapes I think are called floreats out of the clay, eight of each to give a complete rank (Beg pardon? You heard.).
Floreat Cambrensis
 They didn't look quite right but I found a dot on each petal added something. 

Shall we play a game?

Latrunculi is a reconstructed game, in other words one which no-one genuinely knows how it was played. However we are not entirely clueless. Cleverer people than I, who call themselves ludologists, have studied long and hard using contemporary records, similar games,  two yoghurt pots and some sticky-backed plastic to produce what are to believed to be a fairly accurate approximation of the rules. Unfortunately ludologists tend to be academics and there is no money in amity, so there are several different versions of the rules, all of which are truly authentic and accurate; for a given value of authentic, accurate and true.
Ranks assembled
So from the literature there are several possible set ups. There are 7x8 boards, 8x8 with 8, 9, 13 and 16 pieces. As you can see I've gone here for an 8x8 board for convenience sake (it's handy to have a board that can be used for several games), and an eight-a-side set with an additional, smaller "Duke" on each side. There are also differences of opinions as regards some of the rules but there are a few things that all versions agree on is the movement of the pieces. All the pieces, regardless of rank, move in straight, orthogonal lines as far as the player wishes without passing over any other pieces (friend or foe); just like a rook in chess. But you do not take your opponent's pieces by simply moving into a square occupied by them (which would make for a game shorter than my attention sp- ooh, look! A squirrel!). Rather a single opponent's piece has to be surrounded on two sides (horizontal or vertical) to be taken .
Variants include;
  • the Duke cannot be taken (so will be the last piece on the board) 
  • the Duke can jump over a single opponent's piece as part of it's move
  • the pieces can only move one square at a time (slooooooooooowww)
  • at the begining of the the game the players take turns placing their pieces anywhere on the board (why not just play morris?)
  • roll a dice each turn to determine how far a piece can move (WTF?)
The game ends when one side has been reduced to one piece (so cannot take), or a player cannot make a legitimate move or 30 moves have been made without a piece being taken.

In conclusion then this looks like a really nice little game, with a couple of variants should lift it a bit although others I could happily leave behind (you'll never guess which).

If you have been effected by anything in tonight's blog...

Latrunculi at Cyningstan with a downloadable pdf leaflet. The wonderfully knowledgable Damien Walker.
The Game Cabinet although this has not been updated in over ten years the site still seems to be up (for now). Scroll down to the bottom for Latrunculi.
Roman Board Games a nice little site that does what it says on the tin.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Mini make: Games Compendium

Mini-medieval came home from school the other day whilst I was making some items and wanted to make something too, Daddy. So I grabbed a spare strip of linen and some ordinary poster paint and let Drogo have a go. The result was a really nice trio of boards, really clear what they were and good brush control. Once the paint was dry it has proved incredibly durable to everything bar water.
Three little game boards, all in a row.


Knockings In and Out

Noughts and Crosses
Having had a go with brush and paint I then let him loose on the self drying clay. He chose to make simple cone pieces, or 
pointy ones
 so, with a little bit of guidance he made the following.
I was about to cut out the three boards, hem them and then make a seperate bag to carry them all in when once more the wife waded in with another excessively good idea (if this ganging up and outshining me continues words will need to be had). She simply suggested I made the strip into a bag like those over the shoulder record bags with the flap over the top.
You would think with all this sewing that my backstitch would improve. No such luck . So now junior has a little compendium of games he has made himself to keep him occupied on the recreation field whilst Mummy and Daddy are talking to the punters.

Abakhan again. I'm trying to make up for the time I forgot them still.