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Anglo-Saxon Games

Today, one of your rare free evenings, you might choose to settle Catan, trade beans, or devour innocent townspeople as a wolf. Alternatively, you might travel as a Dragonborn, save Princess Zelda or even build your own world out of tiny square blocks. It is no secret that playing games, whether solitary or with a group of people, is a pastime still immensely popular today. Classic games such as backgammon, chess and dice games can be traced back to Antiquity, and still remain amongst the most-played games even now. With the rise of the smartphone and console games, dice and board games still firmly hold their own. Of course, playing games is a phenomenon of all ages. Against relatively low costs dice or a board can be fashioned. Archaeological sites and literature provide us with plenty of references and material, and it seems as if the people of the Anglo-Saxon period were just as fond of gaming as we are today. In this essay, you will find more information on board, dice and word games.

Tafl is one of the board games which has gone extinct. It “was probably supplanted […] by the arrival […] of chess during the eleventh and twelfth centuries.”1; It belonged to the category of war games, and “was carried by the Norsemen to Iceland, Britain and Ireland.”2; Tafl was also known as alea evangelii, tabula or hnefatafl, and while some argue that these were distinctly separate games, they are most likely variants of Tafl. However, the rules as well as the board are quite similar to chess, and reconstructions have been made. The game is played as follows; one player possesses a king and a number of pawns, the other player is in possession of double the number of the pawns, but no king. Pawns can be captured in the same manner as chess, but the king is harder to catch. You need to surround the king if “four adjacent cells in row and column are all occupied by enemy men.”3; Diagonal moves were not allowed. In order to win, “the king has an open row or column to the edge of the board; his opponent wins if he captures the king.”4

Many die have been found at archaeological excavations, though not in great quantities. Presumably, “the presence of dice establishes that they [the Anglo-Saxons] played games of chance.”5 Die were rather easy to carve, from bone, or wood, which also accounts for their survival rate: these materials were not made to last. Gambling was a popular pastime, and games such as Liar’s Dice are of all ages. Most people today recognise this game from Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. Each participant throws his or her dice, and one after another, you must state the amount of dice thrown of a certain number. Each person that follows either raises the amount of dice, or calls the player a liar. If you are caught in a lie, you lose the game, and your hard-earned money!

Of course, the games best known to us today are the games of words. Riddles, both in Latin and English, are found in great numbers. Some scholars pose that these verbal games are a welcome distraction from martial prowess, but riddles fulfilled other social functions as well. Certainly, the word games provide an opportunity to present “a man in full possession of the masculine virtues prescribed by his culture.”6 In other words, a warrior needs to be cunning as well as muscular, and should not be afraid to challenge his fellow man. Many riddles work according to the same principle. In ambiguous terms an object describes itself in the first person, and usually asks the reader at the end to identify the object. In answering the riddle correctly the warrior’s wits are established. It also proves that “aggression is not necessarily destructive. Verbal competition is fun, and defence against the attacks of enemies is necessary and commendable.”7

In addition to these fun, relatively harmless games, people of the Anglo-Saxon period are also accused of more cruel games. One of the most remarkable examples of these war games is the murder of Saint Edmund. He was impaled by so many spears, that “he actually bristled with them, like a prickly hedgehog or a thistle fretted with spines”8. Another account tells the story of bishop Ælfheah, who was pelted with bones and cows’ heads, before being put to death by drunk Vikings. Of course, “it would be a long and not very edifying business to tabulate the favourite pastimes of the Vikings sadist”9, but the descriptions are too graphic to ignore. One might suspect that these cruel practices are restricted to the literary sphere in order to vilify the Vikings, but in Nordic literature “murderous bone-throwing at boisterous dinner parties is a fairly well-attested literary motif.”10

Moreover, in the Lex Castrensis a tiny suggestion can be found that “using a man as a target for a salvo of bones was recognised in Danish law as a legitimate form of execution.”11 However, these pieces of evidence form no conclusive proof that murder by bone-throwing was a common game to Vikings. Perhaps the pelting of guests with bones should be seen as an elaborate form of a food fight, or a “brutal Nordic dinner entertainment.”12

Generally, the Anglo-Saxons stuck to a peaceful game of Liar’s Dice, or played Tafl. Fights certainly must have occurred from time to time, but overall board, word, and dice games remained relatively peaceful. The next time a sore loser flips the board, or tosses the game out of the window, count yourself lucky. The people of early medieval England did possess a mean streak after all, and you should hope it is not shared by your fellow players unless you want to be speared like a hedgehog for sport...

by Anne Rutten


1. Payne, Ian (2006). "Did the Anglo-Saxons Play Games of Chance? Some Thoughts on Old English Board Games. The Antiquaries Journal, 86, p 331

2. Murray, H.J.R (1952). A History of Board-Games, Other Than Chess. Oxford: Clarendon Press, p 56

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. Payne, Ian (2006). "Did the Anglo-Saxons Play Games of Chance? Some Thoughts on Old English Board Games". The Antiquaries Journal, 86, p 338

6. Nelson, Marie (1991). "Four Social Functions of the Exeter Book Riddles". Neophilologus, 75, p 446

7. Ibid. P 450

8. Ælfric of Eynsham. Aelfric’s Lives of Saints. Ed. W.W. Skeat (1890). London: EETS, p 321, l 110-12

9. Mcdougall, Ian (1993). "Serious entertainments: an examination of a peculiar type of Viking atrocity". Anglo-Saxon England, 22, p 2012

10 Ibid. P. 218-19

11 Ibid. P. 221

12 Ibid. P. 224