Friday, 12 February 2010

Chaucer's Loaded Pies

In the Postemedieval Reading Group this week, we are going to be discussing urban disorder, Chaucer’s Cook and ‘subculture’, as we’ve already discussed below, and I’ve been doing the research/reading material for a little digression in the group specifically about the dice-based gambling that Chaucer’s Cook might be talking about:

‘For in the toune nas ther no prentys
That fairer koude caste a paire of dys'

One of the interesting things we came across (thanks to Sarah Rees Jones) in preparation for this session is an item in the Museum of London’s Medieval collection, from the late 15th Century. The collection of small bone dice, 24 in all, were found in Dowgate Hill and raise the really interesting question of how ‘fair’ Chaucer’s Cook’s apprentice might have thrown his dice.

Three of the dice have only the numbers 1 to 3 repeated on them, and another three have only the numbers 4 to 6 – allowing either high or low numbers to be thrown depending on the requirements of the game. The other dice in the collection been shown, under X-ray, to be ‘weighted with drops of mercury in one side or another’ (Museum of London Website). Not one of the dice in this collection are ‘straight’ and, moreover, loaded dice were referred to as ‘Fulhams’ – ‘presumably the Thames-side village of Fulham was notorious as the haunt of dice-sharpers’ (Museum of London website). Interestingly enough, though, these particular dice were found north of the river, not all that far from where the Cook’s apprentice liked to hang out (see map below): ‘For whan ther any ridyng was in Chepe, / Out of the shoppe thider wolde he lepe’. So we can geographically locate the Museum of London’s loaded dice with an area of London known to Chaucer’s cook. Martha Carlin’s article, Fast Food and Urban Living Standards in Medieval England, meanwhile, locates the Medieval ‘Cookshops’ of London in the same Thames-side location, Dowgate.

- Google Map of Route through contemporary London from Cheapside (A)
to the site of the dice's excavation (B).

So here we have Chaucer’s Cook, who we know to be a dishonest man, who ‘many a pastee laten blood’ (4346) and who, himself, most likely ‘haunteth dys, riot or paramour’ (4392) being geographically linked with the (literal) site of not only known gambling, but also cheating. Meanwhile, the Cook’s historical counterpart, Roger de Ware, appears in the plea and memoranda rolls for 1373:

Langebourne. Roger de Ware, cook, who was presented as a common nightwalker, confessed his offence and put himself on the mercy of the Court.

The City Ward of Langbourn, in which the historical Roger de Ware found himself in trouble, is again not far form the site of our dice and from Cheapside, where the Cook’s tale takes place. There are obvious textual connections between Roger de Ware and Roger, Chaucer’s Cook. Not only does the Cook mention ‘Hogge of Ware’ (4336), ‘a town in Hertforshire, some thirty miles from London’ (Riverside Chaucer, footnote), but soon after mentions the very crime for which Roger de Ware was arrested: ‘He hadde a jape of malice in the derk.’ (4338)

We can even locate the crime of ‘nightwalker’ as one which is associated with dice-cheats: an entry in the letter books of the Corporation of the City of London from 1311 gives us a portrait of someone I always imagine to be quite like Chaucer’s Cook and the apprentice from his tale:

'Elmar de Multone was attached, for that he was indicted in the Ward of Chepe for being a common night walker; and, in the day, is wont to entice strangers and persons unknown to a tavern, and there deceive them by using false dice. And, also, for that he was indicted in Tower Ward, for being a bruiser and night walker against the peace; as, also, for being a common vorere. And, also, for that he was indicted in the Ward of Crepelgate for playing at dice, and for that he is wont to entice men into a tavern, and to make them play at dice there against their will.'

We can now thus locate two historical examples, Roger and Elmar, near Cheapside, within a small area, alongside their literary counterparts in the Cook and the apprentice from his tale.

Of course, there are two conclusions we can draw from the inclusion of these characters in the bureaucratic apparatus. Firstly, it is obvious that gambling or, rather, cheating at gambling, was a serious problem. Secondly, that the problem was bad enough to be worth legislating against. A famous edict of 1190, during Richard I and Phillip of France’s crusade to the Holy Land, prohibited any soldier under the rank of Knight from betting money on any game or sport. The Knights, meanwhile, were able to gamble as long as they did not lose more than 20s in one day and night (I’ll leave Ben to make the Marxist analysis on both the class-division here and also on the fact that there was no such restriction imposed on how much one could win per day!) Kings Richard and Phillip, meanwhile, were at liberty to gamble freely, to lose (and win) as much as they liked. That gambling was not only the preserve of the lower social classes should not necessarily surprise us: in the 15th Century (1468) the Duke of Clarence prohibited members of his household from gambling of any kind, except during the 12 days of Christmas, on pain of dismissal. Indeed, royalty themselves were not above cheating, as we read in A Christmas Mumming, 1377, in British Museum, MS Harleian 247, f. 172v., where the future Richard II is duped with loaded dice (although these ones ensure that he wins):

'Soon afterward, the Prince with his mother and the other lords came out of the chambers into the hall, and the said mummers saluted them, showing a pair of dice upon a table to play with the Prince. These dice were subtly made so that when the Prince threw he would win. And the said players and mummers set before the Prince three jewels in succession: first a ball of gold, then a cup of gold, then a gold ring. The Prince won these at three casts, as had been previously arranged.'

If we look at the accounts of Henry VII, meanwhile, who, if my A-Level Tudor History classes are anything to go by, was an avaricious and humorless man, we find that he was a fairly keen gambler, betting on everything from cards and dice, to tennis.

It is worth here mentioning that playing cards are notably absent from my account, but that is only because they are notably absent from the works of Chaucer, and the first reference to playing cards in England is not until 1413. We read in the household accounts of Edmund Mortimer that he regularly lost at various games, losing over £157 in total during his travels with Henry V between September 1413 and April 1414, and one of the games at which he regularly lost was cards.

This is all very interesting, of course, but what’s most interesting is that it allows us to begin to form a picture of the (sub)culture of gambling in the late-Medieval urban space. I would like to re-work this into something more pointed, with more of a conclusion: but for now, it provides some interesting food for thought, some loaded pies, (larf larf) for the Reading Group!

And also, if anyone who is reading this has any primary sources on Medieval dice games, then please let me know: I found some details online, but with no corroboration from contemporary sources, which would be great! I'd love to get to play some dice games in the group on Tuesday!

Much Love,



  1. i am much like T. S. Eliot, and i love the middle ages. hence, by analogy, T. S. Eliot did also. of course, the waste land is not about anything but the emptying out of the city of london. thus the impinging of commerce on a living urban environment, and killing it, is something like what happened in the middle ages. hence, modernism doesn't really exist.

  2. Rhiannon Purdie, 'Dice-games and the Blasphemy of Prediction', in J. A. Burrow and I. P. Wei eds., .Medieval Futures: Attitudes to the Future in the Middle Ages (Cambridge: Boydell & Brewer, 2000), pp. 167-84

    This paper by Rhiannon Purdie was one at the best at this conference around 10 years ago in Bristol.

    I gave an early version of my Utopia and London paper there, but that was published later elsewhere (and has nothing about punk in it).

    Really looking forward to this - I think Biddle does not start until 7 or so (so I hope I will be able to make both).