Saturday, 28 March 2015

Women Making Waves: The Newton Women’s Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race, 2015, by Clare Mulley


Sporting history will be made this month when for the first time, on 11 April 2015, women will row in the Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race on the same terms, and on the same waters, as men.

Although held intermittently since 1927, until recently the women’s race has been seen as the rather feeble younger sister of the famous men’s race. However this year the two women’s teams will follow the same tough 4.2 mile (6.8km) course on the Tideway - the powerfully tidal stretch of the Thames in London - from Putney to Mortlake, rather than the separate 1.25 mile (2km) stretch of the calm waters of Henley to which they have previously been relegated.


Newnham College Cambridge crew, 1919
(courtesy of theboatraces.org

What has made this possible is not, of course, a sudden increase in female interest, fitness, strength or ability. Despite romantic images of ladies lolling their fingers in rivers as they are rowed upstream by strapping young men, women have in fact always enjoyed an active role on the water. The subject of my first biography, Eglantyne Jebb, the future founder of the charity Save the Children, was passionate about rowing on the Isis when she was a student at Oxford's Lady Margaret Hall in the 1890s, and she was a woman who regularly played hockey and fencing, and rode horses and bicycles - on one occasion with such vigour that she was cautioned by the police.

Eglantyne was too early to participate in competitive rowing, as female Oxbridge rowing crews only started to compete against each other in 1927, provoking endless abuse from male and female spectators along with claims that the race was unfeminine and bad for female health. The first race between the Oxford University Boat Club and Newnham College, Cambridge, was held on the Isis. Since the two crews were not permitted on the river at the same time, they had to be judged separately on 'time and style’. Inevitably objections were still raised and, according to The Times, ‘large and hostile crowds gathered on the towpath’.


Miss Pomphrett, 1937 OUWBC cox with the Francombe Cup
(courtesy of theboatraces.org

It was only in 1935 that the race became a direct contest over a half mile (1000 yard) stretch of the Isis, the Camb or, just once, on the Tideway at Barnes. Betty Francombe, who had progressed from stoker to coach of the Oxford women's team, donated the cup, which is still being presented.


The 1942 Cambridge crew
(courtesy of theboatraces.org)

In the mid-1950s however, drama struck when the Oxford crew went over a weir during training the day before the race and, as a result, were banned from the river. Funding evaporated overnight, the women's boat clubs almost sank from sight, and no more women's races would be held for almost ten years.

It was two Oxford engineering students who revived the women's races, still in the face of open hostility, in the early 1960s. At first the crews had to fight even to take part in the inter-college ‘bumps’ races but, supported by a college Canon who enthusiastically coached the team he called the ‘Perspiring Persephones’ or ‘Swetty Bettys’, they had an impressive run of success. Despite being branded, ‘a ghastly sight’, and even ‘an anatomical impossibility’, the race now became an annual fixture, moving to the Thames at Henley in the 1970s.

Rowing has recently been gaining enormous popularity as a sport among women, and British rowers are world class. At the 2012 Olympics, Britain topped the medal table for female rowing with four golds, and an impressive nine medals overall. Nevertheless the press still managed to send mixed messages. Britain's most successful rower, Katherine Grainger, who claimed gold after three consecutive silvers, was reported as having finally shaken off the nickname, ‘the bridesmaid of rowing’, and more coverage focused on her dreams of being introduced to David Beckham now that she had won gold. At the time she had been a world champion since 2000, and held a law degree, a master’s in medical law, and was working on a doctorate on the science of homicide which she has now achieved.


Cath Bishop (L), Katherine Grainger (R)
winning silver at the Athens Olympic Games 2004
(courtesy of theboatraces.org

While British women were leading the world at the Olympics, there was still little support for the sport at home however. The women’s Oxford and Cambridge teams have faced persistent lack of media interest, funding, and access to professional facilities. Until recently, the female crew even had to pay their own train fares to the rowing lake, while the men were driven in branded mini-buses. Now however, the women have won the support and sponsorship of a London based company. Shocked to discover that they had not had any commercial sponsorship previously, Helen Morrissey, the female CEO of Newton Investment Management, felt that simply putting the company’s name on the women’s shirts was not enough; she wanted to ‘influence the evolution of the event’, and has lent her support to campaigns for more recognition and investment in female rowing.

Hopefully 2015 will prove to be a turning point. ‘It means a huge amount to have the boat races coming together on the Tideway’, rowing World Champion Cath Bishop, now chair of the Cambridge University Women’s Boat Club, says. For her, the two crews, their sponsors and supporters, this is about putting the female rowers on ‘the same stage as the men’, and finally bringing parity and equality to the boat race. I think Eglantyne Jebb, Betty Francombe, and the other female rowing pioneers would have been delighted.


The Men and Women's Blue Boats weigh-in together on 19 March 2015.
The Cambridge mens crew and women's crew topped the scales.
(courtesy of theboatraces.org

The cherry on the cake is that this year the BBC will be covering the women’s boat race live, as part of the same flagship national sporting event as the men’s race, to be broadcast to 200 countries worldwide. Commentator Clare Baldwin has also decided to cover the women's race rather than the Grand National, scheduled for the same day, in the hopes that the equal billing being given to the female crews will have a 'ripple effect all across society, business and sport'.

‘I’m really hopeful that when people see the women rowing across that same course, on the same day, with the same buzz and excitement around them,’ sponsor Helena Morrissey says, ‘it will make people stop and think…’ History is being made on the Thames in two weeks time, and whether you back Oxford or Cambridge, I hope you will support this watershed moment.


c. Clare Mulley
With thanks to Lucy Ward

Friday, 27 March 2015

Merci pour les fleurs, as they say in France. A Tiny Quiz by Louisa Young.


We hear so much about the hatchet jobs, the insults, the meanness and jealousy. Only today on Facebook one author was complaining about another calling him a ladypart, and a journalist was having the vapours in her misunderstanding of John Crace's satires in the Guardian - how dare anybody be mean about the sainted Robert MacFarlane?  Pah. I wish everybody would just be nice. Well, I kind of do, until I check the magnificent, virtuosic rudeness writers can produce for each other. 
So today I offer you another Tiny Quiz. It comes in two parts: Insults and Compliments.

Who said this about who? They're all by writers, of writers. 



1) 'Nothing but old fags and cabbage stumps of quotations from the Bible and the rest stewed in the juice of deliberate, journalistic dirty-mindedness.'
2) 'I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shin-bone.'
3) 'Very poor stuff. I think he was mentally defective.'
4) 'It took me days to go through it, gingerly, a page at a time, and blushing with embarrassment for him every ridiculous sentence of the way. How can they let him do it?'
5) 'I don’t think XX was very good in bed.'
6) 'I cannot abide XX’s souvenir shop style and bottled ships and shell necklaces of romanticist cliches.'
7) 'A village explainer. Excellent if you were a village, but if you were not, not.'
8) 'A great cow full of ink.'

9) 'I suppose half the time X  just shoved down anything that came into his head.'

10)  'X  is famous, not XXX (its author). XXX is an obscure, doubly obscure, novelist with an unpronounceable name.'

11) 'X was a drug addict. XX was an alcoholic. XXX was killed by a man whom he was treacherously trying to stab. XXXX took money to keep a woman's name out of a satire, then wrote a piece so that she could still be recognized, anyhow. XXXXX killed himself. XXXXXX was accused of incest. Do you still want to a writer -and if so, why?'

Ach well. Let's change channels to the happy dance of appreciation and positivity -  
Two: Who said these wonderful things, and about who or what?


1) 'She has written so well, and marvelously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer. I felt that I was simply a carpenter with words, picking up whatever was furnished on the job and nailing them together and sometimes making an okay pig pen. But this girl, who is to my knowledge very unpleasant and we might even say a high-grade bitch, can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves as writers ... it really is a bloody wonderful book'

2 'My favourite piece of information is that X, brother of XX and XXX, died standing up leaning against a mantlepiece, in order to prove it could be done.'

3) 'If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the 'xxxxxx' is worth any number of old ladies.'

4)  'XXXs aren’t made in the way that babies are: they are made like pyramids, There’s some long-pondered plan, and then great blocks of stone are placed one on top of the other, and it’s back-breaking, sweaty, time consuming work. And all to no purpose! It just stands like that in the desert! But it towers over it prodigiously. Jackals piss at the base of it, and bourgeois clamber to the top of it, etc. Continue this comparison.'

5)  'As a young child I wanted to be an XX because XXs were rich and famous. They lounged around Singapore and Rangoon smoking opium in a yellow pongee silk suit. They sniffed cocaine in Mayfair and they penetrated forbidden swamps with a faithful native boy and lived in the native quarter of Tangier smoking hashish and languidly caressing a pet gazelle.'


Why was it so much harder to find compliments? I wonder. 



ANSWERS- Insults:

1) D.H. Lawrence on James Joyce 
2) Mark Twain on Jane Austen
3) Evelyn Waugh on Proust
4) Elizabeth Bishop on Catcher in the Rye
5) Auden on Browning
6) Nabokov on Conrad
7) Gertrude Stein on Ezra Pound
8) Gustave Flaubert on George Sand
9) Wodehouse on Shakespeare
10) Nabokov on Nabokov
11) Bennet Cerf on Coleridge, Poe, Marlowe, Pope, Chatterton and Byron.

Compliments

1) Hemingway on Beryl Markham
2) Douglas Adams on Bramwell Bronte, brother of Charlotte and Emily
3) William Faulkner on Ode to a Grecian Urn
4)  Flaubert on Books
5) William Burroughs on Writers


Thursday, 26 March 2015

An artist's haven by Carol Drinkwater




                                                                        Miró fountain

I have been focusing quite a bit on war recently so I thought for this month’s blog I would choose a subject that is closer to home and of a lighter aspect.
A love story. This true story is set along the Côte d’Azur, the Blue Coast, but it began in the north of France in Lille.

In 1908 in the town of Hazebrouck near Lille a boy, Aimé, was born to a railway employee and his wife, Monsieur et Madame Maeght. At the outbreak of WWI, Monsieur Maeght set off for the war never to return. Worse, the family home was destroyed. Aimé, now six years old, along with his mother and three siblings, was evacuated to the Gard in the south by the Red Cross. Aimé was bright and he was passionate about art, poetry and music. After a brilliant school career, he attended art school in Nimes, but he decided he could not pursue his artistic ambitions because he had the responsibility of his family to consider. He turned instead to the printing trade and decided to study lithography. Once he had gained his engraver’s diploma, he had no difficulty finding himself a job with a printer in Cannes. He was twenty-one years old with, it is reported, “spades of charm”. He joined the choir in the church in the Suquet.

Within a year, he had met a local girl, Marguerite Devaye. She was the daughter of wealthy trades people. They married the following year. He was twenty-three. She, nineteen. In 1930, Adrien, their first son was born. Their lives were blessed. Aimé was bursting with ambition and plans. In 1932, whilst still empoyed at the same printer’s, he opened his own shop near to the famous seafront, La Croisette, and christened it Arte. He began exhibiting paintings in the window. Soon, Aimé’s print shop was also a gallery. Pierre Bonnard, who lived in the hillside village of Le Cannet overlooking Cannes, visited the gallery and requested of Aimé that he colour his lithographs.

Bonnard’s request was the turning point in Aimé Maeght’s life. A friendship between them was born. From hereon, the greatest names in modern art frequented Aimé and Marguerite’s lives.

                                                       Marguerite Maeght, Henri Matisse

When the war broke out, Aimé discreetly put his printing presses at the services of the Résistance, whose leader, Jean Moulin, opened a gallery in Nice as a cover for the underground work he was doing. In 1943, when Jean Moulin was arrested (he died from wounds inflicted by the Gestapo on a train to Germany), Bonnard begged the Maeghts to move inland. Their second son, Bernard, had been born the year before. They moved to Le Mas des Orangers, a villa outside Vence. Henri Matisse was a near neighbour. Marguerite sat for Matisse for a series of charcoal paintings.

After the Liberation, the Maeghts, encouraged by their celebrated friends, opened a gallery in Paris, the renowned Galerie Maeght. Aimé soon became one of the twentieth century’s most respected art dealers and art publishers. The Maeght lives were blessed, until tragedy struck.

In 1953 their second son, Bernard, died of leukemia. The couple were, understandably, heartbroken. Fernand Leger advised them to take a trip to America. A month after their son’s death Braque visited Aimé. Here is what Aimé wrote of that visit:
‘When Braque came to see me in Saint-Paul a month after the death of my little boy, I was in the depths of despair. He said, “Since you want to do something that goes beyond the business of art dealing, that you seem to despise, and I understand you, do something here, something without a speculative purpose, that would enable us artists to exhibit sculpture and painting in the best possible conditions of light and space. Do it, I will help you.” ’
"Create something that will live on after you…" encouraged Braque.

And the seed was sown...

Whilst in the United States, the couple visited the private art foundations of Guggenheim, Barnes and Phillips and were very impressed. Although still deep in grief they decided, upon their return, to build a property near their home to house their private art collection. At that time, they were not intending it to be open to the public. It was to be a haven for artists, writers, poets; somewhere to congregate and share their ideas. Miró and Braque in their different ways encouraged the Maeght couple to create a space where exhibitions could be held, where young, lesser known artists could also participate.

                                          A part of the Joan Miró Labyrinth. The Artwork is
                                                   La Fourche, or The Fork and the Devil

                                                    
"The night gradually rises from the hills of Provence, all the way to Miró's Fork and Devil,"              wrote André Malraux.

A beautiful pine-clad hillside outside the village of Saint-Paul de Vence is the location. The Catalan architect, Josep Lluis Sert, who had just finished designing a studio for Miró in Mallorca, was brought in to assist. However, the local prefecture refused the planning permit. It was only when the Minister of Culture, André Malraux, stepped in that the project was given the green light. Malraux, a writer himself, was a man of passion and vision.

One astounding moment during the preparations for the foundations was the discovery of a ruined chapel on the land. Marguerite saw this a good omen. The Maeght couple restored it and it has been integrated into the labyrinthine structure displaying splendid stained glass windows designed by Braque and Raoul Ubac. It is the Chapel Bernard.

The construction took four years. Artists and workmen picnicked together regularly on the site. Sadly, Braque died the year before completion.

On the 28th July 1964, the Fondation Maeght was inaugurated by André Malraux (also a former member of the French Resistance) who in his opening discourse declared, “this is not a museum”. An accurate observation:  It is indeed an indoor/outdoor structure created by the artists and architects themselves, a Mediterranean playground full of joy and colour. A marriage of art and nature. The inauguration dinner was held in the Giacometti courtyard. Ella Fitzgerald and Yves Montand were the evening's concert. The Maeghts had financed everything themselves. It is their monument to their departed son, Bernard. Today, its director is Adrien Maeght, older brother of long-deceased Bernard.

http://www.fondation-maeght.com/index.php/en/the-foundation

Earlier this week, while still waiting for editorial input on The Last Domain, I decided to give myself a treat. It is spring here, full-blown. warm and flower-filled. A day out on my own seemed long overdue, so I set off for the Fondation Maeght, situated a ten-minute walk outside the ramparts of the medieval village of Saint-Paul. It is in the final throes of celebrating its fiftieth anniversary last year.
Here follow a small selection of the photographs I took at this serene and magical place.

                                                                Giant Seed, Jean Arp



                                                         Les Renforts,  Alexander Calder


Giacometti figures in the Giacometti Courtyard

Fountaine, Pol Bury  

                                                            Personage,  Joan Miró

I want to close with an extract from a correspondence sent to Miró from Aimé Maeght:
"Yes, my dear Joan, we will create a unique work in the world that will remain in time and in minds as evidence of our civilization, that through wars, social and scientific upheavals will leave humanity one of the purest spiritual and artistic messages of all time. These are the stories I want to make visible to the generations that follow us and to show our grandchildren that in our very materialistic age the spirit remained present and very effective thanks to men like you."
29th August 1959

Marguerite Maeght died in 1977. Aimé Maeght followed her, his most loyal ally, on 5th September 1981. Both are buried in the cemetery of Saint-Paul de Vence. Chagall lies nearby.
Alongside her octogenarian father, Adrien Maeght, Aimé and Marguerite's granddaughter, Isabelle, presides over the foundation now. It remains a family affair. And, in my opinion, an inspirational love story.

www.caroldrinkwater.com



Wednesday, 25 March 2015

The Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction Shortlist by Elizabeth Laird

The Zone of Interest by Martin Amis



The Zone of Interest is a terrifying book by a writer who inhabits his subject with passion. The foul details of the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz Birkenau (called Kat Zet in the novel), are gut churning in their reality. Only the sickest imagination could have conjured up the scenes Amis portrays, but no imagination brought them into being. This is not a fantasy. The horrors are real. The Zone of Interest is a historical novel, written with respect for its terrible subject.
There are few linguistic fireworks in this book, and the writing forbears to draw attention to itself. Any humour is subtle, and arises from the manifest absurdity of the Nazi project and the monstrous buffoonery of the camp commandant, Paul Doll.
But The Zone of Interest is also a love story, and the reader is forced into feeling some empathy for the main character, Angelus Thomsen, the nephew of Martin Bormann, a cynic and womaniser who becomes disenchanted with the Nazi regime as he becomes erotically obsessed with Hannah, the camp commandant's unhappy wife.
The character of Szmul, the head of the Jewish Sonders, whose job it was to clear away the ghastly remains of the murder machine, remains understandably more opaque. There was a place here where even Amis did not dare to go.
The subject of the Shoah has been treated in recent novels with sentimentality that belittles the horror. It is a subject that deserves only the greatest reverence and respect which Martin Amis accords it in this unforgettable novel.

The Lie by Helen Dunmore




In The Lie, set straight after the First World War, Helen Dunmore delves with great sensitivity into the enduring trauma of guilt and grief that so many survivors had to suffer.

Daniel Bramwell, a young man without a family, returns to his native Cornwall for want of anywhere better to go. He is given a rudimentary shelter by Mary Pascoe, an old woman in her last illness, and he sets about growing vegetables on her patch of land. When she dies, he follows her request and buries her in her own garden. The small lies that he is forced to tell become greater and greater and soon dominate his life.

Suffering from guilt and shell-shock, Daniel is haunted by his memories, particularly by his failure to save the life of Frederick Dennis, his childhood friend and "blood brother" who had become his commanding officer. Frederick appears to him in nightmares, reeking of earth, "exposed in all its filth, corrosive, eating away at the bodies that had to live in it."
But there is more than horror in this novel. There is tenderness in Daniel's care for old Mary Pascoe, in his attempt to bring her garden back to life, and above all in his growing friendship with Felicia, Frederick's sister, who is herself wounded by grief and loss.

Viper Wine by Hermione Eyre


Venetia Stanley was one of the great beauties of Charles 1st's court. Painted by Van Dyck and celebrated by Ben Johnson, she had all the star quality of a Marilyn Monroe or Lady Diana of a later era. But as she reached middle age, and her beauty began to fade, she went to desperate lengths to try to preserve it, recruiting the charlatan physician Lancelot Choice and becoming addicted to his potion, Viper Wine.
There's a terrific verve to this exuberant and inventive novel which hurtles along at a thrilling pace, sweeping into its embrace great characters from Charles 1st's court, such as Venetia's husband, the alchemist Sir Kenelm Digby, Cornelis Drebbel, the eccentric inventor who launched a submarine into the Thames, other great beauties at Court, notable lords of the time and King Charles and Queen Henrietta Maria themselves.

Opinions will be divided on the eruption of the twentieth century into the text, via special powers enjoyed by Venetia's husband Sir Kenelm, but they are all part of the fun in this youthful and hugely enjoyable novel.

In the Wolf's Mouth by Adam Foulds


A new novel by Adam Foulds is to be keenly anticipated, and this one fulfils all expectations. His spare, sharply observed writing brings to life a moment in Sicily at the end of the Second World War, when the Allies unwittingly facilitated the return to power of the Mafia, which Mussolini had strenuously attempted to suppress. 

The novel opens on a remote and rocky hillside, where Angilu, a young shepherd, is forced to surrender his sheep to Ciro Albanese, a local Mafioso. The old cards of corruption and connivance are reshuffled as the Allies arrive to liberate Sicily from the Fascists. Will Walker, an English officer, and Ray Marfione, an Italian American soldier, struggle to understand what is happening in the country they are occupying, their efforts impeded by incompetent superiors.

Adam Foulds has spun an intricate web of lives, in which the forces unleashed by war draw everyone out of their familiar worlds. Forced to operate in strange and shifting circumstances, the characters each bring with them the baggage of the worlds from which they come, and inevitably collide in misunderstandings.

Arctic Summer by Damon Galgut



Arctic Summer is a book of profound compassion and sensitivity. It recreates the inner life and emotions of Morgan Forster (E.M.Forster), his yearning for romance and affection, and the lonely agony of being homosexual (a "minorite" in Forster's words) in a hostile and unsympathetic world.
The book draws heavily on Forster's own diaries and letters and Galgut's depth of research is impressive, but it is a novel, not a fictionalised biography. The long, unproductive years between Howard's End and A Passage to India are fully imagined, and the characters who inhabit Forster's life and emotions are vivid and touching.

The novel follows Forster's slow progression towards the writing of A Passage to India. He embarks on a journey to India to visit his Indian friend Syed Ross Mahmood. His love for Syed is unrequited, and this is a relationship that can never satisfy him. There is more affection in his affair with an Egyptian tram conductor, Mohammed el Adl, and the scenes in both India and Egypt are vividly evoked.

It was on his second visit to India that Forster began to understand the corrupting effect of power on love, as he struggles with his feelings for a barber at the court of the Maharajah of Dewas. Galgut shows how Forster's emotional journeys are  preludes to the writing of A Passage to India, surely one of the most profound studies of colonialism, power and love ever written.

A God in Every Stone by Kamila Shamsie


The mark of a novel worth reading must surely be that it plays out a moral argument, and A God in Every Stone achieves this with vigour, passion and style. It careers along with unstoppable momentum, scooping up characters, attitudes, places and ideas and meshing them into stirring political events in Britain, the Ottoman Empire, and India.

The story opens in 1914. Vivian Rose is a young Englishwoman who is in love with Tahsin Bey, a Turkish archaeologist. Following a hint he had sent her, she travels to Peshawar. There her life becomes entangled with two men, the former soldier Qayyum Gul, who has returned wounded and angry from the horrors of trench warfare in France, and his young brother Najeeb.
As the push for Indian independence gathers momentum, the characters find themselves forced to take sides in the struggle. Here Kamila Shamsie shows her true understanding of what it is like to live through violent civil unrest. Events, like shards of broken glass, are fragmentary. They follow each other at frightening speed, and it's only afterwards that the pieces can be put together and some kind of picture revealed.

At its heart this is a story of betrayal, broken loyalties and the crumbling of empires under the onslaught of war, big themes brilliantly illuminated in this ambitious novel.

The Ten Thousand Things by John Spurling



The central character of this mesmerising novel is Wang Meng, a bureaucrat who lived in the fourteenth century during the final years of the Yuan dynasty, as a new Ming emperor swept away the old and brought a new dynasty to power. But Wang Meng was also a master painter, some of whose exquisite landscape paintings are still treasured in China today.

Wang Meng sought a quiet life, wishing to devote himself to the creation of works of art, a process which John Spurling follows in passages of serene beauty. But China is in turmoil and the artist is inevitably pulled into the maelstrom, meeting along the way powerful characters such as the White Tigress, a warrior queen, other master painters devoted to their art, and a restless young monk who will rise to the heights of power. Others spring to life: Wang Meng's beloved servant Deng, Jasmine the good-time girl, and the Emperor Zhu himself.

In spite of the stirring events it portrays, there are no literary histrionics in The Ten Thousand Things. The writing is spare, enriched with perfectly placed details and a vivid sense of place, so that fourteenth century China unrolls before us like one of Wang Meng's painted scrolls.

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

DALLYING WITH DICE - a medieval pastime by Elizabeth Chadwick

Two men playing at a dicing table. Detail from the Prodigal Son window at Bourges Cathedral
Note that the chap on the right has no money and is down to his underpants.
Last month I reviewed LOST LETTERS OF MEDIEVAL LIFE by David Crouch and Martha Karlin.  One of the letters in the collection is from a man refusing to help a friend's shiftless kinsman who has fallen into debt.  Part of the letter calling time on the kinsman says in translation:
I do not wish, nor am I able to lend him anything of mine for he is an inveterate dice player and he loses everything that he gambles...  He goes on to say that any money lent to the kinsman will disappear the same way and 'those who were with him in the tavern when he lost (either 10 marks, shillings or pounds)...gained everything, right down to his underpants (braccas).

Plainly gambling away one's wherewithal has been a folly for as long as dice have been around (and probably longer. I hazard that cavemen gambled the odds with bones or stones), but my concern is with the medieval aspect of the the vice.


Gambling with dice seems to have largely been a male folly. Men were mostly the ones with access to the cash and more leeway to go out losing it.  It was a game associated with drinking, and tended to have a rough, macho element to it.  It could lead to rowdiness, violence and - as in the case of the above mentioned young man - nudity!  Men would get drunk, wager all their money followed by their clothes and possessions.  This is alluded to in many works of literature of the period. Wace, writing of a dice game in the Roman de Brut of 1155 describes it in very similar terms to the above. The man who sat down to play clothed, might arise naked at the close of play.' 

Another literary source, the Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal, completed in 1226,  reveals that dice were used to settle disputes.  The argument below is settled by a simple game called 'Highest Points.'
The poem's hero, William Marshal had won a horse at a tourney but was having trouble obtaining it from its erstwhile owner. In the end, after some discussion, the men agreed to play dice for the animal.  'Let the horse...be the sole property of the man throwing the highest score with three dice.  Isn't that the way? Shall it be so?'
The men agree and 'Three dice were brought which quickly slipped out of the hand as soon as they were thrown.'
Which makes one wonder if there were dice that didn't slip out of the hand so easily and if such dice were fixed.
As it happened, the other man threw a nine and the Marshal threw eleven, so he won the horse, which is as one would expect from a tale lauding our hero!

The main dice games of the Middle Ages were 'Highest Points' (plus poins)  played as above mentioned with three dice thrown onto a dicing board or table - highest score takes all, Then there was ''Raffle' also played with 3 dice.  In the latter the hope was to throw all three dice alike, or failing that, to throw a pair with a higher value than one's opponent.  Hazard was a dice game very popular from the thirteenth century onwards and the ancestor of the modern game of craps. Its name came from the Arabic word 'al-zahr' meaning a die.  It was played like the other with three dice.  There is only one thrower per round who is decided by agreement of the other players, or by all the players throwing the dice to see who goes first. If the player with his first throw scores a 3,4, 5, 6, 15, 16, 17 or 18, then those scores are called 'hazards' and he wins. If he scores them with his second throw, however, he loses.  If neither his first or second score is a 'hazard' it is called a 'chance'  and will be anything between 7 and 14.  He goes on playing until either his first score or second score comes up again. If it's his first score he wins. If it's his second, he loses.
A replica die owned by the author.
Bone with a ring and dot design.

We know from the pipe rolls that King John enjoyed gaming. He gave his illegitimate brother William Longespee money so that he could gamble. and in the summer of 1210 John could be found whiling away the time on his Irish campaign by wagering at dice. He 'Lent to to Robert de Ros for play, when he played with Warine FitzGerold at Carlingford, and the King was his Partner, £1.17s 4d whereof he returned 14s 8d. Also to the same Robert £1. 0s 4d when he played with the same Warine, and the King was again his partner in the game. (Praestita roll, 12th year of King John).
There is a tale from the medieval French Fabliaux in which a minstrel is brought into hell by a demon and left in charge of all the souls there while the devils go out looking for more. St. Peter turns up in their absence and plays dice with the minstrel until he wins all the souls the latter is supposed to be watching for the devils and promptly leads them out of hell and up to heaven.  The minstrel is in dire trouble when the devils return to find the place empty. They decide he's a rotten servant and throw him out.  He runs all the way to heaven and St. Peter lets him in, and that, says the tale is why minstrels, among other rogues and gamblers are refused entry into hell!


A game of dice chess.  The Prodigal Son Window Chartres Cathedral. Again, no money and he's
lost most of his clothes!
Chess at this time was sometimes played with dice too, adding in an element of chance to the game. It  was seen as slightly inferior and less intellectual than unadulterated chess and as a game slightly more fit for ladies' to play than straight dice, the chess element lending it the respectability of a parlour rather than tavern game, although it could be both. A lady who gambled with dice was risking her reputation, although it was considered acceptable to do so in a social context if the company was mixed and the men put up the money for the stakes.  This happened for example in 1260 when Count Alphonse of Poitiers, brother of King Louis IX invited everyone to play dice in his chamber and paid for the ladies' stakes himself so that no one was embarrassed and no reputations called into question.


Dice and shaker. Museum of London.

The dice themselves were generally rather small and usually carved from bone with ring and dot patterns marking out the six sides. They are frequent finds on archaeological dig sites.  The dice were sometimes fraudulent. The set above which can be seen in the Museum of London are all fixed.  Three only have high numbers and three only low. The rest are weighted with mercury to fall the same way every time.  The pewter shaker in which they were found was originally a pot for birdseed.

Although it is often said that the past is a different country, I am often struck by the similarities between then and now. Some things are hard wired.  My personal view is that the past is the same country, but just a few bus stops further back. Crane our necks that little bit further, and we can catch sight of our ancestors in the distance.  Gambling has gone digital in a huge way and TV programmes bombard us with late night adverts to be cool and get down to the online casino. Where presumably some of us, in the grip of too much wine and adrenaline will end up losing our virtual underwear!

Elizabeth Chadwick is the author of several best-selling novels set in the Middle Ages including THE GREATEST KNIGHT about William Marshal and THE SUMMER QUEEN and THE WINTER CROWN about Eleanor of Aquitaine. She is currently working on her third novel in the Eleanor trilogy THE AUTUMN THRONE.