The Bishop’s Dice Game [Tarot Series]

Note: This is the fourth of a series which looks at the real history of Tarot. I do not deny that Tarot has occult connections which are seriously problematic for Catholics. We will get to all of it in time, but for now please be aware that this series is not about fortune telling, but about cultural history and gaming.

Historical/anthropological research about games is part of what I do as Editor-at Large of Games Magazine, and a shorter version of this material will appear as the lead feature in our November issue. You can see another example of my research in this series on gaming in Colonial America, which also was compiled into a feature for Games. I believe that games are unique and important elements of folk culture akin to song, story, dance, art, and clothing, and therefore worthy of serious study.

One of the interesting side paths on the road to Tarot has to do with a dice game created for the amusement and edification of the clergy.

In the 10th century, Wibold, Bishop of Cambrai, invented a dice game to be played with three dice. When the dice are rolled, there is a potential for 56 different outcomes. Each outcome was associated with a virtue, and assigned a point value from 3 to 18. The clerical class was encouraged to play the game, which was called “Ludus Regularis Seu Clericalis” in some literature (which roughly translates as “A game suitable for monks or priests”). [Thanks to the Facebook Latinists for clarifying my hopeless translation of that name, particularly Professors Daniel McCaffrey and Anthony Esolen.]

The idea of the game was to make certain rolls to reach 21 with pairs of dice out of three dice rolled, with each of the rolls matched to complimentary virtues. (Twenty-one is the number of outcomes with two dice.) These “unions of virtues” are not just meant to be winning rolls, but to illustrate the ways virtues work together. For example:

Charity and Humility are united for 3+18=21
Faith and Continence are united for 4+17=21
Justice and Hilarity are united for 6+15=21

The numbers themselves also had a didactic purpose: 3 for the Trinity, 10 for the Commandments, 7 sacraments, and so on. Clerics, normally discouraged from games of chance, were thus encouraged to play Bishop Wibold’s game in order to meditate on the faith. Perhaps the idea was that they were going to play dice anyway, so why not make it an exercise in virtue?

The number “21” is significant because of the 21 trumps in the tarot deck, but the virtues are also significant, since a number of them also were used as images on the tarot, particularly in the expanded 40-trump Minchiate deck. Did the bishop’s dice game directly influence the development of the trump suit? Perhaps. If not, at the very least it gives us a tantalizing glimpse of the deep meaning and teaching purposes that could be folded into simple games.

At this point, it’s useful to point out that there isn’t a universal declaration by the Church on the evil of playing cards or dice. Some religious orders and bishops may have barred games of chance at various points in history, and they may even have done so out of some idea that they were intrinsically evil, perhaps in light of the Roman centurions dicing for the robe of Jesus.

 

Notions of playing cards (tarot or otherwise) as the “devil’s picture book” or dice as Satan’s teeth were not universal teachings, and, even when they were prohibited, it was not for abstract or theological reasons. The two main reasons some churchmen took a dim view of card playing and dicing were gambling and the profane use of sacred images.

Gambling in the Middle Ages, as today, could become a serious problem. A man who gambled away his money would leave his family destitute and hungry. The history of cards is entwined with the history of gambling, and it was reasonable to view compulsive gambling as a vice. This brought gaming under suspicion.

The Tarot eventually ran afoul of certain religious authorities in the Middle Ages not because it was being used for divination, but because the sacred images appearing on the cards were deemed too exalted for such a lowly use, and the Church takes its images and symbols seriously.

It wasn’t until the cards became more associated with divination (which is forbidden in Christianity) than with gaming that they fell afoul of Church authorities.

When “Tarot” appears in a negative context in church documents, it always has to do with their use as a tool of divination. There is a lot of misinformation out there on the internet about Tarot. One widely circulated article is The History of Tarot Cards by Fr. William Saunders.

I’m sure Fr. Saunders had the best of intentions when writing his piece, but it repeats the standard misinformation culled from occult, rather than historical, sources. (In matters like this, it’s generally best not to trust the lies of the Enemy.) So when Fr. Saunders says that “The 22 major enigmas correspond to the letters of the Hebrew alphabet and the number of hieroglyphs the ancient Jews used in divination,” he’s just repeating the false history of the cards, which we’ll discuss in greater detail tomorrow.

Next: The Fake History of Tarot

NOTE: I would urge people who are inclined to be irritated by this piece–both Catholics who think Tarot are nothing but evil and Tarot users who find pleasure in the cards–to wait until the end of the series before rendering any judgement. We have a long way to go through the following posts:

About Thomas L. McDonald

Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.

  • TheodoreSeeber

    I missed the one on Divination, going back to read it.

  • TheodoreSeeber

    Ok, read the post on Divination, and since it wasn’t mentioned, and is better mentioned here: Dice are usually included because the original version of “casting lots”, long before the Romans, was “consulting the bones”- knuckle bones are vaguely cubical, and were the original dice.

  • http://www.godandthemachine.com/ Thomas L. McDonald

    While you’re correct about the bones (and Roman dice or lots at the time of Christ were often bone) I’m not so sure that the church made that connection. I’ve seen no evidence of it. That doesn’t mean it’s not there, just that I’m not comfortable asserting it as hard fact (eg, “because of an association between bones and divination the Church frowned on dicing”).

    And, just to confuse things further, drawing/casting lots was not universally frowned upon. This is not “divination” as we know it, but a kind of prophetic tool used by the priestly class of the Old Testament through the Urim and Thummim.

  • Roki

    Used also in the New Testament to select the successor to Judas Iscariot: Acts 1.23-26.


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