Medieval Children and Games

Portrait of three noble children, aged four, seven and two, with a dog, dated 1556 painted by a follower of Antonis Mor (public domain work)

Medieval Children and Childhood

We know very little about childhood and children in the medieval period. Many of the documents that survive from medieval times record events such as wars, land ownership changes, or things concerning royalty and the very important people in society. Indeed many archaeologists and historians comment on how children (and women) are “invisible” during the medieval period, as we have so little information about them.

In addition to this the medieval period was a quite dangerous time to be a child, as the mortality rate for infants and young people was very high. Things like poor nutrition, poor hygiene, exposure to the cold and being in busy dangerous environments (many people lived closely with livestock and animals) made it less likely that children would survive their early years.

The portrait shown above is from a wealthy family in the late medieval period. Children from the rural towns in Medieval Scotland would likely have never had a portrait painted, or have been so well dressed. However, all medieval children would have played many games, but things such as children’s toys were often made out of organic materials like wood and linen, which don’t survive well in the ground. Also, think about all of the games that can be played without toys – such as tig. These games wouldn’t leave a trace for archaeologists to find.

Medieval Games

There are, however, some games that were very popular in the medieval period for which there is evidence; but these games were not solely for children, or maybe not even for children at all.

Arguably the most famous find of a medieval game has been the discovery of the Lewis Chessmen. The Lewis Chessmen are a set of walrus ivory carved chess pieces which date to the late 12th/early 13th century and were found on the Isle of Lewis in 1831. At the time the Lewis Chessmen were played, Lewis was still under Viking rule and not technically part of the medieval Scotland we have been discussing. Excavations have produced finds of chess pieces at several sites on the west coast of Scotland, and one piece has also come from the medieval burgh of Perth. Many of these chess pieces, including the Lewis Chessmen, could also have been used to play a game called ‘tafl’ or ‘hnefatafl’ where pawns surround their king and aim to defend him from another group of attacking pawns. To explore more about the Lewis Chessmen and see the 3D images of them follow the link with the picture on the right.

Game board found at Jedburgh Abbey

More Medieval Board Games

The abbeys at Jedburgh and Dryburgh in the Scottish Borders have also produced evidence for medieval gaming. Two boards from a game called ‘Nine-Mens-Morris’ or 'merrelles' have been found incised on stones at both locations. The Merrels board from Jedburgh is pictured to the left. This medieval gaming board has been incised on a stone which was then used in the construction of Jedburgh Abbey. Many gaming boards have been found throughout Scotland in this way—scratched or carved (incised) onto objects that were later used as building materials. It is thought that these boards were used by the masons and builders during their breaks. For counters they likely would have used found objects. To learn to play Nine-Mens-Morris click HERE.

Dice Games

Dice are also sometimes found during excavation at medieval sites throughout Scotland. Recently, the die pictured on the right was found at the excavations in the medieval burgh of Edinburgh. Dice can be used in many different games, and can even be used on their own. Dice games were common in the medieval period, but were frowned upon by the church as many of these games were for the purpose of gambling.

Why not think up your own dice game?