hnefatafl, originally uploaded by Christel Franken.

A picture of my souvenir version of the Viking Hnefatafl boardgame.


Alea evangelii

The gameboard depicted in the eleventh century Irish manuscript CCC Oxford MS. 122 is probably a variant of Hnefatafl. The board shown is eighteen-by-eighteen cells. Hnefatafl is a game that originated in Scandinavia, in the game two players battle for domination. The parties are of unequal size. On a board of this side, Hnefatafl would have been played with 72 pieces: one side with forty-eight men and the other with twenty-four men plus a king or hnefi. The Hnefi starts at the center and tries to reach the edge of the board, the opponent tries to capture the king by surrounding him with four pieces.

In the Middle Ages, games often combined both the playful and the didactic and the variant of Hnefatafl we find in the manuscript is a good example of an attemt by the church to link the game to the church. The accompanying texts shows the game in a scriptural context, involving the four gospels (the corners), God and the Ten Commandments. The text opens with the following incipit:

Alea Evangelii [the Game, or Playing-board of the Gospel], which Dubinsi bishop of Bangor brought away from the king of the English, that is, from the house of Adelstan king of the English; depicted by a certain Frank and a Roman sage, that is, Israel. If any one would know this game (aleam) fully, before all the must and lessons of this teaching (hujus disciplinae documenta) he thoroughly know (scire animo) these seven: to wit, dukes counts, defenders and attackers, city and citadel, and nine steps (gradus) twice over.

The text continues with an explanation of the seventy-two pieces, or men, the game was played with, and why they appear at particular spots on the 324-square board. The primary man signifies “the unity of the Trinity,” each side of the board represents one of the four Evangelists, and the sixty-seven remaining pieces stand for the total mentions of the Evangelists in the four gospels.