A question concerning Alea Evangelii

cgrn asked:

Hi. I am not a professor or anything, but I would like to learn more about Alea Evangelii and your link came up. Do you know if the original manuscript has been translated into English by anyone? and is it possible to get a copy of the translation? I am interested to find out more about the original meanings behind the game. I would be very grateful for any information. Thanks for your help.

Hi! Thanks for taking the time to ask me a question. I have been searching a bit and found that the part of the manuscript concerning Alea Evangelii has been translated in this article: “Game-Playing, Moral Purpose, and the Structure of “Pearl””, Michael Olmert, The Chaucer Review (if you sign up for a free account on JStor you can read it for free here: Olmert article).

I also found an interesting discussion on this forum, the people involved also post translations of the manuscript to discuss how the game was played.

I hope this helps. Don’t hesitate to ask more questions if you need any more information, I’m glad to help.

– Christel


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.

Hnefatafl – bordspel van de Vikingen



Een bordspel van de Vikingen

In deze donkere dagen is het gezellig om ’s avonds samen een spelletje te doen. Dit is geen modern fenomeen, ook in de Vikingtijd werden er al bordspelen gespeeld. Een van de oudste en bekendste spellen is Hnefatafl ‘Koningstafel’, een aan het schaakspel verwant spel. In de Oudnoordse literatuur en daarbuiten kunnen we meer over Hnefatafl te weten komen.

11x11 hnefatafl speelbord

Hnefatafl wordt als eerst genoemd in het Eddalied Voluspá, oftewel ‘Het visioen van de zieneres’. In een van de laatste verzen staat te lezen: “Dan worden de wonderlijke speelstukken (tæflor) van goud in het gras weer gevonden, die de Asen ooit in oertijd bezaten.” Een ander gedicht uit de Edda, Rígsþula, ‘Konings register’, gaat over de oorsprong van de standen in de maatschappij. Hierin wordt het spelen van tafl genoemd als een van de negen vaardigheden die een edelman diende te hebben. Naast het spelen van Tafl moest hij de runen beheersen, kunnen lezen, smeden, skiën, jagen, roeien, harpspelen en gedichten voordragen.

Rond de 11e eeuw werd het schaakspel skak-tafl in Scandinavië geïntroduceerd, dit nam het oude taflspel niet over, maar was een van de vele bordspelen die gespeeld werden. Dit maakt het in saga’s soms moeilijk om het juiste spel aan het woord tafl te koppelen. De term tafl werd echter het meest gebruikt om hnefatafl ‘koningstafel’ aan te duiden. Het spel is met de Vikingen heel Europa doorgereisd, van Ierland tot Oekraïne. De spelregels zijn helaas niet in de Oudnoordse mythologie beschreven, maar omdat dit spel wijdverbreid was, zijn ze wel te achterhalen.

Continue reading “Hnefatafl – bordspel van de Vikingen”

Boardgames ancient and modern

After a long search I finally found a research subject that’s fun and exciting enough to pursue in my free time: Board games in Celtic and Old Norse stories. They are mentioned quite often and I want to look at the role they play in the story. When are they introduced, what is said about them, why are they played? I’ve already found quite some source material (ok, not necessarily much on my specific topic, but there’s a lot on board games in general and of course games like Hnefatafl, Alea Evangelii and Tawlbrwdd are at least mentioned).

The most amusing source I found was a recent new series on BBC 4: Games Britannia presented by Benjamin Wooley. The first episode is called “Dicing with Destiny” and is largely about a quite recently found ‘Druid game’ – as it was found in a druid’s grave – the Stanway Game. It was found completely intact and the pieces were placed as if the players were still in the middle of a game. Exciting! It also covers Alea Evangelii, which is a medieval game based on the Viking Hnefatafl, so I was bouncing in front of the tv when we were watching it.

Continue reading “Boardgames ancient and modern”

Games Britannia

Games Britannia @ BBC 4

Episode 1 – Dicing with Destiny

Three-part series presented by historian Benjamin Woolley about popular games in Britain from the Iron Age to the Information Age, in which he unravels how an apparently trivial pursuit is a rich and entertaining source of cultural and social history.
In part one, Woolley investigates how the instinct to play games is both as universal and elemental as language itself and takes us from 1st-century Britain to the Victorian era.

Ancient and medieval games weren’t just fun, they were fundamental, and often imbued with prophetic significance. By the late Middle Ages this spiritual element in games began to be lost as gaming became increasingly associated with gambling. Dice and card games abounded, but a moral backlash in Victorian times transformed games into moral educational tools.

This was also the era in which Britain established the world’s first commercial games industry, with such classics as the Staunton Chess Set, Ludo and Snakes and Ladders leading the way, all adaptations of original games from other countries.

In the case of Snakes and Ladders, what once represented a Hindu journey to enlightenment was transformed into a popular but banal family favourite, and Woolley sees this as the perfect analogy for how the sacred energy which once imbued games had become gradually drained away by commercialisation.

Games Britannia website