Tuesday, 27 August 2013

The game of Astronomical Tables

At the end of the Libro de los Juegos of Alfonso the Wise, the game of astronomical tables is described. It is a game in which the number 'seven' is central: it is played by seven players, each setting seven stakes. The number of game pieces is seven for each player and seven-sided dice are used to play. The board is seven-sided and each side has seven places for the game pieces. 

 Folio 97v: A game of astronomical tables for seven players.

This is the board for tables, after the (same) nature of the checkers, which is played by astrology [astrological checkers is another game described in the book of Alfonso the wise]. The board for these tables is to have seven sides, like the board for the checkers, both inside and out. And on the inner division it is to have seven spaces. And this should be on each one of the other divisions. And in between the one division and the other there is to be a divider that marks both sides. And from that divider there is to be a long line that goes to the middle of the board. And each ones of the pieces of these sides, are to be of the colour of the planets. And the pieces are to be as many as the spaces. And over each side there is to be drawn the likeness of the planet to which it belongs, that side painted and coloured of that colour which suits. Saturn in black, Jupiter in green, Mars in red, the Sun in yellow, Venus in purple, Mercury in many different colours, the Moon white. And because the pieces belong to that planet, they are to be of its colour.
And the arrangement is to be in this manner: that all seven pieces be placed in the first and leftmost of the seven spaces and they are always to move to the right, according to the numbers that the seven-sided die show, as we said above. And neither is counted the space they occupy nor the space to their right which is the beginning space for the other seven pieces, unless there remains one lone piece which can be captured, leaving the space empty or occupying it according to astrology.

 The set-up of the board and its pieces. From bottom clockwise: Saturn (black), Moon (white), 
Mercury (three-coloured), Mars (red), Sun (yellow), Venus ( purple) and Jupiter (green).

The board and the game pieces

As the game needs a large board for all the players and pieces, we decided to make an embroidered board on linen. This way we can conveniently fold the board and easily it with us. The board was embroidered by Katinka and Anne, and also served to test wool for the Thomasteppich project. The board has a diameter of approximately 70 cm. The game pieces were made exactly (and at the same time) as the playing pieces for the game of four seasons called the world, but painted in more colours.

Three ladies embroidering the game board at the same time .

The game

And play is in this way: that each one of the players has seven amounts of whatever wager they agree upon of maravedí or whatever coin they like. And if one captures the piece of another, he is not to return it and he should take one amount from him for it and for as many as he captures. And so on around until the whole game belongs to one of those that play it, because that one who remains is the winner. 

Play of the game is fairly simple. All seven game pieces of one colour are arranged on the left of the seven spaces. Odd numbered pieces of one colour can be captured by another colour and are taken from the board. Players throw with two seven-sided dice, and movement is according to the pips shown on the dice. The end game can take long when only few pieces have to be captured. When players agree on using wagers, the player losing a game piece pays an amount for each game piece captured by the other player. This means each player likely will win and lose some wagers.

The seven sided dice for astronomical tables and another view of the embroidered board with the game pieces and some wagers.


  1. Whilst visiting Carisbrooke Castle in the Isle of Wight recently, I went into the museum there and saw an ivory gaming piece, which was described as being used in a game called 'tables' (perhaps the same as this one?). It was found at the castle itself and dated to Norman times. You might like to see an image of it and there is one on my blog at:
    There are also images on this post of a replica medieval pole lathe for bowl turning, as well as other medieval-aged finds in the museum.

    Thanks very much for publishing this very interesting blog. At the moment, I'm working on a medieval-style oak ship's figurehead that will be fitted on the prow of the 'Matthew'. This is a replica of the ship in which John Cabot (or Giovanni Caboto!) sailed to discover what is now the eastern seaboard of Canada. The replica ship is now moored in Bristol harbour in England.

    As part of the project, I'm planning on having a couple of carving gouges made as recreations of those that would have been used by medieval shipwrights or carpenters. The research and images that you have posted have been very helpful in working out designs for them- thank you! If you would like to see a little of the research into the design of the figurehead itself, it is posted here:

    ...and an image of the replica ship itself (with me swinging around off the prow getting measurements) is here:

    All the best,

  2. Thank you for the interesting blogpost on the pole lathe in Carisbrooke Castle. And I am curious about the figurehead of the ship as well. How long does it take to carve such a piece? I am busy with carving the (eagle)heads for the sella curulis. However I am still figuring out an easy method to carve the feathers. Any suggestions?

  3. Hi Marijn,

    The figurehead will probably take at least a couple of months. A lot will depend on the oak, as it is not fully seasoned yet. It is currently in three blocks, from which I'll rough out the design in three parts first. The oak will be easier to carve the rough figure in when it's still a bit unseasoned and hopefully the three blocks will be much easier to move around than one big block!
    I plan to hollow the figurehead out, so that the oak can season more evenly. Once the roughed out blocks have seasoned for a bit longer, they will be glued together (probably using a modern glue such as Balcotan) and the final carving done.

    I'll use modern tools (chainsaw, Arbortech, galahad) for a lot of the big work removing the waste timber, as the project is quite large and I do have other work on. However, the final finish will be using a Gransfors Bruks Swedish carving axe and gouges, to give a finish closer to the one that a medieval shipwright would achieve. It would be great to use an adze as well but, to be honest, I'm not confident enough with using one to be confident of getting the right finish!
    Finally, the figurehead will be painted, to make it stand out a bit on the ship and also to protect it from the seawater.

    As for the eagle feathers, I was just trying to see what effect you want - whether they are incised in (like a pattern) or standing out in three dimensions. I'm not sure what the final effect that you're looking for is, and both finishes could use different tools.

    My first thought was to use a V tool to cut the grooves marking out the feathers. However, I haven't seen any evidence of tools like this being in use before the 19th century and they are certainly too complex for early toolsmiths to have made. They could make your sella curulis look a bit 'out of time'. One style of tool that they certainly had then, which would be useful for cutting the feathers, is a fishtail skew.

    I'd suggest that a fishtail skewed gouge with a very shallow sweep or a fishtail skew chisel could be used to chase the cuts that you want, to make the shapes of the feathers. One cut and then another running next to it, to make a groove. It would work far better if the cutting edge was sharpened with a curve along it (check out the Ray gonzalez hooked skew chisel made by Ashley Iles and you will see the kind of shape that I'm trying to describe). Early carvers would certainly have had tools like this. There are some hanging on the wall behind 'John Thorp of Plymouth' in the entry about inventories on your site, dated 31st March 2013. You could use stabbing cuts with a shallow sweep gouge (not a skewed one) to make the two sides of grooves that form the patterning of the feather barbs.

    Phew! I hope that this all makes sense Marijn, it's quite hard to describe in words what would take a couple of seconds to draw out with a pencil and paper! Good luck with the carving on the chair and I really enjoy reading the Guild's blog, thank you for posting on it.

    All the best,