Tuesday 28 April 2020

Alea evangelii

The game Alea evangelii game board as depicted in the manuscript MS 122 f5v from the Corpus Christi College in Cambridge, UK, around 1140. 

Alea evangelii is a medieval game that belongs to the so-called tafl-type games, games where the opponents have unequal numbers of tablemen. The goal in this type of games is that the king of centre player has to reach the edge or corner of the board (depending on the specific game), while the player holding the four sides of the board wins if he is able to capture the king. Tafl game boards can be small or large in size, but are always uneven numbered. In case of the Alea evangelii it is played along the lines, making the board a 19×19 grid, which is exceptionally large. During the medieval times chess gradually became the dominant board game in northern Europe, replacing the tafl games.

The problem with the tafl games is that although surviving medieval boards and game pieces exist, there are no actual contemporary rules. The games themselves are  frequently mentioned in northern medieval and Viking literature, but an accurate description of the rules is failing. The 18th century Swedish scientist Carl Linneaus did describe the rules of a similar game played in Lapland, and thanks to him the rules of the (early) medieval tafl games can be inferred.

As said before, the Alea evangelii game is a very large tafl game, and the illumination on folio 5 verso in the 12th century medieval manuscript shows all kinds of intriguing dots, signs, symbols and (Hebrew) letters. Most of them actually have nothing to do with the game, as does the accompanying text in the manuscript except for two sentences. One sentence relates to the origin of the game (translated from Latin):

Alea Evangelii , which Dubinsi bishop of Bangor brought away from the king of the English, that is, from the house of Athelstan king of the English; depicted by a certain Frank and a Roman sage, that is, Israel.

Dubinsi, the bishop of Bangor died in 953, while King Aethelstan ruled from 925 to 939, suggesting the game already existed in the early 10th century. On the game itself, there is only one full sentence: 

Si quis voluerit scire hanc aleam plene, illi, ante omnia hujus discipline documenta hec. VII scire animo necesse est: duces scilicet et comites, propugnatores et impugnatores, civitatem et civitatulam, et IX. gradus bis.

translated as:

If anyone would know this game fully, before all the lessons of this teaching he must thoroughly know these seven: to wit, dukes and counts, defenders and attackers, city and citadel, and nine steps twice over.

The game depicted in the manuscript is used to portray some kind of religious calender. The dots represent the four evangelists, Matthew, Marc, Luke and John, respectively. In fact, the text on other folios of the manuscript deal with the calendar en aspects of the gospels. In the canons a few more hints on the game are hidden:
  • The piece in the central position is referred to as the primus vir or 'primary man'.
  • The four man drawn on a double outline are referred to as varii viri or 'variegated men'.
  • 'The groups of four men at the four corners are there for the decoration of the playing table'.

The supposed fragment of an 18 x 18 squares Alea evangelii board found in a grave at Wimose, Denmark. The opposite side shows the Roman game duodecim scripta, so likely this side is rather from the game ludus latrunculorum.

A probable fragment of a game board for Alea evangelii was excavated from a grave at Wimose, Denmark. The board piece was dated around 400 AD. The fragment is 18 squares long and one and a half square high, each cell measures around 25×25 square mm. One of the corners of the board is included in the fragment, but the chequered region does not look complete in the other direction, making a 19×19 grid optional. However, no special marking is provided for the corner, while this is a special space for Alea evangelii. Furthermore, a Roman game is depicted on the backside, making Walker (2015) conclude the board was more likely for the Roman game ludus latrunculorum.

The intriguing medieval game of  Alea evangelii of course asks for a reconstruction to be made by the St. Thomasguild.

Making the Alea evangelii board

17 tafl game pieces from the 8th century from Gunnarshaug, Norway: 12 blue defenders and a king, and 20 + 4 amber and yellow attackers. They vary in height from 17 to 20 mm and are conical in shape. A single large piece is dark blue with a brown top and a yellow point; four smaller pieces are yellow with a brown top. It is possible that these game pieces consist of two incomplete sets, or that the four would have some special capability. The game pieces are now at Bergen Museum, Bergen, Norway. 

Making the game pieces

Many sets of game pieces have been found in graves and boat burials (e.g. see Hall, 2016; Rundkvist and Williams, 2008; Archaeological finds - Cyningstan website; Walker, Breyer and Jonquai, 2012). Our Alea evangelii game pieces were inspired by the archaeological find of tafl game pieces in an 8th century grave at Gunnarshaug, Norway. Instead of conical game pieces, a square pyramidal form was chosen for the attackers and defenders, and a larger pentagonal pyramid for the king. I used clay to make the game pieces, which were glazed blue for the attackers, and yellow for the defenders and the king. A blue dot was added to yellow pieces, while the king had two extra blue circular lines.

Left: A ready glazing was used for the game pieces. The glazing was poured into a cup and the (biscuit baked) clay game pieces were dipped into it.

After drying, the blue dot was added on the yellow game pieces with a brush, the lines were drawn with a blue glaze drawing bottle (the small one in the previous photo).

Making the board

The board for Alea evangelii, as most of our medieval game boards, is made from poplar with a walnut edge. As the board is very large, several poplar planks had to be glued together. After the coating with linseed oil, the lines and text were painted. For the red lines Venetian red pigment with linseed oil was used, and for the black markings bone black pigment with linseed oil.

I did not add all the text on the edges of the board, as they are not necessary for play (and the actual text was also not very clear). All other markings, even if they are only for use in the canons and not for play, were added as they created a more intriguing atmosphere of the game, and allowed us to explain its origins to visitors when re-enacting. Also, all markings for play were added, including the few missing placement markers for the attackers (they did not fit in the canons and thus were originally left out).

Our alea evangelii board without its game pieces.

Playing Alea evangelii

The rules to play alea evangellii have been deduced and playtested by Damian Walker. This description follows his rules.

The goal of the game is either to capture the king (the attackers) or for the king to escape the board at one of the corners (the defenders). Each turn, a player moves one game piece. The game starts with the defenders making a move. If a player cannot make a move, because all of its pieces are surrounded, the game ends with a draw. The game is also a draw if a position is repeated.

The different playing pieces of alea evangelii: defenders are yellow with a blue dot, the king is a larger yellow piece with two blue circles, the attackers are blue pieces.

Placement on the board

The 48 attackers (blue), 24 defenders (yellow) and the king are placed on the board according to one of the schemes shown below. The classic set-up of the game pieces has originally been proposed by Murray (1952). This layout is used by most authors that describe Alea evangelii, including Walker. Sten Helmfrid (2008), however, proposed two alternative symmetrical layouts of the game pieces, of which one, to me, seems more likely to be correct than the classic layout by Murray. This is because the mysterious four squares with a double outline now have a purpose. They designate a defender among a row of attackers. Such positional markings can also be found on some excavated tafl game boards, such as the 11th century board from Trondheim.

Each black (and double outlined) square contains an attacker or defender, the king is placed in the central spot (with no lines, containing the big I).

This shows the most likely arrangement of the pieces on the board as proposed by Sten Helmfrid. 
This set-up of the game makes use of the positional markings on the board.

This shows the classical arrangement of the pieces on the board. 
This set-up of the game was originally proposed by Murray.

 This shows another alternative set-up of the pieces as proposed by Sten Helmfrid. 

Movement of the pieces

The game pieces (attackers, defenders and king) can move any number of spaces octagonally on the  board, with two exceptions: attackers and defenders cannot enter the central space (no lines!) and the four corners (they are occupied by the coloured men). Game pieces cannot jump over one another. Movement is halted when blocked by another game piece or when reaching the edge of the board.

Left: movement of the king: octogonally, to any free spot along the line. Right: movement of attackers and defenders: octogonally, to any free spot along the line, but not to or crossing the central space. A piece cannot jump over another piece (e.g. the yellow is stopped by the blue).

Capture of enemy pieces

Game pieces (attackers and defenders) are captured when they are caught between two opposing pieces. This is an active process, as the opposing side must move his pieces to make the capture. One of the opposing game pieces involved in the capture can be the king. The (four) decorated men in each corner play the role of either the attacker or defender (hence (both) coloured) in a capture. A game piece caught between a coloured men and an opposing piece is also captured. More than one capture can be made with one move. Captured game pieces are removed from the board.

On the other hand, a move of a friendly piece between two non-moving opponents does not enable a capture. The friendly piece is 'safe'.

Left: Yellow moves, and blue is caught between yellow and a decorated corner man and is taken. Right: Blue moves , and yellow is caught between two blue pieces and taken.

Left: When the yellow king moves, blue is caught between two yellow pieces and taken. On the other hand, if blue would have moved, the king would still be safe between the two blue pieces (the king must be surrounded by four blue pieces. Right: Yellow is safe when it moves to the space between the two blue pieces. 

Capture of the King

The king is captured differently than the ordinary defenders and attackers. It must be surrounded by four opposing pieces, or three opposing pieces and the edge of the board. If this happens, the game ends and the attacking side wins. However, the king is safe on the central space of the board, if he has not made any move in a previous turn.

Two win situations for the attacker: surrounding the king by four game pieces (left) or by three and the edge of the board (right).

Escape of the King

The defenders win if the king escapes to one of the corners of the board, entering the space of a decorated men.

The King has escaped and wins the game.

Variegated men

The game also mentions variegated men, their position being the four double outlined squares. Damian Walker, who uses the Murray layout where these places are occupied by attackers, does not have a rule for these men, and proposes to ignore them. On the other hand, the Gunnershaug find included 4 special coloured attackers. Though the Gunnershaug number of game pieces are for a smaller game, these could correspond with something like the variegated men. This still leaves no clue for what these variegated men do. One can only speculate. Could the variegated men something like the king (for instance a duke), such that the duke (and the king) can only enter the variegated spot? Or could it be a safe-haven for any within this spot?

One of the four double outlined squares of the variegated men. 
They are used in the Stenfrid set-up for a defending game piece, but have no use in the Murray set-up.

The full setup of the Alea evangelii board in the Murray lay-out.

  • Fabian Müllers and Sylvestre Jonquai, 2016. Les yeux au moyen age. Edition la Muse.
  • Catherine Breyer and Sylvestre Jonquai, 2012. La famille du hnefatfl - semblages et differents. Histore et Images Medievales 28(3), pages  16-24.
  • Damian Walker, 2014. Alea evangelii. 
  • Damian Walker, 2007. Reconstructing hnefatafl - a series of four articles.
  • Damian Walker / Cyningstan website. Archeological finds 
  • Damian Walker, 2015. Some interesting information on an old gaming board. Blogpost Cynestan.
  • H.J.R. Murray, 1952. The history of board games other than chess. Clarendon Press, Oxford, UK, pages 55-64.
  • Sten Helmfrid, 2005. Hnefatafl - the Strategic Board Game of the Vikings. An overview of rules and variations of the game. 
  • Mark A. Hall, 2016. Board games in boat burials: play in the performance of migration and Viking age mortuary practice. European Journal of Archaeology 19 (3), pages 439-455. DOI: 10.1080/14619571.2016.1175774
  • Martin Rundkvist and Howard Williams, 2008. A Viking boat grave with amber gaming pieces excavated at Skamby, Östergötland, Sweden. Medieval Archeology 52, page 69-102. DOI: 10.1179/174581708x335440 
  • Oskar Spjuth, 2012. In quest for the lost gamers - An investigation of board gaming in Scania, during the Iron and Middle Ages. MSC thesis Lund University, Lund, Sweden.


  1. Very interesting, thanks for sharing! God bless you and your families.

  2. This is extremely interesting. Obviously, ,,Tafl'' comes from the Germanic word whose modern rendition is ,,Tafel'' and measn Table, as in a board-game table, not a table to eat at. It is too bad there is no mention of this game in the 13th century game book of Alfonso the Wise, then you could know exactly how to play it. One question, presumably the amber pieces are actually amber, but what are the blue pieces made of? Glass or are they stones?

    Keep up the good work and be safe.