The Bishop’s Dice Game


In the 10th century, Wibold, Bishop of Cambrai, invented a dice game to be played with three dice for the amusement and edification of the clergy.. When the dice are rolled, there is a potential for 56 different outcomes. Each outcome was associated with a virtue, and assigned a point value from 3 to 18. The clerical class was encouraged to play the game, which was called “Ludus Regularis Seu Clericalis” in some literature (which roughly translates as “A game suitable for monks or priests”). [Thanks to the Facebook Latinists for clarifying my hopeless translation of that name, particularly Professors Daniel McCaffrey and Anthony Esolen.]

The idea of the game was to make certain rolls to reach 21 with pairs of dice out of three dice rolled, with each of the rolls matched to complimentary virtues. (Twenty-one is the number of outcomes with two dice.) These “unions of virtues” are not just meant to be winning rolls, but to illustrate the ways virtues work together. For example:

Charity and Humility are united for 3+18=21
Faith and Continence are united for 4+17=21
Justice and Hilarity are united for 6+15=21

The numbers themselves also had a didactic purpose: 3 for the Trinity, 10 for the Commandments, 7 sacraments, and so on. Clerics, normally discouraged from games of chance, were thus encouraged to play Bishop Wibold’s game in order to meditate on the faith. Perhaps the idea was that they were going to play dice anyway, so why not make it an exercise in virtue?

The number “21” is significant because of the 21 trumps in the tarot deck, but the virtues are also significant, since a number of them also were used as images on the tarot, particularly in the expanded 40-trump Minchiate deck. Did the bishop’s dice game directly influence the development of the trump suit? Perhaps. If not, at the very least it gives us a tantalizing glimpse of the deep meaning and teaching purposes that could be folded into simple games.

At this point, it’s useful to point out that there isn’t a universal declaration by the Church on the evil of playing cards or dice. Some religious orders and bishops may have barred games of chance at various points in history, and they may even have done so out of some idea that they were intrinsically evil, perhaps in light of the Roman centurions dicing for the robe of Jesus.

Notions of playing cards (tarot or otherwise) as the “devil’s picture book” or dice as Satan’s teeth were not universal teachings, and, even when they were prohibited, it was not for abstract or theological reasons. The two main reasons some churchmen took a dim view of card playing and dicing were gambling and the profane use of sacred images.

Gambling in the Middle Ages, as today, could become a serious problem. A man who gambled away his money would leave his family destitute and hungry. The history of cards is entwined with the history of gambling, and it was reasonable to view compulsive gambling as a vice. This brought gaming under suspicion.

The Tarot eventually ran afoul of certain religious authorities in the Middle Ages not because it was being used for divination, but because the sacred images appearing on the cards were deemed too exalted for such a lowly use, and the Church takes its images and symbols seriously.

It wasn’t until the cards became more associated with divination (which is forbidden in Christianity) than with gaming that they fell afoul of Church authorities.

When “Tarot” appears in a negative context in church documents, it always has to do with their use as a tool of divination. There is a lot of misinformation out there on the internet about Tarot. One widely circulated article is The History of Tarot Cards by Fr. William Saunders.

I’m sure Fr. Saunders had the best of intentions when writing his piece, but it repeats the standard misinformation culled from occult, rather than historical, sources. (In matters like this, it’s generally best not to trust the lies of the Enemy.) So when Fr. Saunders says that “The 22 major enigmas correspond to the letters of the Hebrew alphabet and the number of hieroglyphs the ancient Jews used in divination,” he’s just repeating the false history of the cards, which we’ll discuss in greater detail tomorrow.