Cracking down on illegal gambling in Medieval Livonia

by Master Jean de Mauléon (c.1535)
Playing Dice by Master Jean de Mauléon (c.1535)
Playing Dice by Master Jean de Mauléon (c.1535)

Just like their modern day counterparts, medieval cities had to deal with their own criminal underworlds – the sex trade, gambling, and violence taking place within their walls. At the International Medieval Congress, held earlier this month at the University of Leeds, these issues were explored as part of session #706: Perceiving and Regulating Vices. Historians examined different places in Europe, and asked questions such as what was permitted? What were the penalties for breaking the laws? How much was dictated by the church? Did officials turn a blind eye to misdeeds?

In her paper, ‘Crime and Punishment: Regulating Gambling in Livonian Towns (1440-1525)’, Anu Mänd examined one of the favourite pastimes in the Middle Ages, but one that was condemned by the church and civic authorities. Mänd, who teaches history at Tallinn University, asked how was this vice regulated in medieval Livonian towns, and who were the most typical gamblers?


‘No one shall practice unnecessary dobbelspil’

During her research Mänd discovered that guilds, confraternities and town councils in Tallinn, Riga, Tartu and New Pärnu all issued statutes regulating gambling, which was called “Dobbelen” or “dobbelspil” in Old German.

Fines for gambling depended on whether the offence was committed in the guild hall or elsewhere. If it occurred in the guild hall, the fine was usually higher. Guild and confraternity attitudes depended on the guild type so fines could range from minor to severe. Mänd examined the court records of Tallinn between 1394-1521. Gamblers were recorded as ‘de dabbler”. The actual fine for gambling in Tallinn was one mark, or half a mark in some cases. While this fine remained unchanged over the period, it could also be increased if the gambler combined their gambling ‘with other misdeeds’. Some court records included punishments for up to 30 people at a time! Examples of gambling with other misdeeds included (but not limited to):


  • 1412: organizing gambling in one’s house
  • 1435: grabbing a knife (during a game)
  • 1458: tapping off wine after 9pm and organising gambling in one’s cellar

Gambling was forbidden on feast days and Sundays under threat of excommunication, however, the most severe punishments were reserved for cheats. If you used weighted dice when you gambled, you paid with your life.  Despite heavy punishments, the authorities found little success in clamping down on offenders. Since gambling was associated with drinking, the games could often lead to violence.

Who Gambled?

The short answer: Everyone. Gamblers could include ship’s captains, sailors, young men, journeymen, people selling or storing alcohol, apprentices, and foreigners. Upper class gamblers were usually members of merchants guilds and were fined by their associations with the funds being re-invested into the guild. Interestingly, authorities didn’t bother to record the occupations of foreigners, they just appeared in the record as ‘Swedes’ or whatever place they came from.

Much like today, gambling in the Middle Ages was a pastime enjoyed by people from all walks of life. The medieval gambler could be rich or poor, a merchant, a guild member or foreigner. Try as they might, church and lay officials found gambling difficult to stamp out. Instead of trying to eradicate the practice entirely, city councils attempted to regulate gambling but it appears they were not as successful as they had hoped; the violence and crime that were a result of gambling continued to plague cities well into modern times.

Click here to read more of Anu Mänd’s research on her page