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Detail from The Garden of Earthly Delights

Detail from The Garden of Earthly Delights, by Hieronymus Bosch, circa 1450–1516 (Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

I remember the first time I learned dice went back much further than I had thought. In the early 1980s, a high school teacher showed the class a reproduction of Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights and pointed out a backgammon board with dice.

I was surprised. For a close friend and me, this was an innocent game we played for hours while listening to Duran Duran and Prince. But there it was. In hell.

I tucked this piece of information away. Fast forward a couple decades. I’m working on The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar, set in eighth century Francia, and I need something for two characters to be doing when my heroine’s son walks into the room.

I settled on dice, which predate the Middle Ages and are easy for travelers to carry. And I might be keeping in spirit with the times. As I was looking for medieval images to accompany this post, I was stuck by how often artists negatively portray the players. One manuscript page shows a guy with torn hose; another has Roman soldiers gambling for Christ’s robes.

The players in my book are also not so nice:

At twilight, Deorlaf entered the pilgrims’ lodging, where he and his fellows were the only guests. In the flickering light from the hearth, Usumund and Gosbert sat across from each other at the end of a trestle table, casting dice. A pitcher of beer sat near them, and Usumund drank from the shared mug. Pallets and blankets lay in the shadows of the room, which was about the same size as a Saxon longhouse.

“Where are Ives and Julien?” Deorlaf asked.

“In the kitchen,” Usumund said. “You are a bad influence on that boy. He is starting to eat as much as you do.”

“Cur,” Deorlaf muttered, heading toward the kitchen. He heard the rapid rhythm of footsteps behind, then felt a grip on his arm.

“What did you call me?” Usumund growled.