Hnefatafl: the Game of the Vikings

Alea Evangelii Text

Facsimile of the diagram from the Corpus Christi manuscript.
Facsimile of the diagram from the Corpus Christi manuscript.

The following is an English paraphrase of the text that accompanies the diagram in the Corpus Christ College manuscript MS. 122, given by J. Armitage Robinson (The Time of St. Dunstan, pp. 69-71):

Alea Evangelii [the Game, or Playing-board, of the Gospel], 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.

If any one would know this game [aleam] fully, before all the lessons of this teaching [hujus disciplinae documenia] he must thoroughly know [scire animo] these seven: to wit, dukes and counts, defenders and attackers, city and citadel, and nine steps [gradus] twice over.

The alea is described as a square with 18 rows, lengthwise and breadthwise. It has 4 sides, and not 3 or 5, because the Evangelists are four in number. Now this is the division of sides and angles among the Four Evangelists.

The first side with the preceding angle, reckoning from left to right, is St Matthew's. The second side, with the angle where St Matthew's line ends and descending from it [i.e. on the right], is St Luke's. The third [i.e. at the bottom] is St John's. The fourth [up the left side] is St Mark's.

324 squares are contained in the table; for 18x18=324. There are 7 triangles, of the second, third and fourth canons. 72 men are contained in the canons: Mt 20, Mc 15, Lc 17, Jo 15 [=67]. For, as the Gospels are multiplied in the canons, they rise to a larger number:

Mt in can. 1 is named 4 times; Mt in can. 2 is named 3 times; Mt in can. 3 is named 3 times; Mt in can. 4 is named 3 times; Mt in can. 5 is named twice; Mt in can. 6 is named twice; Mt in can. 7 is named twice; Mt in can. 10 is named once.

The three other Evangelists are similarly multiplied. Add then together 20 of Mt, 15 of Mc, 17 of Lc and 15 of Jo, and they make 67. Add on the four "variegated" men, who belong to Mc and Jo; and the "primary" man, who belongs to none of the Evangelists and who signifies the Unity of the Trinity: all together make up 72, as we said before. These are the men whom the variety of the ten canons has multiplied.

The middle square, which contains 9 squares---viz. 5 pale and 4 filled with groups of four men---belongs to can. 1. The beginning of each canon is to be found where there is a cross with a number.

Go to the great middle square's upper square, which has four men within it: Mt at the top, under a cross and no. 1, Lc to Mt's left, Jo at his feet, Mc to his right.

Now go to the square with the no. 2 above it: and under the 2 you find Mc, with Mt on his left, Jo on his right, and Lc at his feet. In the opposite square under the no. 3 you have Lc, with Mt on his right, Mc at his feet, and Jo on his left. Lastly, in the fourth square under the no. 4 you have Jo, with Lc on his right, Mc on his left, and Mt at his feet.

Raise your eyes now to Mt at the beginning of can. 2 [marked by a cross], and in the first angle [of the triangle]. He has mc on his right and Lc on his left. Now go to the second triangle, which has Mc the other way round [i.e. in the bottom angle], with Mt on his left and Lc on his right. Turning to the right we have Lc, before we come to the variegated man, after hwom we have Mc and then Mt.

Can 3 begins with Mt under a cross with the no. 3, in the first angle of the triangle, with Lc on the right and Jo on the left. [Here we come to the problem raised above, viz. why can. 3 should have Mt Lc Jo, instead of Mt Mc Jo (which is can.4): why this precedence of Luke? The answer is:] On the ground of [Quoque seems a mistake for propter] virginity, and the larger writing of the Canon, viz. the Acts and the Gospel, Luke precedes Mark in the canons.

Next we have two men, Lc first and Mt second, before the variegated man, and lastly Jo. Then to our right we see Jo in the first angle of the triangle, with Lc on his left [? right] and Mt on his left.

Can 4 begins with Mt in the first angle of the triangle under a cross and the no. 4, with Mc on his right and Jo on his left. [In the diagram the cross and no. 4 have been wrongly placed at the preceding triangle.]

Now we pass the variegated man, and we find Mc in the first angle of this triangle, with Mt on the right and Jo on the left. In the first angle of the triangle which is turned the other way we have Jo with Mc on the left and Mt on the right. And here next Mt is the place of the "primary" man.

For the rest of the canons we take another route. Canons 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9 go from left to right, each on his own line.

Can. 5 has Mt in the first place under a cross and the no. 5, and Mt again at the end of the line, and Lc twice in between.

Can. 6 has Mt first under a cross and the no. 6, and again at the end, and Mc twice in between. [The second "Mc" is missed out in the diagram].

Can. 7, beginning with a cross and the no. 7, has Jo twice between two of Mt.

Can. 8, starting from a cross and the no. 8, has Lc in the first place, Mc in the second and third, and Lc again in the fourth.

Can. 9 begins from a cross and the no. 9, and has Lc in the first place, Jo in the second and third, and Lc in the fourth.

Can. 10 is seen to stand in four places: for wherever you can see no. 10 with a cross, this belongs to the 10th canon.

Now the four variegated men who are seen at separate points belong to Mc and Jo. They are variegated, and not black like the rest, because Mc and Jo put forth no canon without another Evangelist.

The "primary" man signifies the one purpose of Mt, Mc, Lc and Jo, or the Unity of the Trinity. Moreover the figure 1 in the middle of the alea signifies the indivisible substance of the Trinity, or the supremacy (principalus) of the first canon.

The groups of four men at the four outer angles are there for the decoration of the playing-table; or, since the Evangelists have men separately and in groups of four throughout the table, each one of them has four men in his own proper angle.


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