Andrea Vitali's Essays

Remedy of Game-Players

Three sorts of forbidden games at the beginning of the sixteenth century


Translation from the Italian by Michael S. Howard, May 2013

This article reproduces and amplifies documentation on the subject matter of Playing Cards and Gambling, Saint Bernardino and the Cards, and Laudabiles et Vituperabiles [Praiseworthy and Blameworthy, not yet in English]


The Dominican theologian Pedro De Covarrubias, a Spanish speaker born in Burgos in the second half of the fifteenth century, deceased in Bilbao in 1530, wrote in 1519 a work that summed up the Church's position in relation to games, from those of pure luck to those of industry (i.r. those requiring ingenuity on the part of the player) and games in both these categories. The work in question, entitled Remedio Jugadores [Remedy of Game-Players], was translated into several languages and well known enough in Italy to be reprinted frequently under the title Remedio de' Giuocatori. Written for the reverend father M. Pietro de Cobarubias of the Order of Preachers. In which the authority of the Sacred Doctors instructs on game-playing without offense to God and reproves evil games, demonstrating how they are harmful to the Republic.


Topics covered include all types of games and entertainment, from dancing to betting, from the game of chess to board games, from dice to cards. The work is of some importance as one of the most comprehensive of the beginning of the sixteenth century regarding the Church's position. From our edition of reference (1), we report the passage where three distinct types of games considered diobolical are treated.


The first was that which unleashed insults, mockery and other offenses that a player could address to a rival so as to shame him mockingly. An ample treatment, deduced from religious and political 'auctoritas' as well as from Biblical passages, giving the reasons for his condemnation in so far as it is considered a type of game, like the other two that follow, that is harmful to the soul. From infernal gehenna could be saved only those who were playing to spend time in sincere joy or pure and innocent fun, giving nicknames to the other just to laugh without malice or meanness. Such a type of game and entertainment, the author writes, was that of performances, not really genuine arguments, and took place as trifles [bagatelli], i.e. within the range of entertainment considered of little account, or of small attractiveness like those of improvised theatrical performances of a strictly popular character. Here the term "bagatelli" has the meaning of something of little value, as we expressed in the article on the iconography of the Bagatto card.


To the second species belonged games that provided the exclusive operation of fortune, like dice and cards, and as such maximally condemned.


Of the third kind were those games where fortune went hand in hand with the need of ingenuity on the part of the players, and among them we find board games (like backgammon), where a certain intelligence served in the use of the board, but fortune in the roll of the dice.


In reporting the text in question, we strictly follow the original punctuation.


Remedy of game-players


Part II, in which we discuss prohibited games


That there are three sorts of these games, Chapter I

Now at last it is time that we speak of bad & prohibited games, which can be called diabolical: and of these there are three sorts or species. The first games are the ones that are done with insult & offense to the other, or when anyone playing jokingly speaks of the notable faults of others to shame & confound them. Of this says the glorious doctor Saint Thomas, that when this pernicious sort of game is done with words called derisive: when thumbing the nose, or some other ugly face or similar name-calling or insult, or when scornfully reciting defects, & with contempt, it is called illusion, deception, duplicity. All these ways are reduced to one way, because the end is one, as stated in the above gloss of the verse of the Psalmist. He who inhabits the Heavens mocked and despised those [who mocked others]. The purpose of all these modes is to to blaspheme, and to lower others in shame & insult. Speaking of our powerful God, it is said in the third Proverb of Solomon: God mocks and ridicules those who mock and deceive, and the mockery from God with which they are confronted is to be condemned to Hell. But this punishment is given only for mortal sin, from which it follows that this derisory game is precisely a a mortal sin, which is true according to St. Thomas. 

This [mortal sin] is when we disrespect the other in order to make clear that we do not value him at all, and our own derision is like a game or something trivial. This way of offending not only is a mortal sin, but it is also more serious than the injury or shame done with [openly] vituperous and stinging words, because in this latter case the one who insults wants to have an effect on [the consciousness of] his victim, thus it is a sign that in some way he esteems him, but he that instead mocks and makes a fool of the other just as a joke in a game, considers his victim a vile person and worthy only of mockery, one to be fooled: and thus this mode of disrespect is also the most offensive. This sin is all the more serious the more the one who is ridiculed is one you should give honor: so it follows that the greatest sin is mocking God, something players often do when they get angry for having lost, and think that God has favored the weakest [in the sense that they think that God has given them good luck]. Taking up this sin Isaiah speaks in chapter thirty-seven. One who despises, who speaks evil on him whom your voice exalts, [is he] of the saints of Israel or a traitor?

After God, the second degree of derision & mockery is that of fathers. Of which Solomon 30 says:. May ravens eat their eyes if they laugh & mock their father: eaten by Ravens, & the children by Eagles, is one who rejects the birth from his mother. Therefore it is serious to insult & ridicule good & holy men: because to these we owe honor as a reward for their virtue. Of this Vice writes the holy Job Chapter 12: the simplicity of the just will be ridiculed. This is very harmful because many, seeing that the good are defamed, adorn themselves with good intentions. With irreverence of fathers can be included that toward prelates and barons: for which sin Cain was cursed.


It can be that what is said in the game is so little, without intention of insult, without action or sign denoting contempt: for which there is no reason because you laugh with the one who is angry, only making a joke or to pass the time, this will not be a sin, or only a venial sin. This sort of game can be reduced to shows of dishonest things as come in trifles [bagatelles] or games of [slight of] hand, being such things that provoke you to carnal sins or to profane holy things; they are judged mortal sin if done intentionally; but if it is done on the spur of the moment & one is sorry, it is not a sin. Or as Emperor Julian says in his preface: some games are defined by things created in sin: in no way do we allow such games to be done.

The second type of diabolical game is of those games that have the property of being totally determined by uncertain fortune, called in Latin ludus alearum, of which are cards & dice. The third type is of mixed games that are partly of Fortune and partly of industry; of these are board games; in which on account of the dice there is chance, & in the movement of the board is industry, in which by reason of dice is fortune, and in the movement of of the board is industry, although industry almost turns into fortune if the boards are changed as the dice command.

Of these two kinds of games I say that both are prohibited by the laws, as will be said: it is true that with more reason for prohibiting were those that are purely of fortune than those mixed with industry, because more universally men are given to those, than to these. The cause is because to throw dice on a table is to do that which by fortune every man of rough & gross understanding knows: but all do not understand the industry of the second; therefore it follows that those are more common than these. The evil that is more common is worse, & must be reproved more; & in consequence games purely of chance were prohibited with more reason than those tempered with industry, although all are prohibited.




1 - Rimedio de’ Giuocatori, Nuovamente di lingua Spagnuola tradotto dal s. Alfonso Ulloa [Remedy of Game-Players, Newly translated from the Spanish tongue, of s. Alfonso Ulloa], Venezia, Vincenzo Valgrisi, 1561, pp. 75-78.