Nine Men’s Morris really is everywhere. When I first noticed the scratches on the side of Charlemagne’s throne back in 2008, I had no idea what they were. I did a little bit of research, and I found out that the stone in Charlemagne’s throne probably came from the floor of a church in the Middle East. Apparently, nearly 2000 years ago bored Roman soldiers scratched a game into the floor called Nine Men’s Morris, or Mills. As it turns out, evidence of this game is all over the place, you just have to know where to look.
It’s a simple game really. The board consists of a grid with 24 points or intersections. Each player has nine pieces which are called men, and the goal of the game is to get three of your pieces lined up in a row. I didn’t realize how prolific this game was until I went back to Germany last winter. My friend and I started talking about how we noticed the game in the cloisters (covered walkways) of many of the cathedrals that we visited. So we started looking to see how many places we could find the game. We also started chatting with the guides at historic sites to find out more. Most of the guides in England were very familiar with Nine Men’s Morris.
As it turns out, almost anywhere that there are well preserved cloisters there is a good chance that there is a game of Nine Men’s Morris scratched into the bench. The grid was usually absent, but the nine points or intersections were visible. In some places we saw as many as 10 or 15 games scratched into the stone. Of course our study is anything but scientific, but it’s safe to say that this game was ubiquitous in medieval life, especially in the cathedrals where they didn’t have much else to do. In addition to being scratched onto the side of Charlemagne’s throne in Aachen, Germany, we saw on Nine Men’s Morris at Canterbury Cathedral, Salisbury Cathedral, and Westminster Abbey in England. Unfortunately, no photographs are allowed inside Westminster Abbey. By the time we got to the entrance of the cloisters they were locking the door and we weren’t able to get any photographs. It’s a safe bet to say if we had a chance to visit any other cathedrals in England we would have seen the game there as well. I visited cathedrals all the time when I lived in Germany, but I wasn’t looking for evidence of Nine Men’s Morris so I really don’t know if it’s as common in Germany as it is in England.
The game dates back to the Roman era, and possibly dates all the way back to the Mycenaean era. A clay tile fragment from the Archaeological Museum in Mycenae, Greece has what looks like a game of Nine Men’s Morris scratched into the surface. The game reached its peak popularity in Medieval England. There are other variations of the game such as Three Men’s Morris, Six Men’s Morris, and Twelve Men’s Morris. At the archaeological museum in Mainz, Germany, you can buy a miniature Nine Men’s Morris game in the gift shop. The game board is on a small piece of leather, and that folds up into pouch to store the “men.” I don’t know why I didn’t buy this game when I had the chance, but there’s always next time.
Although the origins of the game are uncertain, the word “morris” comes from the Latin merellus, which means game piece. The game is even depicted in the 1283 book from Toledo, Spain, the Libro de los Juegos, (Book of Games). I am curious if the game is scratched into any churches or historic sites in the U.S. I am certainly going to check for it at Jamestown the next time I go there. It may even be at some of the older universities such as the University of Virginia, College of William and Mary, or the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It wouldn’t surprise me one bit if the colonists brought the game with them from England in 1607. So the next time you’re visiting a church or cathedral be sure and look down at the floor, or on the stone seats, or in the covered walkway and check and see if ancient hands were playing a game to pass the time, because you never know, Nine Men’s Morris could be everywhere.