Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Nine Men's Morris

My own Nine Men's Morris Board, pictured at The Castle Inn, Castle Bytham, Lincolnshire, a cosy and welcoming village pub where Pool, Darts, and Dominoes are available to play.

Even before we explore a little of the history of Nine Men's Morris (also known as Merrels), it's simplicity of form clearly marks it out as a game of great age. Believed to date back to Roman times at least, Merrels seems to have been a game of common folk, often played on a simple scratched playing surface (see below) using pebbles or perhaps cereal grains as counters.

A simpler form of the game is known as Three Men's Morris, examples of which have been found carved or scratched onto surfaces dating from pre-Christian times. Three Men's Morris is played on a smaller 'board' using only three counters apiece, but resembles the nine counter version in that the object of both games is to arrange your counters into a straight line of three, called a Mill, in order to capture your opponents counters. The rules are simplicity itself, and yet these are games of real skill and strategy. An online version of the game can be played on the Tyne and Wear Archives & Museums website: Nine Men's Morris).

But can Nine Men's Morris really be considered a pub game? Clearly the game has been played in pubs for very many years, and yet to my mind it doesn't seem to have any particular affinity to the pub, any more so than the Churches and Cathedrals where so many Morris 'boards' have been found scratched into pews and benches. It's a matter of semantics I guess. Does the playing of a game in a pub naturally confer on it the status of a Pub Game? Clearly all pub games originated as games which were then adopted by pub goers, and whilst Nine Men's Morris is rarely seen these days, at one time it was presumably a very popular game in the tap room. Whatever, the game of Nine Men's Morris is a very good way to spend time with a pint and a friend, and in this regard it is an ideal candidate for pub play.

The stone benches in the porch of Honington Church in Lincolnshire are covered in scratched graffiti, including many of the crossed squares which would have been used for the game of Three Men's Morris. Note the indentations at the intersections where the counters would have been placed.

Heavily worn Three Men's Morris squares scratched onto the porch benches at Market Deeping Church in Lincolnshire.

This large solid wood Nine Men's Morris Board is one of several traditional games available at the wonderful Queens Head, Newton, in Cambridgeshire. The game was apparently known as Murrels in Cambridgeshire, and Meg Merryleys in Lincolnshire.


Michelle said...

Hello Mark,

I work for Windsor Historical Society in Windsor, Connecticut, and I was wondering if we might use one of your photos as part of a "Beer and Tavern Games Night" event we're hosting in February. I'd very much appreciate you letting me know if/how we could make this happen.

Michelle Tom

Mark said...

Hi Michelle, I can send a higher res version to the email contact on your website if you let me know which one you'd like to use.