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Random Riches - Gherardo ORTALLI

The ancient roots of modern gambling.

The Byzantine Emperor Justinian’s Corpus juris civilis laid down a precise legal definition of gambling and of how and why it should be controlled in the name of social order. Yet it was only under conditions of economic growth in the 10th to 12th centuriesthat the basis for the real take-off of gaming was created.

These were times when merchants, jurists and theologians began to devise and develop the fundamental concepts and instruments of modern economics: loss of profit and accruing damage, fair price, joint-stock companies, money transfers, bills of exchange, interest-bearing loans, insurance, etc.

Unlike most of these concepts, however, the risk associated with games of chance was totally unpredictable . Since gambling could develop into an uncontrollable pathology, it aroused (and continues to arouse) such alarm and fear of financial collapse that it was judged to be a danger to public order, social equilibrium and moral health. In various parts of 13th century Europe the spread of ludic practices involving money began to arouse suspicion, hostility and condemnation.

The crucial step towards the emergence of systems for managing and controlling gambling came in the 13th and 14th centuries with the invention of public gaming and state institutions taking control of ludic practices associated with money. It involved finding a difficult and delicate compromise between economic demands and those of morality. The ever-increasing financial needs of the emerging centralized states led them to exploit the urges sparked by the gaming craze.

Gradually, gambling became a source of government revenues. Most of the income was generated by selling licences to run gaming houses and from the dues imposed on the money staked. Thus was invented the only – and lasting – form of taxation that citizens are still happy to pay. It is a tax on hope.

Gherardo ORTALLI
is Professor of Medieval History in Venice. He is the editor of “Ludica. Annali di storia e civiltà del gioco”, the only journal worldwide for the history of games and play. His most recent publication is “Barattieri. Il gioco d’azzardo fra economia ed
etica. Secoli XIII-XV”.