P. Edronkin

How Religious People Learned To Gamble And Avoid Taxation



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One can argue that the mother of all gambles, of all times, ever and anywhere was the Black Death that ravaged the northern hemisphere of the world between 1333 in China, until its end around 1352 in Europe. It was the biggest lottery of mankind and for those who survived it, things were never the same: a witness and survivor of the plague wrote at the time that he thought that future generations - if any - would be enormously lucky to read the chronicles of the plague believing them to be just fables.

The whole infectious exercise killed about half the population of the world: people died between a few hours to one week after contracting the infection of the plague in any of its three forms: bubonic, pneumonic or septicemic. Almost no one who contracted the pest survived, and infection was rampant. It was indeed, the worst mass destruction scenario of which humanity has kept records. Whole towns were almost wiped out in some cases, families vanished overnight, monasteries were left with one or two priests alive, armies were depleted and mass hysteria, pogroms and with hunts followed, as common and ignorant medieval people sought to find the causes for their terrible ordeal. Indeed, many thought that they had been poisoned by Jews, Christians, Muslims, witches, wizards and so on.

But after the Black Death passed, the whole fabric of society changed, and those who were quick to understand the new facts took a gamble and profited from the situation, while others lost everything that was left. The scars that it left were so enormous that even a century later laws and decrees were passed often taking into consideration the deeds of the plague. The agricultural sector of the economy, centred around the concept of feudal manors suffered the most, while towns profited. Serfs fled the manors and went to hide in the anonymity of urban areas where they could develop a new lifestyle and acquire new skills. During this time morals became 'dissolute' as contemporary writers put it. People just wanted to have fun but of course, new freedom has always its perils, and crime became a serious problem for a while.

It was also during this time that people in Europe began to question the feudal structure that they were subjected to, the Church and the taxes and tributes that common people had to pay to leaders that gave them nothing in return and could do nothing when confronted with events such as those of the Black Death. And one of the ways in which commoners sought to acquire fortune bypassing the economic system of the time, taxation and other kinds of fines, bribes and so on was by gambling: the activity saw enormous growth during these years, and games like baccarat and craps probably originated then. Dice games appeared during the times of glory of ancient Greece, but in the late medieval period forms and rules more like those that we know today began to emerge.

These games, and especially those based on the use of cards, since dice were consider somewhat vulgar by some, even reached the aristocracy, and once this happened, another nail was placed on the coffin of feudalism.


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