Dice, Cards, Wheels: A Different History of French Culture

Dice, Cards, Wheels: A Different History of French Culture

Dice, Cards, Wheels: A Different History of French Culture

Dice, Cards, Wheels: A Different History of French Culture


"With his connoisseur's knowledge (and manifest love) of the rules, and ruses, of games and the culture that they shape, Kavanagh makes a convincing case that gambling ought to be considered not a moral failing or individual pathology but a conspicuous, and uncommonly revelatory, practice that sets the social scene that it dramatizes."—Journal of Modern History

Gambling has been a practice central to many cultures throughout history. In Dice, Cards, Wheels, Thomas M. Kavanagh scrutinizes the changing face of the gambler in France over a period of eight centuries, using gambling and its representations in literature as a lens through which to observe French culture. Kavanagh argues that the way people gamble tells us something otherwise unrecognized about the values, conflicts, and cultures that define a period or class. To gamble is to enter a world traced out by the rules and protocols of the game the gambler plays. That world may be an alternative to the established order, but the shape and structure of the game reveal indirectly hidden tensions, fears, and prohibitions.

Drawing on literature from the Middle Ages to the present, Kavanagh reconstructs the figure of the gambler and his evolving personae. He examines, among other examples, Bodel's dicing in a twelfth-century tavern for the conversion of the Muslim world; Pascal's post-Reformation redefinition of salvation as the gambler's prize; the aristocratic libertine's celebration of the bluff; and Balzac's, Barbey d'Aurevilly's, and Bourget's nineteenth-century revisions of the gambler.

Dice, Cards, Wheels embraces the tremendous breadth of French history and emerges as a broad-ranging study of the different forms of gambling, from the dice games of the Middle Ages to the digital slot machines of the twenty-first century, and what those games tell us about French culture and history.


This study of gambling in France over the last eight centuries has two interlocking ambitions. At one level, it sets out to draw in broad strokes what could be called a cultural history of gambling as a social practice. Examining the varied and ever-changing array of games at which people played, it shows how different periods and groups structured confrontations with chance in forms they themselves created. This history of gambling is a story of dice, cards, wheels, boards, lotteries, and microchips promising the thrill of the random and the unpredictable as an alternative to the dictates of life’s predictabilities. Confected and arbitrary, the objects people used to gamble and the rules of their games generated a world which was part of, yet seductively different from, the society that surrounded them.

The other ambition of this study is to articulate what gambling tells us about the broader culture of which it is a part: about the reasons why gambling’s other world exercised so constant a seduction. Juxtaposing specific forms of gambling with cultural phenomena that reveal the larger stakes in play, this study looks at gambling as the material of a different history, an alternative history, a counter-history of the philosophical, ethical, and economic challenges that defined the tenor of a group, a class, a period. Rather than a curious underworld set apart from the larger society, gambling brings with it a hidden and ignored, yet rich and provocative history of the tensions and conflicts that prevailed within the broader culture. the gambler’s refashioning of experience as a dialectic of chance and control, of risk bringing both victory and defeat, speaks to us of dimensions otherwise unrecognized within the ambitions, fears, and values that constituted a society. in ways that are metaphoric rather than explicit, oblique rather than direct, the gambler shows how, across its history, French culture has reimagined itself in relation to a shifting frontier beyond which the protocols of order no longer prevailed.

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.