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  • Writer's pictureAdrian J. Boas

On the Inimitable Tent Peg

My favourite childhood book was titled The Big Book of Pegmen Tales. It was - and hold on tight to your seats for this - about a family of clothes pegs and the remarkable adventures they experienced travelling around Australia and beyond. You will no doubt be thinking that, unless perhaps you are under the age of two, clothes pegs (and indeed, not even the colourful plastic ones with springs, but those old fashioned, simple wooden ones with no extra parts) are hardly the ideal protagonists for an adventure story. What on earth could happen to a clothes peg, other than that it be clipped onto a singlet or tossed into a basket with a lot of other equally dreary clothes pegs? The height of a clothes peg adventure would probably be to be dropped into the long grass where it might lie forgotten and unmissed for two decades until the dog would sniff it out, gnaw on it and bury it. In a really hair-raising scenario, it might be attacked by woodlice, chewed to dust, and end up as a slightly paler patch in the surrounding soil. But if these are your thoughts, you are far from the mark. What these pegmen got up to was quite extraordinary, and they provided me with many enjoyable hours on wintry afternoons, curled up in an armchair under a thick rug, with a mug of hot chocolate and a massive peanut butter sandwich for sustenance.

In a display case in the Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem there is a small wooden object that was found during the 1926 excavations at Montfort Castle. It was discovered under piles of rubble on the floor of a basement vault, along with several other wooden objects, all of which survived because they were covered in lime slake, which protected them from six hundred and fifty-five years of sun and rain. This particular item was identified by the excavator, William Calver, and later by the expedition’s promoter, Bashford Dean, as a tent peg. It is 48 cm long, with a slightly curved bend a little more than a third of the way along from the base. It is square in section with one flat end, the other tapering to a point, and there is a notch near the top, presumably to hold the tie-rope. There is also a small and simple heraldic shield carved near the top, identifying it as the possession of a certain Teutonic brother.

But was it indeed a tent peg? It is easy to see why Calver and Dean might have thought so. It is wooden, it is about the right size and it doesn’t look much like anything else. Unfortunately, we know very little about medieval tent pegs. They hardly ever appear in manuscript illuminations, which are in any case so small that if they do appear, they are never more than tiny dashes. Oddly enough, nobody seems to have thought of tent pegs as worthy of lengthy and detailed discussion, and equally strange, the few literary references to them that do exist seem to have nothing at all to do with tents. One records their use during the Third Crusade in the construction of a low palisade outside Jaffa, which was intended to hinder and perhaps injure Saladin's horses.* Another reference is to their use in games. This appears among the statutes of the Templar Order, and the chief inference from it is that tent pegs were regarded as objects of extremely little value, or indeed of no value at all. Statute number 371 of the rules of Conventual Life informs us that despite the general condemnation of gambling, if a brother could not resist the urge he may make a wager, but he must not use for that purpose his horse or anything else of worth, but only such items as were regarded as being of no monetary value, such as an arrow without iron, an open lantern, a wooden mallet or - a tent peg. ** So, if the object found at Montfort was indeed a tent peg, we have here an item of no value but of multiple use in a medieval soldier's kit.

* Steven Runciman, A History of the Crusades, vol. 3, The Kingdom of Acre, Cambridge, 1955, p. 71.

** Janet M. Upton-Ward, The Rule of the Templars, Woodbridge, 1992, p. 89.

From the Book of Games by King Alfonso X of Castile, 1283

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