A few facts about Medieval chess:
Documentary evidence for the game of chess first appears in Latin Christendom in the early 11th century. The chess pieces attributed to the court of Charlemagne have now been dated to 11thC Italy. At the moment no chess piece of European provenance can be dated any earlier than the early 11thC.
By the first quarter of the 12thC, chess was listed among the skills that a good knight ought to possess. Chess came to Europe from the Arabic lands, but its origins like further back in Northern India, where it was thought to have been invented some time before 600AD. The Sanskrit word for the game is Chaturanga, and the Arabic Shatranj. The Abbasid caliphs of the 9th and 10th centuries were keen patrons of the game at their courts.
The chess pieces themselves would have appeared rather alien to Western European society. Heavily imbued with Muslim terminology, the pieces themselves had been modelled to fit in with the Koranic ban on representational images. However, the actual rules and strategy of the game were universal, and the pieces would gradually adapt to the culture of the land in which the game was played. In modern England we have the king, queen, bishop, knight, rook, and pawn. In the game of shatranj, these were called the shah,(king) firz, (vizir) al-fil (elephant), faras (horse) , rukh (chariot) and baidaq (footman). These latter titled go back to the traditional elements of the Indian army. – infantry, cavalry, elephants and chariots. The latter two weren’t familiar to medieval westerners. As the game progressed the names changed. Shah, faras and baidaq became king, knight and footman. (rex, miles, caballarius pedes). Firz and al-fil became queen and count (regina, comes). Rukh more or less remained as Rukh. The actual name ‘chess’ that we use today has come down to us from ‘Shah.’
Gradually the west developed their chess pieces into feudal representations. The Lewis Chess pieces found on the Isle of Lews in 1831, date to circa 1150 and depict a king, queen, bishop, knight and armed man with only the pawns carved as simple forms.
Although an intellectual game, wagers were frequently made on the outcome, and there was also a form of chess that was played with dice. Bernard of Clairveaux (typical to his nature) forbade the game of chess to the Knights Templar. Alexander Nequam, King Richard I’s milk brother, condemned chess because of its violent and quarrelsome nature. Someone else thought that it was all right for laymen to play the game providing they did not use dice, but that in a priest it was shameful, senseless and disgusting. Louis IX of France issued a complete ban on chess as well as other board games in 1254. That chess led to violence is often portrayed in literature. The Romance of Fouke FitzWaryn, written in the 13th century and the basis for my novels SHADOWS AND STRONGHOLDS and LORDS OF THE WHITE CASTLE/THE OUTLAW KNIGHT tells us that King John (well Prince John Count of Mortain at that time) and Fulke FitzWarin, clashed as teenagers over a game a of chess. ‘John took the chessboard and struck Fulke a great blow. Fulke felt himself hurt and raised his foot and struck John in the middle of the stomach, so that his head flew against the wall, and he became all weak and fainted.’ Whether this is true, or a literary conceit is open to conjecture, but there are a couple of reports in the middle ages of chess boards being used as murder weapons in homicide cases!
At the opposite end of the spectrum, many a flirtatious moment might be conducted across a chess board and learning to play the game was one of the accomplishments a young noblewoman was expected to learn.
So it wasn’t just a case of black and white. The medieval game of chess was one of many nuances and subtleties!
|Lewis chessman - British Museum|
Photo courtesy of Rosemary Watson