0. The twin chess and draughts
“The such-and-such site devoted to chess and draughts in the past? Pooh, we know all about it”. You are wrong: I guarantee you all kinds of new insights, made possible because I approach the history of chess and draughts via a canal that is unknown in this field.
My research started in the summer holiday of 1975. Then I biked ‒a Dutchman bikes‒ to the municipal library of Rotterdam.
I had consulted the standard work of the English chess and board game historian Harold Murray (1868-1955) of 1952 to know more about the origin of draughts. I played draughts and chess since my youth ‒my grandfather was a chess player‒ and I wanted to know the beginnings of draughts.
Draughts originated from chess, said Murray, which he proved by a series of words from the chess language borrowed by draughts players.’
Most intriguing was that Murray linked the name for draughts with the name of the chess queen. In French the chess queen is called dame, said Murray. The Dutch game name damspel, the German game name Damenspiel, the French game name jeu de dames etc. are all called after this word dame. This happened around 1500. “It proves that chess is a parent of draughts”, he concluded, “because these names all literally mean “game with chess queens”.
Murray launched an etymology of the game name damspel etc. Chance would have it that I had studied Dutch, so that I had had lessons about etymology, a part of linguistics that tries to find out the etymon of words, or in other words tries to find out where words come from. My teachers of linguistics had warned me: “Etymology is a treacherous part of our science”, they said, “and the difficulty of etymology is heavily underestimated”. And they implored me more than once to be critical and not indiscriminating accept an etymology. After so many years the warning is still resonating in my head.
The purpose of my bike ride was etymological dictionaries: did linguists sustain Murray’s vision? Yes, appeared to me when I thumbed through the dictionaries on the shelf Etymology searching the etymon of the game name dam(spel), (jeu de) dames etc. There was one exception: an Italian linguist did not accept this etymology.
“You recognize a reliable etymology by he investigations that is spent on a word”, my teachers had said. “You should distrust any etymological proposal that is not the result of inquiries”. Murray had not made inquiries, so that I could not trust his etymology. And the etymological dictionaries were as unreliable as Murray, not one dictionary referred to an inquiry.
On other shelves there were dictionaries from the 16th and 17th c. Among them multilingual Latin dictionaries. In the classical antiquity draughts was un unknown game. When a Latin scholar in the 16th or 17th c. had to find a Latin equivalent of the Dutch game name damspel, jeu de dames etc., which name would he chose? If he chose ludus dominarum or a variant, the current etymology could be correct. And then it was clear to me where draughts came from.
The names of Latin scholars, however, were inconsistent with the modern etymology: everyone without exception rendered the game name damspel etc. by a Latin name with the literal meaning of “game with twelve pieces”.
The bike ride had not brought me further. Who was right: the modern etymologist or the old lexicographer? Further inquiries were necessary, that was clear to me. But your daily work, your family, your sport, your social life, where could I find the time?
The subject kept haunting me. Ten years later I travelled to the University of Leiden and asked for an interview with a professor in linguistics. Cor van Bree was so kind to receive me. “The current etymology of the game name damspel is wrong”, I said. “Is it possible to make a doctoral research on this subject?” We walked to the library, where the professor thumbed through all etymological dictionaries, more than in Rotterdam. He put on a doubtful face. He must have thought: ‘Again such a pain in the neck who disputes a scientific statement’. “I think you are wrong”, he said. “You have half a year to convince me. If you succeed, I’m going to supervise a doctoral research. If you don’t convince me…”
Well then. I could convince him with an A4 where he had noted on the left the oldest references of the chess queen in French (dame) and on the right the two oldest sources with the French game name jeu de dames. The oldest references of the chess queen dated from the fourth quarter of the 15th c., the two oldest sources of the French game name jeu de dames from 1380 and 1508.
The first source was the English 14th c. romance of chivalry “Sir Ferumbras”; one of the occupations of knights was to play the game iew-de-dame. I added an appendix with an account of my interpretation of this game name as draughts. The second source were moral lessons from about 1500 written by a priest from the French place Béthune, Eloy d’Amerval. Draughts (jeu de dames) was a nice game, he wrote, all the more because it was played without dice. Eloy started his work in 1496, his epic poem was printed in 1508. “The two sources sustain my claim”, I said. “About 1500 the game name jeu de dames was generally known, I said, “and chess with the queen that is called dame was a new game”. Van Bree nodded. I received the green light, not knowing it would cost me eleven years to disentangle the Gordian knot of the chess and draughts jargon.