12. Chess twaddle
“How popular has draughts been between 1000 and 1500?”, I asked at the end of chapter 11. An exceedingly difficult question. I explain why.
In my country, the Netherlands, soccer is a big sport. At the sportspages of my newspaper very often figures the portrait of a player called Leonel Messi, if I may believe the editors world’s most popular player, before a Portuguese listening to the name Cristiano Ronaldo. As a proof, the journalist adds a photo of a litlle boy wrapped in a Messi shirt. The Afghan boy at the picture had a shirt made himself, of plastic. The Taliban objected to this desecration in a Taliban way, so that the family fled to Pakistan. They are back in Kabul now (2018).
Am I supposed to believe my paper about Messi? Did it carry out comparative research, did it pay hundreds of people from all over the world to count little boys in Messi shirt? Of course not. Well, then I may call it hot air, twaddle.
The teacher who had the task to impart us students knowledge of linguistics, showed little faith in our judging abilities. Repeatedly he expressed with his sonorous voice: “Don’t parrot through your hat the common herd, go in search of the source”. To be honest, he did not say it so coarse like that, he used a solemn German sentence: “Die Quelle ist reiner als der Fluss”. In the lecture-room I chuckled more than once if he pronounced his advice for the umpteenth time, but I remember it to the present day. And followed his advice, in chapter 10 for instance. And again in this chapter.
My whole life I have heard that chess was the great board game of the Middle Ages, knights could not stop playing it. It started with my grandfather, a chess player, I was barely six years old. In the impressive castle of Bouillon in the Belgian Ardennes, the curator tries to give the public an impression how the occupants of the fortress lived. And what are the knights in the display case doing?: they are playing chess. Has it been the historical reality? If so, I know at any rate that the role of draughts in the medieval society has been modest.
But I want to have certainty, and therefore I must go on the look for the Quelle. Who can it be? Naturally I have to appeal to an usual suspect as Harold Murray, recommended by chess players as the great historian of their game.
How does Murray know that chess was the most popular board game of the medieval nobility? The only way to find this out is through a comparative investigation, that is research into the popularity of chess compared by tables, draughts, morris and alquerque. This investigation should have produced a clear result. If not, Murray’s claim that chess has been by far the most popular game is Messi twaddle, hot air. And as a consequence I thumbed trough the 900 pages of Murray’s highly praised “A history of chess” for his account. And I found nothing…
May I lay blame at Murray’s door? I have my doubts. Who without comparative research acclaims someone or something as the primus inter pares makes botched work. But there are mitigating circumstances. First, he did not dispose as I do of the results of linguistic investigations. Secondly, he based his claim on the medieval fictional literature, where chess plays such an important role, but he did it in a time that was not yet ripe for the question whether a historian can use literature as a reliable source to get a picture of the reality of a period. And in the third place, he did not know much, perhaps nothing, about the way medieval writers thought and worked.
From chapter 13 on ‒this number does not bode well…‒ I call forth means that are new in the board game field, hoping to be able to establish the position of chess, draughts and other board games.