13. Medieval gaming material
The four great board games of the Middle Ages were chess, draughts (on a lined or on a checkered board), tables and morris. How popular have these games been?
I start with the simplest question: what kind of boards did medieval people buy?
A simple medieval French citizen who wanted to play tables, could scratch the pattern in the sand and use gathered pebbles as pieces. He did not know chess, this is generally considered as a game for the elite. The members disposed of the means to order a chess board, and especially the pieces. For this reason, the answer to my question gives an image that only counts for the elite.
Four medieval boards have come down to us. The so called Aschaffenburger board is by far the oldest one: it goes back to about 1300. See below.
Three other medieval boards are 15th c. Board 2, see below, is either from Burgundy or from Venice.
These two boards are representations of what I call type A: the board for tables has the same size as the board with 64 squares.
The two other medieval boards that are saved are from type B: the board for tables has twice the size of the 64 squares board.
The board left below is Italian, the board right below is taken from a German book.
At least mid-14th c., so about 1350, draughts players transferred their game from the lined board to the chess board. Which pieces did they use? This seems a needless question: the table pieces, naturally. 2×15 flat round pieces and 2×16 chess pieces were a standard accessory. The furniture maker adjusted the size of his pieces of course to the size of his tables board. The tables board of type A is as big as the chess board, and therefore the pieces will fit on the squares of the checkered board.
The tables board of type B is twice as big as the chess board. I may expect that the furniture maker turned pieces that were fit to play draughts.
Did he manufacture boards of type A or of type B? I hoped that medieval descriptions of gaming material would give information, but only two inventary, one with king Martin of Aragon in 1410: Dues taules (…) e de la alter part scachs (A double tables board and on the other side a chess board), one with the duke of Berry in 1416: Une table ployant en trois pieces en laquelle est le marrelier, deux jeux de tables et l’eschiquier (a table that can be folded in three pieces, with the lined draughts board, a double tables board and the chess board) and one with Philip the Good in 1420: Ung jeu des eschés et le tablier double (A checkered board and a double tables board). Nevertheless, I pass them on. For the greater part, the material comes from French sources that delved in inventories. My advantage is, that I analyzed names for boards already in the 80ies. Of course, you can as a good man note inventories, but if you don’t know the meanings of the names you find the result will be disappointing.
In medieval French, the piece of furniture was called tablier. This word is a continuation of the Latin word tabula, compare the French and the English word table. The original meaning of tabula was gaming board, but as the gaming table was mostly used to play tables, it developed the second meaning of board for the game of tables. The board name marrelier meant line draughts board. The board name damier meant originally draughts board, later gaming box. The piece name dame meant originally draughts singleton and later gaming piece in general.
Because the boards were destined for France’s powers, precious materials were chosen. Not one board has come to us: during a period of malaise the ornaments could be sold and they did not escape from greedy or destructive looter hands. The inventories and accounts offer a good view into the richness of the higher nobility in the Middle Ages, the furniture maker applied for board, flat round piece and chess piece all kinds of costly materials. This is widely known of course, but it is informative to see them together. Victor Keats’ book (1985) for instance with its hundreds of chess pieces does not contain any picture of a medieval chess piece nor information on the materials applied in this time.
Click here for the descriptions, arranged in order of date. In a next chapter my evaluation. Sources: Bruchet 1907, Wartburg 1934, Gay 1928, Godefroy 1880-1902, Havard 1887-90, Huguet 1967, Tobler-Lommatzsch 1974.