Chapter 17

17. Turning point: the medieval literature
 Commencing in chapter 13, my research question is: “According to the general conviction, chess has been the great board game of the Middle Ages. Is this claim right or wrong?”
In chapter 13 and chapter 14 I gathered (for the greater part French) inventories of medieval gaming boards. Result: the upper class, the nobility included, bought material to play chess and tables; there was no preference for chess above tables. By the way, the gaming boards were suitable for draughts.
In chapter 15 I analyzed the English board game name to play at the checker. Result: in 14th c. England draughts was a major game, chess not in the least.
In chapter 16 I analyzed the French board game name jeu des eschecs. Result: in 16th c. France chess was only played by small groups, for the general public ches was invisible. In all likelihood, this situation was not different from the situation in the period 1000-1500.
The results of my investigations bring me in an awkward predicament, because they are diametrically opposed to what in our time is considered to be historical truth: chess has been medieval’s major board game. This does not leave me a choice: I have to prove that this view is completely wrong. “And if you fail?”, you will ask. Well, I can’t bear to think about it at this moment.
The idea about this wonderfully great board game chess was born in the 19th c. It was greeted with open arms and passed round by a prominent chess historian as Harold Murray. My task during the past years was to find the source or sources investigators disposed of between 1850 and 1900. Well then, there appears to have been one source: the medieval literature, which means references to chess in fancy stories.
The degree certificate that was granted to me when I had met all the demands of the University of Leiden, affirmed I studied both Dutch linguistics and Dutch literature. The lectures on literature imparted me (also) knowledge of the medieval literature. From the French literature too, as a great part of the Dutch stories were adaptations of French examples.
References to chess can be found in two literary genres: the allegory with its warning finger that a human being is not more than a piece on the chess board that is put in a dark bag when the game is over, and the romance of chivalry with its chess playing knights and chess playing love couples.
In the 16th c. society there was no longer room for the first genre, as it was a society that did not emphasize the value of life following after the earthly existence any more, it is life on earth that is valuable.
The material of the romance of chivalry carried through in the so-called chapbook ‒their palmy days were between 1475 and 1540‒, printed books not written in rhyme but in prose, but in this genre there are no references to chess.
I am a step further now: after the Middle Ages chess got invisible to say so because the two literary genres where chess played a part disappeared. Which induces the question if the medieval literature created possibly an image of chess that did not match with the reality. In the past, I mean the period up to and including Harold Murray and his “History of chess” (1916), the time was not yet ripe for this question, chess historians started from the idea that the literature mirrored the real world. For this reason, we cannot blame them for it.
The problem only came up for discussion in the second half of the 20th c., when literature searchers raised a question: “In 1960, a sociologist or a historian wants to get a clear view of life and mind in Amsterdam around the turn of the century. Can he base himself on novels published between 1890 and 1910?”
The outcome of long debates don’t surprise us: some novels can be used and other novels can not. The “Dutch” novels, i.e. novels playing in Holland, of the great Dutch writer Louis Couperus sketch a reliable image of life led by representatives of the Dutch well-to-do around 1900. The social novels by the Frenchman Emile Zola from the period 1870-1890 give a striking image of the French society in his time, especially of the lot of the lower classes. Social abuses in the works of Charles Dickens too, sharp observator of is time.
Henceforth, I shall enter into the two medieval genres in question. Recondite and therefore racy stuff. Central question: “Is it allowed to use these two genres when writing a historiography of chess or not?”
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A remark beforehand, probably unnnecessary: the illustrator of a manuscript tailored his subjects to the story; it is not allowed to take the medieval chess pictures as above and below as a source of its own, a second one.
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