19. About originality
In the society of today it is accepted as a truth: the medieval prominent social classes adored chess. The results of my investigations in chapter 1-17 provided proof to the opposite. In chapter 18 I posed the question if we may consider the medieval literature as a reliable historical source. No, was the answer, and just that literature is the source of this general conviction. If my answer is right, I have a new subject of inquiry: what then was the great board game of the Middle Ages? Because of the significance of the subject I pose the question once more, but from another point of view: does the medieval literature reflect the real world?
The publisher of the Castle novel or Doctor’s novel does not ask his author: “Would you please next month turn in a more original book?” The genre sells just because the stories are similar, the reader needs recognition. The publisher of a literary novel demands originality, a novel in his list should not look like a novel he published earlier.
In the Middle Ages, originality did not exist, neither in the romance where the author sings the praises of a hero nor in the branch where a woman is a character of importance.
This latter branch game mid-12th c. into being. The male principle character is not longer the one-sided macho but shows some vulnerability in his feelings for a woman.
In that 12th c., nobility created a new etiquette complex, with as the most remarkbale phenomenon the woman, who became an object of knightly helpfulness, at least in literature. A Women’s Libber of our days asking to be teletransported to say the Paris of 1350 would burst out in impotent tears. In the romance of chivalry however the woman grew into a figure of nearly supernal purity and beauty, sung by a lovelorn poet, a figure attracting young knights as a flower a bee. And yes, it sometimes deteriorated into amorousness.
The author of this genre, called courtly romance, describes lovers seeking a pretext for a meeting.
And here we encounter a radical difference in appreciation between the literary wrtier of our time and a medieval writer. Where in our time a writer is jeered off if he repeats a succesful scene of a colleague, this repetition is quite normal in the Middle Ages. An often used pretext of a couple in love to find privacy is a game of chess. ‘That’s jolly’, judges the medieval writer who was acquainted with the metaphor, ‘I can do it too’. In the course of the time the meeting was varied and with the improvement of the narrative art extended and embellished, but the core remains unchanged, it remains a stereotype. Thirty times a story about two lovers who retired with chess board and pieces is one story, to say so. And this is not enough for the pronouncement that chess has been such a popular game in the Middle Ages.
This sentence is also true for a second medieval genre where chess was given a dominant role.
For the medieval human, life on earth was no more than a clearing-house to his real destination: the eternal life at God’s feet. Dicing and board games with dice as morris and tables can bar him the road to the gate that will give him entrance to the eternal happiness, some spiritual guides consider even chess and draughts as a danger. How great was the mental distance between these warnings and the carpe diem of the 16th c.!
The writers of the genre that intends to guard the human from lapses, like to fall back on the allegory of the chess board and its pieces. The board is a symbol for the earth, for life, the pieces with their different values for the social walks of life. But when the game is over the hand of the player sweeps all pieces together and puts them in one bag where king and foot-soldier (the pawn) end up sid by side. A nice metaphor, that in passing reminds the listeners, the higher echelons of society, to humility and compassion with the poor.
At the risk of arousing irritation, I repeat myself: because the medieval writer fits an image from a colleague that is built on chess without any twinges of conscience in his own work, we may not add up those metaphors and conclude: ‘Medieval writers mentioned chess two hundred times in their work, what a tremendously popular game it has been’.