21. Chess in the Middle Ages
My grandfather was a chess player, once a week he played at the club in our village. In my childhood he issued me a lesson for life: “Chess was the cherished leisure of knights in the medieval society”. When I had grown older and knew more difficult words, he added a sentence: “It is an indisputable truth”.
Granddad’s truth staggers: in Europe in the 14th (chapter 15) as well as in the 15th c. (chapter 16) chess played a modest role, the medieval narrative literaturer is an unreliable historical source (chapter 18-20). Poor man. I cannot tell it him anymore, but I think he would refuse to believe me.
Richard Eales, a historian by profession, comes on the basis of population figures to the conclusion that hardly differs from mine. Ninety percent of the population were peasants, he says. Eales [1985:57]: “Aristocratic and gentry families amounted to much less than one per cent of the population, even with a generous allowance for their domestic households and retainers”. For Eales, however, it was beyond doubt that the medieval nobility played chess.
I disagree with him on this last point. My research in chapter 15 and 16 was based on linguistics. The syntax and lexicon of a language, in case English and French, are shared by all social classes of a population; so the outcome is certainly valid for the social class of the nobility.
The common gaming board bought by the French high society had a 64 squares pattern and was delivered with chess pieces as a standard accessory, see chapter 14. This is an indication they played chess, is not it? No, for two reasons.
First, in 16th and 17th c. France, chess was an invisible game; later I shall prove this was the same in Germany. Nevertheless the furniture maker always delivered it with the chess pieces. Why not? It proved his craftsmanship and he made money.
Secondly, chess had a symbolic function. I give once again (earlier in chapter 20) the first reference to chess in the medieval (French) literature, in “Chanson de Roland”, a very early romance of chivalry, what the chance increases that it concerns an original observation, not the unthinking repetition of what predessors wrote. The “normal” knights, to say so, are playing tables. A few are playing chess: “the wise and old knights”; it is the old days when the western society still linked old age to wisdom. Obviously, the medieval (wo)man found chess a difficult game, a game for wise people. It is funny that also in our days chess is used in the narrative arts as a comparable symbol: if you are playing chess your are clever and intelligent. My grandfather aussured me: “Chess is the most difficult game that exists”. Later I’ll come back to this sociological prejudice ‒ it is not more than that. Is there a medieval component in this prejudice?
The symbolic function of chess should be a warning to us to be cautious if a medieval source tells us about the court of a highness where chess is played: could he show off the wisdom that is typical for this court? An often used property in a movie of our days is the chess board on the table of the detective, so that I know the scoundrels don’t get a chance.
I persist in my conclusion, conclusion that is at odds with what is pushed forward as historical truth by the chess historians. My approach by way of linguistics and literary theory is new in the board game field and is giving a general pattern, perhaps it is necessary to emphasize it. Without any doubt there are exceptions. Charles, Duke of Orleans, retained three chess players in his court of Blois and was the owner of a manuscript with chess, tables and morris problems [Murray 1913:431,461].
In my grandfather’s world view ‒which did not differ from that of everyone in his surrounding‒ chess was during the past thousand year the great European board game, the game took a lot of room. Now it appears this is not true for the period until 1700 ‒I shall treat this period later‒, the question arises which board game(s) hold this position: draughts, tables or morris. In chapter 22 I’ll start a research into the position of draughts.
21. Chess in the Middle Ages