Chapter 22

22. Draughts, the most popular board game of the Middle Ages
 In the Middle Ages the masses did not play chess, and the better off hardly. What was the board game that was often played?, has it been draughts, tables or morris? I figured it out: draughts was by far the most popular board game. I make this statement on the basis of my analysis of the medieval French word merelle. It is a reconstruction, I have never been there to take a look.
The meaning of the word merelle was gaming piece, as the following sentence may prove. Two men quarrelled when playing a game on the marellier, and then “Icellui Estienne prist lors toute merelle et les geta jus de marrelier” (This Estienne picked up all the pieces and flung them away [literally: from the board]). My source did not mention his source.
There are many references of the word merelle, but the word was almost exclusively used by poets and as a metaphor. A quotation from the work of Jean Bodel, “La Chanson des Saxons”, 13th c.: “Chascuns de nos a traite la marelle” (each of us exposes himself to danger). Bodel evokes the image of a specific situation. In a certain game you must have your eyes peeled, with a wrong move you can expose yourself to danger!
Evidently, the game in question belonged to everyday life, it was omnipresent to say so, because I noted almost 70 merelle metaphors. But what ‘s more, the word merelle occurred in 22 different expressions. That variation is unusual great, second proof of the omnipresence of the game.
The result of my inquiries: this game is draughts. The French lexicography however concluded: this game was morris. I explain how the French concluded to their wrong interpretation.
What did a lexicographer a century ago to write a dictionary? Well, there was a man at a writing desk with a pile of index cards. Each card contained a French word in its context with its source. That man, I imagine, was the French lexicographer Frédéric Godefroy, who published between 1880 and 1902 his dictionary of medieval French in eight volumes.
Godefroy
His material ran from the 19th to the 15th c. He had to read the documents that were preserved from this period, make cards, put them in card-index boxes and determine the sense(s) of each word. Twenty years for all this work is really not too much. The problem is that Godefroy could not spend a lot of time to describe a word, the problem of each writer of a dictionary.
On of the words Godefroy described was the game name merelles. It meant morris, he found. If he had got the time to include the comparable Italian word marella and the Spanish word marro in his investigation, he had concluded that merelles did not only mean morris but also draughts. See for the words I mentioned chapter 7. But for me it is easily said, as I could take my time for my research.
When Godefroy had found the meaning of the game name merelles, he could without thinking write down the meaning of the piece name merelle and the board name merelier: morris piece respectively morris board.
No, I say, your meanings are wrong, Godefroy. French had no name for the morris piece and for the morris board: merelle meant piece in line draughts and merelier meant line draughts board. I explain how I conclude to these meanings.
The human being uses a word as long as he needs it. The Englishman for instance is still using the very old word rose because he/she has nice roses in his garden of because he/she buys roses at the florist’s. The medieval (wo)man knew the word chess; we are still playing chess and are consequently still using the word chess.
The medieval society played morris; the Frenchman called the game merelles. After the Middle Ages morris lived on, we often find the morris pattern on the gaming board that was common in the 16th and 17th c., see the picture (German, late 17th c.). The French are playing morris up to today, still under the name of merelles (in the meantime the game got a second name). The piece name merelle and the board name merelier, however, disappeared in the 15th c., so that they can impossibly have meant morris piece and morris board. The 15th c. Frenchman did not say: “Oh well, the morris piece and the morris board do have a name, but we decided not to use these names any longer”. This is an absurd thought, as absurd as the thought that the English people would decide today not to use the word rose any longer.
molenbord Duits eind 17e eeuw
No, the meaning of merelle was piece in line draughts, of merelier line draughts board. In the 15th c., the last player of this game burnt up his draughts board in the wood-burning stove. The game name merelles loses its meaning line draughts then and the piece name merelle and the board name merelier disappear: they are not needed any longer.
And in this way the linguistic method proves that it was draughts that was by far the most popular board game of the Middle Ages.