25. The symbolic function of the medieval draught board
In many Christian churches there are faithfully carved inscriptions of the line draught board, often in vertical position. This points to a symbolic meaning of the board. In a culture where the faithful attended a mass in a building where the pattern of the lined draught board functioned within Christian symbolism, the very same people played a game on a board with an identical pattern.
We, rational people from the 21st c., separate these two functions, and therefore we think the mix of earthly pleasure with religion odd. However, the modern human forgets that his own life is riddled with what he is calling superstition but what are relics of a time where the visible reality was connected with a reality which was an invisible web round the human being. A word could and can evoke an element from this invisible world. “I never had a car crash”. By this sentence one evokes a power that causes such a crash, and therefore he immediately adds: “I touch wood”. Comparable is: Talk of the devil and he is sure to appear (Talk of an angel and you’ll hear his wings). And take the medieval trial by ordeal in mind, which could become a fight between two men which was decided by God. The winner fought a fair fight, the man who was unjust died. The fight had to happen by daylight, because after sunset the devil will reign and then the unjust man will win. A heathen rite, adopted by Christianity? The German Friedrich Berger [2003:27]: “There was no strict separation between life and after-life, between profane and divine between pastime and ritual for people in the past”.
Berger [2003:87] quotes his fellow-countrymen Konrad Ziegler and Walter Sontheimer, who showed how the Greek Pythagoras combined mathematics and theology. The Italian Eugenio Garin described how the astronomer Johannes Kepler casted horoscopes [Berger 2003:91].
Where did the medieval christians base the symbolic meaning of morris and draught board on? On the line structure I assume, another explanation seems out of the question.
In the literature we only find explanations for the structure of the morris board. Two of them seem relevant to me.
The oldest proposal has been made by two French Roman Catholics we could typify as christian symbolists. Their names are Louis Charbonneau Lassay en René Guenon. With gratitude to the Italian Marisa Uberti, who pointed these sources out to me. Charbonneau Lassay published an article entitled “La triple-enceinte dans l’emblématique chrétienne” in the journal “Atlantis” in 1929. Guenon published a work which was translated into English by Michel Valsan and was revised and edited by Martin Lings entitled “Fundamental Symbols. The universal language of sacred science”, Cambridge 1995. The outside line of the morris board surrounds three compartments, Charbonneau and Guenon argued. The central square is the earthly world. This earthly world is surrounded by the cosmos. And earth and cosmos are both surrounded by a heaven where an almighty God resides.
A more recent proposition was launched by Berger. He did not mention the two Frenchmen, but critized art historians whose only source to explain christian symbols is the Bible [Berger 2003:92], so indirectly also these two. He cites the German Rudolf Bultmann, a Lutheran theologist, who asked attention for the fact that early Christianity took elements from the classics, and the German Manfred Görg, a Roman Catholic theologist and classicist, who pointed to the similarities between Christianity and the Egyptian mythology.
Again: what was the symbolic function of the line draught board in the Christian Middle Ages? As we often find carved line draught boards in churches together with the carved morris board and as in the Middle Ages line draughts and morris had an identical name, I consider the conclusions Berger drew in his extensive study of the symbolism of the morris board without prejudice valid for the line draught board. In this chapter, the morris board has the form as top left.
The central point in Berger’s argument is the structure of the morris board. It is a square, he states. The square, or a number of squares, was a symbol of the earth and what the human sees above him, so the sun, the stars etc. (not the sky, i.e. God’s residence, this was symbolized by a circle). The Egyptians saw the square as a symbol of the temple; the Christians adopted this symbolism.
It is impossible to make a choice between both interpretations, because an explanation which holds for both the morris board and the line draugh board seems more plausible. For two reasons. One: in churches we often find both boards incised together. Two: in the Middle Ages, line draughts and morris had an identical name.
Well then, line draught board and morris board have both a cross. The Christians borrowed the cross from the Greek (via the Romans). The Christian cross of today has a longer vertical leg. Berger [2003:84] draws an Ethiopian cross with diagonal legs. The line draught board also has a diagonal cross. Could it have had a symbolic sense? Impossible to say. On medieval maps a diagonal cross symbolized the rivers of paradise, says the German Wilhelm Neuss [Berger 2003:86]. Neuss was a catholic expert on the history of the Church, also an art historian.
I draw a (very) careful conclusion. The square form of line draughts board and morris board refer both to the earth and to the church building as a temple. The morris board has a clear cross. Because of the many diagonal lines, the cross on the line draught board is less visible but it is present. The symbolism of the cross is in Christianity evident, whatever its meaning for the faithful may be. In the great diagonals of the line draught board we could see a second cross.
To conclude: when did the line draughts board lose its symbolic function? No idea.
The religious function of the gaming board is not new. Hans-Günter Buchholz [Laser 1987:127] pointed to carved gaming boards in relation with religious sacrificises. He mentioned in particular the Hittites, but also Greece and Asia Minor.