31. The huff in England Anytime in the Middle Ages, probably in the first half of the 14th c., draughts players transferred their game from the lined board to the chessboard. This occurred in Europe, country unknown.
On the continent, draughts on the checkered board was called dames (French), Dame (German), dam (Dutch) etc. Since the 14th c., the English played at the checker, literally “played on the checkered board”. After the Middle Ages this evolved to checkers. Before the 14th c., to play at the checker meant chess. The change of meaning proves that in England in that time chess was a minor game, draughts enjoyed an incomparably greater popularity (chapter 15).
Checkers was the name for draughts with the free capture: you might take but you were not compelled. In the 15th c., draughts players introduced a partial obligation to take: the huff (chapter 29).
Chess and draughts invented in Troy
In England, the variety with the huff was given the name draughts, which is linked with the verb draw.
The first reference is found in the romance of chivalry “The gest hystoriale of the destruction of Troy”, author unknown. It is hard to indicate when it was written, said the two text editors, Geo A. Panton and David Donaldson [Early English Text Society 1869 and 1874, reprint 1968 in one volume]: about 1450? Or is it older? The English author adapted a Latin text, probably using earlier English versions. On its turn the Latin text rests on a French work: “Roman de Troie”, written about 1165 by Benoît de Sainte-Maure. Because Benoît told his readers about the invention of chess and draughts ‒a subject I have much at heart‒ I include five lines from “The destruction of Troy”.
1619 In that Cite for sorthe, as saith us the story
Mony gaumes were begonnen the grete for to solas.
The chekker was choisly there chosen the first,
The draghtes, the dyse, and other dregh gaumes.
1623 Soche solteltie thai soght to solas hom with.
(In that city, as the story says, many games were invented for pleasure. First of all chess, and also draughts, tables and other games where one pushes pieces. Such ingenious things they thought up to make joy).
The characters in the medieval romance of chivalry, also in Benoît’s romance, are invariably playing chess and tables. In chapter 17 I posed the question: “Did this literary genre reflect the real world?”. “No”, was my answer (chapter 21). In the 14th c. the English name for chess was chess whereas chekker meant draughts, but considering the French example I interpret chekker in “The destruction of Troy” as chess. The Englishman replaced Benoît’s tables by dyse (dice), but because tables is played with pieces and dice I read dyse as tables. The Middle English Dictionary gives four meanings of the word dregh. None of them fits in the context [Stoep 2007:162], reason for my interpretation of dregh as move, again linked with the verb draw.
The inventors of chess and draughts
Who invented chess and draughts in Benoît de Sainte-Maure’s view? Well, the Greek. In the 12th c. B.C. the Greek destroyed the city of Troy, very probably because of economic interests. Troy, the present Hisarlik, was situated in north west Turkey on the Dardanelles, the strait between Greece and Turkey connecting the Aegean Sea with the Sea of Marmara. As a result of its location Troy controlled the traffic in the strait, which was disadvantageous for the Greek trade.
The siege of Troy lived on in the Greek folk tales. Homer, who lived in the 8th B.C., picked up the story and told in his “Iliad” about the Greek Helena, a woman so beautiful that every poet sung of her pulchritude, who was abducted to Troy by the hero Paris. The Greek demanded her back. Paris refused, whereupon a Greek army, commanded by heroes as Achilles and Ajax, besieged Troy. Only after ten years the Greek leaders and their men succeeded in conquering the city, by way of the known cunning with the horse (the Trojan Horse). The Greek locked up their enemies in their houses and buildings and set these in fire; who managed to escape from the flames was slaughtered.
In later times the birth of chess, invented by Greek heroes who did such glorious deeds, made the heart of many a chess player swell with pride.
It is at the least remarkable that the writer of “The destruction of Troy” also attributed the invention of draughts to the Greek heroes. Earlier, around 1380, his fellow-countryman had made a breach of the scheme of the romance of chivalry too in his “Sir Ferumbras” by describing draughts as a pastime of noblemen besides the usual chess and tables (chapter 2). Basing myself on linguistic analyses I concluded that in medieval England draughts has been a very popular game. It might get me too far to claim that the writers of “Sir Ferumbras” and “The destruction of Troy” affirm the outcome of this analysis. I may nevertheless interpret their vision as an underpinning.
Medieval draughts disappeared
In France, the draughts variety with the free capture disappeared in the second half of the 17th c.; Pierre Mallet was in 1668 the last one who mentioned this game (chapter 29). Likely, the game became obsolete in England earlier. Rabelais mentioned in or about 1532 two names for draughts: dames and forçat, variant forcés (chapter 29). Thomas Urquhart translated Rabelais in his “First book of the works of Mr. Francis Rabelais” (1653). He translated Rabelais’ dames as dames (obviously he had no English equivalent) and forçat as draughts.
England versus the United States
In England in our days, draughts is the usual name for draughts. In the United States of America, however, the game is called checkers. About the why chapter 32.