33. From board to box
Through the ages the game materials of the Europeans changed. In the chapters to come a special type of board matters: the gaming box. A description.
The two-sided medieval board
On this plate we see the tables pattern of the medieval board. There was a 64 squares pattern on the other side to play chess (and from the first half of the 14th c. also draughts).
Dozens of descriptions of two-sided boards survived. Like this inventory from 1373 with an unknown French family: un tablier ployant (…) à plusieurs figures, tant au tablier comme en l’eschiquier (…) (a folding board with several figures on the tables board as well as on the chess board (…)).
The furniture maker delivered such a board standardly with chess pieces (2×16) and flat circular pieces (2×15), as appears from a bill for King Charles IV of France from 1382: Deux tablets de ciprès ouvrez et garniz de tables et eschaiz (Two gaming boards of tooled cypress wood with the belonging flat round pieces and chess pieces). Click here for more descriptions.
This type did not completely disappear. The catalogue of the exhibition organized by the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna describes a 16th c. board from the South of Spain [Seipel 1998:99] and a mid-17th. one from the North of Italy [Seipel 1998:100].
The gaming box
The flat board has a border where the player can put his pieces if desired. Anywhere in Europe, country unknown, an innovative furniture maker hammered strips of wood on the borders of the tables pattern, creating a box. Handy to keep the pieces. Why raised borders on this side? Well, before his move the player throws two dice, and the edge keeps him from constant groping in the dust for those damned dice. Below an opened gaming box, with its tables pattern of two squares of the same size.
The closed side had no edge, as is proved by this painting of the Flemish Michel Sweerts (1652), showing two young men from the better classes playing draughts on the checkered pattern of the box.
The pattern opposite to the checkered pattern is also a square. The furniture maker filled it with a morris pattern, or with decorative flowers, a war scene, a mythological depiction or some other ornament.
The advent of the gaming box
When was the gaming box invented? Experts are inconsistent.
The German art historian George Himmelheber [1972:38-9] opted for the 13th c., among other referring to the Aschaffenburger board; on top the tables pattern. I see a flat board.
The gaming box came up in the 14th c., said Harold Murray [1952:44], referring to inventories with Charles VI in 1412 and his son the Duke of Berry in 1416. I think Murray made a mistake.
The 1412 inventory concerns a flat board with two gaming patterns. The full description: “Ung eschiquier de jaspre et de cristal, faict aux armes du feu pape Grégoire, et est par dehors de cipprès, et y a un marellier de marqueteure, et est garni d’eschéz de mesme, tout en un estui” (A chess board of cypress wood with jasper and crystal, with the arms of the late Pope Gregory, and there is an inlaid board for line draughts, with the belonging chess pieces, all in a case).
The 1416 inventory does not regard a box but a table which could be folded in three: “Une très belle table ployant en trois pieces en laquelle est le marrelier, deux jeux de tables et l’eschiquier, fait de pourfirs (read porphyre) de Romme, jaspre et autres pierres de plusieurs couleurs” (A very beautiful table that can be folded in three pieces, with the line draughts board, a double tables board and chess board, made of porphyry of Rome, jasper and other stones in different colors).
The first record of a gaming box in my list of Inventories is from 1555. This means that the box should have been introduced in the first half of the 16th c.
In 1519, the German Leonhard Schäufelein made a woodcut of the action of the Italian Capistranus (chapter 32) in his fatherland mid-15th c.: his compatriots threw a flat board on the fire, not a box [Zangs 1994:114].
Why the invention of the box?
The common medieval gaming board had a pattern for tables and a 64 squares pattern. So the men and women from the Middle Ages could use it for tables, chess and draughts. Who liked to play morris had to ask the furniture maker to make an apart morris board -if he did not like to play morris in the sand or on a stone.
When all gaming boxes that have come down to us should have had a morris pattern, we could conclude: the gaming box was developed to make it easier for the Europeans to play morris. However, only about half of the saved gaming boxes has a morris pattern, so that this cannot be the answer. Therefore I don’t know a better explanation than this one: where to keep the pieces when you have a flat board to play on?, how easily some of them can get lost. The gaming box solved this problem.
The gaming box passed out of use
According to Hans and Siegfried Wichmann [1960:69], the gaming box passed out of use in the first decades of the 18th c. This tallies with my analysis of French names for gaming boards [Stoep 2007:113]: after 1700 lexicographers don’t mention a name for the gaming box.
The gaming box did not fully disappear. A German reading method from 1815 for example had a picture of a box.
Name of the method: “Ein kleines elementarisches Lesebuch für gute Kinder” (A small basic reading book for good children). According to David Parlett [2018:111] it is not entirely defunct today.
The last artist who painted draughts playing persons on the gaming box was the German Heinrich Christoph Gottlieb Breling (1849-1914). However, Breling has the reputation he liked historical subjects, and therefore there is a good reason to suspect that this painting evokes a time that was gone for good.
The furniture makers from Eger
In the 17th and 18th c., distinguished Europeans bought art to make other distinguished people green with envy. The Museum für Kunsthandwerk/Grassimuseum in Leipzig (Germany) dedicated an exhibition (1999) to the inlay art of masters from the former German city Eger, the present Czech Cheb. Jochen Voigt wrote the texts in the splendidly released catalogue.
The gaming box was a favored object. Voigt mentions the names of makers and buyers, from the point of view of the history of culture very useful. I am especially interested in in the name of the piece of furniture mentioned on the accounts between the early 17th and early 18th c, the Golden Age of the art from Eger [Voigt 1999:46]. This name is important for a next chapter ‒I realize it sounds unlikely‒ when I enter into the position of chess in medieval France. Without any exception this name was always Brettspiel. Some citations.
* The Swedish count Carl Gustaf Wrangel (1613-1676), statesman, military man (General of the Army) and judge, friendly with king Charles X Gustaf of Sweden, ordered (in the 1650s?) four gaming boxes: Ein Egern brettspiel mit einer Romanische historie, Ein Egern brettspiel, Ein Egern brettspiel worauff ein tournier-spiel (inlaid with the picture of a joust), Ein Egern brettspiel mit bluhmwerck eingelegdt (inlaid with flowers) [Voigt 1999:108].
* The city of Eger had a representative in Praag, Peter Biedermann. In 1659, he drew the attention of a prominent tax officer to a Brethspiel [Voigt 1999:110].
* Eger had a regiment. For the aide-de-caps of count Thaunisch, in 1695 a sauberes eingelegtes brettspiel (austerely inlaid gaming box) was made [Voigt 1999:112].
* The widow of count Johann Hartwig von Nostiz (1610-1683) received in 1696 from the city of Eger ein brettspiel [Voigt 1999:109].