36. Chess in post-medieval Germany
In the 16th and 17th c. draughts was the great European board game, I put in chapter 16 and 20. The second place was for tables. Morris was a popular game too, see chapter 34, but it had a humble status. Chess was socially invisible, it was only played by small isolated groups from the highest classes. And there can be little doubt that in these groups chess had a high status.
My results are based on research into the terminology board game players. I found, to give an example, that players of tables in 16th and 17th c. France, possibly already in the 15th c., needed a new name for their game. Coolly they “lent” the name chess players used for their game: jeu des eschecs, which proves that this game name was free for use to say so. And this proves that the game name jeu des eschecs was hardly used. It allows me to conclude that chess was not played outside these groups and was, consequently, invisible in the French society. And if this is true for France, it is also true for Germany.
In conversation with Harold Murray
I have to battle with the established order, represented by for example Harold Murray. Before starting I show a picture in a Latin-German-French dictionary from 1761 and three 19th c. pictures of the lottery game from 1830, 1840 and 1850. They confirm the outcome of my linguistic analyses: the 64 squares board was not seen as a chess board but as a draughts board.
Primitiva Latinae Lingvae, Germanice Explicata, Gallice Accommodata, Et Figvris Illvstrata = Lateinisch- Teutsch- und Französisches Wörter-Buch : der lieben Jugend zum nüzlichen und ergözlichen Gebrauch, mit 1700. Figuren gezieret, und einem teutschen Register versehen (1761).
Lottery-game 1830. Fourth row number three: Damenbrett
Lottery game 1840: first row fourth column: Damenbrett
Lottery game 1850. Number 35: Damenbrett.
Murray [1913:851] had under the heading Germany, 1540-1790 a quite different view. “If we hear but little of German chess during the first three centuries of the modern game”, he wrote, “it is due, not to any decline in the popularity of chess after 1500, but rather to the isolation of the German player, which prevented him from profiting from the advance made by players elsewhere. All indications point to chess having been the favourite indoor recreation of the upper and middle class throughout the whole of this period. A few references must suffice”.
I note Murray’s references, making comments.
Murray (1): “There are many elaborate chessboards, in German and other museums, dating from about 1600 and of German workmanship”.
This argument is invalid. Murray claims the 64 squares board as a chess board, but it was a draughts board as well. The lottery pictures give us the information the Germans identified the 64 squares board with draughts and not with chess.
Murray (2): “John Frederick, Elector of Saxony, and Ernest, Duke of Brunswick, were playing chess in prison, 1547, when the news of the Elector’s condemnation to death was brought”.
Is this information based on a reliable source? Due to his ties with protestant circles, the Elector came into conflict with the roman catholic emperor Charles V. Charles imprisoned him in Brussels. Around the year 1547 one of Charles’ court painters painted John Frederick on a board with chess pieces. However, John Frederick was not playing chess but draughts: we can make a reconstruction of a game leading to the position on the board. The two paintings are kept in museums in Gotha and Leipzig.
Playing draughts with chess pieces is still done in our time. Víktor Bautista i Roca from Santa Coloma de Gramenet, a town near Barcelona, wrote in reply to a question in the group Board Game Studies about this painting: “Standard checkers, as have been played at least at my home since for ever. You use pawns in the two front rows and horses and rooks or bishops in the back one. When a pawn is eaten or crowned you better substitute a figure, as it looks better playing with all pawns on the board. When you crown a pawn you use the queen first, then the king, then bishops or rooks. I think I didn’t have different pieces for checkers till I was maybe 20, I always played checkers with chess pieces”.
In 1756, the German G.P. Nusbiegel wrote a book on the customs of his time: “Die Kunst die Welt erlaubt mitzunehmen in den verschiedenen Arten der Spiele, so in Gesellschaften höhern Standes, besonders in der Kayserlichen-Königlichen Residenz-Stadt Wien üblich sind (…)”. It was published in Vienna and Nuremberg. Nusbiegel mentioned draughts as the favorite board game of the representatives of the higher social circles. It contained an engraving of playing ladies and gentlemen with the caption: An einem Tisch kan der geneigte Leser sich die Bildung von dem 1’hombre, wie an dem andern Tisch von dem Dambret machen. Beyde sind die vorzüglichsten Spiele bei dergleichen Versammlungen. Translation: At one table the kind reader sees a presentation of hombre, at the other one a presentation of draughts. These games are the most favourite games in such societies.
Murray (3): “Thomas Hyde (…) tells how the (…) German (…) merchants played chess at the Fairs (…)”.
How reliable is Hyde’s information? He passed his whole life in his homeland England [Bell 1969:184-6), and he received information from sources on the continent. However, in addition to the lottery pictures a second source proves that the German society was not familiar with chess.
In the past, German children learned reading by ABC books from 1815 and 1830, i.e. books with pictures from the immediate surrounding of the child. Under the pictures the names of what the children saw: a Damenbrett.
The pictures don’t let any doubt: draughts was a game which was a part of the familiar surroundings of the child. For a German child the 64 squares board served as a draughts board.
In the German society chess was invisible
My conclusion: in the German society chess did not exist. People did play chess, but only in isolated groups. Murray argues: chess was a popular game, the village of Ströbeck was already famous for its chess in 1600. Obviously not outside the village, so this village is an example of an isolated chess community.