37. Board games in France in the period 1500-1700
Chapter 36 summarized: in post-medieval Germany chess was invisible. Chapter 37 will prove that the situation in France was the same. For Germany, I could verify my vision with paintings and drawings. For France I must contend myself with the language, but nevertheless the argumentation is incontrovertible.
Holland 2019 and 2600
In the year 2019 a Dutch factory advertises with this flat two-sided gaming board.
The side with 64 squares is for chess, the side with 100 squares for draughts. In the journal of the Dutch Chess Federation the manufacturer recommends it as a chessboard, in the journal of the Dutch Draughts Federation as a draughtboard. The Dutch language has no name for the entire board.
I am writing this text in 2019. Imagine that in 2100 draughts in Holland is obsolete but that the manufacturer continued to produce this type of gaming board. What is the name he will use in his advertisements? Chessboard, for that is its function in Holland in 2100. So, chessboard and draughtboard are functional names.
In the year 2600, a historian has made up a plan to determine the position of chess and draughts in the Dutch society in the 21st c. Two world wars wiped The Netherlands off the map, what remained of the land and its culture were some files from the factory in question. The historian calls himself lucky: ‘What a coincidence!’ And he notes down: “In the first decades of the age, the manufacturer called his board both chessboard and draughtboard. Conclusion: in these days chess and draughts were equally popular”. He is thumbing further through the papers and notes down: “In the last decades of the 21st c., the factory called the board only chessboard”. With his conclusion: “In the course of the century Dutch players of games switched to chess; draughts disappeared”.
Like this historian will do in 500 years’ time, I may draw conclusions about the popularity of a game in case I know the board and the names of the games played on this board.
The name for draughtboard in modern French
The current French name for draughtboard is damier. This word has a second meaning: gaming board for whatever game. This meaning gives us information: in some time in the past a gaming board for several names got the name damier. Put in other words: in that time draughts was so popular that the gaming board was identified with draughts. Below I shall make clear when and how this happened.
The 16th c.
The process of identification took place in the 16th c. For the evidence behind my argumentation in this chapter I refer to the survey of French names for gaming boards between 1400 and 1800 in Stoep 2005,20072:113.
For that survey I determined which types of boards French furniture makers made between 1400 and 1800 and what were the names for these boards. Between 1400 and 1700 ‒I limit myself to three centuries‒ two types have been in use.
In the Middle Ages a two-sided flat board was common. One side had a pattern for tables, the other side a checkered pattern of 64 squares, see chapter 13. Just like the Dutch language in our time this board had functional names: the tables pattern was called tablier, the checkered pattern eschequier = chessboard or merellier = draughtboard.
Contrary to the situation in Holland in our days, the piece of furniture had in medieval French a name of its own: tablier. We call such a name a collectivum, literally “collection”. The words wood and army are other examples: a wood is a collection of trees and plants, an army a collection of soldiers and officers.
The gaming box
After the Middle Ages the gaming box came into being. This piece of furniture remained roughly in vogue in the 16th and 17th c., see chapter 33. The gaming box had four functions: it was a board for morris, for chess, for tables and for draughts. French had a name for three functions.
Not for morris. This has to do with the social position of this game: it was often played but had no social status. The lack of status was reflected in the language: neither the morris board (right below, closed gaming box) nor the morris piece had a name of its own, see chapter 34.
The French functional name for the chessboard (left above, closed gaming box) was eschequier (today échiquier).
In the 16th and 17th c., eschequier had a second meaning: board for tables. I say it wrongly: in these centuries the common meaning of eschequier was board for tables. Why?
This was the result of the disappearance of the French medieval name for tables around 1500. This name was jeu de tables. The French were in need of a name for the popular game of tables and seized the name jeu des eschecs. This name meant chess, it’s true, but this name was hardly used, and therefore it was free for use. See for this process chapter 16. The name eschequier was free to be used by another group than chess players. As a consequence, the meaning of eschequier in the 16th and 17th c. was mostly tables board. (Above: tables pattern of an opened gaming box).
Conclusion: in France in the 16th and 17th c. chess was for the general public an invisible game. Tables was, on the contrary, a popular game, the language reveals.
The fourth board game is draughts. Between 1500 and 1700, the French functional name for the draughtboard was tablier à jouer aux dames, literally “board to play draughts”. More practical was the name tablier, used in the second half of the 17th c. A remarkable name, as the word tablier has the general meaning of gaming board, for whatever game. This contraction suggests that the French connected the word tablier with draughts.
Did the French language in the 16th and 17th c. have a collectivum for the gaming box, like in the Middle Ages for the flat board? Yes, even two.
The first one is tablier à jouer, a name we find in dictionaries. It seems rather a definition than an everyday name.
The second name for the gaming box, damier, seems more practical. This name made promotion from functional name to collectivum. We may, no: must!, conclude from this that when the French fetched the gaming box from the cupboard, this was mostly for a game of draughts. As a consequence, the entire box got the name damier. The teacher at school, long ago, taught me the name for this phenomenon: pars pro toto. On this site I use the name England as a pars pro toto for the United Kingdom.
Damier kept its collective meaning until today. The word illustrates how deeply a linguist has sometimes to dig to explain the meaning of a word!
The words tablier and damier speak, each in its own way, of the great popularity of draughts in 16th and 17th c. France.
Chapter 36 and 37
Chapter 36 summarized: in post-medieval Germany chess was an invisible game, the Germans identified the checkered 64 squares board with draughts. Chapter 37 summarized: in post-medieval France chess was an invisible game. Draughts was by far the most popular game. Tables and perhaps also morris were played in the background.
(Contribution by Roly Cobbett, games researcher, Dover Castle, UK).
When Noël Capperon, an Orléans apothecary, discovered Fritillaria meleagris growing in the Loire meadows in 1570, he wrote to Carolus Clusius (a Flemish horticulturist, working at the Leiden University in the Hortus Botanicus), describing it, and saying that it was known locally as fritillaria, supposedly because the checkered pattern on the flower resembled the board on which draughts was played. Clusius believed this to be an error, in that fritillus is actually the Latin name for the cup in which the dice used in the game were kept, not the board itself.
The flower, in American English called checkered lily, in English also snake’s head, likes moisture, the reason Capperon found it along the river. In Dutch the flower has the naam flower of the lapwing, as the lapwing is a meadow bird.
A possible explanation. The name for the dice box was extended with the meaning board to play a dicing game, in casu the game of tables. In the 16th c. this board was part of the gaming box. In French the gaming box was called damier because of the popularity of draughts. And therefore the flower could get a name referring to a dice cup.
[Sources: Clusius 1583:169-73; Dubois 1894:19; Ellacombe 1895:45-56; Estienne 1531:317; Stoep 1984 :129,135-6, Yates 1859:548].