4. The reformed chess queen
A visitor of my site knows all about draughts and chess, so that he or she does not need explanation. I don’t know for sure, however, if everyone has knowledge of the medieval chess queen and therefore the piece needs attention.
According to the most recent view chess came into being in a region lying in the north of India today. Via via the game ended up with the Arabs, and the Arabs introduced it in Europe. The authorities do not agree on date, year and age. Let us for convenience say 1000 AD. European chess players adopted the Arab name of the queen: fers or a variant. The fers was a weak piece: its range was one square of the checkered board diagonally in all directions.
In the last quarter of the 15th c., say around 1475 [Golombek 1976:98, Eales 1985:76-7, Petzold 1986:148], chess underwent a thorough facelift. Especially the role of the queen was good off: chess players granted the piece its present range. Together with a new name: dame.
This name stirred the imagination of chess historians. “Dame means woman of rank”, they said. “So, the new queen was named after a woman. Who?” And they rose in pretty guessing. “After Joan of Arc”, was the proposal of French players. “After Maria”, thought Joachim Petzold, a German Marxist historian. He rode roughshod over the objections of earthlings who could be dismayed about a blasphemous etymology, nor did he consider the question whether undoubtedly deeply religious medieval chess players would name a wooden puppet after the mother of God.
Jean-Marie Lhôte (2002) points to the French author Martin le France, whose almost feministic ideas about the role of the woman in the medieval society could have been picked up by male chess players.
Today, Spanish chess historians hold on to the helm. “Reformed chess with its reformed queens was invented in Spain”, they stated. Draughts and chess historian Govert Westerveld, born and bred in the Netherlands but the greater part of his life living and working in Spain, accepted this assumption without any restraint (1997, 2013). He launched a new etymological proposal: “The new chess queens was named after queen Isabelle of Castile”. From the mother of God to the Spanish queen is a step back of course, but would her majesty it have appreciated that her subjects shove a wooden puppet over a checkered board? Is that not lese majesty? Would the British queen be delighted?
It feels as if am poisoning a feast by bellyaching, but you cannot establish the etymology of the word dama by pretty guesses, that demands research. I expounded the main principle of such an investigation in chapter 2. Dama, risen in the late 15th c., is a new sense of an existing word. The researcher’s task then is to seek words that are likely candidates in the Spanish lexis of that time. I hide my investigation behind a link, click here.
The result: the Spanish name for the queen, dama, is a new meaning of the Spanish word dama meaning row of the chess board where the pawn is promoted to queen. Spanish chess players borrowed this word from French chess players. For their part, those French chess players had borrowed the word from French draughts players, who had invented it. This word dame was useful to talk a game over! The original sense in the language of draughts players is row of the draughts board where the singleton is promoted to doubleton.
Robin O’Bryan [2019:45], misled by the name dama (Spanish) or dame (French), considers the rise of the new chess queen as a pertinent metaphor for the feminine challenga to masculine dominance in a game seen as a predominantly male activity. However, it is not her own idea, as an art historian she heavily relies on the sources mentioned in her Biblography.
To my mind, she makes (read: her sources make) a second mistake considering the medieval literature as a reflection of reality [2019:25]. As far as I see the medieval literatuur does not reflect the real world in the least (chapter 21); the most popular medieval board game was draughts (chapter 22). After the Middle Ages, especially in the 18th c., painters shows us how just draughts captivated female representatives of the higher classes, see Mourik &Stoep 2019; O’Bryan’s section about game and class [2019:43-4] needs supplementation. The above painting is taken from the “Iconography of draughts”, page 116. Johann Conrad Seekats painted the Elector’s daughter Karoline (left) paying a visit to Prince and Princess Georg Wilhelm von Hessen. The Elector’s daughter and the princess are playing draughts.
And, O’Bryan [2019:25-6] supposed, again following her sources, for instance the Stadtgeschichtliches Museum Leipzig, that Jan Cornelis Vermeyen portrayed the Elector of Saxony playing chess, see the painting below. But Johann Friedrich played draughts, not chess [Mourik & Stoep 2019:58].
The English call the most powerful piece of the chessboard queen. Here too we could indicate feminine influences, but here too the medieval literature is responsible: in the worldview of the medieval fictional writer the square beside the king should be occupied by a queen. We find the real world in the chess literature: the name for the medieval queen has the meaning adviser there.