59. Morris in the northern Netherlands
The breakthrough of chess
In the northern Netherlands about 1800 the board game chess made a breakthrough. With nasty consequences for two board games which always had a great position in the Dutch culture: tables and morris; both games became obsolete. As it seems, draughts will be the next victim. In England draughts had almost disappeared, the French consider draughts as a boring game, a game of little substance, without any depth. This should be considered as a impoverishment of the board game culture, which gradually deteriorates into a monoculture.
In chapter 56 I described the rise of chess in the northern Netherlands about 1800. Representatives of the bourgeois elite gathered to network. To the outside world ‒the woman of the house included, though in this time she was not expected to criticize the behavior of her husband‒ they held out to practice a new game: chess. And it was chess which gave gentlemen not belonging to the real elite an excuse to join the society.
In this period chess fanned out to the rural towns, see chapter 58. Here the pattern from the city repeated itself: the society had the same function as in the big city, contacts between members of the bourgeois elite. Here too gentlemen not belonging to this elite but wishing to be part of it entered.
In the first half of the 19th c., representatives of the economical elite were not welcome at the societies. This changed about 1850, possibly a signal of a certain democratization. When this process grew, also representatives of lower social groups founded chess clubs. Up to these days chess was of secondary consideration; social contact, companionableness was the first goal. Only in the last decade chess clubs developed as we know them.
From then the popularity of chess strongly increased. With the described consequences for tables and morris, two ancient and once very popular board games: they fell into disuse.
See chapter 39 for tales. Summarized: in the second half of the 18th c. this board game became less popular, probably pushed away by draughts, but after 1850 it could have had some pickup. Only temporarily, since the late 19th c. the Dutch did not play tables anymore.
The literature on board games is rather silent about the social status of morris; David Parlett for instance did not write more than one page: Parlett 2018:111-2. For this reason I summarize what I wrote about this game in chapter 24, chapter 25, chapter 34 and chapter 38.
Alquerque board and morris board in two bricks in an ascending arch. Former Chorin Cloister of the Cistercian monks, construction started in 1273. Region Barnim, Brandenburg (Germany)
[Arie van der Stoep, Jan de Ruiter & Wim van Mourik 2021:151]
Morris with 2×9 pieces is a very old game, played in the first ages of our Common Era. We find carves of the morris board in christian churches, often together with the line draughts board. The inscriptions were made horizontally as well as vertically, so that a gaming function seems impossible. They should have had a symbolic function, but it is unknow which ne. My very careful conclusion: the boards refer to the earth and to the function of a church building as a temple.
In the medieval European society both games ‒morris and line draughts‒ were very popular. There was a difference: draught had a higher social standing than morris. This becomes clear, for example, in a text from 1426 of the English writer John Lydgate about members of the upcoming English class of the citizens, who became rich by trading as I suppose, who among themselves played chess and draughts. “I am playing morris better than chess and draughts”, one of them says. He plays this game against a shepherd, the gentlemen do not play morris among themselves. Obviously morris had a lower status than chess and draughts. Where did the man learn to play morris so strongly? In the family circle, I conclude.
Also the Dutch played morris in the family circle. In the early 17th c. Hugo de Groot, the famous jurist and diplomat, wrote poems about the board games played by the Dutch at home: morris with 2×3 and 2×9 pieces, tables and draughts.
In the period c. 1500-c. 1725 the Europeans played draughts and tables ‒before 1700 the only rarely played chess‒ on the gaming box. The gaming always had a tables pattern and a 8×8 chequered pattern but not always a morris pattern. The Dutchman Jan de Ruiter verified how many gaming boxes which have come down to us had a morris pattern: about half of the boxes. Did this mean that morris was less popular the two, later three, other board games I mentioned. Did the European will-to-do who were susceptible to status ask the cabinet maker ask for a gaming box without morris pattern?
In the 18th c. morris seems to have had a certain status in the northern parts of the Netherlands, because some families from the higher social circles placed an order with the silver smith to deliver silver miniature gaming boards. They had two gaming patterns: a pattern for morris on one side and a pattern with 64 squares on the other. The chequered pattern was a draughts board, as the smith nearly always 2×12 silver pieces.
In the norther provinces countrymen and women played in the 18th and 19th c. morris and draughts and a board with a similar shape, so with a morris pattern on one side and a chequered pattern on the other. The chequered board, however, had 100 and not 64 squares. In the 1920s this type of board passed out of use, and this was the end of morris in the Dutch society. In a number of other European countries ‒I know about Germany, France and Denmark, but possibly there are many more countries‒ morris survived into our days.
Morris pattern in a floor plank of the prison
of Enkhuizen (Netherlands), built in 1612
[Arie van der Stoep, Jan de Ruiter & Wim van Mourik 2021:211]