60. Chess in the Netherlands before the 19th century
The rise of chess
After the decline of the time-honored game of tables in the second half of the 18th c., the people in the Netherland played two board games they at least knew since the early Middle Ages: draughts and morris [van der Stoep, de Ruiter & van Mourik 2021:140-1]. And hesitantly a game came up which they rediscovered by way of imported French manuals: chess (chapter 42). In the early 19th c. chess was growing on the up and up (chapter 58).
In the 16th and 17th c. a few Dutchmen played chess (chapter 40 and chapter 41). Was the position of chess before the 16th c. better? For lack of evidence I could not pronounce about the medieval position of chess in the Netherlands, but recent Amsterdam investigations allow me to make some comments.
Chess is and was Europe’s great board game”, the historiographers of chess assure us. Their practice: they made archaeological investigations, they traced chess manuscripts and books, and the collected references to chess in older literature. They do and did not realize that such investigations suffer/suffered from a fundamental shortcoming: how can you know that chess has been the greatest, the most popular board game if you neglect comparing chess with the position of other board games as draughts, tables and morris?
I avoid this pitfall by a systematical comparison. In chapter 40 for example I could compare the popularity of chess with other board games by using figures of the Dutchman Gerbert Willemzoon Bakker. He scored in Amsterdam households 106 draughts boards against 8 chess board. But there is a problem: he did not note the gaming board systematically. By now we have for the city of Amsterdam new and more reliable data. In 2021 and 2022 the Archives of Amsterdam made thousands of notary documents online available, inventories of Amsterdam citizens who married or died between 1600 and 1699. The Dutch draughts player and historical researcher selected the gaming boards and put them in a table. Today Du. tiktakbord = board for tables, Du. dambord = board for draughts, Du. schaakbord = board for chess.
It is not permitted to read the three Dutch words for gaming boards in the table as if they date from our time, because an annoying quality of words is that their meaning can change. For this reason we are obliged to examine if in the 17th c. the three words in the table possibly had another meaning as in the 21st c. Probably the meaning of the words depends on the material. In the 21st c. each board game has its own board, but not in the 17th c. In the 17th c. Europe, and also Amsterdam, played board games with the gaming box. De Ruiter made a file of physically saved gaming boards as well as pictures of gaming boards in the arts.
Well then, one half on the gaming boxes, type 1, had a pattern for tables. The other half, type 2, had besides the tables pattern a pattern for chess and draughts. Furthermore, about half the boxes of type 2 had a pattern for morris.
I did a semantic analysis. Well then, in the 17th c. Du. tiktakbord meant gaming box with tables pattern (gaming box type 1). Du. dambord had two meanings. First not game-specific gaming box with tables pattern, a 64 squares pattern and possibly a morris pattern (gaming box type 2). Secondly game-specific board to play draughts.
A complication is that in the 17th c. the Dutch invented or imported a draughts variety that was played on a 100 squares board. Because of this a part of the 30 references of Du. dambord in the table could relate to flat 10×10 boards.
Aertgen Claeszn. van Leyden (Holland, 1500-1550): players of tables
Gaming box type 2 lost its name Du. dambord
In the northern Netherlands, i.e. the present Holland, Du. dambord lost its meaning gaming box with tables pattern, a 64 squares pattern and possibly a morris pattern, probably around 1752, when he gaming box largely fell into disuse [van der Stoep, de Ruiter & van Mourik 2021:166-7]. In the southern Netherlands, the Dutch speaking part of present Belgium (Flanders and Brabant), Du. dambord saved it meaning gaming box into the 19th c, as appears from an article in the journal “Messager des sciences historiques, des arts et de bibliographie en Belgique”, 1855:98, published in Ghent.
De Ruiter reported: “The relatively great number of tables boards were typical for Amsterdam. In the small towns and villages north of Amsterdam, the number of draughts boards (the name Du. dambord) strongly was in the majority”.
How to explain this? Well, new trends and preferences come into existence in the big city. Where inhabitants of villages and smaller towns held on draughts, inhabitants of Amsterdam in the 17th c. developed a preference for tables.
Gaming box type 2 got its name Du. dambord
Gaming box type 2 got its name Du. dambord in the 16th c. With this type a player could play tables, draughts, chess and morris (if there was a third pattern), but the language user called the piece of furniture Du. dambord. This can only have happened in case the Dutch chiefly took out the box to play draughts. The people considered it as a draughtboard to say so. And this leads to the conclusion that in the 16th c. Netherlands draughts was more popular than any other board game.
Draughts in medieval Amsterdam
Is it conceivable that in the Middle Ages the Dutch hardly played draughts but that the introduction of the gaming box about 1500, on the borderline between the Middle Ages and the New Time, boosted the popularity of draughts? No. The gaming box was not more than an improved version of the medieval board. The medieval board was flat and folding, with on one side a 64 squares pattern and on the other a tables pattern, see chapter 13. Because of this the popularity of draughts must have been the continuation of the medieval situation. To my regret there is no Dutch material to sustain this conclusion.
I can, however, point to a parallel with France. Just like in the Netherlands and also in the 16th c., the gaming box got the name of the draughtboard; the French name was damier (chapter 37), and just like in the Netherlands draughts in 16th c. France must have been the most popular board game, continuation of the popularity in the 15th c. There is evidence that in France draughts was not only very popular in the 15th c. but also in an unknown number of ages before (chapter 13, chapter 14, chapter 22).
For the Dutch situation it is important to know this, because in the Middle Ages the culture of the Netherlands was strongly influenced by the French culture. Most of the Dutch literary works, for instance, were translations from French works.
Circle of Adriaan Brouwer (Holland, ca. 1630): players of draughts
Chess in Amsterdam
The figures in the table are clear: in 17th c. Amsterdam chess was a minor board game. It is unclear when the notary noted the name Du. schaakbord: did he found a gaming box with chess pieces or a 64 squares board with chess pieces?
As little as in other regions in the Netherlands, in medieval Amsterdam chess was far from popular. For this claim I cannot refer to Dutch evidence, I refer to the parallel with France: the French played chess but in small closed groups only (chapter 16). Also in England draughts was a much greater game than chess, see chapter 15 for proof from the 14th c.
It should be more than coincidence. In three cultures the analysis of language phenomena allow me to determine that draughts was a great game and chess an insignificant game.