61. The rise of chess in Europe
The inquiry into the history of chess and draughts, the subject of this site, is especially linguistic, that means based on the analysis of French and Dutch words from before the 19th c. For such an analysis I had only one source: dictionaries, and especially in the 16th and 17th c. French-Dutch and Dutch-French dictionaries were in the majority.
Chess, by the western world adopted about 1000 AD, is compared with draughts a relatively new game. Within the restriction of my material I found that chess was only played on a rather modest scale, contrary to draughts. Only after seven centuries after its introduction in the western world chess broke through, first in France. The lexicography produced two evidences.
The first proof is the board name Fr. damier. See for this name chapter 37, below I give a summary.
The second proof is the game name Fr. jeu des eschecs. See for this name chapter 16. Because of the possibly high degree of complexity I give a varied repetition below.
About 1500 the gaming box became popular; about 1725 it became obsolete ‒never totally. See chapter 33 . There were two types, see chapter 60. Type 1 was a gaming box with a pattern for tables only. Type 2 was a gaming box with a tables pattern and a 64 squares pattern; it was made to play tables, chess and draughts. Half of the boxes of type 2 also had a pattern for morris.
The French name for type 2 was Fr. damier, literally “board to play draughts”, a proof that French for the greater part used the board to play draughts. Conclusion: in France in the 16th, 17th and a part of the 18th c. was the most popular board game, more popular than tables, chess and morris.
Just like in other European countries, in the Netherlands and in France tables was a favourite game. There was a difference: in the Netherlands the most played tables variety was verkeren whereas this variety was unknown in France. This difference was a problem for lexicographers: the words Du. verkeren, Du. verkeersspel and Du. verkeerbord were a part of the Dutch lexicon, and for this reason a lexicographer had to record it in a Dutch-French dictionary. But there was no French equivalent, how to solve this problem? Their solution was remarkable, see the two following entries:
Verkeersspel = jeu des eschez [Sasbout 1576, Mellema 1602, 1618, 1636. d’Arsy 1643, 1651, van den Ende 1656, 1669, 1681, 1695, 1697]
Verkeren = jouer aux eschez [van den Ende 1656, 1681, 1695, 1697].
This choice was possible because from the Middle Ages [Murray 1913:399] into the second half of the 17th c. Fr. eschec had the broader meaning piece to play a board game. We of course, living in the 21st c., find the choice of the lexicographers bizarre: because since the 11th c. Fr. jeu des eschez means chess and Fr. jouer aux eschez to play chess we interpret Fr. eschec as chess piece.
The process behind the choice of the lexicographers is complex.
The linguist distinguishes word fields, i.e. word families. The names for the members of a family, so mother, father, daughter, son, are a small word field. We can extend this word field with grandmother, nephew, aunt, grandson and so on. During my investigations into the board game terminology I discovered that in the past words relating to draughts, chess, morris, alquerque and tables were one family. A salient result of my investigations into the board game terminology: when players of some board game needed a word, they first of all looked in the board game family for a name that was not or hardly used. See for this subject also van der Stoep, de Ruiter & van Mourik 2021:181.
This mechanisme explains why 16th and 17th c. lexicographers could choose Fr. jeu des eschez as the equivalent of Du. verkeersspel en Fr. jouer aux eschez as the equivalent of Du. verkeren: in the word field board game these French words were vacant. In other words: in the French society Fr. jeu des eschez and Fr. jouer aux eschez were not or hardly used.
In the early 18th c. we see a change: the lexicographers chose another way to render the game verkeren in French, by a description or the game name Du. verkeren in a pseudo-French word. This proves that it is not longer possible to connect Du. verkeer with Fr. eschez. See for such a lexicographic solution the entry:
Verkeeren, op het verkeerbord speelen. Jouer à certain trictrac, singulier aux pays du Nord & inconnue en France [Marin 1701, 1717].
Le Caravage (c. 1600), a rare chess tableau
Contribution to our knowledge of chess in France
So far the conjuring with words; what does it contribute to our knowledge of chess in France?
Well, we know with certainty that there were chess players in 16th and 17th c. France, and that they called their game Fr. jeu des eschecs, and to play their game Fr. jouer aux eschecs. The quoted entries give us another certainty: “the” Frenchman, he is for instance a French family man, strolling through Paris on a sunny day in 1668, did not know these two names. Then the conclusion should be that in France chess was only played in closed societies.
About 1700 lexicographers cannot render the game name Du. verkeersspel with Fr. jeu des eschecs any longer, nor Du. verkeren with Fr. jouer aux eschecs. Why not? Answer: we may conclude from this that “the” Frenchman, for example a Paris family man in 1708, connects the game names Fr. jeu des eschecs en Fr. jouer aux eschecs with chess. New question: what happened so that he could connect the word Fr. eschec with chess? Answer: in the late 17th c. French chess players stepped into the limelight by their decision to move their game from a closed room to the coffee house, the public meeting place for representatives of the better social circles. Here is the beginning of the rise of chess in France, in fact in Europe [van der Stoep, de Ruiter & van Mourik 2021:182-3,188; chapter 44, chapter 56, chapter 58].