Friday, 7 February 2014

Medieval chess and variants

My planned post on medieval chess became much too long, reason why I chopped it into three parts. The first part concerned the medieval chess board. This is the second part of the story and concerning playing medieval chess. There has much been said on  medieval chess and good guides on how to play medieval chess can be found on internet, for instance at the Chess variants web-page. But most of these guides only concern the starting point, i.e. the Muslim/Indian variant for playing chess, also known as Chatranj. According to H.J.R. Murray in A history of chess the opening game of Shatranj was too slow for the medieval European taste. During the medieval period many variations, often local, were tried out in order to improve the playability of chess. One of the proposed improvements by Alfonso the Wise (1283) is the use of dice to speed up the game. This eventually culminated into the chess as we know it today. The most important changes involved the movement of the queen (ferz/counsellor), the movement of the pawns, the movement of the king, and the movement of the elephant (alfil). The game piece elephant was also known under other names, like bishop (in many countries), sage or wise man (e.g. in Italy, England, Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden), count (in Germany) and fool (mainly in France).

A couple playing chess at the window. Around 1448. Chapel passageway, house of Jacques Coeur, 
Bourges, France. Image scan from the book 'Illuminating fashion' by A.H. van Buren.

While we know that chess had its origin in northern India, the medieval man thought otherwise. To him chess had several origins:  (1) It was invented during the siege of Troy, either by the Greeks (Odysseus) or by the Trojans (Achilles). (2) It was discovered by Attalus Asiaticus (who also invented several dice games). (3) It was invented in the time of Evil-Merodach (Amel-Marduk), the son of Nebuchadnezzar by the philosopher Xerxes or Philometer.

Odysseus (Ulysses) playing chess in his tent on a 5 x 6 chequered board. Christine de Pisan, L'Epistre d'Othea, dated 1450-1475. Koninklijke Bibliotheek, The Hague, the Netherlands,  KB, 74 G 27, Fol. 79r.

Playing medieval chess 

The following rules for medieval chess are those of the 'basic' Shatranj, which was most widely played and described in medieval (chess) manuscripts. Some variants of medieval chess will be discussed later. The general layout of the pieces in medieval chess is like in modern chess: rook, knight, elephant/bishop, king, counsellor/queen, elephant/bishop, knight, rook are positioned on the first and last row, each with a row of pawns in front. The kings oppose each other and the white king resides on a black square. But some remarks should be made: where is the exact position of the king on an unchequered board? what happens if the game pieces have different colours, like red and green? or if the squares of a chequered board have different colours? or if you have a black or a white square in the lower left corner? The last question is solved, as the white king is 'fixed' onto a black square. But these questions show that the starting position of the king and counsellor is only relative.
The layout of the pieces for medieval chess on an unchequered board: 
where is the exact position of the King (the tallest piece here)?

The game pieces have their specific moves, which are also used for Byzantine (round) chess:
  • The King moves one square in any direction.
  • The Counsellor/Queen moves only one square diagonally.
  • The Elephant/Bishop moves exactly 2 spaces diagonally. It can jump over other game pieces. This means that its movement is restricted to only 8 places on the board.
  • The Knight moves like the modern chess knight: two spaces forward/backward or sideways plus one space at a right angle (an L-shape). The knight jumps over other pieces.
  • The Rook moves like the modern one: unlimited movement forward, backward or sideways until it has reached another piece. It cannot jump.
  • The Pawn moves one square forward when not capturing. Capturing occurs one step diagonally. Unlike modern chess, the pawn does not have the two-square step as the initial move. When pawns reach the other end of the board they are promoted to a counsellor.
 A courtesan playing chess (on an empty board!). Painting on the ceiling of the King's room at the Alhambra, Granada, Spain. Dated 1396-1408. Image scan from the book 'Medieval castles of Spain' by L. Monreal y Tejada.

Players take alternate turns to move one game piece. All pieces capture by landing on the square of an opposing piece, thereby removing that piece from the board. Only the pawn has a special move for capturing. All others capture just as they move normally. If a player’s King is threatened with capture, 'check' is declared, and the player must move so that his King is no longer threatened. If there is no possible move to relieve the king of the threat, he is 'checkmate' and has lost the game is over. Even if the King is not in immediate threat, but any possible move would subject him to capture (stalemate), he has lost the game. Also, if one side is reduced to a king alone with no other men, he loses as a 'bare king', unless the other player is reduced to a bare king on the very next move, in which case the game is a draw. Finally, if neither side has enough power on the board to win by checkmate, stalemate or bare king, the game is drawn. Note that chess during medieval times was usually played for a stake.

The 'forced' chess or 'maidens game' variant

The book of games of Alfonso X the wise (1283) describes a special chess variant which was invented by some maidens in Marocco. The translation of the text (by Sonja Musser) is given below:

A game of forced chess being played by six women, Alfonso X Libro de los Juegos folio 5.

And we wish next to tell of the game which they call forced. And this is because even though it may be played according to each player’s will, in it there is also to be an element of force because a man goes against his will losing his best piece to his opponent’s worst, willing or not by putting it on a square where the other is forced to capture it, according to the movement of the piece against which it is put. And this game is arranged just the same as the first and the pieces move and capture each other in that same way except that there is in addition the forced capture. And therefore those that play it are to be knowledgeable so that they do not put their best pieces in a position where they are to give them up to lesser and more lowly pieces. Because in this lies all the wisdom of this game and its play. And because of this force which we described, they call it the forced game. But because some tell that the damsels first invented it overseas in Ultramar [Marocco], they call it the game of the maidens [Juego de Doncellas].

Here movement of the pieces is as described for medieval chess, but for capturing an extra rule is made. Capturing is obligatory if it is possible. This way a pawn can be sacrificed in order to capture a more powerful piece like a knight or rook.

Other variants of play

The local differences in play of medieval chess were called assizes. The Libro de los Juegos (1283) gives some Spanish assizes with alternate movements and rules of some game pieces. 
  • The queen can leap two squares in any direction (i.e. horizontally, as well as vertical and diagonally forward) on her first move if that space is unoccupied. It cannot capture another piece on those five squares.
  • The pawn may move two squares on its first move, i.e. like the modern pawn, until either player has made a first capture.
  • Pawns can only promote to a queen when the original queen has been captured.
  • No bare king and stalemate rules are given.
At the close of the 15th century the Spanish assizes were as follows:
  • The king could leap on his first move to any unoccupied third square, providing he had never been checked and leaping did not cross a square holding an opponents piece.
  • A pawn passing an opponents pawn with the double move could capture that pawn.
  • No restriction on promotion of pawns to a queen. The promoted queen can make the privileged two square leap.
  • Bare king and stalemate are considered inferior wins.
The Lombard assizes are described in the Liber de moribus hominum et officis nobilum by Jacobus de Cessolis (late 13th century):
  • The king can leap to any first, second or third square on his first move as long as he is not checked. He cannot jump over an hostile piece, or capture a piece by the leap. He may not leap out of check.
  • An unmoved king and queen can make a joint move for their first move; the whole counting as a single move.
  • The queen and the promoted pawn can move to places which they can reach in two ordinary moves. The intervening square may be occupied. No capture or check can be made with this move.
  • Stalemate is a draw. Bare king is not a win (And one may take all the men so that the king is left alone, and he must move, move for move, so long as it pkeases the other side, and there is no help).

'Hi ceygit de kuningin den markis scach' (folio 24r) and 'Hi leret der markis Arablen der kuninginnen den kristenden
loben'(folio 25r) from the Willehalm Codex' by Wolfram von Eschenbach, 1334. University Library Kassel, Germany.

The German assizes are of later date (15th century) and e.g. described in the Cracow poem of 1422:
  • The king has the same first leap as in the Lombard assize.
  • The queen and promoted pawn have the same first move as in the Lombard assize.
  • Four pawns may move an initial double step (KP, QP and RP), provided no piece has been captured. The pawns before the rooks (RP) do not have that restriction.
  • Stalemate is a draw. Bare king is a win.
The French and English medieval chess variants are know as the long assize and the short assize. The short assize seems to be identical to the 'basic' Shatranj, but with a different setup of the pieces. The long assize consist of:
  • The queen and promoted pawn have the same first move as in the Lombard assize.
  • The  pawn can move two squares as its initial move and  has the power of capturing another pawn  in passing, as in modern chess.
  • The king can leap on his first move to any unoccupied third square, providing he had never been checked and leaping did not cross a square holding an opponents piece.
  • Stalemate is a draw.
  • When a player has the advantage of a rook (or more) he has nine moves left to mate the opponent.
Two versions of the short assize. Right: the set-up from the Codex Dresdens O/59, folio 81b (Sächsische Landesbibliothek, Dresden, Germany);. Left: the set-up from the 15th century 'Le Jeu des eschez amoureux' (Ms. Fr. 143, f. 355, Bibliotheque Nationale de France, Paris, France). Note that the queen shares her square with a pawn.

The set-up of the board and pieces for the short assize are:
  • All pawns are arranged on the third line.
  • The queen on her third square.
  • The other pieces arranged symmetrically on the second and first lines.
  • The opposing sides correspond exactly.
  • In the opening arrangement it is possible to place two pieces onto one square. However they move separately. During play no double placement is possible. 
  • A double capture (of two pieces on the same square) by an enemy piece is possible.

An even more extravagant set-up of a short assize is found in problem 25 'Le guy de ly enginous e ly coueytous' in the manuscript MS Royal 13 A VIII ff. 161 (British Library, London, UK). Here as many as three pieces are placed on a single square. The first player has to mate the second in five moves in one of the four points with a pawn, provided that the second player plays to win pieces and not for defence (the diagrams in this manuscript are on an unchequered board with the pieces in black and red letters).





Using dice with medieval chess 

Dice were used in medieval chess in order to speed up the game. Alfonso X the Wise particularly complains that the chess game proceeds too slowly. For the larger chess variants (decimal chess and grande acredex) he therefore invents the seven and eight-sided dice and describes how they should be made. For normal medieval chess on an 8 by 8 square board, the six-sided dice are used. Here, the number of pips define the type of game piece that has to move, in order of the social rank of the game piece: 6 = king, 5 = counsellor/queen, 4 = elephant/bishop, 3 = knight, 2 = rook, and 1 = pawn. The promoted pawn can also move on a roll of 5.

How many dice are rolled and if one can choose which die to use is unclear. The medieval manuscripts mentioning chess with dice rolls do not specify a certain number of dice. Ancient Indian chess variants (chaturanga) used more than one die. Modern thoughts on using dice with chess are to use two dice of which the player chooses one for his move. On rolling a double, he may choose any (one) piece to move. Using more dice will reduce the luck factor and increase the possibilities of choice, i.e. making play more interesting. If a player is unable to use the outcome of the dice roll, his turn is forfeit. 

In case of a mate, the player may only use his roll to 'unmate' his king. If he cannot 'unmate' his king, his turn is forfeit. If he could move another piece with his die roll, he is not allowed to do it. Check-mate does hardly exist when using dice, as moves are dependent on the roll and not on the cleverness of the player. A win mostly occurs when the 'mated' king in the next turn is captured, or else when the king is 'bared'.

Chess moralities

Le Jeu des échecs moralisé by Jacobus Cessolis, University of Chicago Library MS 392, images from folio 1r and 32r. The original text was written in the 13th century; this manuscript is dated around 1365 and made in France. Note that they play on a 6 by 6 and a 6 by 5 chequered board.

Also some moralities have been derived from the chess game in medieval times, which have an odd sort of humour to the modern mind. The oldest chess morality is the Quadedam moralitas de scaccario per innocentium papam, of which the earliest versions date from the 13th century. They can be summarized (by H.J.R. Murray) as:

The world resembles a chessboard which is chequered white and black, the colours showing the two conditions of life and death, or praise and blame. The chessmen are men of this world who have a common birth, occupy different stations and hold different titles in this life, who contend together, and finally have a common fate which levels all ranks. The King lies often under the other pieces in the bag.
The King's move and powers of capture are in all directions, because the King's will is law (see below).
The Queen's move is aslant only, because women are so greedy that they will take nothing except by rapine and injustice.
The Rook stands for the itinerant justices who travel over the whole realm, and their move is always straight, because the judge must deal justly.
The Knight's move is compounded of a straight move and and oblique on; the former betokens his legal power of collecting rents, etc., the latter his extortions and wrong-doings.
The Aufins are prelates wearing horns (but not like that of Moses had when he descended from Sinai). They move and take obliquely because nearly every bishop misuses his office through cupidity.
The Pawns are poor men. their move is straight, except when they take anything: so also the poor man does well so long as he keeps from ambition. After the pawn is promoted he becomes a Fers and moves obliquely, which shows how hard it is for a poor man to deal rightly when he is raised above his proper station.
In this game the Devil says 'Check!' when a man falls into sin; and unless he quickly cover the check by turning to repentance, the Devil says 'Mate!'and carries him of to hell, whence is no escape. For the Devil has many kinds of temptations to catch different types of men, as the hunter has dogs to catch different types of animals.  

Another moral problem with chess during medieval times concerned the promotion of the pawn. Here the game piece not had its power changed, but its sex as well! Logically this transgenderism was frowned upon by the church.

The last sentences of the Le Jeu des échecs moralisé by Jacobus Cessolis, 
University of Chicago Library MS 392, folio 40r.


Some Dutch medieval chess

That chess was played in the Netherlands as well, is not only shown by the archaeological finds of chess pieces, but also written sources. For instance, the deeds/inventories of Count William of Holland, who bought two chess-boards for the use of himaself and his fellow travellers:

Item Aernt van Kessel wedergegeven by Ysebouts hant, die hi gegeven hadde bi myns heren bevelen om 2 scaecborde [chess boards] ende sciven [round game pieces] ende scaecspel [chess  pieces] daertoe 48 sc. backat, valent 9d. gr 7 m. 


Item om 2 tafelbort [game boards] ende scaecspel  [chess pieces] ende sciven [game pieces] ende coperen orinael 2 ducaten valent 2 sc. 4-1/2 d. gr. 1 ester.

Here a board is bought together with both chess pieces, as well as other round game pieces. The points to a dual function of the board of either chess and backgammon, or chess and draughts, as both latter games use round game pieces. Another Dutch noble, Adolphus, Duke of Guelders bought a chess-set made of bone and a board with a ring to hang it up in 1440 from Fyken v. Bourbon:

een beynen Schaeckspoel [bone chess pieces] voor ii gl. ende een nye Bret  [a new board] myt enen Ryngesken [with a ring] voor xxviii kr.
(Tolnboek v. Lobede, 1440)

In the Duke's inventory in 1447 another chess board is mentioned:

Item dat schaeckbret [chess board] mit schaek [chess pieces] ende wortafelspiel [backgammon] as half golt ende silver [half in gold and silver].

Evidently this is a dual purpose board for both chess and backgammon. Later in the inventory the purchase of a bag for this chess set is mentioned.

King Arthur plays a game of chess with sir Bedivere. Roman de Giron le Courtois, dated 1370-1380.  
Bibliotheque National de France, Manuscript NAF 5243, folio, 3v.

The medieval Deventer poem 'De Scachis' was found in a library in Deventer, the Netherlands, and henceforth called the Deventer poem. Several copies of this poem are found in other medieval manuscripts. The Deventer poem dates from the 14th century, but earlier copies date from the 13th century. The poem likely is originally of Flemish origin and written in Latin.

The Dutch literature 'Floris ende Blanchefloer' a 13th century translation in Diets [Middle Dutch] by Diederik van Assenede from the French book Floire et Blanceflor (ca. 1160). Below an excerpt where Floris plays chess with the tower guard for money, and after several games to gain entrance to his beloved Blanchefloer: 

Wildi comen corten u tiit
Ende spelen scaec, gelievet u iet?’
‘Here’, seithi, ‘mi ne lustes niet
Te scaken nu of tenigen spele
Te sitten, en si om haven vele.’
Die portwarder vraegde hem sciere,
Hoe hoge hi spelen wilde ende hoe diere.
Floris seide, hi speelde een spel
Om hondert bisante ende niet el.
Doe loefden siit bede gemene.
Men brochte hem een scaec van iivorenbene
[a chess board with ivory game pieces],
Dat scone was ende riicliic.
Hondert bisante sette haerliic.
Si setten haer spel ende begonsten
Haergeliic spelen, als si wel consten.
Floris const best ende want al.

Also the French Voeux du Paon (1312) was translated into Middle Dutch. The excerpt tells that Lady Fezonas gives her opponent the odds of Knight and move, and undertakes to give mate in the corner with an Alfil (bishop); which is an impossibility in a medieval chess game.

Ic wil u geven groet vordeel;
Roc of Riddre, welc gi kiest;
Mare gevalt dat gi verliest,
Dat gi u niet belgen en selt.
Ic sal uwen conic met gewelt
Achter in den hornec driven
met enen ouden, daer hi sal bliven.

Last, the book of 'De jeeste van Walewein en het schaakbord' [The quest of Walewein for the chessboard] should be mentioned, where a chess board plays a mayor role. The book dates from the late 13th century and started by Pieter Vostaert and finalized by Penninc. The story tells of King Arthur holding a banquet with his knights (including Walewein) after which a beautiful chess board appears - made of gold, ivory and all kinds of gems stones - floating in the air. Arthur want this chess board and asks his knights to find it for him. None of the knights want to go, but finally Walewein offers to go on the quest to after the chess board. After much adventuring the finds the board as well as the lovely lady Ysabele.

Daer die heren aldus saten
Naden etene ende hadden ghedweghen
Also hoghe liede pleghen
Hebben si wonder groot vernomen:
Een scaec ten veinstren in comen
Ende breedde hem neder uptie aerde.
Hi mochte gaen spelen dies beghaerde.
Dus laghet daer uptie wile doe.
Daer ne ghinc niemen of no toe
Van allen gonen hoghen lieden.
Nu willic u tscaecpel bedieden:
Die stapplen waren root goudijn
Entie spanghen zelverijn.
Zelve waest van elps bene
Wel beset met dieren stene.
Men seghet ons in corten worden:
Die stene die ten scake behorden
Waren wel ghewaerlike
Beter dan al Aerturs rike.
Dus saghen zijt alle die daer waren.
Metten hieft up ende es ghevaren
Weder dane het quam te voren.
Dies adde die coninc Artur toren
Ende sprac: ‘Bi mire coninc crone
Dit scaecspel dochte mi so scone!
Maerct ghi heren ende siet
Hen quam hier sonder redene niet.
Die up wille sitten sonder sparen
Dit scaecspel halen ende achter varen

Walewijn. Illumination from the 13th century 
manuscript Ms. Letterk. 195-2. 
Leiden University Library, Leiden, the Netherlands.

Sources used

H.R.J. Murray, 1913/2012. A history of chess. Reprint by Skyhorse publishing. ISBN 9781620870624.
Digitale Bibliotheek voor de Nederlandse Letteren [Digital library of Dutch literature]
Chess variants websiite
S. Musser Golladay, 2007. Los Libros de Acredex Dados e Tablas. Historical, Artistic and Metaphysical Dimensions of Alfonso X's book of games. PhD thesis, University of Arizona, USA. 1441 pages.
Alphonso X the Wise, 1283. Libro de los Juegos. Translation into English by S. Musser.
Parlett, D., 1999. The Oxford history of board games. Oxford university press. ISBN 0-19-212998-8


  1. We are interested in buying this board game chess Byzantine.

    What size the square! Only have this color.

    How much does the board and transportation to Castellar del Valles, Barcelona

    National Museum of Chess
    salvador Juanpere i aguiló
    Castellar del Valles (Barcelona)

    1. Dear Salvador,

      Sorry for the misunderstanding, I thought you (the museum) was selling the byzantine chess game. Our chess game is not for sale. We use it to demonstrate the different medieval board games and only have one (and we do not want to make another).

      The byzantine chess board has a similar size as a normal square chess board.