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Chess in the Middle Ages
Our knowledge of chess in the Middle Ages comes from the literature of the period

Introduction: Our pocket dictionary defines the Middle Ages as 'the period of European History from about A.D. 500 to about 1500'. While the start of that period predates the earliest evidence for the origin of chess, the end coincides with the revolution in the rules which transformed the game from the variant known by the early players to the modern game. The first traces of chess in Europe date its introduction to sometime before A.D. 1000. Exactly how and where it arrived remains a mystery.

Sources of Information: Our knowledge of chess in the Middle Ages comes from the literature of the period, which preceded the invention of printing and movable type in the 1450s. Murray (see 'Origin of Chess') classified the literature into didactic (instructive) works, moralizing works, and collections of problems. Few boards and complete sets have survived from those early days, but many pieces and partial sets still exist. Artwork also gives us clues about how chess was played. We know of no great players.

How Chess Arrived in Europe: The names of the pieces and the rules of the game show that the common ancestor of European chess was the Arabic / Moslem game called Shatranj. There are at least four paths by which chess arrived in Europe. It arrived in Spain and Italy by conquest, in the Balkans via the Byzantine Empire centered on Constantinople (Istanbul), and in Russia and Scandinavia via the Volga River trade route from the Caspian Sea. Vikings spread the game in the Baltic Sea and beyond.

Early Literary References to Chess: The Einsiedeln (Switzerland) Poem, also known as 'Versus de scachis' and existing in two copies, was written in the decade before A.D. 1000. Its 98 lines described chess, its rules, and some basic strategies. The Latin epic 'Ruodlieb', written around 1050 by a monk at the abbey of Tegernsee (Bavaria), described the adventures of a medieval knight. Chess featured in one setting when Ruodlieb was forced to play for stakes with the court of a foreign king.

Chess as a Pastime of the Nobility: Chess spread in Europe because of its popularity among the nobility, starting in the 12th century. When Murray wrote, 'from the 13th to the 15th cent., chess attained to a popularity in Western Europe which has never been excelled', he meant the nobility and upper classes. In the 'Disciplina Clericalis' ('Training School for the Clergy'), Petrus Alfonsi (Spain, 1062-1120?) gave the seven accomplishments of a knight as riding, swimming, archery, boxing, hawking, chess, and verse writing.

Jacobus de Cessolis [Jacopo da Cessole] : Around 1300, Cessolis, a Dominican monk in Lombardy (Northern Italy) used chess as the basis for a series of sermons on morality. They later became 'Liber de moribus hominum et officiis nobilium sive super ludo scacchorum' ('Book of the customs of men and the duties of nobles or the Book of Chess'). The popular work was translated into many other languages and was the basis for William Caxton's 'The Game and Playe of the Chesse' (1474), one of the first books printed in English.

The Alfonso [Alphonso] Manuscript : The 'Libro del Acedrex', one of the most famous and historically important chess manuscripts, was commissioned by King Alfonso X (Alfonso the Wise, 1221-1284) of Castile and Leon. The work, completed in 1283, was part of the 'Libro de los Juegos' ('Book of games'), along with dice and an early form of backgammon. An original copy of the beautifully illustrated work survives in the monastery of San Lorenzo del Escorial near Madrid.

Early European Chess Sets and Pieces : The most famous of the medieval chess pieces are undoubtedly the Lewis Chessmen, found on the Isle of Lewis, Outer Hebrides, Scotland in 1831. Modern scholars date them to about 1150, probably made in Norway. Eleven of the 93 surviving pieces are in the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh. The others are in the British Museum, London. Other famous pieces are the so-called Charlemagne chessmen (Charlemagne never played chess), in the Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris, carved from ivory.