It may have occurred to some of you from time to time to wonder if certain of my blog posts are nothing more than an excuse to post a lot of really great pictures.
As a historical novelist and a serious student of history, I have only this to say to such idle speculation: you're absolutely right, and this is one of them.
I found a whole bunch of appealing pictures of medieval board games - mostly chess and backgammon, but a few others as well - and wanted to come up with a post that would use them. However, when I began to understand just how complicated and extensive the history of such games can get, I realized I was not the person to do it justice. I'm the one who managed not to learn how to play chess because when I was a little girl my father explained to me about the knights moving in L-shapes, and I decided I'd rather they engaged in guerrilla warfare. What can I say - I was that kind of kid.
So I'm not going to go into the history of the games, or of how the rules changed over the course of the middle ages, even though these are fascinating topics. But I will toss out a few anecdotes and literary references, to give us a bit of context for these popular pastimes. And as usual, I'm focusing on medieval (that is, pre-Renaissance) Italy - long before the fanatic reformer Savonarola tossed gaming boards and pieces onto his bonfire of the vanities in Florence in the late 1400s, where they joined other "sinful" items, including books, musical instruments, paintings, beautiful clothing, jewelry, and much more that we would love to have in museums to study today.
|Savonarola, preparing for the bonfire of the vanities|
Fortunately he didn't get them all, so we still have those ancient board games, with their long and unbroken (though not unchanged) traditions. We know from many paintings and book illustrations that those game boards were not very much different from the ones we know today, and we know from various medieval books on the game of chess, for example, in what ways they did differ from today's games and in what ways they were the same.
Those who really know their chess and backgammon may be able to study particular examples of these games and figure out who's likely to win, because it was typical to show gameboards facing the viewer, against all the laws of physics, to show the details. This was true of other games besides chess and backgammon, as well:
|sideways dice (how do they do that, anyway?)|
This next artist must have realized it looked a bit odd; he added a little easel, for verisimilitude.
We have quite a number of literary examples of games, usually chess, ranging from a 13th century tale of ill-fated courtly love (French, but popular in Italy) to the lively romps of Boccaccio. I'll just sketch out those two examples, to give you an idea of what the game of chess symbolized to the medieval reader or listener.
In the wonderful Palazzo Davanzati in Florence, a 14th century palace now a museum of medieval furnishings and domestic architecture, one bedroom has a fresco depicting that French tale, the story of the Chatelaine de Virgy. In this tale, a chess game is used as a means of seduction, as the wicked duchess attempts to win the love of the noble knight who already loves a different married woman, in the usual courtly-love tradition. She fails, gets vindictive, secrets are spilled, and it turns into a tragedy of epic proportions, with a body count approaching that of Hamlet. Good stuff, and terribly popular.
Unfortunately I can't find a picture of the fresco in the public domain, but perhaps this one would substitute, particularly if you note the hair-raising (or at least hat-raising) effect the game seems to be having on the spurned duchess. Maybe that's what happens when you switch to backgammon.
|Backgammon: A hat-raising experience|
Giovanni Boccaccio is always good for a lively look at medieval customs and practices. In the early part of his Decameron he has the young lady who is currently in charge of arranging recreation for the group announce that chessboards and other games are available, but then she says this:
If you take my advice on this matter, I suggest we spend this hot part of the day not playing games (a pastime which of necessity disturbs the player who loses without providing much pleasure either for his opponents or for those who watch) but rather telling stories... (translation by Mark Musa)And it's a good thing she did, or instead of having the Decameron there would only have been a bunch of long-forgotten chess matches.
|Those who watch|
Also in the Decameron, the seventh story of the seventh day (sounds like it ought to be magical, doesn't it?) involves chess as a means of seduction, not unlike the story of the Chatelaine de Virgy. In this one, the nobleman Lodovico, who is posing as one "Anichino" so that he can be employed by Egano because he's in love with Egano's wife Beatrice, uses chess to win her, cannily and subtly managing to lose, which puts her in a good mood and makes her feel awfully clever. Here's an illustration from that story:
The odd-looking woman on the right is actually Egano dressed as Beatrice, about to receive a beating from Anichino, who is really Lodovico. Got all that? No? Well, I guess you had to be there.
A fellow known as Jacobus de Cessolis (or Jacopo Dacciesole) is said to have written a book on chess, Solatium Ludi Scacchorum, before the year 1200. Of course, details from this period of history being as elusive as they are, he is also said to have lived between 1250-1322, and to have published his book Liber de moribus hominum et officiis nobilium super ludo scacchorum ("Book of the customs of men and the duties of nobles or the Book of Chess") in the second half of the 13th century. This work, whenever and whatever it was, was the basis for William Caxton's book on chess (or "chesse," as he called it), an early English book about the game published in 1474.
|From Jacopo's book|
Having gone from fiction to something between how-to and allegory, we'll now take a quick look at nonfiction. For example, offhand I can remember at least two examples of people being assassinated while playing chess, which can apparently be a very distracting game (especially if you have a musical accompaniment, as these players do):
|chess, with distractions|
One such incident was Rizzardo IV da Camino, lord of Treviso, who was absorbed in his game that fateful April 5 in the year 1312 when his assassins - and no one knows for sure who they were - took him by surprise and, as one account says, he was "fatally wounded in the loggia." That may sound a bit messy or even risque, but all it means is that he was playing chess in the open porch area of his palace. Dante thinks the murderers were the city's nobles, while others suggest Cangrande della Scala, men from Padua, or even the victim's brother. It is not known who his opponent was, or who was winning.
The other example that springs to mind is the Florentine leader Betto Brunelleschi, who was said to be the mastermind behind the 1308 death of Corso Donati. The Donati must have believed it, because it was two Donati youths who, with their companions, came to Betto's home and wounded him repeatedly while he was involved in a game of chess. According to chronicler Dino Compagni:
"some days later he died miserably, in a rage, without penitence or satisfaction to God or the world, and with the great ill will of many citizens. Many rejoiced at his death, for he was a terrible citizen." (Translation by Daniel E. Bornstein)And finally, let's take a look at an unusual chess competition held in Florence in early 1266, at a time when Florence was under Ghibelline rule. The podestà of Florence at that time was Count Guido Novello, who must have had a keen interest in chess, for the competition was held at the Palazzo del Popolo, which means the distinguished visitor must have been there at Guido's invitation. The competition involved a visiting Saracen chess master named Buzzecca, who played against the three finest chess masters in Florence simultaneously, playing two games blindfolded and one over the board. The Saracen won two games and brought the third to a draw, which was considered a remarkable accomplishment.
I hope you've enjoyed this peek at board games in medieval Italy, and I leave you with this last pre-medieval picture on papyrus:
Illustrations are in the public domain.