Symbolism in Medieval Chess


 Symbolism in Medieval Chess

By Kimberley Smith

The Colorado Historian, Vol.2 (2012)

Introduction: In contemporary western society, a game of chess is simply that: a game, a form of leisure fueled by the desire for a diversion from a mundane, everyday life, one filled with continuous hardship and strenuous labor. For some, the game’s significance may even run slightly deeper, perhaps reflecting an intense determination to engage in strategic competition and the need to out-perform other players. In medieval society, however, a simple chessboard and the pieces that accompanied it were deliberately infused with certain valuable meanings. The game itself was a significant illustration of medieval society, a symbol that represented social status, moral values, religious meaning, and even cosmic significance. The medieval attitude towards chess, and even other forms of entertainment, was thus highly complex and charged with the potent mixture of metaphor and morality that defined European society in the Middle Ages.

The origins of the popular game that would come to embody the values of medieval Europe remain a topic of scholarly debate even to the present day. As a game involving a chequered board and pieces that are moved only within the guidelines of strict rules, chess probably finds its roots in a four-player game that originated in China, even though the first written records alluding to chess can be found in India. Indeed, the game of chess played by medieval Europeans bears a striking resemblance to chaturanga, a board game involving two players that had already been developed in northern India by the late sixth century. From India, chaturanga most likely spread through Persia, where its name was changed to shantranj, and the game took on a symbolism that was distinctly Arabic. Shantranj rapidly became the most popular board game in Arab culture and was continuously celebrated in Arabic art and literature as a symbol of human suffering endured through fate. So popular was this Arabic pastime that it made its way to Spain through the Moorish conquests of the eighth century and had entrenched itself in western European culture by the year 1000.

The progression of chess from Arabic Spain to the Christian kingdoms of Europe can most likely be attributed to Charlemagne’s territorial conquests in Iberia, and indeed, chess became a favorite pastime of the aristocratic classes as it filtered into the Frankish empire during the reign of the Carolingian kings. The understanding that chess was introduced during the time of a “golden age” ruled over by a powerful Christian king certainly contributed to its popularity, and the game’s potential as a medium for allegory and symbolism, particularly of the Christian variety, were acutely recognized within a century of its induction into European culture. Indeed, given that the earliest references to chess in Europe are derived from manuscripts written in Spanish monastic institutions, the game seems to have taken on an aura of Christianity in the West even before it became a distinguished component of European culture.

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Sharan Newman

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