How Did the Queen Go Mad? Examining changes in chess moves in the Middle Ages

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 Chess Figure (from a display with chess figures from Italy, Central Europe and Northern Europa, made from ivory or walrus teeth; 12th to 16th century. Skulpturensammlung, Bode-Museum Berlin.)Players of chess will know that the Queen is the most powerful piece on the board – it can move any number of squares vertically, horizontally, or diagonally, and is often used to capture the opponent’s pieces. In the Middle Ages this was not the case. When the game was introduced to Europe this piece was known as the fers, named after the vizier or counsellor to the King. It could only move diagonally one square at a time, and the strategy for using this piece was mostly a defensive, trying to protect the King.

In his article “How Did the Queen Go Mad?” Mark Taylor of Berry College examines how did the chess queen take on her modern movement. Historians have previously believed that changes to the Queen came about in the last decades of the fifteenth century in Italy and Spain. These changes also affected the Bishop, which could also now had more expanded movement.

However, Taylor has found several medieval texts going back to the 12th century that imply the queen/fers was more powerful than previously thought.

For example, the Verses upon the Game of Ishkaki, attributed to Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra (1088-1167), the role of the Queen is explained this way:

The Queen can go to all four corners;
there is no one who can say a word against her.
As swift as a gazelle and as strong as a lion,
she can fight courageously, effortlessly




The 13th century Miracles de la Sainte Vierge, Gautier de Coinci offers praise for the Virgin Mary, and writes in a way comparing her to the traditional chess queen/fers:

Other ferses move but one square, but this one invades so quickly and sharply that before the devil has taken any of hers, she has him so tied up and so worried that he doesn’t know where he should move. This fers mates him in straight lines; this fers mates him at an angle [or, in the corner]; this fers takes away his bad-mouthing; this fers takes away his prey; this fers always torments him; this fers always goads him; this fers drives him out from square to square by superior strength.

Examining this text, Taylor writes:

Here is the earliest known description of the modern queen-movement – nearly 250 years before the first recorded modern game. Whether Gautier or anyone he knew actually played chess this way is impossible to know. As we noted, every court had its own assizes or ‘house rules’ for chess, some marked by highly unusual divergences. But even if Gautier is not basing his divine fers on the actual assize, his is still the greater accomplishment, conceiving fully what remained latent in the medieval imagination: a more powerful fers. The step from conceiving to practicing is much smaller.

chess-in-the-middle-ages-and-early-modern-age-volume-10Other texts also offer hints that the Queen and the Bishop had more extensive movements. Taylor adds that “the evidence suggests that we might more carefully regard the change in movement not as a single stroke occurring at the end of the fifteenth-century, but rather as a series of innovations throughout the later Middle Ages – local, tentative, but always more in the direction of greater power and speed.”

The article “How Did the Queen Go Mad?” is part of the recently published book Chess in the Middle Ages and Early Modern Age, edited by Daniel E. O’Sullivan. It includes ten essays that examine texts that talk about chess and the role of the game in medieval culture.

Mark N. Taylor is Associate Professor of English at Berry College. He has written extensively on medieval English and Occitan literature, and on medieval chess. He is also the senior editor of The Chess Journalist.

Sharan Newman

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