May 09, 2004

Chess in History

Posted by Ed

This week's Village Voice features a short but fascinating review, by Allen Barra, of a book on the history of female chess pieces. Here's an excerpt:

Chess, as any Nabokovian knows, is a superb metaphor for life. As Marilyn Yalom illustrates in her fascinating new book, Birth of the Chess Queen, the metaphor works the other way as well. Yalom, a senior scholar at Stanford's Institute for Women and Gender and author of A History of the Wife and A History of the Breast, makes a convincing case that the queen's prominence reflects the evolution of the female in the Western world. In India, where the game began in the fifth century, there was no female piece, and most versions to be found in Muslim countries still have none.

The chess queen got her first break in 12th-century Spain, replacing the vizier, who represented the king's chief counselor in Eastern chess (apparently Spaniards noticed who got the most attention when she whispered in the king's ear). From Spain, the game moved to the South of France, where Eleanor of Aquitaine gave the chess queen her first real-life role model, epitomizing "the trappings of queenship that worked their way into the symbolic system on the chessboard."

The rise in the chess queen's power stirred an increased passion for chess in men. Chess became the common man's form of knightly combat. Men fought for their chess queens as nobles fought for their real-life counterparts. According to English legal documents, in 1251 and 1256 there were at least two "chess homicides" and several other chess-related brawls. The church reacted to the new sexual element in the game with alarm: In 1291 a prior and canon were condemned to bread and water for (as the record has it) "being led astray by an evilly-disposed person . . . who had actually taught them to play chess."

The detail that intrigues me most is the incidence of "chess homicides," rather than the history of the chess queen; without having read the book, I don't know what to make of Yalom's main argument.

Other articles worth reading this Sunday include this Boston Globe ideas section article on whether innovative architecture leads to innovative science, and this Michael Dirda column that reviews Diarmaid MacCulloch's new book on the Reformation. (It sounds like fun.) Finally, those of you who miss the Invisible Adjunct may be interested in this Boston Globe article about her.

Posted by Ed at May 9, 2004 05:22 PM
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