Chungking Espresso

Cult of the Virgin and Chess in the 13th Century

Posted in Columns, Schoolwork by Simon Ferrari on September 27, 2008

While before the reign of Queen Isabella one can generally ascribe to the chess queen little more power of movement than its vizier predecessor (various rulesets might allow for her to move one square in any given direction instead of only diagonally), many religious analogies to the game vest the only female piece with incredible meaning and power – sometimes seeming to be able to predict the future of the queen’s range of motion on the board and the confidence that its survival provides to the player. That’s why this period of the gameplay of chess strikes me as so interesting. Even though the rules of the game seemed to have not changed greatly in the years between the 11th and 15th centuries, writers and thinkers from all walks of life were vesting the game (and the queen piece in particular) with intense emotion and metaphorical meaning. As such it is difficult at times for one reading Yalom’s Birth of the Chess Queen to even tell the difference between the rules of the game at the time and the imaginative play described by various authors from the religious and troubadour traditions.
The cult of the Virgin Mary informs much of the religious writing on chess of the time. While throughout the 12th, 13th, and 14th centuries the Catholic church’s stance on the moral standing of chess varied greatly from condemnation to praise (at times Church authorities banned its presence in monasteries), the symbolic value placed in Mary rose steadily (Yalom 115-117). Mary’s popularity among religious figures, royal personages, and the common crowd as an intercessor for humanity at the throne of God fed directly into analogies between the chessboard and man’s battle against temptation and the Devil. One anonymous 13th century poem in Anglo-Norman French (109) describes the fall of Adam as a game of chess pitted between God and the Devil. The Devil easily wins the first round by checkmating the king (Adam) through temptation and manipulation. God realizes the weakness of man after this game, and so in the next round he places Jesus as the king upon the board and Mary as the queen. The job of Mary as the queen is to protect the pawns (humanity), and yet at the time of the writing the queen piece still lacked a great range of motion. This is because these writers, as in the Deeds of the Romans (110), see Mary as a “merciful intercessor” and not as an Amazonian queen of combat.
Religious instructors in the 13th century endowed the chess queen as Mary with the ability to save a humble and faithful player from the “tricks” of the skilled opponent as Deceiver and the Inferno of having one’s valuable pieces trapped in corners and taken (111). Gautier de Coinci depicts Mary’s work as the chess queen as a “miracle” (113) in that, while her spirit possesses the piece, it has an incredible range of motion that checks and mates the Devil at every move. This seems to be no stretch for the author, because literature on the Virgin in general depicts her life and actions as miracles.
The queen’s presence on the board is essential to the formation of these moral tales. One could imagine how this scenario would be different if the vizier remained on the board instead of the queen: perhaps the vizier piece would be likened to the Pope, another holy figure endowed with power in Catholicism; however, during this period the Holy Roman Empire and other Christian nations problematized the authority of the Pope (sometimes even replacing him with other bishops in seats of power other than the Vatican). The rise in power of actual queens such as Isabella of Castile and Eleanor of Aquitaine, along with the cult of the Virgin, informed the decision to grant the queen piece its superior range of motion; therefore, if the piece had remained a vizier, it may never have received these abilities.

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