‘From one Square to Another: Social Mobility in Medieval Chess Moralities (13th- 15th centuries)’

By Maxime Kamin

Figure 1: Lewis Chessmen, Twelfth century.[i]


Introduction

The game of chess in Western medieval culture ties in with a holistic understanding of the world. Symbolic of measure, balance and unity, this game displays the work of a God ‘justissimus ordinator’ (that is ‘the rightful orderer’), as Saint Augustine described, as well as the organization of a strictly hierarchical society.[ii] In line with the deep-rooted idea in medieval tradition of a close correspondence between microcosm and the world above, the game of chess reflects the vision of a divinely ordered and rational universe.

This idealized vision of a carefully structured secular world predominates in well-known allegorical texts, such as Evrart de Conty's Livre des eschez amoureux moralisés and Jacobus de Cessolis's Liber de moribus hominum. However, one should bear in mind that this reassuring conception of a carefully ordered society is not the only one which prevailed in medieval literature. Other authors, notably the Franciscan John of Wales (mid-13th century) or the anonymous writer of the French manuscript BnF Arsenal ms. 3521 (mid-15th century),[iii] also make use of the chess metaphor to emphasize social turmoil and illustrate the underlying instability of human hierarchies. Railing at the vices which jeopardize the proper functioning of society, these texts excoriate in particular the greedy behavior of the pawn (the commoner) who schemes at every opportunity to rise above his condition. These specific examples will guide us to demonstrate that the chess metaphor is not only an icon of wholeness and harmony, but also a reflection of inner tensions and deviant attitudes which may disturb the earthly foundations.


Rise and Corruption of the Pawn in John of Wales’s Chess Morality

The chess metaphor is commonly used in Latin and vernacular literature to represent the civic community as a whole. This game offers an overall nomenclature which demonstrates the diversity of social stations and reduces them to units. According to the Franciscan John of Wales, who the Quaedam moralitas de scaccario is ascribed to, the world resembles a chessboard, with all individuals assigned to static ranks and functions.


Yet it appears that the game of chess reflects in John of Wales's morality the vision of a fallen world. Except the king, all the pieces described are found guilty of various sins. The queen, for example, moves obliquely ‘because womankind is greedy’. The knight, on his part, signals that earthly lords ‘extort unjust taxes and exactions from their subjects’. In other words, the game as a whole illustrates the moral degradation that affects all members of the social body. As for the pawn, the Quaedam moralitas reads the following lines:

The pawn is a needy person who, in order to advance, always goes straight because of his humility [...]. But, as soon as he seeks to obtain some material profit or some corrupted by gifts, false and evil praise, he moves at an angle until he reaches the highest rank of the game [...]. This is the case with the poor man who, as soon as he is elevated, begins to walk at an angle [...] For there is nothing more pernicious for a being of low condition than to find himself raised.[iv]

John of Wales first praises the humility of the commoner. Approved by the Gospel, poverty is deeply rooted in the eternal order of things. This is the reason why John of Wales criticizes a second time the commoner’s will to climb the ladder. In a society traditionally hostile to social change, the rise of the pawn illustrates the poor's abasement challenging the god-created organization of the world. Rather than offering the vision of a well-balanced body politic, the chess metaphor stages a social order on the verge of unravelling.


The Unstable Chessboard of the World

This pessimistic point of view is not isolated and it echoes the opinion of another author from the 15th century. The text in question is witnessed by the French manuscript Arsenal 3521 and titled Comment l’estat du monde puet estre comparé au jeu des esches.

The chess metaphor is renewed to signify the deceitful manoeuvres that everyone carries out to turn the fate to their advantage. Judging with severity the moral regression of humankind, the author makes the chessboard the ground of a fight between the various representatives of society. Once again, it is the example of the ‘paonnet’, that is of the little pawn, which illustrates the deceit of this world full of treason:


That's how you see a little pawn

To play so well under the cloak

That he takes a rook or a bishop

With the firm intention to play finesse,

And even to push a king into a corner for good

[…]

For this reason no man can know

His condition, nor ever will

Until the day he dies,

For as long as the little one bullies

The great one, no one has any certainty

Of how Fortune will be disposed towards him.[v]


Pulling his enemy’s strings, the pawn overcomes the intermediate pieces and finally dethrones the king himself. Once again, the pawn rekindles the fear that the ascension of the humblest might call into question the order of the world. As in John of Wales's morality, the game of chess serves as a model for the representation of a society weakened by common duplicity.


Conclusion

Projecting a satirical vision of humankind, these two examples show that the chess metaphor reflects a society established on violent relations of domination and rivalries. The image of the chess game therefore cannot be simply understood as a symbol of balance and unity, but can also be interpreted as an illustration of the tensions that undermine the dream of a harmonious Creation. It is the permanence of social antagonisms that this metaphor reveals more broadly, as well as the transitory aspects of human hierarchies.


Maxime Kamin, from Grenoble-Alpes University, holds a PhD in medieval language and literature. Using a cross-linguistic approach, Maxime demonstrates how games can be used as a paradigm for understanding and questioning cultural norms. Maxime’s achievements include the publishing of his article ‘L’échec et la folie: une approche comparée de la figure du joueur dans la lyrique française et occitane’ in a peer-reviewed journal and his creation of an online lexical database titled ‘Mémoire du jeu’, both of which provide a good overview of Maxime’s research.


References: [i] Lewis Chessmen, Twelfth century. [online] Available at : https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lewis_Chessmen,_12th-century_(21310719861).jpg [Accessed 27th October 2022]. [ii] Saint Augustine, La Cité de Dieu, ed. and trans. by G. Bardy and G. Gombes (Paris: Institut d’etudes augustiniennes, 1959), p. 85. [iii] More specifically, the anonymous author of leaves 264v-267r of ms. 3521. [iv] Lynn Thorndike, ‘All the World’s a Chess-Board’, in Speculum, 6.3 (1931), 461-65 (my translation). [v] Bibliothèque Nationalew de France (BnF) Arsenal Ms. 3521, f. 265r-265v, lines 69-73 and 79-84 (my transcription and translation).

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