During the High Middle Ages, the Holy Roman Empire was home to many devoted chess players. These medieval gamers came in all forms, ranging in social statuses as high as royalty to the lowliest city dwellers. Each participant had their own reason for playing, whether it was for war, love, boredom, pride, or even sin. That's right - sin. Aside from the fictional tales of chess as a weapon of war and personal strife, the game itself fought against the Roman Catholic Church for quite some time. Yalom mentions that “while the Holy Roman Emperors were privileging chess, even with stakes and dice, at their German and Italian courts, the Church began to outlaw it, particularly for the clergy” (29). The emperors, likely followed by their subordinates, played a version of chess almost forgotten today – one where wagers were made and a player’s move was determined by chance. Chess had associated itself with bad company (dice/chance games) and was therefore seen as sinful and hardly tolerable.
Luckily the Church didn’t destroy the potential of such an amazing game (although some were punished, including the Bishop of Florence ). As restrictions loosened, many among the religious community started to rely on chess to support their messages. In Italy, Jacobus de Cessolis, a Dominican friar, used metaphorical comparisons to chess during his sermons (Yalom 68). Because the pieces of a chess board were not made up entirely of war-fighting figures, references of everyday occupations could be made – and the congregations, who were just familiarizing themselves during chess’ growth in popularity, were pleased to hear their professions mentioned in such a holy place. While Cessolis focused his sermons on the commoner, he made sure to use Chess as a symbol of societal hierarchy, reminding the people of the superiority of the king and queen. Among these other lessons, monogamy was taught using the fact that the board contained only a single queen to each king, chivalry was associated with the horse-mounted knight, and justice, along with civic responsibility, was tied to the rook.
Out of these sermons arose an extremely popular book, “The Book of Chess”. It was translated into French, Italian, German, Catalan, Dutch, Swedish, and Czech, among others, and surprisingly, Yalom states that “around [the year] 1500, only the Bible existed in greater numbers” (72). The proliferation of this book, along with others written about chess, proves the wide-spread acceptance of chess throughout the Holy Roman Empire and the rest of Europe. The reasoning behind its growth could be attributed to the number of meanings one could make of the game of chess. As mentioned, many could relate to the social realities present on the board. Some saw it as a game of love and used it to woo the other sex. “Chess provided an excuse for lovers to meet in the intimacy of gardens and boudoirs,” says Yalom, “[there] they could spar with their feelings as well as their chessmen” (126). Others could have been seeking insights to Christendom, similar to the poem Yalom found associating the pieces on the board with Christian figures such as God, Christ, Adam, and the Devil (109).
Of course the commonality of chess wasn’t limited to the lower class. Kings, queens and nobles in the courts of the Empire were rife with individuals longing to display their superiority through their cunningness in chess. In order for a nobleman to be considered as such, he would have to learn the game of chess well. For a lady of the court it was an indispensable skill to have so that they may prove their worthiness by matching a man in wit. These facts show the universality of chess – a game that did not segregate men and women, or kings and knights (exemplified by the story of Ruodlieb [Yalom 27] and the pictures of kings, queens, men, and women playing together [58-63]).
Chess became a common form of communication among all people, regardless of language. Its symbolic tendencies could be applied to many institutions, emotions, and events. One could go as far as to say that chess was the most popular connection that tied together a continent of people divided by politics, religions, and cultures.
Yalom, M. (2005). Birth of the Chess Queen. New York: HarperCollins Publishers Inc.