The Culture of Chess in
Class and the Structure of Society
According to Yalom’s data, it seems that chess was played by just about everyone – or, at least, there is no mention of any particular group in society that did not play chess (aside from those who opposed it on moral grounds). The royalty and nobility were active players. The princesses and queens in Yalom’s account were expected to know how to play the game, and surrounded themselves with chess sets and players. Marie de France, in her poetry, listed the ability to play chess as one of the requirements of the ideal noblewoman (Yalom 2004: 94), while Eleanor of Aquitaine – the real specimen – populated her court in Paris with chess players and equipment (88). Chess was such an imperative for nobles that it became common practice to supply a chess partner to royal prisoners (98). The heroic knights of medieval literature often find themselves embroiled in chess matches in their stories (85). In the real world, young knights-in-training learned chess as part of their apprenticeships, while at the same time providing a useful service by playing as chess partners to members of the household and guests (95). Chess was also not limited to adults and boys, as young girls of the gentry were expected to play as well (95).
Did commoners – peasants, tradesmen and the like – play chess? The documents that Yalom cites from the era make few references to chess among commoners, but this is neither surprising nor conclusive, since peasants would not, as a rule, have been in the practice or writing, or have had much written about themselves. Chrétien de Troyes does write, however, of not just nobles but also “town inhabitants [playing] dice and other games of chance; some chess” (92). It is probably safe to assume that chess was popular among all classes, although it may not have held the same place of honour and influence among the common folk as it did among the nobility.
It is not clear whether the different classes had different understandings about what chess signified. What is clear is that chess could serve as a powerful reflection on and a metaphor for the way society was organized, and for the gentry, it “shored up their privileged sense of self because it made visible the three major divisions of society” – nobility at the top, followed by ecclesiastics, and finally commoners – peasants, labourers and so on (86). The value of a piece was not just in what moves it could make, but also in the position it represented in society (97). Chess was a sort of miniaturized and abridged Great Chain of Being, making visible the hierarchical structure of society and laying it out in a regular pattern on a regular grid of squares as if to show that it is through the preservation of this hierarchy that order is maintained. If it served to reassure nobles of their privileged position, perhaps it also reminded commoners of their place in the grand scheme.
If this is the case, however, then there
seems to be a somewhat contradictory message of upward mobility in the rules of
chess. The Winchester Poem shows that
“queening” a pawn that reaches the opposite side of the board was already an
established practice by the time chess reached
Chess was apparently played equally by males and females, and was “one arena in which the ‘natural inferiority’ of women was never brought up “ (95). However, this does not mean that gender differences were erased on the chess board. On the contrary, chess was a locus for the delineation between separate male and female social worlds. The separation manifested itself in the understood purpose of the game. In the hands of boys and men, it was a game of war strategy, one that played to what were ostensibly the male’s strengths and responsibilities – martial prowess and the ability to strategize. For girls and women, chess was situated solidly within the sphere of domestic life, far from the world of war and political intrigue. A woman who could play chess could provide good company, entertainment and companionship. The game was not for the purpose of military training or practice, but for socialization.
Chess did not erase the boundary between
these two social spheres, but it did serve as a bridge between them. Men and women could play chess against each
other, and although the cultural meaning of the game and the process of
learning might be different for each one, they would both be sitting at the same
table playing the same game. The chess
board also metaphorically bridges the gap between domestic and military in the
image of the king and queen standing side by side. While battle was not typically the province
of women, the chess queen was unambiguously a fighting figure, “standing beside
her husband in combat and facing the enemy à
deux” (89). According to Yalom, in
Opposition to Chess: the moralists weigh in
Just as elsewhere in Europe, there were
Yet the monk John of Wales found a way to use chess in service of the church, and in doing so demonstrated once more the metaphorical power of the game. His analogies re-appropriated the game to spread the church’s message, re-casting gameplay in terms of life and death, sin and redemption, salvation and punishment (104). John’s new metaphor undermined the existing classist one by emphasizing the fact that death erases all class differences (105).
The lesson here is that in medieval England and France, chess was played by people from nearly all walks of life, but its cultural significance and meaning could be different depending on who was playing it, and it could be easily be reapplied to making new meanings. While the layout of pieces lends itself strongly to a classist allegory of social organization, this metaphor could be interpreted differently by people of different classes, and could potentially be subverted. Even though chess was equally the province of men and women, it played two very different roles in the lives of each sex, belonging on the one hand to the sphere of warfare, and on the other hand to the sphere of domesticity. Finally, although it was hated by many religious leaders, it could just as easily be used as an allegory to reinforce the religious message. Chess appears in many ways to resemble a blank slate or a mirror: as it moves from place to place, it may change to reflect the local culture, but more often people project meaning and discourse about society onto the game, and appropriate its tremendous metaphorical power to give shape to that discourse.
Thus concludes my chessay. (http://instantrimshot.com/)
Birth of the Chess Queen.