Chess is, aside from any other conjecture, a simulation. Some believe it simulates war. Others have shown that it can simulate the play of lovers, either in the public of court or the privacy of a bedroom. Throughout it's history, the specifics of chess, its pieces and the rules governing their moves, evolved and changed to reflect the events of the day.
Before reading Marilyn Yalom's Birth of the Chess Queen, I hadn't considered the mutability of chess. I had assumed that the game I played after class during high school was the same game played during medieval times. A romantic notion, I suppose, but one that I delighted in losing. Yalom's book weaves a tapestry of history, showing the extreme fluidity of chess and its component parts.
I am torn as to which segment is my most favorite. The rise of Queenly power and authority in Christian Spain, Part 2 Section 4, is a dramatic read. The Iberian peninsula's Muslim population were the ones to introduce chess to their Christian and Jewish neighbors. The game spread quickly, and in doing so it began to change.
Many of the chess sets created by Islamic craftsmen depicted nonrealistic pieces. That is to say, the pieces were representational, rather than literal. A throne or crown, rather than a tiny figurine of a king or caliph. (Yalom, p.7)
In contrast, as the game spread into the Judeo-Christian world, where such bans did not exist, chess pieces returned to their pre-Islamic form of iconography - they became figurines, bearing faces or bodies, as their ancient Indian ancestors once did. However, especially in Spain where Islamic culture still held considerable influence, such change was slow (Yalom p.47).
Design, though, was not the only aspect of chess that changed during this period. Islamic sets bore the familiar king and the unknown vizier. The vizier acted very much like the modern queen does, but wore a different name as well as a different gender (Yalom p.47).
Yalom argues that the rise of several powerful Christian Spanish queens did much to influence the naming conventions and movement patterns of the chess queen. The first such figure is Dona Urraca, a Spanish queen that came into power around the year 1107 (Yalom p.48). Her first husband, Raymund of Burgundy, gave her the lady's throne of Galicia. Upon his death in 1107, and her father's death in 1109, her authority and power was considerable. Her second marriage, alas, was not as pleasant as the first. Alfonso I, "The Battler", was a violent and abusive husband, and Urraca asked for and received an annulment to their marriage from Rome (Yalom p.49).
Unfortunately, "The Battler" decided he had to live up to his nickname, and spent the rest of his life at war with his ex-wife. Yalom recounts the harrowing tale of Urraca and Alfonso's struggles against one another. On the battle field and in courtly palaces they fought with sword and word. After decades of never-ending conflict, Urraca managed to consolidate enough power to govern her own lands and bequeath them to her eldest son upon her death (Yalom p.49).
Accordingly, this was the first time that the queen became a regularly designed piece in chess sets. Yalom stipulates that the powerful, real-world queens of 10th and 11th-Century Spain encouraged the alteration of chess. The vizier was replaced by the queen, and her movement capabilities were greatly expanded.
Due to the fluid nature of chess' rules and representational modes, such changes are far from permanent. The vizier and queen continue to swap places throughout the centuries, depending on which culture is consulted. Similarly, their move-set changes dramatically. Some cultures restrict her to single squares of movement at a time, while others give her unlimited liberty, but only on diagonal lines.
Though but one example, this post has tried to demonstrate the morphic qualities of chess. Yalom's pacing and story-telling are delightful to read, and have taught me much about a game I love dearly.