Early Modern Chess Writers and Poets

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     Poetry in chess has been around for a long time.  H.J.R. Murray's "A History of Chess" dedicated an entire chapter to Early Didactic Literature.  It this chapter he discusses 11 Latin poems and 2 Hebrew poems from about 1000-1450 A.D.  All these poems we instructional in nature, a sort of chess manual in verse. The authors of these poems are unknown.
     The oldest known poem is called the Einsiedeln Poem  (one copy has the title "Versus de Scachis").  It was discovered first in the
Einsiedeln canton of Switzerland. Marilym Yalom in the "Birth of the Chess Queen"  tells us the manusript was created by a German-speaking Benedictine monk at the monastery in Einsiedeln.   This is a very important chess document since, while the game in the poem is clearly the Muslim game of chess, it contains many modern features.  First, it avoids Ababic terms and the "nomenclature of the game is drawn from that of the state, and not from that of the army."  It presents chess as "not a dice game,"  and mentions a chequered board (as opposed to the Arabic unicolored board).   The names of the pieces are given as rex (King), regina (Queen), comes or curvus (Count -today's Bishop), eques (Knight), rochus (Rook) and pedes (Pawn).  Notice the use of the term "regina;" this is the first mention of, what was previously known as "vizier," the Queen, although this Queen could only move one square diagonally.  A Pawn could be promoted to Queen (who was only marginally more powerful than a pawn) but only if the original Queen in off the board.    
     The other poems more or less echo the 
Einsiedeln Poem.  The Deventer Poem dates from the 13th century. Written in Latin, it's probably of French origin although the name was given from the Dutch library where the manuscript was discovered.  There have been six other manuscripts since found in various European countries. The poem itself was inteneded to be memorized as an instructional tool. In the poem the board is presented as a red and white chequered platform and interesting enough, the pieces are also called Red and White, though not denoting which side they belong to, but rather what color square they are standing.  The pieces are called: rex (king), regina (queen), alphilnus (Bishop), rocus (Rook), miles or eques (Knight) and miles (Pawn).
     Murray wrote,
     "The text may be given in brief thus:
                    If anyone wished to know the beautiful game of chess
               (scacorum ludum decorum), let him learn this poem.  The battle
               takes place upon a square bard, chequered with different colors. 
               The two Kings (rex) arrange their forces in two lines.  In the van
               are the eight Pawns (pedes).  Behind are the swift Rooks (rocus).
               the fierce Knights (eques) who war unfairly, and the King, Queen
               (regina) and the two bodies of Fools (stolidus).  The old archer
               (architenens vetus=Pawn) begins the battle; he moves aslant to
               capture, and when he reaches the limit of the board, he is
               promoted and called Fers (fercia).  The Knight (miles) goes
               obliquely and chages his color.  The Rook goes straight,
               awkwardly and swiftly; he can go forwars and backwards. 
               The Fool (stultus), a leaper of the three ways, is like a thief
               and a spy; if he is white to begin with, he can never become red. 
               The royal Fers is a leaper of four ways and keeps her color. 
               The King can move to any of the eight surrounding squares,
               he must move in replies to checks (scaccibus), and if he is
               unable every one shoutes Mate! mate! mate!  (mattum).

     Another, and very similar, manuscript around the same time has been titled, "Corpus Poem" after the library of Corpus Christi College in Cambridge. It's also called "Incipit modus et scientia ludi scaccorum."
     The pieces are called" rex (king), regalis femina (queen), alphilis (bishop), miles (knight), rocus (rook) and pedes (pawn).
     Murray gives the content of the poem as:
               "Let those who wish to know the famous game of chess,
               attend to our lines.  The game is played upon a square and
               chequered board (tabula).  The magnates are placed on the
               first line, and the Pawns (pedes) on the second.  The King (rex)
               and Queen (regina) are in the center,  the white King being on
               a red square and the red King on a white square; each Queen
               (femina) is on a square of her own color.  Next is the Aufin
               (alphicus), then the Knight (miles), and at the end is the Rook
               (rochus).  Eight Pawns are associated with the eight nobles. 
               The enemy are arranged similarly, and the game is ready. 
               The Pawn begins the battle, he advances slowly, cannot retreat,
               and takes aslant.  When he reaches the end of the board he is
               given the Lady's (domina) move.  The Rook takes far and near
               when there is no obstruction, but he has no power in an oblique
               direction.  The Knight is a strong piece, and leaps aslant, leaving
               the center, and he changes the color of his square each move. 
               The Aufin lays squares in the three ways, leaping diagonally. 
               The Queen (regalis femina) has an oblique move and lays snares
               in the two ways.  The King (regia maiestas) defends all the
               adjacent squares.  He cannot be taken, but when attacked, 'Check'
               (scak) must be said.  When he has no flight-square, his whole
               side is vanquished.

                                                     Frà Jacopo de Cessole

     Somewhere between 1275 and 1300 Frà Jacopo de Cessole (Jacob Cessolis), a Dominican Friar, wrote a book called "De Ludo Scachorum or De Moribus Hominum et de Officiis Nobilium Super Ludo Scaccorum" which is latin for simply "About the Game of Chess or About the Customs of Men and the Noble Actions Involving the Game of Chess."
                                       a woodcut from "De Ludo Scachorum"

     This book is a series of sermons metaphorically using chess to depict the relationships between a King and the various estates of his Kingdom. The complicated metaphor was useless for those who didn't play the game, so the author gave detailed instructions concerning the rules of chess as it was played in the 13th century. For all its moralization, the main interest of the text today is these instructions. It was during the 14th century that this book was translated from the original Latin into Catalan, Dutch, English, French, German and Italian. It was translated into French and printed in Toulouse in 1476. "De Ludo Scachorum" was first translated into French in 1347. In 1474, 2 years before it was printed in French, William Caxton translated the text from the French (of Jean de Vignay) into English and printed it under the title, "The Game of Chess."
     "The Game of Chess" was the second book ever printed in the English language. The first book, also printed by Claxton was "The Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye," also translated from French (of Raoul le Fèvre) and also in 1474. Caxton printed almost 100 books, and of these 20 were translations from French or Dutch into English.
     "The Game of Chess" has the second distinction of being the first book to be reprinted !  The second printing of the book in 1483 had an interesting sidebar. It was printed in Westminster. The first edition was printed in Bruges where Caxton had been politically involved in the local merchant's association. He had ingratiated himself with Margaret, the Duchess of York, the sister of King Edward IV - in fact it was under her urging that he translated "The Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye" to begin with. The book was dedicated to Edward's son and Margaret's brother - George, Duke of Clarence by his humble and unknown servant, William Caxton. Claxton set up a press in Westminster in 1476 and, when in 1483 he reprinted the book, he praised the book in the dedication for it's moral value and ... woodcut illustrations,  but didn't mention George who happened to have been beheaded for treason in 1478.
     It seems possible, though not completely certain that Cessolis got his material
     from an earlier compilation of  sermons written in 1252 called "The Innocent
     Morality," supposedly witten by Johannes Gallensis (aka John of Wales). But it's

     also been attributed to Pope Innocent III (where it gets it's title). "The Innocent
     Morality," ironically perhaps was printed in French in 1470 and is the first time

     the term for Chess is seen in a printed book.

              how pieces move from the Italian manuscript, "Of the Game of Chess"

see also: Symbolism in de ludum scachorum 

     "Chess in the Middle Ages and Early Modern Age" by Daniel O'Sullivan claims: "Only with the advent of the new rules could true chess allegory come into being as the fifteenth century Catalan text, the "scachs d'amor," demonstrates.  In this text game and allegory are seamlessly fused together for perhaps the first time in chess literature."
     "Scachs d'amor," a poem written in Catalan, was published in manuscript form about 1475 in Valencia, Spain.  The authors were Francesc de Castellvi, Bernat Fenollar, and Narcis de Vinyoles. Not only is it the first poem to fuse a game and allegory, but it's also the first known game (though an invented one) to use modern rules and to employ the "dama rabiosa," the modern Queen.  In the poem/game, Castellvi (White or Red) plays the part of Mars who plays
Vinyoles/Venus (Black) while Fenollar referrees this courtship or battle for Love and explains the rules of the reformed chess.

     Here is the acutal game:

     This translation of the first three stanzas gives an idea of how the poem progresses:
                            As Mars met Venus in a temple,
                            While having Mercury in their presence,
                            He devised a game of chess, with new example:
                            Taking Reason as King without preeminence;
                            Will for Queen, with great potency;
                            Thoughts he deems for his Bishops;
                            His Knights, praises of sweet eloquence;
                            Rooks are desires to flare up one’s memory;
                            Pawns are servers striving to Victory.

                            Venus, to exercise her glory,
                            Desired for her Rooks cautious reserve;
                            For Knights, disdains of deserved return;
                            Her Bishops, glances of delightful sight;
                            For her Lady she took most pleasing beauty;
                            And her King, following the tale of love,
                            Was Honor, his life ever in danger;
                            For faithful Pawns he took courtesy,
                            All armed and clad with ostentation.

                            Mercury, always ready in his ways,
                            Painted the board with hues clear and dark:
                            And made it Time, split into days and nights,
                            A box to bring the first enclosures.
                            Crossing it, he divided it into four natures
                            Of times diverse; and then, in following his guides,
                            Of each part he made four equal parts.
                            By dividing in this mode the rest,
                            The list adds up to four and sixty.

     The rules proscribed by Fenollar show the state of flux that chess was feeling: He describes en passant, that a King castling (leaping) can't have moved nor can he leap through check nor to get out of check. He describes the "touch rule"  and announcement of check.  But then he also classifies mate as "mates ahogado" (Stalemate), "mates robato" (Bare King) and "mates comun" (Checkmate) and
explains that a player can have but one Queen at a time nor can a pawn promote until the original Queen is off the board and losing the second Queen loses the game.

     Another important chess publication, this one in the first half of the 16th century, was also a chess poem.  Keeping with the Renaissance spirit, the poem recalls  classical Rome in both it's use of latin and of  Roman mythology.  It's interesting to note that the poet creates a Goddess of Chess, though not Caïssa.

     The "Scacchia Ludus," ("The Game of Chess"), was written by Marcus Hieronymus Vida, Bishop of Alba, in 1513 and published by Vida in 1527 (it was first published in 1525 but Vida's name wasn't credited and there were many later editions). In the poem the Roman god Apollo plays Mercury in a game of chess. Vida describes the rules of the game and the pieces used in great detail. Instead of Bishops, Vida employs the term, Sagittiferi Centauri or Archers/Centaurs; instead of Rooks, he uses Elephas or Elephant (or Cyclops in the earlier versions). Elephas really refers to the tower war elephants carried on their backs.
The poem concludes with Mercury's victory after which he seduces a nymph named Scacchis and compensates her  by teaching her this godly game and naming it after her. Probably the most lasting effect Vida's poem had on chess was the introduction of a tower as the Rook.

     Marcus Hieronymus Vida

     Scacchia ludus was the basis for another poem written by William Jones  in 1763. His poem was called Caïssa. While Scacchis may have been the first Goddess of Chess, Caïssa is certainly the most famous and sustaining. In the poem Caïssa, Mars becomes infatuated with a nymph named Caïssa but she does not return the favor and is in fact a bit repulsed by the God of War. Not one to give up the fight, Mars enlists the aid of an ally, Euphron, the God of Sports and Games. Euphon creates the game of chess and designs a beautiful and elaborate board and chess set for Mars to give to Caïssa. In the poem, Mars gains Caïssa's attention this way and teaches her how to play. As the game progresses, Caïssa's  resistance wears down and in the end, Mars wins more than just the game. But Caïssa wins eternal fame.

     Here, in Jones' poem, Caissa is first named:  

                             A lovely dryad rang'd the Thracian wild,
                             Her air enchanting, and her aspect mild:
                             To chase the bounding hart was all her joy,
                             Averse from Hymen, and the Cyprian boy;
                             O'er hills an valleys was her beauty fam'd,
                             And fair Caissa was the damsel nam'd.
                             Mars saw the maid; with deep surprize he gaz'd,
                             Admir'd her shape, and every gesture prais'd:
                             His golden bow the child of Venus bent,
                             And through his breast a piecing arrow sent.
                             The reed was hope; the feathers, keen desire;
                             The point, her eyes; the barbs, ethereal fire.
                             Soon to the nymph he pour'd his tender strain;
                             The haughtly dryad scorn'd his amorous pain:
                             He told his woes, where'er the maid he found,
                             And still he press'd, yet still Caissa frown'd;
                             But ev'n her frowns (ah, what might smiles have done!)
                             Fir'd all his soul, and all his senses won.

     Orazio Gianutio del Mantia, born in Turin 1565, wrote "Libro nel quale si tratta della maniera di giucar a scacchi, con alcuni sottilissimi partiti" in 1597 and published it in Turin, Italy. While it contained some problems and demonstrated 6 openings, it's most interesting feature was it's solution to
. . .
 . . . a half-board knight's tour (above)


A contemporary of Cessolis was Alfonso X (el Sabio), aka Alfonso the Wise who was born in 1221 and died in 1284. He was the King of Castille and Leon. His beautiful manuscript was completed in 1283 (probably a work that he supervised rather than wrote himself). While it's a book of games in general, divided into 7 parts, the first part, the "Libro del Acedrex,"  deals with chess and contain 103 problem of both Arabic and European chess. It departed from the usual shatrang rules in that it allowed a pawn the 2 move option and it allowed the Fers leap. (The Fers was the precursor to the Queen. It was originally allowed 1 move diagonally in any direction, but the leap allowed it to move to certain vacant spaces on it's first move.)


(from "Chess a History" by Harry Golombek)

by Henry Howard
published in 1557

                                               ALTHOUGH I had a check,
                                                    To give the mate is hard;
                                               For I have found a neck,
                                                    To keep my men in guard.
                                               And you that hardy are,
                                                    To give so great assay
                                               Unto a man of war,
                                                    To drive his men away;
                                               I rede you take good heed,
                                                    And mark this foolish verse;
                                               For I will so provide,
                                                    That I will have your ferse.*
                                               And when your ferse is had,
                                                    And all your war is done;
                                               Then shall yourself be glad
                                                    To end that you begun.
                                               For if by chance I win
                                                    Your person in the field;
                                               Too late then you come in
                                                    Yourself to me to yield.
                                               For I will use my power,
                                                    As captain full of might;
                                               And such I will devour,
                                                    As use to shew me spite.
                                               And for because you gave
                                                    Me check in such degree;
                                               This vantage, lo! I have,
                                                    Now check, and guard to thee.
                                               Defend it if thou may;
                                                    Stand stiff in thine estate:
                                               For sure I will assay,
                                                    If I can give thee mate.

            *The Queen at Chess.
             note 1: Henry Howard was executed in 1547
             note 2: Golembek mentions that with the line, "Now check, and guard
                         to thee" , Howard was giving check and attacking the queen.
                         he warns of the queen attack with the line "guard to thee"
                         which was the custom then.