Power Play: The Literature and Politics of Chess in the Late Middle Ages

Power Play: The Literature and Politics of Chess in the Late Middle Ages

Power Play: The Literature and Politics of Chess in the Late Middle Ages

Power Play: The Literature and Politics of Chess in the Late Middle Ages


The game of chess reached western Europe by the year 1000, and within several generations it had become one of the most popular pastimes ever. Both men and women, and even priests played the game despite the Catholic Church's repeated prohibitions. Characters in countless romances, chansons de geste, and moral tales of the eleventh through twelfth centuries also played chess, which often symbolized romantic attraction or sexual consummation.

In Power Play, Jenny Adams looks to medieval literary representations to ask what they can tell us both about the ways the game changed as it was naturalized in the West and about the society these changes reflected. In its Western form, chess featured a queen rather than a counselor, a judge or bishop rather than an elephant, a knight rather than a horse; in some manifestations, even the pawns were differentiated into artisans, farmers, and tradespeople with discrete identities.

Power Play is the first book to ask why chess became so popular so quickly, why its pieces were altered, and what the consequences of these changes were. More than pleasure was at stake, Adams contends. As allegorists and political theorists connected the moves of the pieces to their real-life counterparts, chess took on important symbolic power. For these writers and others, the game provided a means to figure both human interactions and institutions, to envision a civic order not necessarily dominated by a king, and to imagine a society whose members acted in concert, bound together by contractual and economic ties. The pieces on the chessboard were more than subjects; they were individuals, playing by the rules.


In the opening pages of Roman van Walewein, a Middle Dutch romance from the thirteenth century, King Arthur calls his court together for one of his legendary banquets. As the assembled company finishes the meal, a magic chess set floats in through an open window and settles on the floor, bedazzling the onlookers. Yet the knights hesitate to touch it, and the board and its pieces soon fly back out the window. Bewitched by the set, the king offers to bequeath his land and his title to the knight who retrieves it. When no one moves, an exasperated Arthur declares that he will fetch the set himself, prompting Walewein, Arthur’s nephew and favorite knight, to intervene and accept the mission. His pursuit of the chess set occupies the rest of the poem.

In the world of romance, where tests of a hero’s prowess most often revolve around jousts or battles, the magic chess set comes as somewhat of a surprise. What exactly is it doing in the castle? Why do the poem’s authors, Penninc and Pieter Vostaert, make it the story’s central focus?

We can start to answer these questions by looking at the ways the game represents a type of political order conspicuously missing from Arthur’s court. Indeed, the game’s first notable characteristic is its opulence. the ivory chessboard, inlaid with gems and precious stones, is “more valuable than all of Arthur’s kingdom.” the pieces themselves, which today still reflect a medieval social hierarchy, stand in rows, ready to be moved to action. By contrast, the silence of Arthur’s knights, who not only fear the board but also make no move to retrieve it, exposes the problems of a community where even the promise of a rich reward fails to provide motivation for the quest at hand. That only one knight, Walewein, accepts the challenge indicates a general apathy, or worse, a weakness, on the part of Arthur’s men. Arthur’s offer of his kingdom also hints at the court’s troubles, reminding us of the king’s failure to produce an heir. Because he has no son, he must find a successor to ensure the stability of his realm.

As the narrative progresses, the chess game and the order it embodies slowly become attainable. Walewein soon finds the board at the castle of . . .

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