In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Introduction: Chess in the Medieval World 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.1 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 ofthe chess set occupies the rest ofthe poem.2 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?3 We can start to answer these questions by looking at the ways the game represents a type ofpolitical order conspicuously missing from Arthur's court.4 Indeed, the game's first notable characteristic is its opulence. The ivory chessboard, inlaid with gems and precious stones, is "more valuable than all ofArthur's kingdom:'s 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.6 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 2 Introduction King Wonder, who rules over a completely harmonious community impervious to attack. No longer floating, the set rests between Wonder and his son, and the two men play as Wonder's knights joust nearby, an action loosely parallel to the action on the board. Eager to retrieve the chess set, Walewein soon leaves Wonder's kingdom to find a magic sword, comes back later to trade the sword for the chess set, and finally returns to Arthur's court, where he and Arthur begin to play. The discord previously plaguing Arthur's court vanishes, and in a mirror of the match between Wonder and his son, the game confirms Walewein's role as king-elect.? By retrieving the game Walewein has become the heir apparent, and the chess set provides a physical reminder of the ties between the two men as well as a reaffirmation of the knight's role in the newly stabilized kingdom. As I argue in the pages that follow, chess games in literary texts such as Walewein, as well as in more straightforwardly political treatises from the late Middle Ages, encoded anxieties about political organization, civic community , economic exchange, and individual autonomy. Just as the chess set in this poem becomes symbolic of the newfound stability of Arthur's court, so too the actual game in real life was seen to model an ideal civic order based on contractual obligation and exchange. Later in this introduction I will return to the nature ofthis civic imagining and its implications. But I first need to offer a bit of background on chess, since its arrival in Europe and subsequent transformation underlies the symbolic weight the game acquired over the course of late Middle Ages. Most likely originating in the Indian game chaturanga, chess spread through Persia and later though Arab cultures in the sixth and seventh centuries, eventually reaching the Latin west by 1000 A.n.8 Within several generations chess had spread throughout Western Europe, and surviving manuscripts that reference the game exist in nearly every European language.9 When chess first entered...


Additional Information

Related ISBN
MARC Record
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.