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Epilogue [Kings] have power to exalt low things, and abase high things, and make oftheir subjects like men at the Chesse; A pawne to take a Bishop ofa Knight, and to cry up, or downe any oftheir subjects, as they do their money. -KingJames VI and I, speech to Parliament, March 21, 1610 The story is told ofan automaton constructed in such a way that it could play a winning game ofchess, answering each move ofan opponent with a countermove. A puppet in Turkish attire and with a hookah in its mouth sat before a chessboard placed on a large table. A system ofmirrors created the illusion that this table was transparent from all sides. Actually, a little hunchback who was an expert chess player sat inside and guided the puppet's hand by means ofstrings. One can imagine a philosophical counterpart to this device. The puppet called "historical materialism" is to win all the time. It can easily be a match for anyone ifit enlists the services oftheology, which today, as we know, is wizened and has to keep out ofsight. -Opening to Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History Finishing a book is, in many ways, more difficult than starting one. My own reluctance to end comes from two main sources, the first and more minor being my frustration about the texts I did not have space to discuss. For if I have read and taken account of many references to chess in medieval literature, I have also remained silent on even more. I could have expanded my analysis to include Aspremont, a twelfth-century chanson de geste about Charlemagne and his knights that mentions chess in passing several times.1 I probably could have also discussed Le Batard de Bouillon, in which one character kills another with a chessboard.2 These stories and others are compelling, and I appreciate the ways so many authors push chess symbolism in slightly different directions. Epilogue 157 Yet to the extent that the chess symbolism in most of these poems does not change my overall argument, I opted not to include such references merely for the sake of coverage. In the context of a project already scattered geographically and chronologically, such additions would inevitably feel appended or list-like, making my project into a catalogue rather than an argument . I thus leave it to those who have a greater investment in these stories and others to investigate the ways such works may {or may not) contribute to the chess allegory's cultural significance. My second difficulty in ending this project is one of narrative. As I have argued, chess in the late Middle Ages served as a vehicle for political and economic ideology and as a way for individuals to imagine their own civic identities. Upon the game's arrival in Europe in the late tenth century, medieval cultures deliberately turned it into a representation of their own social milieu(s). By the late thirteenth century chess had become so popular and so well known that Jacobus de Cessolis had little difficulty harnessing its allegorical power, and he drew on the game's mimetic qualities in order to model the workings of a contractually based political order. In doing so he provided a way for people to think about their identities as individuals and as citizens. If the Liber's allegory allowed a player the fantasy of ultimate power over the game, its exempla reminded individuals of their responsibility to the political community.3 In the opening of this book I demonstrated that this dual representation of citizens as both players and pieces is not one of a free social order based on an individual's independent self-determination. In fact, it is arguably just the opposite, offering a totalizing vision of a state in which all citizens are marked primarily by their professional obligations. Jacobus's preoccupation with commercial production might even strike some as offering an illusion of choice in a system of rigid rules or symbolizing individual disenfranchisement , much in the way Benjamin uses the automaton player as a metaphor for our helplessness in the face of"historical materialism."4 Seen in this most menacing light, the state-as-chessboard becomes an inflexible structure that forces its members to occupy rigidly determined categories. Yet as I hope I have also shown, this allegory does not have to be dismissed as merely another technology of constraint. The Liber's emphasis on ethical responsibility, while not empowering subjects with...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9780812201048
Related ISBN
9780812239447
MARC Record
OCLC
859160604
Pages
264
Launched on MUSE
2014-01-01
Language
English
Open Access
No
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