Mae Tidman January 26, 2010 LCC 4725 -‐ Game Design as a Cultural Practice Blogpost 1 – drawing from the reading “Birth of the Chess Queen” The Culture of Chess: Spain, Religion, and Chess The history of chess includes periods where the game was banned by the ruling religion. Because chess was often associated with betting and chance (with the use of dice), the Church opposed the game (Yalom 28). Ruling religions would sometimes ban chess play, ordering the destruction of all chess sets in some cases. For example, the Church ordered a number of ecclesiastical decrees banning chess for the clergy and knightly orders in the 11th century, but these were often ignored and did not inhibit the spread of the game (29). In general, Muslims maintained that as long as chess was played with nonrealistic pieces, without interfering with the performance of religious duties, and if it was not played for money and did not lead to disputes, then it was an acceptable pastime. From time to time in the ancient Middle East, a strict Muslim ruler would prohibit the game and order the destruction of all sets (8). Even up to the introduction of the queen piece, replacing the vizier on increasing amounts of chessboards, the Muslim world’s chess figures continued to be represented abstractly, with the vizier maintaining his position beside the king. Jewish chess sets are found with abstract pieces and representational pieces; since they, too, were prohibited from making graven images but were less rigid on the matter than Muslims. The queen did end up in the hands of Jewish players, as evidenced by some Hebrew texts of Spanish origin. European Christianity encouraged the portrayal of humans, animals, and the divine, and even easily identifiable queens were found on chessboards. (52-‐53) Just a brief overview of Spain’s religious history will reveal a timeline of battle and strife between Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. The country was first Christianized while part of the Roman Empire and remained Catholic for centuries, until the 700s when Islam set its ruling dominance over Spain until 1492 (Wikipedia). Ancient through medieval Spain was the scene of almost constant warfare between Muslims and Christians, not to mention persecution of opposing religions by the dominant one. Conversion to Christianity was necessary for professional advancement (52). Chess was brought to Spain by Arab conquerors in the 9th century. It should be noted that for some time Christians and Jews were legally protected from persecution in Islamic Spain as long as they did not publicize their faith. Marilyn Yalom explains in her book, “Chess figured prominently in this cosmopolitan setting [Cordoba, Spain] where Muslims, Christians, and Jews played the game together, the women as well as the men”. (11) This may come as a shock considering the turmoil
of clashing religions in Spain’s history, and its mention is mere in Yalom’s book, yet the implications for chess and even gaming are HUGE – but more on that later. Chess continued to spread throughout Spain, and by the 11th century it was developing a mass of dedicated players and a distinctive style of chessmen (43). Abstract chessmen of the Muslim type continued to outnumber representational chessmen in medieval Spain, even among Christians (57). Chess in Spain was not only played by those who were confined to the indoors such as nursing women and ill, old, and/or bedridden people; in fact, it was also a mandatory skill for Spain’s elite warriors (52) and was cherished by many kings, especially King Alfonso VI (reigning the later half of the 11th century) and King Alfonso X of Castile. Alfonso VI’s court welcomed other chess enthusiasts regardless of their religion (47). Two centuries later, Alfonso X commissioned a manuscript The Book of the Games of Chess, Dice, and Boards (57). Alfonso X’s book has sixty illustrations of the game of chess being played by kings, queens, courtiers, foreign visitors, Christians, Muslims, and Jews. Depicted are matches between mixed sexes, mixed religions, and mixed social statuses (59). Alfonso X and his queen Violante of Aragon obviously had no problems with this sort of mingling over a chessboard, and it should be noted that the Christian king and his immediate predecessors and successors did not actively persecute Jews and Muslims, instead he and Violante drew on all three religious communities to create a composite intellectual culture. During their reign, chess occupied an honored position as a favorite past time of the royalty, the nobility, and the clergy (65-‐66). As you can see, religion and chess have had an awkward relationship, the latter typically succumbing to the reigns of religion. But in a special place at a special time, the two danced together, and when that happened, religious, cultural, and gender differences were set aside as a meaningful game of chess played out on the board. Since chess was born “an emblem of the art of war”(4), it makes sense that different cultures could meet on opposing ends of the chessboard and interact from there. In Muslim story tales from Arabian Nights and European versions, princes and princesses are converted to the acceptable religion after a game of chess. This intermingling of cultures is so important to the entire world’s history, and to think chess was an agent for this centuries ago. It is obvious that games play that role in the world today because of network gaming and cultural gaming, but it is surprising to find that in a time far different from the current when cultures only mingled on the borderlines that chessboards were a medium for the exchange or at least acceptance of differences. Resources "Religion and Chess" Chess.com: Play. Learn. Share. Web."Religion in Spain." Wikipedia. Web.Yalom, Marilyn. Birth of the Chess Queen A History. New York: HarperCollins,2004. Print.