November 12, 2005

chess queens unite!

by Mary Flanagan · , 5:52 pm

I’m reading Marilyn Yalom’s book _Birth of the Chess Queen_, which documents the game of Chess in several incarnations. Yalom conducted original research on many continents trying to discover a) when ‘Queen’ pieces were introduced to the board (prior to the introduction of the Queen, the spot was occupied by the King’s vizier), and b) how religious, social, and cultural changes coincided with this shift. It’s a fascinating survey of medieval history, especially Spanish history, where changes to the chess board were particular interesting given the mix of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim worlds there.


Yalom notes that a great deal of early chess practices were detailed in a book by King Alphonse X of Leon and Castile, entitled _The Book of Games of Chess, Dice, and Boards_ dated 1283. A great resource for those of us with a gaming obsession… Yalom includes several illulstrations from this manuscript; multiple illustrations depict women playing chess, either against men in social situations, with their children, or with each other.

Yalom documents one of the first identifiable queen pieces is housed at The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, dated to be from the 12th century. Early in the introduction of chess queens, however, chess queens were not very powerful, and could only move one space at at time at a diagonal. By the time chess arrived in Scandinavia, the queen was already on the board — for example, the famous Lewis Chessmen of Norway from 1150AD includes a queen. According to Yalom’s collection of historical documents, the transformation of the chess queen to the most powerful piece on the board coincided with the reign of Isabella of Castile in the 15th Century. Yalom’s book details chess practices in the times of Margaret of Denmark, Catherine de’Medici, Catherine the Great, etc. and details cultural shifts that might not be recognized in a standard history — a fun read as well as new take on an old game.