Tuesday 27 August 2013

The game of Astronomical Tables

At the end of the Libro de los Juegos of Alfonso the Wise, the game of astronomical tables is described. It is a game in which the number 'seven' is central: it is played by seven players, each setting seven stakes. The number of game pieces is seven for each player and seven-sided dice are used to play. The board is seven-sided and each side has seven places for the game pieces. 

 Folio 97v: A game of astronomical tables for seven players.

This is the board for tables, after the (same) nature of the checkers, which is played by astrology [astrological checkers is another game described in the book of Alfonso the wise]. The board for these tables is to have seven sides, like the board for the checkers, both inside and out. And on the inner division it is to have seven spaces. And this should be on each one of the other divisions. And in between the one division and the other there is to be a divider that marks both sides. And from that divider there is to be a long line that goes to the middle of the board. And each ones of the pieces of these sides, are to be of the colour of the planets. And the pieces are to be as many as the spaces. And over each side there is to be drawn the likeness of the planet to which it belongs, that side painted and coloured of that colour which suits. Saturn in black, Jupiter in green, Mars in red, the Sun in yellow, Venus in purple, Mercury in many different colours, the Moon white. And because the pieces belong to that planet, they are to be of its colour.
And the arrangement is to be in this manner: that all seven pieces be placed in the first and leftmost of the seven spaces and they are always to move to the right, according to the numbers that the seven-sided die show, as we said above. And neither is counted the space they occupy nor the space to their right which is the beginning space for the other seven pieces, unless there remains one lone piece which can be captured, leaving the space empty or occupying it according to astrology.

 The set-up of the board and its pieces. From bottom clockwise: Saturn (black), Moon (white), 
Mercury (three-coloured), Mars (red), Sun (yellow), Venus ( purple) and Jupiter (green).

The board and the game pieces

As the game needs a large board for all the players and pieces, we decided to make an embroidered board on linen. This way we can conveniently fold the board and easily it with us. The board was embroidered by Katinka and Anne, and also served to test wool for the Thomasteppich project. The board has a diameter of approximately 70 cm. The game pieces were made exactly (and at the same time) as the playing pieces for the game of four seasons called the world, but painted in more colours.

Three ladies embroidering the game board at the same time .

The game

And play is in this way: that each one of the players has seven amounts of whatever wager they agree upon of maravedí or whatever coin they like. And if one captures the piece of another, he is not to return it and he should take one amount from him for it and for as many as he captures. And so on around until the whole game belongs to one of those that play it, because that one who remains is the winner. 

Play of the game is fairly simple. All seven game pieces of one colour are arranged on the left of the seven spaces. Odd numbered pieces of one colour can be captured by another colour and are taken from the board. Players throw with two seven-sided dice, and movement is according to the pips shown on the dice. The end game can take long when only few pieces have to be captured. When players agree on using wagers, the player losing a game piece pays an amount for each game piece captured by the other player. This means each player likely will win and lose some wagers.

The seven sided dice for astronomical tables and another view of the embroidered board with the game pieces and some wagers.

Sunday 25 August 2013


Although the asparagus season is long at its end this year (April-June), I would like to present this medieval asparagus recipe, which is a bit unusual compared to our modern asparagus recipes. We did make this recipe during our May visit to the Historic Open Air Museum in Eindhoven. The recipe originally comes from the 'Libre de sent sovi' containing fourteenth century Catalan recipes. The translation is in 'Pleyn Delit - medieval cookery for modern cooks' (ISBN0802076327)

Esparaguat made during the asparagus season

Esparaguat or medieval fried asparagus

If you wish to eat asparagus, take them and wash them and parboil; and when they are parboiled, dredge them with flour and put them in a frying pan and fry them until they are cooked. And put them on serving dishes, and if you wish, put a little vinegar on them.

500 g asparagus
1/2 cup of flour with some salt and pepper added
oil for frying
white wine vinegar

Trim the asparagus, and parboil them 3-4 minutes in slightly salted water; drain and dry on (paper or linen) towels. Heat oil in a frying pan (we used one of our hanging iron pots over open fire. If you do this as well, you should be extremely careful with the flames, as the oil quickly can catch fire). Dip the spears into the flour to coat them well and fry over moderate heat, gently but quickly. Turn to cook on all sides until lightly browned. Place in a serving dish and keep warm, when all spears are fried, sprinkle a small amount of vinegar over and serve at once. 

When we made this, I had trouble to coat the spears completely with flour and consequently they were not much browned. Nevertheless, they tasted good. However, I thought to 'improve' the recipe a few weeks later at home by using a batter of flour and egg to cover the spears. This worked: the spears became browned, but, alas, the taste was a failure...  

The 'improved' asparagus on modern plates: looks good, tastes bad.

Tuesday 6 August 2013

Four-season chess

This is another game that is found in the medieval manuscript Libro de los Juegos of Alphonso X, the Wise of 1283. The game of the 'backgammon'-like Game of the four seasons called the world, and Grande acredex have been presented in previous blogposts. Four season chess is a medieval chess variant played on an 8x8 board by four players. It is reminiscent of the four person Indian chess variant Chaturaji, however the layout of the board and placement of the game pieces is different, allowing for a frontal clash between the players. Also, Chaturaji can be played with dice, which is not the case in this game. Interestingly, the placement of the elephants is such that a player has the elephant move on a different coloured square than both his direct opponents. Also note that green and black (brown) have their horse at right hand, whereas white and red have it at left.

Folio 88 verso. The set-up of four-season chess.

"Here begins another chess that was made after the four seasons of the year, which the ancient wise men divined
There is another chess that the ancient wise men made after the four seasons of the year and it was organized in this way: The first season is spring which begins in the middle of March and goes through the middle of June. The second season is summer which begins in the middle of June and goes through the middle of September. The third season is autumn which begins in the middle of September and goes through the middle of December. The fourth season is winter which begins in the middle of December and goes through the middle of March. And these four seasons are divided like the four elements. Spring is air; summer is fire; autumn is earth; winter is water.
And because as we said above in the first season, spring, all things grow and men are refreshed and the trees and plants turn green the reason why air is its element is clearer than for any other season; therefore they made this season green. And the summer which is hotter and drier than the other seasons they made it like fire, which is of this nature. And therefore they made this season red for it element which also is. The autumn is dry and cold because its element is earth; it is more temperate than summer because it tends more toward cold than heat. The things that burn in summer, are born and refreshed in this season. And because its element is earth, its nature coldness and dryness therefore they made this season’s colour black. Winter they gave the element water which is cold and wet because in that season there are great cold, ice, snow, and rains. And because its element is water they made its colour white. And this similarity they made according to the four humours that grow in the body of man, like blood, which they gave to spring; and choler, to summer; and melancholy, to autumn; and phlegm to winter.
Of the humours which grow in each season
Of these four seasons we described above, the first is spring. And the blood grows in it more than in all the others. And in the summer, choler; in the autumn, melancholy; and in the winter, phlegm.
The seasons are divided in this manner: spring is temperate because it is between winter which is very cold and summer which is very hot. According to the ancient wise men, it tends more towards warmth than cold because it takes more from summer which is coming than winter which is passed. Summer is hot and dry because of the warmth from the previous spring and the warmth of the coming autumn. Autumn is temperate and tends more towards cold than warmth because it is between summer which is very hot and winter which is very cold, taking more from the coming season than the past. Winter, which comes between autumn and spring, is very cold because it takes coldness from the previous autumn and from the coming spring. And in this way the seasons all take from one another. And like the four seasons and the four humours they divided the pieces of this chess into four parts, each with its own colour as you heard above, which suits each season.

 The set-up of our four-season chess board with the pieces.

The board 

"How the four-seasons board is made and how many colours the pieces are and how they are arranged on it
This board should be made in this way: square with eight spaces per side for a total of sixty-four. It is to have four lines in the shape of an “x” that goes from the second [inside corner] square [b2, b7, g2, or g7] and goes to the second [inside corner] square diagonally across. The other line does the same. The one that goes through white squares is to be black and the one that goes through black, white in order to divide between the types of pieces. And these lines that cut through the squares mark the direction in which the pawns are to move first – those to the right move to the right and likewise for those to the left. They capture forward and diagonally as pawns should capture.

The game board is an 8 by 8 chequered board marked with a cross in the middle 4 x 4 square. The cross has no other function than to aid the player which side the pawns should move. Our board has a base of poplar on which squares of maple and walnut are glued. The cross is made from ebony, while the sides of the board are walnut as well. The backside has a 10 by 10 chequered board, which can be used for draughts, decimal chess or farmers chess (both are chess variants played in the middle ages).

The game board has two sides because glueing on only one side would cause the board to warp. Glueing  has thus to take place at the same time. We used a vacuum press to have an even pressure on all the pieces. Finally, the board was flattened with a plane and scraper. The grooves for the ebony inlay were then made with a router and the four ebony strips inserted, glued and planed as flat as the board. The board is finished with linseed oil.   

Using a 90 degree set-up to build the board with the individual maple and walnut squares.

The back (left) and the front (right) of the chess board. The part that has to be glued is blank, while to good side is taped.

Left. The board is covered both sides in glue, the chess board is waiting to be added. Right. the vacuum pres set up. You can see the draughts board waiting for the rest of the board to be added. The grooves on the board underneath allow for the air to escape.

Left. The boards under vacuum pressure. A tube connects to the vacuum pump (right).

Both chequered sides of the board were made differently. For the 8 x 8 chess board all 64 squares were sawn separately, and then fitted and taped together to make a board. Sawing individual squares on a saw table, produced squares with slightly splintered edges. Someone (Frank) from our woodworking course mentioned that it would be better to glue alternating strips of maple and walnut, then cut this 'board' to new 'blocked' strips, which in turn are used to form a chequered board. This easier method was used for the 10 x 10 board at the back of the four season chess board, and had no problem of splintering edges.

Both glued sides of the boards. The 'draughts' board on the left is still a 12 x 10 board. 
Two rows will be sawn off to make it square.

The finished 10 x 10 draughts board.

The gaming pieces

"And these pieces are thirty-two in total and are to be set up in the four corners of the board. Each arrangement is to have eight pieces that are a king, a rook, a knight, a fil, and four pawns. All pieces are to move wherever they want according to their movements in the other chess that is more common. And this is their arrangement: the kings are placed in the corner most squares on the board. The rook is next to the king, the knight is on the other, and the fil in front of him. Two pawns face one side of the board and the other two face the other. In this chess there is no fers until one of the pawns is promoted.
And there are four kings and four men each with his pieces of his colour are to play on it. And the colours are these four that we have said correspond to the seasons. Spring’s pieces are green; summer’s are red; autumn’s black, and winter’s white.

The gaming pieces were made in clay by Anne, and glazed green (spring), red (summer), brown (instead of black) (autumn) and white (winter). They are hollow, like the game pieces she made for Grande Arcedex.

The board is set-up with the pieces arranged in the corners: the king in the utmost corner, surrounded by the knight, elephant (alffil, bishop) and rook, which are in turn surrounded by 4 pawns. Each set of two pawns move in the direction they face, and promote only if they reach that opposite site into a vizier or general (ferz). The movement of the queen is one step diagonally in all directions. Movement of the other pieces is as normal in medieval chess, with the elephant jumping 2 places diagonally.

The game

"On how they are to begin to play with these pieces
The player with the green pieces is to play first and he should move towards his right, towards the other player who has the red pieces. This is like spring moving towards summer. He who has the red pieces should also play towards the other player who has the white pieces at the same time defending himself from green. The one with the black pieces is to play also towards his right, against the player who has the white guarding always from attack from the player with the red pieces. He who has the white pieces should do the same, guarding against attack from black. After [the first move] each player may move according to his will.
And thus in playing these four players take from one another like the seasons of the year which also take from one another. And each of these four players should make an opening wager. Thereafter for each piece that a player loses he should pay an amount as well as for each check given to a king.
And when a player is checkmated he pays the victor an amount for as many pieces as he has on the board and then removes his pieces. Of the three players that remain thereafter, the first to be defeated leaves on the board as much as he has won and an amount for each of his pieces that remain when he is checkmated. Of the two remaining players, the one who wins takes all the money on the board plus the loser gives him an amount for each of his remaining pieces."

Green starts, which is logical for spring, with a move towards red (summer). Then, players play in the order of the seasons, each with a starting move towards the next season. After the first moves, players can choose their own pieces and direction. When a player mates another king, he gets all remaining pieces from that side. The mated player is out of the game. If a player stalemates a king, the stalemated player is out of the game and all his pieces are removed from the board. The winner is the last King present on the board. 

Another view of the 'Four season' chess set.

If you want to follow King Alfonso exactly, wagers should be placed on the pieces, as well as each check on the king. 

This blogpost relied heavily on information on the game provides at  in the original book, as well as on the chess variants internet site and the history of chess web page.

Sunday 4 August 2013

Two identical chests from the citymuseum of Koln

There are two large identical medieval chests in the city museum of Cologne, Germany  (Kolnischen Stadtmuseum), which originate from the medieval tax office. The chests were used to hold the payments and taxes, as well as the documents relating to it. One stood in the so-called 'Wednesday' tax room, the other in the 'Saturday' tax room. At each office (and day) different types of taxes and rents were collected, for instance rents or wine and beer taxes.

 The chest of the Wednesday tax office: height 108.5 cm, width 185 cm and depth 62 cm.

The chest of the Saturday tax office: height 110 cm, width 190 cm and depth 62 cm.

Both chests have the look of a hutch type chest, though the construction is partly different. They are made of oak and reinforced with iron bands. The wood of the chests has been dendrochronologically dated at either 1296 or 1410 +/- 5 years. As the latter date coincides with the date of the furnishing of the City council tower in 1414 (the place where the chests were kept), this is the most likely construction date. Wood from the same tree has been used for both chests. What is most astonishing is that all sides of the chests are made of single planks, with a thickness between 3 and 4 cm. They show cracks nowadays, and some have been completely split, but you can still see by the continuing grain pattern or the irregularity of the split that they once were one piece. Thus, the tree providing all the boards must have been very large .... (at least by modern standards).

Left: The side of the 'Wednesday' tax chest, the side board is split in two, as is the lid. No dowels are visible on the side. Right:  The floor board is also a single piece of wood. The underside of the 'Wednesday' tax chest. There used to be a wooden rail in the middle supporting the floor board (see light coloured wood and holes).  You can see that the sawn-out front decoration is thinner than the  main board and inserted in a groove. At the back of the photos the other tax chest can be seen.

Furthermore, no dowels can be seen that secure the sides to the front legs or the front legs to the front board. Although for the latter the place where dowels are to be expected is a bit obscured by the iron bands to be absolutely sure of the absence of dowels. It is most likely that the complete chest is hold together by iron nails - a more primitive construction than dowels.

Left: The left decorative 'triangle' of the 'Wednesday' tax chest. Right: The same corner for the 'Saturday' tax chest. You can see part of the groove where the 'triangle' is attached to the leg.

The decorative 'triangles' are part of the front board. Looking at both chests feels like looking at 'find the 10 differences' images. One of those differences is that the Saturday chest also has some decoration on the lower parts of the sides, while the Wednesday chest does not have elaborate carvings. Furthermore, there is a small size difference between both chests.

The decorated underside of the side board of the 'Saturday' tax chest which is missing on the other chest.

The number of iron strips reinforcing the chest is the same, and they are placed approximately at the same places. Each chest has two locks with lock-plates that are integrated with the chest, and two hinges and rings that can be closed with a padlock.

 Left and right: The locks of the 'Wednesday' tax chest.

 One of the lock plates of the 'Saturday' tax chest.

We took the photos during our visit to the museum in 2012. Some details on the tax chests can be found in the museum catalogue 'Mittelalter in Koln. Eine Auswahl aus den Bestanden des Kolnischen Stadtmuseums' edited by W. Schafke and M. Trier. Emons Verlag, Koln, Germany. ISBN: 9783897056541.