Sunday 26 January 2014

Medieval chess boards

After all the 'exotic' medieval chess versions (grande acredex, Byzantine chess, four season chess) shown in previous posts, we also made a 'normal' medieval 8x8 chess board and chess pieces. But how did a normal medieval chess board look like?

 Two Spanish damsels playing chess on a chequered board from the book of Alfonso X the wise, folio 32 recto. 
The squares are white and brown, the game pieces black and white. 

Chequered and unchequered

Most medieval illuminations, for instance many of boards shown in de Libro de los Juegos of Alfonxo X the wise, the Bonius socius manuscript or the Carmina burana, show a black (brown) and white chequered board, much like modern ones. But there are exceptions to this. Also images of unchequered chess boards occur, with either the chess pieces shown as text or as symbols. According to H.J.R. Murray in his famous book A History of Chess, early medieval poems describing chess mention unchequered boards. However, chequered boards became more common during medieval times, as they provided the advantage of easier calculation of the moves and the specific placement of the pieces (the King and Ferz/Queen). The common practise was to place the black king on a white square, and directly opposite, the white king on a black square. The position of either a black or white square in the right-corner, however, was not established in the medieval period. And thus, the position of the king only was relatively 'fixed'.

'Buzurgmihr Masters the Game of Chess', detail from a folio from a Shahnama (Book of Kings) by Abu'l Qasim Firdausi. Iran or Iraq, ca. 1300–1330. Ink, opaque watercolour, and gold on paper. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, USA. Unchequered board with red and black game pieces.

A chess problem from the Bonus Socius manuscript Ms. Ludwig XV 15, fol. 97., northern France, late 1300s. Ink, tempera colours, and gold leaf on parchment. J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, CA, USA. Black and white chequered board, red and gold chess pieces.

An unchequered chess board from a medieval Arabic chess book. Chess pieces are written in red and black.

Unchequered chess board from the late medieval manuscript De ludo scachorum by the Italian mathematician Luca Pacioli (around 1496). The chess pieces are depicted in red and black.

A man with an unchequered 8 by 8 square (chess) board. Padua, Italy, between 1285-1300. Ms M.819, fol. 59v. 
Pierpont Morgan Library, New York, NY, USA.

Different colours

But it was not only a matter of being chequered or unchequered for medieval chessboards, also the colours of a chequered board were not limited to simple black and white. For instance, the diagrams of chess problems in the Cotton Cleopatra B ix manuscript (ff 4-8, dated around 1273, British Library) show boards in yellow and white, red and white and black and white. Those in de 'Les Voeux du Paon' and the MS Bodleian 264 f. 127 show respectively boards of blue and gold, black and red, yellow and black and black and white. In the manuscript 'Eligia de ludo scachorum', the earliest copy dating from 12th century, the chess board (tabula) is mentioned as having 8 stations (loca) in alternating white or red or black or grey or reddish colour.

Quatuor in tabula bis loca sunt uaria;
Albescit primus, rubet atque colore secundus,
Aut niger aut clacus pingitur aut rubeus.

The Deventer poem 'De Scachis', dating from the 14th century describes the board as chequered and painted with different colours without specifying which:

Asser quadratus, uario colore notatus
depictus bene, fit campus litis amene.

Fesonas and Cassiel the Baudrain playing chess on a 5x5 blue and gold chequered board. Jacques de Longuyon, Les Voeux du Paon; Northern France, ca. 1345-49. Pierpont Morgan Library (New York, NY, USA), MS G.24, f. 25v (detail). 

Three different coloured chess boards from the 'The Romance of Alexander' illuminated with miniatures and marginal scenes of everyday life by the Flemish illuminator Jehan de Grise and his workshop, 1338-44. Bodleian MS 264 folio 127v (Oxford, UK).

The Duchess of Burgundy invites William Cavalier to play chess on a greenish-white chequered board. 
14th century fresco in the bedroom of the Palazzo Davanzati, Florence, Italy.

A wide range of materials

Most boards seem to have been made of wood, while the boards owned by nobles and princes were made using more expensive materials, like glass, precious stones, gold and silver. Even so, a painted simple black and white chequered board must have cost quite some money, as a painter and his paints were involved in the job of making the chess board. This makes it likely that the simple boards for 'common' people were just unchequered, with carved squares on a wooden plank, or on stone like we found in Castle Falaise in France. Also the 'common' chess pieces can easily be carved from wood as shown by the massive amount of simple wooden chess pieces that were found in medieval Novgorod (Russia).  

On one of the window benches of Castle Falaise, Falaise, France four medieval game boards can be found. On the floor is an (unchequered) 8 x 8 chess board, on the bench are an unknown game, a nine-men-morris and an extended 3-men-morris.

Chequered chessboard carved on the stone floor of Troubadour's tower of Palacio La Aljaferia, Zaragosa, Spain, in use by the prisoners who were held here. Presumably late 15th century. Image scan from the book 'Medieval castles of Spain' by L. Monreal y Tejada.

Small and large

According to H.R.J. Murray, the chessboard was, as a rule, both larger and more massive than in modern times. According to him, the boards were made of wood or metal, and explained the frequency and effectiveness with which they were used in the romances as weapons of offence or defence. The field of play was surrounded by a broad raised edge or border, which could be elaborately decorated. The larger boards might have a ring from which it could be hung from a wall (see the wall painting below and the inventory of the Duke of Guelders (in the next blogpost)). However, not all chessboards were large; a chessboard of emperor Frederic III is very small, and was made to fit inside the handle of an ornamented mace. The brass board measures 12.8 by 12.8 cm and was foldable.

A 16th century German wall painting showing a 6 by 6 chequered chess board 
hanging with a ring on the wall.

Decorative gilded mace of emperor Frederic III specially made for the relief of the siege of Neuss by Charles the Bold (1474). The inside of the handle is hollow and holds a small 12.8 by 12.8 cm painted brass folding chess board. Left image by the Hof, Jagd und Rustkammer, Vienna, Austria. The detail photo on the right is made by Racaire and from her Flickr page. She holds the copyright of the photo.

A Birth Scene (Desco da Parte) (left photo) with on the back side a chess board (right photo) , c. 1410.  Master of Charles of Durazzo (Francesco di Michele?), Florence, Italy. Tempera on panel. Size 52.8 x 53.4 x 3.1 cm. Fogg Museum, Harvard, USA

Chess and game boxes

It became more usual in the 15th century to combine together boards for the favourite games of the period, although earlier examples of game boxes exist. Often chess was combined with backgammon (tric trac or tables) and/or merels (nine men morris). Mostly the inner surface is devoted to backgammon. The inside of the so-created game box could be used to store the game pieces. Especially Italy (Venice) was a known producer of these luxurious game boxes.

Aschaffenburg game box dating from around 1300 with tric-trac and chess is one of the oldest game boxes. The game box is made from wood, silver, jasper, rock crystal and painted clay and probably manufactured in Italy. Archbishop Albrecht of Brandenburg is believed to have been the owner of the game, which was also used as a reliquary. Stiftsmuseum, Aschaffenburg, Germany.

Early 14th century game box for chess and backgammon (with 20 game pieces from agate-chalcedony and jaspis). Wood with certosina intarsia, jaspis, bone, painted clay and rock cristal. Venice, Italy.  Height 3 cm, length 38 cm, width 38 cm. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Wien, Austria. Personally, I find this chequered pattern very disorienting.
When looking at the inventory of the museum, the only game pieces of agate (chalcedony) and jaspis that are present are these shown here, but only once (with a separate chess piece of this set) a date of the 14th century is mentioned.

Decorative game box with chess and backgammon of ivory and ebony, late 15th century. Made in Northern Italy and France. Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence, Italy. 56 by 56 by 3.1 cm. Image from the book 'Karel de Stoute - Pracht en praal in Bourgondie', Mercatorfonds, 2009. ISBN 9789061538608.


15th century Italian game box made of walnut. The outside of the box have a chess board and a nine men's morris board. The inside is a backgammon board. Auction images from internet.

Medieval game box with chess, merels, fox and geese, tric-trac and two other games from the end of the 15th century. Ebony, ivory, tinted ivory and walnut tree. Size (open): 24.2 by 39.9 cm. Musee de Cluny, Paris, France.

Upper left: 15th century games box with a chess board and dancing and hunting scenes at the sides. Made of ebony, lemon tree wood, bone. Made in Flanders. Height 7.9 cm, length 16.4 cm, width 13 cm. Musée du Louvre, Paris, France. Upper middle: a 15th century games box from Venice, Italy. Upper right and lower photos: 15th century gaming box with boards for chess and backgammon (together with a chess set of ivory and tortoiseshell with gold pique inlay). Made of bone, wood and certosina intarsia; from the workshop of Embriachi, Venice, Italy. British museum, London, UK. 

Left: 15th century games box with gaming and hunting scenes at the sides. Made in France of bone.
Height 7.6 cm, length 18 cm and width 14.8 cm. Musée de Cluny, Paris, France. Right: Late 15th century game box with a chess board and decorated with religious scenes, saints, music playing angels. bone, gilding, ivory, marquetry, paint and wood. Height 17.5 cm, length 22.5 cm and depth 13.9 cm. Musée du Louvre, Paris, France.

15th century gamebox for chess, backgammon and merels. Made from wood with Certosina intasia and (painted) ivory by the Embriachi workshop, Venice, Italy. Length 62.5 cm (open), width 30.4 cm, height 6.8 cm. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Wien, Austria.

15th century game box with chess and backgammon.  Made in Venice, Italy from bone, wood, horn, stain and gilding over wood core with metal mounts. 3.2 cm height, 42.2 width, length 49.9/25.2 cm. Metropolitan Museum, New York, NY, USA.

Chess furniture

Medieval chess boards could also evolve into large chess furniture pieces. Several images exist where the table top is composed of a giant chess board.

'The thyrd chappitre of the first tractate treteth wherfore the playe was founden and maad' from William Caxtons 'Game and Playe of chess' with printed woodcuts, 1489. The chequered square table top is standing on three legs.

A chessgame with death by Master B.R. A German type table of the 15th century. 
Copper-plate engraving. Kunsthalle, Hamburg, Germany.

A chess table with multiple legs - one of the players is even sitting on it. Miniature from the Manuscript 'Pelerinage de la vie humaine'. Made in France in the second quarter of the 14th century. Morgan Library, New York, NY, USA.

A round chess table with a painted square board on it. Woodcut from an 1493 print of the Liber de moribus hominum et officiis nobilium ac popularium super ludo scachorum by Jacobus de Cessolis.

A chess board with the starting position standing on four small legs.  
Miniature from the Liber de moribus by  Jacobus de Cessolis. Italian, 14th century.

Fresco of a man playing chess with death by Albertus Pictor around 1480. Täby kyrka, Täby, Sweden. 
Only two chess table legs are shown on the right. The chess board is 7 by 5 squares. 

Image from the Liber de moribus by Jacques de Cessoles (Jacobus de Cessolis) around 1375-1400. Manuscript Francais 2471, folio 70. Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF), Paris, France. A large chess board on a central stone or metal pedestal.

Making the chess board

I liked to have a medieval chessboard that was not like the common chequered boards. Thus my choice was to make an unchequered board. The board was made similarly to that for Byzantine chess: the board was made of poplar and lines were cut with a carving knife. The edges of the board were made of walnut. For clarity, the lines were painted black (linseed oil with bone black). The board was finished with linseed oil.  Also here the chess pieces were made by Anne in the same style as the four-season chess.

The finished poplar unchequered medieval chess board.

Sources used

H.R.J. Murray, 1913/2012. A history of chess. Reprint by Skyhorse publishing.


  1. Thanks for this great read!

  2. Op 11 november maakt Het Woud der Verwachting een filmpje waarin Willem van Gelre besluit om vrede te sluiten met Charles VI van Frankrijk. Zijn vader overtuigde hem samen met de bisschop van Keulen dat het soms beter is een vijand de hand te reiken dan gewapenderhand te bestrijden. We gebruiken het schaakpel als metafoor voor deze 180 graden omslag in zijn houding. Maar we missen een redelijk authentiek schaakspel. Kunnen jullie ons helpen?

    1. We hebben diverse middeleeuwse schaakspelen, waarvan 1 een reproductie van de schaakstukken uit Noyon (ook op deze blog te vinden). Ik stuur een mailtje via jullie website.