Sunday 4 May 2014

Another game to play with your medieval chess board

The start of a (fake) game of jeu de dames. A composition of margin illuminations of the 14th century manuscript Bodleian 264. Made by St. Thomasguild in 2014 using Photoshop. 

There is another medieval game that can be played on the medieval chess board which is called jeu de dames, but also known as draughts or checkers. The game borrows the game pieces from tables (i.e. backgammon / tric-trac) and uses the chequered board (hence the name checkers) from chess. It is believed to be derived from the game of Alquerque (described in the Libre de Los Juegos of Alphonso X the Wise in 1283), as the method of the jump-capture is identical. De game became known as the 'jeu de dames' in France, and checkers or draughts (from 'to draw' or to move) in England. The first mention of the name of the game is in the late 14th century in an English poem 'Sir Ferumbras'. The game is believed to be common in medieval times and widely played.

& ioustes and tornyment: wel mo per wendep ofte pare.
do pat williep to leue at hame: pleyep to pe eschekkere,
& summe of hem to iew-de-dame; and summe to tablere.

(from 'Sir Ferumbras', 1380 Bodleian ASHMOLE Ms. 33)

A game of Alquerque as played in 1283, depicted in the Libre de los Juegos, folio 91v. 
Note that Alquerque is played with pawns, not the flat backgammon pieces.

But ....

There is a peculiarity about draughts. There are many other medieval board games, popular such as chess, or more obscure such as the game of the four seasons called the world or rithmomachia, but for all of these the rules are described in some medieval book. Not for draughts. The first rule book for draughts dates from the 16th century (Lorenzo Valls, 1597). Neither are there clear images of people playing draughts (see the post faulty medieval chess boards for some possible boards), i.e. an 8x8 board using two colours of tablemen on only one colour of the chequered board. When an incorrect draughts board is shown, the surrounding text usually mentions the play of chess.

Another tricky thing is that archaeological evidence is biased against draughts. A chequered board - that must be a chess board; a table men - that must be a backgammon piece. Perhaps if both were found at the same place it could count as proof for draughts. But then there are game boxes which often present both chess and backgammon boards at opposite sites. Thus archaeology can not provide solid proof, with chess pieces or backgammon boards lying around.

 Alquerque is still being played as a separate game in the 14th century. Margin illumination of Bodleian MS 264, folio 76r, Romance of Alexander, 1338-1344.

The same manuscript (Bodleian MS 264, folio 60r) has an illumination which - with much fantasy and adaptation - could be seen as medieval draughts. The board size is wrong, the game pieces look more or less the same as identical dots. All game pieces, with one exception, are on the same chequered (black) colour. This image was used as basis for the fake medieval draughts image at the top of this blogpost.

Thus the only 'proof' for the existence of medieval draughts is based on the etymology of the names of the game and the gaming pieces, and the scanty mention of the game in medieval books. One draughts historian uses the etymological study of Dutch medieval terms, where 97% of the words kept the same meaning throughout history as proof that the jeu de dames is draughts, while on the other hand he off-handedly regards the differently named foreign terms 'marro, merelles, alquerque' as identical to draughts. In my eyes this is a weak proof. Especially, since the 'jeu de dames' is also used for hunting with female company during medieval times ('Cy commence jeu de dames', in the Taymouth Hours (1325-1340)). A fact that the advocates of the medieval draughts theory seem to have overlooked. This makes me sceptical whether medieval draughts existed, and if, on the (lack of) popularity of it.

An (fake) end situation of medieval draughts. A promoted white 'dame' can be seen on the second row below, being able to capture two opponents pieces. Photoshop alteration of the 11th century chess mosaic in the Basilica San Savino in Piacenza, Italy by St. Thomasguild 2014.

Playing medieval 'jeu de dames'

The start position of a game of medieval draughts. It can be played on the black or the white squares. The chess board is from four season chess, described in 1283.

As mentioned above, no contemporary medieval rules for draughts exist. What follows is what is thought to be the medieval rules for playing.

  • Each player has 12 game pieces, put in three rows onto one (the same) colour of the 8x8 chequered board. This can be either the white or the black squares.
  • Capture is by leaping over a piece of an opponent to a vacant place. Multiple captures, when possible, are allowed.
  • Capture can only be diagonally forward.
  • Capture is not compulsory.
  • Movement is only diagonally forward.
  • Players roll a dice to decide who start the game.
  • When a game piece reaches the other side of the board it is promoted to a queen (dame).
  • The queen (or dame) moves like the medieval chess queen: only one place, diagonally forward or backward. 
  • The game is lost when a player cannot move or has no more game pieces on the board.

Some changes are thought to appear at the end of the 15th century in Spain: the introduction of the long move of the queen (i.e. like the modern chess bishop) as well as compulsory capture (of the most) on penalty of the huff. When a player forgot to capture a piece, his game piece could be 'huffed' (taken from the board by blowing to it). In England, draughts became known as the game with the huff, and checkers the same game without the huff. The latter was seen as a children's game. A few centuries later, the huff was again abolished. In the 16th century backward capture by the single pieces became possible. The 10x10 chequered board for draughts also appeared for the first time during this century (it already existed several centuries for decimal chess).

Arabic (medieval) draughts on an unchequered board uses 16 game pieces,
 which move forward and side-ways.

Sources used:

  • A. van der Stoep, 2001. Middeleeuws damspel, volgens de oude en volgens een nieuwe versie. In: Spelen in the Middeleeuwen. Edited by W.S. van Egmond and M. Mostert  Uitgeverij verloren, Hilversum, the Netherlands.
  • H.J. Murray, 1952. The history of board games other than chess. Oxford University Press.
  • A. van der Stoep. Webpage on the history of draughts.

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