Saturday 21 June 2014

Courier chess

Courier chess is another 'unusual' medieval board game, that has a long history of play. The game is an enlarged chess variant played on the long sides of a 12 by 8 chequered board. Accordingly, each side has 8 additional game pieces: 4 extra pawns, 2 couriers, a jester and a sage (for respectively short term advise and long term advise). Courier chess, named after one of the new game pieces, is first mentioned in the early thirteenth century in the Arthurian romance Wigalois by Wirnt von Gravenberg (1202):

da lagen vor der frouwen fier,
wurfzabel unde kurier
geworht von elfenbeine
mit edelen gesteine

The positions of the white game pieces for courier chess are: rook, knight, bishop, courier, jester, queen, king, sage, courier, bishop, knight and rook. In front of them is a row of pawns. The black game pieces mirror the white chess pieces.

A more detailed description of the game and play is found in an 14th century travel account by Kunrat von Ammenhausen (1337), who relates that he has seen the game in Constance, but not in any other place:

Ouch wil ich zellen, die ich sach mê, [i will tell you what i saw] 
als ich hab gesprochen ê: [as i have been told] 
sie ietweder sîte aht steine, [each side has 8 more stones] 
vier grôsse und vier kleine; [4 large and 4 small] 
die grôssen wil ich nennen, [ i shall name the large ones] 
so mügent ir sie erkennen : [so you can recognise them] 
es ist ein trülle und zwên currier [one jester and two couriers] 
und ein râtgeb [and one sage] 
die son son ze ietweder sîte stân
der röcher; ieklicher hân
sol vor im ein vendelin [before them stands a pawn]
die zellent, sô mügen ir sehzehen sîn
das wirt ietwedrent ahter mê;
die tuont zuo dien, die ich nand ê:
sô wirt ir ûf das bret ze vil.

The complete game rules with images of the board and game pieces were provided in Das schack oder Königspiel by Gustav Selenus in 1616. Courier chess was played at least in France, the Netherlands and Germany and remained popular until the 18th century. A remaining board dating from 1651 and some remaining game pieces (for example the jester or Schleich) can still be found in the city of Ströbeck in Germany.

No medieval images of courier chess exist, though some incorrect illuminations might reflect courier chess - the enlarged boards resemble more those of courier chess than normal chess - but medieval chess board illustrations are notoriously incorrect (see a previous blogpost). A correct painting and a pencil drawing by two Dutch artists have survived, exemplifying the popularity of the game in the Netherlands. However, two game pieces have survived that resemble the rook in the painting of courier chess by Lucas van Leyden. Perhaps one a remnant of medieval courier chess ...

Lucas van Leyden, 1508. Chess players. This is a real courier game in progress. The game has been thoroughly analysed and the woman player is about to win the match. The game pieces are typical for this time period.

Jan de Bray, from Haarlem, 1661.The game pieces are more or less the same as those in the painting of Lucas van Leyden.
A 10 by 8 chess board, but unlikely to depict courier chess. It is played on the wrong side. Furthermore, the book is a moralised (normal) chess book 'Le Jeu des échecs moralisés'. Bibliotheque Nationale de France, Paris. Manuscript Fr. 24274, fol. 37v, 15th century. 
This game board is too large 8 by 14. Different sized game pieces can be seen on the board, but not identifyable. Cassone panel of around 1475. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA.

The man on the right side is hit by a 10 x 8 chess board. A few different chess pieces can be found on the floor, but there are not enough to identify the game as courier chess. Between 1462-1470. Bibliotheque Nationale de France, Paris. Manuscript, Arsenal ms. 5073 rés. folio 15.

This detail from a tapestry from 1500  shows chess players with a board that could be courier chess. 
Mural tapestry Prince de Tour et Taxis designed by Barend van Orley, Castle Laarne, Belgium.

Left: the rook as identified from the painting of Lucas van Leyden (the first large piece on the left). Middle: an European ivory chess piece dating from the 10-11th century (5 cm height). According to the archeologists this was a pawn. Right: a 17th century chess piece found in the Netherlands.


Making the chess board

The courier chess board was made similarly to the grande acredex chess board (and at the same time). It consists of a poplar board with carved lines to delineate the squares. Three layers of gesso were applied before painting the squares with oil paint. Paint was made from linseed oil with added pigments: venetian red (for the red squares) and chalk-white earth (for the white squares). The edge of the board is made from walnut.

The 'empty' courier chess board.

Making the chess pieces

The 14th century austrian chess set consists of 10 pieces made from chalcedony (agate) and  9 from red jasper. 
Künstkammer, Kunsthistorischer Museum, Vienna, Austria.

The chess pieces were made of white clay by Anne and myself. They are based on a 14th century chess set in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, Austria. This chess set, made from semi-precious stone (red jasper and agate) is incomplete (the king or queen missing). Furthermore, as this was a 'normal' chess set, no game pieces for the courier, jester and the sage existed, and these missing pieces had to be newly designed. I tried to make the new pieces in the same style as the Austrian chess set. The jester (or fool) has a hole/gap in the middle of the game piece, reminiscent of his empty-headedness and foolishness. The courier is a very tall piece, proving its importance as the name-giver of the game. The queen is a smaller version of the king but with the same 'crown', and of equal height as the sage. The sage does not have the crown, but has the same type of second ring as the king. I did make an extra piece, a small disc, which can be used to denote a promoted pawn.

The drawings of our courier chess game pieces: bishop, rook, king, queen, knight, sage, jester, courier and pawn.

The finished courier chess pieces, from left to right: pawn, knight, rook, jester, courier, queen, king, sage and bishop.

The blank 'larger' game pieces are drying, before baking and being glazed and baked a second time. 
The inside of the chess pieces is hollow to prevent breaking during the baking process.
In the front row the four promotion discs can be seen.

The separate game pieces are shown below, next to the original 14th century Austrian chess piece. The new chess pieces are about the same size as the old pieces, or slightly larger. The wet clay pieces were even larger, as they will shrink about 10% during drying and oven baking. After baking, a transparent or a black glaze was applied and the game piece was baked a second time.

The rook (4 cm original / 4.5 cm new). 

The knight (4.1-4.4 cm original / 4.3 cm new). 

The bishop (4 cm original / 4.6 cm new).

The courier (left) and the jester (middle) and the sage (right).(5.8, 5 and 5 cm new)

The king (left, middle) and the queen (right) (5.1 cm original, 6.1 and 5.5 cm new).

The pawn. On the right photo is the promotion disc with a promoted pawn 
(3.9 cm original / 3.5-3.9 cm new, the disc has a height of 1 cm).

Movement of the pieces

In short, the movement of all the courier chess pieces is given:

The medieval bishop (Schütze) has a different move than the modern bishop. He moves exactly two spaces diagonally and can jump over a piece if it stands in his way. This peculiar move can only take him to 12 possible squares on the entire chessboard.
The Courier (Kurierer, Currier) moves exactly like our modern bishop: as many spaces as it wishes diagonally, however it cannot  jump over pieces.
The knight (Reutter) moves like its modern counterpart: two spaces forward, backward, right or left, plus one square at a right angle. It can jump over other pieces blocking its way.
The pawn (SoldatVendelin) moves one space forward, but captures one step diagonally forward, like a modern pawn. It does cannot move two spaces forward (except as explained later), and promotes only to a queen.

The promoted pawn can move one step diagonally forward or backward, like the medieval queen.

The king (König) can move one space in any direction: horizontal, vertical or diagonal. He does not have the power to castle. He must always move so that he is not threatened with capture ('check').

The medieval queen (Königin, Ferz) moves only one space diagonally forward or backward. It has a special first move.

The rook (Roche) can move as many squares as it wishes, forward, backward, left or right, until it reaches another piece, or the end
of the board. It cannot jump over other pieces. Movement is like the modern rook.

The sage (Man, Ratgeb) has the same movement as the king, but can be captured like any other piece.

The jester (Schleich) moves only one space forward, backward, left or right. 


Playing courier chess

All game pieces are mirrored on the opposing side, i.e. king faces king, queen faces queen, sage faces sage and jester faces jester. The order on the first row is: rook, knight, bishop, courier, sage, king, queen, jester, courier, bishop, knight, and rook. The white king stands on a white square, and the black king stands on a red (black) square. The next row is filled with 12 pawns.

 The 'real' start positions of courier chess after the obligatory moves.

The start of the game has some prescribed peculiar moves, such that the 'real' start position, shown in the photo above occurs. The three pawns in front of the queen and rooks move two spaces forward. Also the queen moves two spaces forward, standing behind the advanced pawn. While the queen moves one step diagonally for the remainder of the game, this first step very unlike her normal move: 2 steps vertical forward! 

The game then follows the normal sequence en rules of a medieval chess game. The two players play alternately, each time moving one piece in accordance with its normal move. Captures are made by moving a piece onto a square occupied by an enemy piece. All pieces except the pawn (previously described) capture by using their normal moves. If a pawn reaches the opposite side of the board, it is immediately promoted, changes sex and is continues play as a medieval queen.

If a player’s king is threatened with capture, “check” is declared, and the player is obliged to move so that his King is no longer threatened. If there is no possible move to relieve the King of the threat, he is 'checkmate' and he has lost the game. For the other 'wins', stalemate and bare king, there are no medieval rules. However, most assume that rules for stalemate and bare king were similar to that in medieval chess. Thus, when the King is not in immediate threat, but any possible move would subject him to capture (stalemate), he has lost the game. If a king is left with no other game pieces (bare king), he also has lost the game, unless he could bare the opponents king in his next move, in which case it is a draw.

Sources used:

R. Knowlton, 2009. Courier chess. The Chess Collector Vol. XVIII (1): 13-17.
R. Knowlton,  2008. Courier chess, the great 8 x 12 chess of Medieval Europe. (game rules booklet)
H.J.R. Murray, 1913. A history of chess. Skyhorse publishing (2012). pages 482-485.
Courier A website dedicated to courier chess (and sale of the game).
Parlett, D., 1999.  The Oxford history of board games.Oxford University Press, pages 314-315. 

Sunday 15 June 2014

A medieval carpenters inventory from Deventer

Sometimes you find something in a book that you have overlooked, or because it is placed in a chapter that did not directly arouse your interest (due to lack of images). Such was also the case with me for the book Huusraet (household items in Burgundian time) by B. Dubbe, a well illustrated book exept for the last chapter. The end of the book also contain some household inventories, but another inventory was hidden in a meagre paragraph on tools and goods in the last chapter. It contained part of an inventory of a carpenter/joiner that lived in 1461 in the Corte Bisschopsstrate in Deventer, the Netherlands.

 A map of the city of Deventer from 1652. The Corte Bisschopsstraat is indicated by the red arrow and dot.

The following items are on the list:
  • Twieschavebancke (2 shaving horses)
  • II lange schave (2(long) try planes)
  • III korte [schave] (3 short (block) planes
  • II ploech ende een heft-schaiffken (two ploughs and a plane with a toat)
  • III beytell (3 chisels)
  • I spadeken (in this context most likely a billhook)
  • een deel kortelinge van wagenschate (short pieces of oaken planks)
  • I scuppe (a spade or a spud?)
  • II lyemtangen (2 clamps)
  • I timmerbensken (workbench, likely a small one)
  • I krebber (scraper)
  • I negeliveetken mit negelen (something that holds nails)
  • I stoter (mallet)
  • I lyemblock (block of glue, likely hide glue)
Interesting in the list is the mention of two ploughs. I have not seen this type of plane mentioned before in a medieval context! Also interesting is the mention of clamps and the glue, and the scraper. These tools are not often mentioned in inventories. A clamp implies the use of a screwing system What I do miss from this inventory are saws and braces.

'Kortelinge' are short ('kort') pieces, while 'wagenschate' (or 'wagenschot') are oaken planks, imported from eastern Europe that were either split or sawn along the length of the log. These short pieces of oak could have serve very well for panels in frame and panel constructions of late medieval furniture.

Monday 2 June 2014

Progress on the Thomasteppich: August 2013 - May 2014

 Anne and Katinka at work on the Thomasteppich in April 2014.

Like the previous progress report on the Thomasteppich embroidery project, I have made a photo for most of the days during August 2013 till May 2014 when Anne did something with her part of the Thomasteppich, and turned these into another small video.

Of course not only Anne worked on the tapestry. Also Katinka made an enormous progress...

 Left: Katinka's part of the tapestry in 2013, and right in April 2014.

Also interesting to see is the back of the tapestry. Only tiny stitches appear at the back of the frame, most of the wool is present at the front of the tapestry. The medieval klosterstitch used has two purposes: it saves weight and expensive wool.

 The front and back of the tapestry in August 2013.