[Paleopsych] TLS: (Chess) All the moves

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Tue Mar 29 20:44:23 UTC 2005

    Pauline Stafford
    17 December 2004
    BIRTH OF THE CHESS QUEEN. A history. By Marilyn Yalom. 276pp. Pandora.
    Pounds 19.99. - 0 86358 444 6. US: HarperCollins. $24.95. - 0 06
    009064 2

    The queen is the most powerful and versatile piece on the chessboard.
    This was not always so. The Indian game, true to its origins as one of
    military strategy, placed the general beside the king. First in the
    Persian and then in the Arab-Muslim world, the general became and
    remains the vizier. But as the game spread in medieval Europe, the
    vizier was himself replaced by the queen: haltingly and slowly, as in
    the Iberian peninsula, where Muslim and Jewish influence remained
    strong, but, by the end of the Middle Ages, everywhere.

    Initially the queen's, like the vizier's, movements were
    circumscribed. In the latter part of the fifteenth century that
    changed dramatically. Her movements, and the game, were transformed.
    "Love chess", "Queen's chess" or rather "Lady's chess", "mad queen's /
    Lady's chess" - "alla rabiosa", "de la dame enragee" - became a
    fast-moving game, increasingly one for professionals, ironically
    marginalizing women players. Marilyn Yalom's tantalizing book
    addresses these changes and metamorphoses. Where, when and why was the
    chess queen born; where, when and why did she become such a formidable

    Yalom's answers tie her to the development of women's power in
    medieval Europe, to the significance of queens, even of specific,
    individual ones, and to the institutionalization of queenship. The
    queen in medieval Europe was a potentially important political figure.
    In a world where familial politics and the royal court and household
    were central, the wife of the king, mother of heirs and mistress of
    the household, was not a private woman but a public figure, often an
    active and influential one. By the tenth century she was, in some
    parts of Europe, consecrated like her royal spouse. At the end of that
    century, in the 980s, much of Europe was ruled by women. Theophanu,
    Empress-regent of the Ottonian Empire, Emma, queen-regent of Western
    Francia, and Beatrice, duchess-regent in Lotharingia in the modern
    Rhineland, ruled in the name of under-age sons. The dowager empress
    Adelaide linked them all as motherin-law, mother and aunt, herself
    wife, mother, grandmother, sister, daughter and heiress of kings and

    These women embody the factors that laid the foundations of female
    royal power and intermittently produced, as here, not merely women's
    influence, but female rule.

    Chess, played at courts where such women flourished, reflects this.
    The protean medieval symbolism of the game and its queen were rooted
    in the court's nexus of military and domestic upper-class secular
    life. In the proto-Romance age of the Carmina Burana, the king was
    devastated by the loss of his queen, wife and lover; the
    thirteenth-century Italian Dominican, Cessolis, projected onto the
    queen the virtues of the ideal wife and mother. The sixteenth-century
    Frenchman, Du Pont, poured his misogynistic venom into her meanings
    -misleading, liar, lazy - his misogyny, as so often, pinpointing the
    sexual, domestic power of the woman whom he attacked. In that same
    century Teresa of Avila would reassert the battling king's wife,
    making her a metaphor for the "holy war" of the individual against
    evil. The courtly locus of the queen's transformation is underlined by
    that of the Indian elephant-piece. It also metamorphosed during its
    spread into Europe, more variously than the general - becoming a
    standard-bearer, count, old man, bald one, fool or bishop - but in
    most cases into a figure associated with courts and their internal

    A link between the chess queen and her real-life medieval counterparts
    is likely, but Yalom's attempt to bind their respective stories more
    tightly is questionable.

    She associates the birth of the chess queen with the tenth-century
    apotheosis of female power in Adelaide and Theophanu. It was in the
    late 990s, at Einsiedeln within their Empire, that the first mention
    of the chess queen occurred, in the first European description of the
    game. In Spain the late fifteenth century saw not only a newly
    powerful chess queen, but a great female ruler in Isabella of Castile.
    Such seductive conjunctures are siren voices. In scant early medieval
    sources first mention is no necessary indication of first or even
    recent appearance: as Yalom herself points out, the Einsiedeln monk
    takes the queen's presence on the board for granted. The chess queen's
    new powers in the late fifteenth century coincide with those of
    Isabella. But her transformation was paralleled by that of the bishop,
    or equivalent piece, in Spain and also in Italy, both areas hitherto
    more or less resistant to the chess queen, though both great centres
    of chess-playing. This marks a shift in the game itself whose
    relationship with the powers of contemporary women is unlikely to be

    Conversely, throughout much of the Middle Ages the queen on the board
    remained a limited piece, lagging behind both the literary elaboration
    of her symbolism and the power of some real women, like Eleanor of
    Aquitaine or Blanche of Castile, whom Yalom, somewhat unconvincingly,
    includes in her story. This attractive book certainly whets the
    appetite and is full of interest. But the chess queen's fascinating
    history calls for a more nuanced understanding of queenship, if such
    an institution existed, of the interaction of symbol and meaning and
    of the complex interplay of historical change.

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