Versus de Scachis: When Chess Reached Europe

Peter Hulse

What do Classicists do in their spare time, if they have any, when they’re not deciphering ancient texts, writing books about Greek myths and generally proving that their subject is relevant to the modern world? Well, a sizeable minority play Chess: Otto Skutsch (1906–90), in his essay, “Recollections of Scholars I Have Known,” told the following anecdote:

[At St. Andrews] the Professor in Greek was H. J. Rose, and he seemed to know everything. One evening I mentioned to him that I thought I had observed something interesting in the clausulae of St. Augustine. “Yes,” said he, and went to a drawer to fetch out copious notes he had written on precisely that point. For a man whose main interest was religion and folklore that wasn’t bad! He was a wonderful chessplayer. I thought I was reasonably good myself, but every time we played he had me tied up in knots after half a dozen moves. It was many years later that I got rid of the feeling of inferiority which that gave me. It was when Prof. Penrose, the father of the British chessmaster, told me that old players would sometimes wonder what had become of young Rose, who had drawn with Capablanca or whoever it was. And when they were told that he had become a Professor of Classics, they would say: “What a pity!”

Of course, there have been others. Adrian Hollis, the expert on Hellenistic poetry, was a Correspondence Chess Grandmaster and, closer in time, the latest editor of Sophocles’ Oedipus the King was a formidable chess player in his youth.[1] The popularity of the game has recently received a considerable boost from its wide-spread promotion on the Internet by professional players, chief among whom is the Norwegian World Champion, Magnus Carlsen. Chess Clubs all over the country are full of new members who have started their chess careers playing on the Internet Chess websites, after having watched the film series called The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix.

Promotional poster for The Queens’s Gambit (Netflix, 2020).

Things, however, were very different for chess, when around 1000 AD a Benedictine monk at the Abbey of Einsiedeln (in modern Switzerland) settled down to pen the following set of verses, known simply as Versus de Scachis. The poem is the earliest written reference to the game in western literature. They are preserved in two manuscripts at the Stiftsbibliotek in Einsiedeln: codices 319 and 365, the first of which can be read online here. Codex 365 contains the whole poem on either side of a single leaf; it was soon after stuck down (!) on the inside cover of another book to form part of its binding, which meant the first 64 verses were hidden.[2] Codex 319 is a copy, at one or more removes, of the lines that were still visible on side of the leaf not pasted down: 65­–98.

The library of Einsiedeln Abbey in the modern day.

The poem first invites the reader to throw off his cares and seek recreation in a game which, unlike dice games, contains neither deceit nor perjury nor damage of any other kind. The gameboard is then described: the colours and squares, the chess figures and their functions and powers, and finally the contest itself. In fierce battles all may fall, only the king cannot be eliminated. With him the struggle ends.

The author is a more than competent poet. Perhaps he had read Bede’s De Arte Metrica, which offered help with the writing of Latin verse based on the quantities of syllables (long or short) and used the elegiac couplet rather than one of the rhyming systems common in the Mediaeval period. There are some lines where the scansion reflects post-Classical practice[3] and sometimes our poet employs licenses that would not be allowed in the Classical period of Latin poetry. For example, the last syllable of nullŭs in line 8 should be short/light, but it allowed to stand long/heavy at the mid-point of the line, although this does not happen in any pentameter written by Ovid or other Classical poets.[4] However, despite minor technical problems, there is much spirit in the poem, which manages to find Latinate terms for much of the terminology inherited from Arabic (whether via Spain or Italy is unclear). The poem is certainly worthy of more attention, yet has only been translated into English once before (in 1878 by one Dr Henry Aspinwall Howe, Headmaster of McGill College in Montreal, Canada). His fairly free translation into rhyming blank verse is difficult to find but is accessible thanks to the eclecticism of the Huddersfield College Magazine. Below I offer my own prose translation.

Rutland Psalter: British Library Add MS 62925 f. 78v. Made in London around 1260 and originally in the possession of the family of Edmund de Lacy, second Earl of Lincoln (d. 1258).

Si fas est ludos abiectis ducere curis

    est aliquis, mentem quo recreare queas.

quem si scire velis, huc cordis dirige gressum,

    inter complacitos hic tibi primus erit.

non dolus ullus inest, non sunt periuria fraudis,                        5

    non laceras corpus membra vel ulla tui.

non solvis quicquam nec quemquam solvere cogis.

    certator nullus insidiosus erit.

quicquid damnoso perfecerit alea ludo,

    hic refugit totum simplicitate sua.                                10

 

If it is right and proper to put your cares aside and play games, here is one that will refresh your mind. If you want to learn how to play it, pay attention and put your heart in to it. It will become your favourite among games that you like. There’s no trickery involved (!) or fraudulent oaths nor do you tear apart body or limbs. You’ll contract no debts nor force anybody to pay theirs; no devious opponent will lie in wait for you. The ruin that may come from the throw of a dice is totally absent from the simplicity of this game.

The author seems to have a rather simplistic idea of the game (“no trickery involved”): the setting of traps has always been one of the main features of the game. The allusion to dicing relates to Church bans on games that involved gambling. Chess seems to have come under the same sanction. Codex 319 even has the heading De aleae ratione (How to play dice) for the section of the poem it contains, which it conjured up on the base of what the last third of the poem seemed to be explaining.

The leaf of Einsiedeln 319 containing verses 65­–98, written very shortly after AD 1000.

The poet now continues by laying out and describing the battleground:

tetragonum primo certaminis aequor habetur

    multiplicis tabulae per sua damna ferax.

quamlibet octonos in partem ducito calles,

    rursus in oblicum[5] tot memor adde vias.

mox cernes tabulas aequi discriminis octo,                       15

    octies ut repleas aequoris omne solum.

sunt quibus has placuit duplici fucare colore,   

    grata sit ut species et magis apta duplex

dum color unus erit, non sic rationis imago

    discitur: alternus omne repandit iter.                            20

 

First of all, the field of contest is tetragon in shape, fruitful of many squares to its own loss. Let the board be divided, starting from whichever side you like, into eight pathways and remember to add the same number of columns going down the board. Soon you will see eight squares of equal dimensions which repeated eight times will fill the whole area of the battlefield. Some like to stain the squares with an alternating colour, so the double appearance of the board may be pleasing and more useful. If only one colour is used, the appearance of the board does not help you to think about the game. With two different colours, the plan of campaign becomes clear.

The practice of alternatively coloured squares on the board seems to have been introduced at the time that this poem was written.

Knights templar playing chess: illustration in Alfonso X’s Libro del axedrez dados et tablas (Book of chess, dices and tables), copied in Toledo in 1283 (Monastery of San Lorenzio del Escorial, Madrid, Spain, MS T.I.6).

The next passage is concerned with the way that the pieces are set out:

illic digeritur populus regumque duorum

    agmina: partitur singula quisque loca,

quorum quo numerus ludenti rite patescat,

    post bis quindenos noverit esse duos.

non species eadem, nomen non omnibus unum:                    25

    quam ratio varia, sic neque nomen idem.

nec color unus erit divisis partibus aequis:

    pars haec si candet, illa rubore nitet.

non diversa tamen populorum causa duorum:

    certamen semper par in utroque manet.                             30

sufficit unius partis dinoscere causas;

    ambarum species, cursus et, unus erit.

 

In that way, the two armies and their kings are set in order: each has its separate position. So that you may be clear about the number of the pieces, let it be known that there are two kings and twice fifteen others. They all have different appearances and names and move in different ways. The two equally divided sides don’t have just one colour: one side is white, the other resplendent in red. The aim of the game is the same for the two sides: the contest always remains equally balanced. It’s sufficient to know the aims of one side: the appearance and moves of both do not differ.

Red and White were generally the colours for Chess in the Middle Ages. Black and White was a later development.

The different moves of the pieces are now described:

ordo quidem primus tabulas divisus in octo

    praefati ruris agmina prima tenet,

in quorum medio rex et regina locantur,                             35

    consimiles specie, non ratione tamen.

post hos acclini comites, hic inde locati,

    auribus ut dominum[6] conscia verba ferant.

tertius a primis eques est hinc inde paratus

    debita transverso carpere calle loca.                               40

extremos retinet fines invectus uterque

    bigis seu rochus, marchio sive magis.

 

The warriors of the first rank hold the first line of the field already described, divided into eight: the King and the Queen are placed in the middle, alike in appearance but not in scope. After these, come the close companions (the bishops), placed on either side so that they may be conscious of the words of their masters. Third in line come the knights on either side, ready to seize with a sideways leap their necessary target. The two rooks, or rather lords of the marches, travelling by chariot, hold the extreme flanks.

A knight from the 12th-century Lewis Chessmen, discovered in Uig on the Isle of Lewis in 1831; 82 of the pieces are in the British Museum, London, and 11 in the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh.

The poet now attempts the technicalities associated with the move of the pawn (pedes/pedites):

hos qui praecedunt (retinet quos ordo secundus

    aequoris), effigies omnibus una manet:

et ratione pari pedites armantur in hostem                            45

    proceduntque prius bella gerenda pati.

liquerit istorum tabulam dum quisque priorem

    recta, quae sequitur, mox erit hospes ea.

impediat cursum veniens ex hostibus alter,

    obvius ipse pedes proelia prima gerit.                                50

nam dum sic uni veniens fit proximus alter,

    dissimiles capiat ut color unus eos

fingenti fuerit cui primum oblata facultas,

    mittit in obliquum vulnera saeva parem.

obvius ex reliquis dum sic fit, quisque ruina                            55

    hac praeter regem praecipitatus erit.

quilibet hic ruerit, non ultra fugere fas est:

   tollitur e medio, vulnere dumque cadit.

 

The pieces who go first (this division occupy the second rank of squares) all look alike: and in the same fashion, these armed foot soldiers (pawns) proceed against the enemy, first to suffer the wars to be waged. When each of them leaves his previous square, the square that comes next will be his host. Let a second enemy footman get in his way, he will be the first to start the battle. If another piece offers close assistance, so as to capture a piece of the other colour, he who gets the first chance of striking sends savage blows in the oblique direction of his rival. Except for the king, whoever gets in the pawn’s way will suffer this disaster. Whichever piece suffers this fate is not allowed to play a further part in the struggle: it is taken from the middle of the board when it falls wounded.

Men playing chess and the harp: illustration in Alfonso X’s Libro del axedrez dados et tablas (Book of chess, dices and tables), copied in Toledo in 1283 (Monastery of San Lorenzio del Escorial, Madrid, Spain, MS T.I.6).

solus rex capitur nec ab aequore tollitur ictus,

    irruit, ut sternat, nec tamen ipse ruit.                                  60

hic quia prima tenens consistit in aequore semper

    circa se est cursus quaeque tabella sibi.

at via reginae facili ratione patescit:

    obliquus cursus huic, color unus erit.

candida si sedes fuerit sibi prima tabella,                               65

    non color alterius hanc aliquando capit.

hoc iter est peditis, si quando pergit in hostem,

     ordinis ad finem cumque meare potest.

nam sic concordant: obliquo tramite, desit

    ut si regina, hic quod et illa queat.                                     70

 

The King alone is neither captured nor taken from the battlefield having been struck. He joins in the fighting but never leaves the battlefield. He always holds the premiere position on the battlefield; he moves round the squares close to him.

The Queen’s method of moving is easy to describe, her diagonal move must always be on the same colour. If her first square is white, she can never change to a square of the opposite colour. When a pawn, advancing against the enemy, manages to reach the last rank of the board, it is a generally agreed rule that, if the Queen has been lost, the pawn can take on her power of the diagonal move.

The author slightly diverges from the modern form of the rules. It is now permissible to have two Queens of the same colour, on the board at the same time.

ast quos vicinos dominis curvosque notavi,

    transverso cursu sed loca pauca petunt.

istorum fuerit positus quo quisque colore,

    primo dissimilem non aliquando pete.       

post primam tabulam mox fit sibi tertia sedes,                     75

    qua fit reginae dissonus ille viae.

 

But I have noted that those pieces that are curved in shape (the bishops) and occupy the squares next to their masters reach fewer places with a transverse move. Do not seek to move them to a square different in colour from the one they are first placed on. From their first square, they can move three squares, similar to the Queen but less in scope.

In the modern game, the bishop can move freely along its diagonal, as long as no other piece obstructs it.

Chess piece in the form of a Bishop with two attendants from Trondheim, Norway, 1150–1200.

praeterea cursus equites girosque facessunt,

    sunt quibus obliqui multiplicesque gradus:

dum primam sedem quisquis contemnit eorum,

    discolor a prima tertia cepit eum.                                        80

sic alternatim tenet hunc illumque colorem,

    quaelibet ut cursus esse tabella queat.

 

Meanwhile the knights make gyrating patterns; they take oblique and multiple steps. The third square that they land on must be a different colour from the first one they spurn. As they leap from one alternate colour to another, they can land on any square.

 

at rochus semper procedit tramite recto,

    utque datur ratio, porrigit ille gradum.

quattuor in partes gressum distendere fas est                         85

    atque uno cursu tota meare loca.

 

But the Rook always proceeds along the same straight line. His move can be as many squares as necessary to make a capture. They can reach the four corners of the board and cover the whole distance in one move.

Women playing chess and the lute: illustration in Alfonso X’s Libro del axedrez dados et tablas (Book of chess, dices and tables), copied in Toledo in 1283 (Monastery of San Lorenzio del Escorial, Madrid, Spain, MS T.I.6).

hic certamen habent equitesque per horrida bella,

    ut, si defuerint, proelia paene cadant.

in quibus et reliquis extat custodia sollers,

    inconsultus enim proelia nemo petit.                                    90

cuique datur custos, ne incautum vulnera sternant,

    solus, heu, facile, si petat arva, ruit.

cum vero cuncti certatim proelia densant,

    hostis in hostilem fit celer ire necem.

hanc rex devitat, hac numquam sternitur ille,                           95

    hoc facto reliquis amplius ipse potest.

dum tamen hunc hostis cogit protendere gressum,

    si conclusus erit, proelia tota ruunt.

 

The battles between knights and rooks are grim affairs. If they are not on the board, it’s not much of a contest and in these contests, as in the rest of the game, watchful skill must be shown. No one should start a battle without a plan. The pieces should work together, lest an unsuspected blow lay one of them low. A solo attack easily ends in disaster. When the battle is most dense, enemy goes speedily against enemy, threatening hostile death. The King avoids this, he is never laid low; he is privileged over the rest of the pieces in this respect. When, however, an enemy cuts off his retreat and it’s the end, the whole battle is lost.

Here our Benedictine poet put down his pen after this vigorously expressed introduction to Chess. Thereafter the game still continued to be a matter of concern and interest to the Ecclesiastical authorities. For example, Peter Damianus, Cardinal Bishop of Ostia, is said to have reprimanded Gerard, Bishop of Florence, for playing at chess all night among seculars or laymen, in a house of entertainment. He considered it a dubious thing to do when compared with the alternative of prayer and contemplation.


Magnus Carlsen at the 42nd Chess Olympiad in Baku, Azerbaijan.

As I write the present World Chess Champion, Magnus Carlsen has recently won an important tournament in the Netherlands. One wonders whether he knew (or was bothered) that the patron saint of Chess, presumably watching over his moves, was Teresa Sanchez de Cepeda y Ahumada (March 28, 1515 – Oct 4, 1582), otherwise known as Teresa of Avila, the famous Spanish Mystic. Chess or other games were not permitted in her convents, but she did mention chess in one of her works, The Way of Perfection, a special guidance for fellow sisters of the Carmelite Order, written in 1566. In Chapter 16, she used the analogy of chess to describe the preparations for prayer, with apologies for mentioning so worldly a game alongside so heavenly a pursuit. Teresa advised her sister nuns to play chess in the monasteries, even against the rules, in order to “checkmate the Lord”. Her point was that a person who wishes to play chess must do a great deal of study and then a great deal of practice to become a champion. The same was true of a person who wished to approach God through prayer. In her Valladolid manuscript, she tore out these pages about chess because she thought they were too secular, but they were later added by modern editors!

Teresa of Ávila (detail), François Gérard, 1827 (Infirmerie Marie-Thérèse, Paris, France).

It may well be that the World Champion did know who the patron saint of his moves was. Magnus Carlsen seems to be a learned and scholarly young man, remarking as he did some years ago: “I do believe that it makes sense to study the Classics.” Possibly he did not mean Latin and Greek but I think that I can hear the sound of St Teresa’s distant ‘Amen’ as she applauds him for a number of reasons!


Peter is an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Nottingham. He has studied Latin and Greek since his school days, and taught both languages for many years. He has made a special study of Apollonius of Rhodes but has a wide-ranging interest in all aspects of the Classical world. He has spent far too much time playing chess![7]


Further Heading

There is a lot of information online about the history and origins of chess, e.g. here and here. The most detailed academic treatment of the Einsiedeln Verses remains Helena Gamer’s formidable article “The Earliest Evidence of Chess in Western Literature: The Einsiedeln Verses,” Speculum 29 (1954) 734–50.

Notes

Notes
1 Patrick Finglass took part in the World Junior Chess Championships when he was younger.
2 “Codex 365” is in fact a miscellany of fragments of manuscripts found elsewhere, including as part of other books’ binding. It does not have a relationship therefore to the material elsewhere in the volume.
3 For instance, octies in line 16 has an arificially short last syllable; in line 17 the second syllable of duplici has been wrongly scanned as long, as has the first syllable of fugere in 57. The scansion of ducito 13, ordo 33 and 43, aliquando 66 and 74, and meo 90 requires a short final o, which became common in Latin poetry throughout the first millennium AD.
4 This recurs at lines 20, 26, 28, 34, 52, 64, 66, 82, 92; the same licence is found once at the caesura of the hexameter, in line 95. It is striking that there are only two clear instances of elision: prim(um) oblata 53 and n(e) incautum 91; se (e)st 62 and atqu(e) uno 86 may be set aside, as respectively prodelision and a merely orthographical convention.
5 I.e obliquum.
6 I.e. dominorum.
7 We are grateful to Peter’s wife Rosemary for this text.