Birth of the Chess Queen by Marilyn Yalom

Cover of Birth of the Chess Queen by Marilyn Yalom

Cover of Birth of the Chess Queen by Marilyn Yalom.

In Birth of the Chess Queen, historian Marilyn Yalom tells the fascinating story of the evolution of the chess queen, and how she was not always the most powerful piece on the chessboard.  In fact, she was not always part of the game.  Yalom writes about the origins of chess in India and Persia, and its rapid spread throughout the Muslim world.  In the earliest version of the game, the piece that eventually became the queen was the vizier.  This piece could only move one square diagonally, making it one of the weakest pieces on the board.  In fact, Arabic chess sets today still use the vizier instead of the queen, although now the vizier moves the same way the queen does today.

Eventually, chess spread to Europe, appearing first in Spain because of the Arabic influence, then to the Holy Roman Empire, Italy, France, and England.  The first mention of the chess queen occurs in a manuscript found in Switzerland, which at that time was part of the Holy Roman Empire.  The manuscript was written sometime in the 990s or early 1000s.  Like her predecessor the vizier, the queen could only move one square diagonally.  Yalom writes about why the chess queen came into being at that time, and she attributes it to the influence of two Holy Roman Empresses: Adelaide, wife of Otto I and her daughter-in-law and bitter rival, the Byzantine princess Theophano, wife of Otto II.  Theophano may have been especially instrumental in bringing chess to the Holy Roman Empire from the Eastern countries.

In spite of the general misogyny in medieval European culture, it was a time when there were several powerful queens, who exercised influence over their husbands and sometimes led troops into battle.  Very often, when the king died young, the queen would become regent for her son until he came of age, effectively ruling the country on her own.  Yalom presents several fascinating examples of strong medieval queens.  In addition to the two Holy Roman Empresses mentioned above, she writes about Urraca, Queen of Castile and Léon, who divorced her abusive husband, in one of the very few examples of the Pope granting a divorce, and then defeated him in battle. 

Particularly fascinating is Sigrid the Strong-Minded (I love that name), a Scandinavian queen from the 990s-1000s, who refused her suitor, the King of Norway, when he tried to convert her to Christianity and slapped her in the face, and then married the King of Denmark and led men into battle.  In fact, the history of chess in Scandinavia has its own chapter in the book.  Medieval Scandinavian chess queens, at least the few that survive, are often depicted on horseback, recalling such queens as Sigrid the Strong-Minded.  Yalom also writes about a famous Scandinavian chess set, which had been lost for hundreds of years and then discovered in 1831 on the island of Lewis, off the coast of Scotland, by a laborer who was digging on the seashore.  This set is known as the Lewis Chessmen.  The pieces were carved out of walrus tusk and whalebone, and some of them are still missing.  In fact, one piece of the Lewis Chessmen was discovered very recently (2019).

Yalom also writes about medieval queens who are more familiar to us, especially Eleanor of Aquitaine.  Eleanor was very influential in spreading chess to the courts of France and England.  Her grandfather, William IX of Aquitaine, is considered the first troubadour, and he began the tradition of courtly love, which, according to Yalom, influenced the game of chess.  Many poems by troubadours—and that includes female troubadours—describe chess games and contain elaborate metaphors comparing chess to love.  As Yalom points out, chess was one of the few activities in the Middle Ages that both men and women could enjoy, and women often played against men.  She discusses depictions of famous lovers, such as Tristan and Isolde and Lancelot and Guinevere, playing chess. 

Medieval epic poems such as the Legends of Charlemagne often included chess games, although, in real life, chess would have been unknown at Charlemagne’s court.  These poems were written at the time of the Crusades, when chess had become very popular, and the authors of the poems would not have known the history.  Very often, medieval epics describe chess games between a Christian man and a Muslim woman, who fall in love over the game, and the woman ends up converting to Christianity.  Poems by Muslim authors, written around the same time, contain stories of chess games between Muslim men and Christian women, which end in the woman converting to Islam.  As Yalom points out, it is always the woman who converts in these poems.

Another important part of medieval European culture was the devotion to the Virgin Mary, and Yalom describes small statues of the Virgin Mary, common in churches, which resemble chess queens.  Although European chess started out as a game played at the royal courts and among the nobility, it spread to the common people.  Towards the end of the 14th century, playing cards became a rival to chess at the royal courts.

A fascinating chapter on chess in Russia discusses how the game arrived there, through the Eastern countries.  Russians were exceptional chess players very early on, and visitors to Russia often described how great the people were at chess.  But Russian chess sets used the vizier instead of the queen for much longer than the rest of Europe, largely because of Russia’s long isolation from the Western world.  It was not until the reign of Catherine the Great, and largely because of her influence, that the queen became part of Russian chess sets.  Interestingly, Catherine the Great preferred cards to chess.

It was not until the end of the 15th century that the chess queen became the powerful piece she is today.  Yalom attributes this directly to the influence of Isabella of Spain, who was an enthusiastic chess player, along with her husband Ferdinand.  Isabella was known as a warrior queen, and it was in Spain that the powerful chess queen first appeared.  The first references to “new chess” with the powerful queen are in Spanish sources.  A book of chess problems makes the distinction between “new chess,” where the queen could move the whole length of the board, in any direction, and “old chess,” where the queen could move only one square diagonally.  “New chess” spread rapidly throughout Europe, largely because of the invention of the printing press, which made these chess manuals more readily available than older ones, which would have been in manuscript.  Yalom also writes about Elizabeth I and her role in spreading “new chess” to England.

But there was a backlash among misogynistic male writers on chess against the queen’s new power on the chessboard.  They called the new game “mad queen’s chess.”  Beginning in the 17th century, there are fewer examples of women playing chess.  The introduction of the powerful queen led to a quicker game, which gave rise to the professional chess player.  Chess was taken out of the royal courts and noble households, and was seen instead in coffeehouses and chess clubs.  It was not considered appropriate for women to play chess in public, and so the membership of chess clubs was almost exclusively male until the turn of the 20th century.  Even in the 20th century, when women played chess, it was usually against other women.  In her last chapter, Yalom writes of the relative lack of female chess players, even today.  When the book was published, in 2004, only 5% of professional chess players worldwide were female (although the percentage was larger in some countries).  There is no single reason why this should be, but Yalom suggests it has a lot to do with the way girls are socialized, and how, in many cultures, they are still expected to marry and have children, and how it is considered strange for a girl to be focused exclusively on chess.  But this may have changed in very recent years.  I have certainly heard of young girls who are chess champions.  It would be interesting to know how much has changed since Yalom’s book was published.

I highly recommend Birth of the Chess Queen to anyone interested in chess.  It is not just about the chess queen, but about the whole history of the game.  Also, anyone interested in medieval society, and especially in the strong queens of medieval Europe, would enjoy this book.  Yalom presents the fascinating stories of the real-life queens who influenced the game.  Even readers who are not particularly interested in chess would enjoy these stories.

Birth of the Chess Queen is available from the Hatcher Graduate Library.

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