The Illustrated History of Chess 2 – The Middle Ages

We reached the Middle Ages, which is also called the Dark Ages, in my discoveries concerning the origin and history of chess.  But was it really dark everywhere? Let’s have a look at it from the aspect of chess.

Arab plays Chess with a Spaniard in the Middle Ages

Arab plays Chess with a Spaniard

As we saw it in the previous part, the Arabs brought chess to Europe. The game became popular in their world after they occupied Persia and then, in the 7th century it reached Southern Spain and Sicily, under Arab rule extremely quickly. Since the Arabs also occupied Byzantium then, chess also reached Europe from the East, so it was no wonder that the game quickly became widely known. In addition to the conquests, merchants were also instrumental in spreading the game, because they not only played it during their long journeys but also took more and more beautiful chess sets to each part in the world. That is how chess reached Russia and Northern Europe in the Middle ages.

Sicilian Arabs play chess with an Italian

Sicilian Arabs play chess

 Although different religions banned playing chess several times in the Middle Ages, it became more popular in Europe by the 12th – 13th centuries than anywhere else earlier. The nobility and the upper, superior layers were expected to know the rules. Chess appeared more and more often in romances, poems and on paintings. One of the most famous mediaeval books, The Book of Games, issued upon the command of King Alfonso X in 1283 AD, presents 103 chess problems, illustrated with beautiful drawings.

Noble Ladies Play Chess - The Book of Games, Spain, 1283 AD   Teaching children to play chess - The Book of Games, Spain, 1283 AD                         Noble                                 Teaching children to play chess                                The Book of Games, Spain, 1283 AD                           early

 Let us not forget that the Arabs still played Shantraj at that time and the rules only started developing slowly towards today’s chess from the 13th century. The certain versions coexisted, with some minor modifications, where the size of the board was different or the dice were reintroduced but these went out of fashion later. The first interesting change was that drawings started to depict the vizier, the advisor next to the king, as the queen.

Lewis Chessmen 12th Century            12 x 12 Chess Board in the Middle Ages

Some time later an important change, accelerating the game indeed, became popular. The queen and the bishop could make longer moves, which made the queen the strongest piece on the board out of the weakest. The idea owner must have been the wife of a king playing chess… By the 15th century the final rules of the pawn moves had been established, which meant that pawns could move two squares ahead, could be promoted to a queen, rook, bishop or knight and even the en passant move became known. In addition to several minor changes, the introduction of castling and later stalemate – as a draw – was a considerable modification.

So, our predecessors laid down the basis of chess with this. Let’s follow its development in the following sections, where we can see familiar names, such as Ruy Lopez or Lucena, who belonged to the first grandmasters of modern chess. Their contribution is everlasting: the opening called Ruy Lopez is often played in today’s tournament practice and even a separate lesson is dedicated to this in You can also learn the so-called Lucena position – the knowledge of which is inevitable by now – in the lessons called Rook endgames.






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