The new chess and the power of medieval queens
In the late fifteenth century, the ancient game of chess, an import from the East, suddenly changed its rules.
Chess, which had come from ancient India and Persia, had gone on using pieces that had the names and powers of old Oriental officials and war animals. But fifteenth-century European players couldn’t be bothered planning moves for viziers or elephants any more, when the real-life conflicts they saw were so different – when, in a time of increasing female aggression, the power plays of queens were now one of the main causes of war.
The new game spread spontaneously out of Italy and Spain after 1480, from port to port, palace to palace, tavern to tavern. The piece formerly known as the elephant, or auphin, was renamed the bishop, because its slantways moves reminded players of the sneaky ways of power-hungry prelates.
More importantly, the old fers (named for the scheming but impotent Persian Shah’s viziers) which had been the game’s weakest and most immobile piece, was transformed into a new entity: the Queen. The Queen could move as far as she wanted in any direction, unlike the King, who could move only one square at a time. She, not the King, thus became the most powerful piece on the board.
Most significantly of all, the greater social mobility of the times was reflected by another new rule — allowing a humble pawn which succeeded in crossing the whole chess board without being taken to become one of the powerful new Queens. Pawns were no longer just useful as sacrifices to clear the way for superior pieces. They became a force to be reckoned with in their own right, like the age’s female silk entrepreneurs, who, as their men were killed by war or disease, were seizing the chance to wield commercial power for themselves. With Queens and Bishops able to put an opposing army in danger from the very first move, chess became faster, deadlier and more female than ever before.
Whether chess players were Spaniards ruled by the terrifying Queen Isabella of Castile, or Flemings ruled by the warrior Margaret, Duchess of Burgundy, or Englishmen ruled by any of the murderous queens manipulating weak royal husbands, sons and daughters into power during the Wars of the Roses, the new rules had instant appeal. Within a decade — while the English Wars of the Roses ground to a halt, and before Isabella had finished conquering Spain and expelling its Muslims and Jews — the Muslim or mediaeval game of chess vanished completely. The modern game was first known in England as Mad Queen Chess, in Italy as scacchi alla rabiosa (Furious Lady Chess) and in France as echecs de la dame enragee (Enraged Lady Chess).
The first book to describe the new moves was called A Discourse on Love and the Art of Chess. It was published by a Spanish student, Luis Ramirez Lucena, in 1497, and presented to the son of Queen Isabella. It reflected the anxiety of the times at the growing importance of women. It presented both the new chess and love as forms of miniature warfare – games equally dangerous to male players because of the unprecedented power they granted to the object of desire, whether a mediaeval queen or an ordinary woman.