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Chess is perhaps the most famous game in the world. Chess in the Middle Ages, or Medieval Chess, was played much as it is in the 21st century, although there were many variations. In most areas, the game used essentially the same pieces and board as today. At one time, there was an Inter-Kingdom Guild of Chess Players known as The Guild of the Elephant founded in the Kingdom of the West.


The game that evolved into chess had its beginnings in India as chaturanga, and from there to Persia in the 7th century. From there, the game spread to Asia, and appeared in the Arab world by the 9th century. It was adopted in Europe during the Crusades, and many variations appeared in the European Medieval and Renaissance periods. Chess was played with great seriousness, but the rules of play varied widely. In some cases, misunderstandings led to violent arguments: "One day a dispute arose over a knight which had been taken. One said that it was a fair move while the other claimed that it was false. As often happens in this game where even the wisest get impatient, hot words followed. Indeed both sprang to their feet reaching for their poignards (daggers) and spoiling for a fight... and all on account of a trifling piece of ivory carved in the likeness of a knight." (Collins and Davis, "A Medieval Book of Seasons," p.130.)

Medieval and Renaissance Versions

As described in Caxton’s Game and Playe of the Chess: a moral treatise on the duties of life (1474 C. E.), the pieces were:

kynge (king), quene (queen), alphyn (elephant, representing a wise man--like the modern bishop), rook (sitting on a horse--although the name is likely from the Persian rukh meaning chariot, or the giant bird roc), knyght (knight, also on a horse), and comyn people (common people, or modern pawns). The "common people" were identified individually, each pawn representing a specific trade such as laborers/workmen, smiths, notaries, merchants and money changers, physicians/apothacaries (possibly alchemists), tavern keepers, guards, and retainers.

Chess was played differently in different countries and times in the SCA's period, making it impractical to list all variations here. But some common rules differences were:

  • King: His Majesty can move in any direction for one space. He didn't castle, as castling appears to be a modern invention. In one version, the king could move two, three or four squares on his first move. In other versions, the king could make one "knight's move" once during the game. Unless the game was played with dice (see below) the king was not allowed to move into check.
  • Queen: Her Majesty could move only on her own color, and only one square at a time. In many earlier versions, she wasn't a queen but a fierce, or advisor. Modern Queen movements may be tracible to late period Spanish version of the game, called "Chess of the Mad Queen."
  • Bishop: The bishop moved diagonally, but was limited to moving no more than two squares at a time, and sometimes could jump pieces. In another variation, it didn't move two squares, but instead could move to the opposite corner of three squares, still staying on the same color.
  • Knight: Same as modern
  • Rook: Same as modern, without castling ability
  • Pawn: Capturing en passant ("in passing") apparently wasn't used in all areas, but may have been used in France. But the pawn rarely had the option of moving two squares on its initial move. In some versions, a pawn upon entering the opponents first row, is allowed to "ransom" any captured piece, which then replaces the pawn.

End of the game

A game could end then, as now, in checkmate.

In a game that ended with a bare king (that is, one player had only a king left), the game was usually considered a win for the player with more pieces, but in some areas a stalemate.

Perpectual check or a sequence of repeated moves could end in a stalement, much as it can in modern chess.

Chess with Dice

Chess with Dice - a gambling game

Chess with dice puts the game in the categories of both a strategy game and a game of chance. It adds elements of chance allowing people with different levels of skill to play on a more even field. The pieces and pawns are moved based upon the number on either die, or the sum of the numbers on both die. Each piece has a number assigned to it. If there is no legal move allowed by the die roll, the player must "pass" and the turn goes to the opponent. Because the die roll only allows one to move the pawn or piece indicated, one could "challenge" another piece. That is to say, if two Knights are opposing one another, the first player to roll a knights move (a four), wins the challenge. Before the roll, the players, and anyone in the background, is free to bet on the outcome of the roll. In this version, two six-sided die are used.

Statistically, using two six-sided die, the pawn (six) is most likely to move, and the king (one) is least likely to move).Generally, the rules for movement are identical to the rules listed above. One significant difference is that the King can move into check. Because the King is at the statistical disadvantage of having to roll a "one" to move, this is generally not a good idea - but it can be done. Another is that the game is only really workable if the Queen only moves one space on her own color.


  • The Chess Variant Pages
  • Recreating Medieval Chess: from schachorum ludo to the queen’s chess by Carol Hamill
  • Yalom, Marilyn. Birth of the Chess Queen: A History (HarperCollins, 2004) ISBN 0-060090-64-2 ISBN-13: 978-0060090647
  • Murray, H. J. R. A History of Chess (London: Oxford University Press, 1913)
  • Murray, H. J. R. A History of Chess (Northampton, MA: Benjamin Press, 1985) ISBN 0-936317-01-9
  • Gollon, John. Chess Variations - Ancient, Regional, and Modern (Charles E Tuttle Co. Inc, 1974) ISBN 0-8048-1122-9
  • Pennick, Nigel. Games of the Gods - The origin of board games in magic and divination (Samuel Wiser Inc, 1989) ISBN 0-87728-696-5
  • Collins, Marie, and Davis, Virginia. A Medieval Book of Seasons (Harpercollins,1991) ISBN 978-0060168216