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8 - Ritual, Revenge and the Politics of Chess in Medieval Romance

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 May 2015

Megan G. Leitch
Affiliation:
Cardiff University
Nicholas Perkins
Affiliation:
University Lecturer and Tutor in medieval English, University of Oxford
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Summary

In the Stanzaic Guy of Warwick, a prince and a sultan's son begin a game of chess in which the contest rapidly expands beyond the bounds of the chequered board: one strikes the other in the face with a chess piece, before being bludgeoned to death by the chessboard in turn. In William Caxton's The Foure Sonnes of Aymon, the game of chess similarly offers the material for revenge and sociopolitical rupture. Here, the French vassal Renaud is provoked by Charlemagne's nephew Berthelot during a chess match, and slays him with the chessboard—in this case, instigating a blood feud between Charlemagne and Renaud's family that lasts for years and sprawls across nearly six hundred pages in the EETS edition. In contrast to representations of chess elsewhere in romances and other medieval literature, this motif of homicide in high-stakes chess subverts a material and textual touchstone familiar to medieval readers. Medieval chess conventionally operates as a metaphor for social order, as expounded most fully in tracts in the Jacobus de Cessolis tradition, including William Caxton's The Game and Playe of the Chesse. Especially when read in connection with this literature of counsel and conduct surrounding chess, and alongside the startling woodcut at the beginning of Caxton's second (1483) edition of The Game and Playe of Chesse, the murderous chess episodes in romances such as the Stanzaic Guy and Caxton's Foure Sonnes offer a troubling political symbolism. This article will argue that romance deployments of the materials of chess to do violence or murder constitute a very material rupture of ritual, on multiple levels.

The normative symbolism of chess as an affirmation of political hierarchy and societal integration is demonstrated in the early fourteenth-century romance Richard Coer de Lyon. Between battles in the early, successful portion of his crusading campaign, Richard occupies himself with a game of chess:

Kynge Rycharde playe

At the chesse in his galaye;

The Erle of Rychemonde with hym played,

And Rychard wan al that he layed.

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Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2015

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