Byzantine Reality

Searching for Byzantine failures in the world around us

The Birth of the Chess Queen

I’ve always loved chess, and have long loved reading about history. So a natural choice for a book for me to read would be a book on the history of chess. After looking through a number of them online, I decided on The Birth of the Chess Queen (by Marilyn Yalom), which looks at the evolution of the chess queen in parallel to the progression of women’s rights within society since the rise of Christianity. It’s an interesting read but since there’s so much time to cover in so little space (~300 pages), it has to hop around from topic to topic somewhat abruptly. I think it would make a great read for a seminar-style class where a single chapter is covered and discussed a week, and provides lots of trivia and information about famous women throughout the last 1500 years. What follows are my notes on the book, for my own future reference (which you may also find interesting).


The author is shown an ivory figure of a Madonna and Child and is told it was a chess queen, and spends five years investigating this claim. She is interested in learning how the queen became the most powerful piece on the chessboard when women are always in positions of secondary power. She also tells us about the “paradox of chess”, namely how the king is the most crucial figure, yet the queen is the most powerful.

The queen originally appeared in Western Europe in the eighth century, after the Arabs invaded Spain and brought it with them. She replaced the vizier, the king’s chief counselor, who was the second-in-command to the shah, and was a logical choice since she was the vizier’s western equivalent. A queen on a chessboard didn’t make sense in the East because Islam allows for polygamy, so she couldn’t be the second-in-command, and in India, chess was seen as a war game that had no place for women, so a queen couldn’t be on the board.

In the east, the chessboard had the vizier, the horse, the chariot, and an elephant, which were replaced in the west with the queen, the knight, the rook, and the bishop (respectively). Chess pieces were originally realistic in design, but the rise of Islam meant that realistic figures could not be portrayed, so they were replaced with abstract figures.

Another part of the puzzle is the evolution of the pieces. Originally the vizier and queen are the weakest pieces on the board, only moving one diagonal space at a time, but by the end of the fifteenth century, they become the strongest pieces on the board. This is believed to be driven by the emergence of Christian queenship, which started during the beginning of the Middle Ages. The queen’s most important role was to produce children since this was the only way the king’s dynasty could continue.

At the same time, there is a rise in popularity in the cult of the Virgin Mary, and the cult of romantic love. The latter focuses around the adoration of a beautiful lady (stressing its non-sexual nature) – Ginevra de’ Benci is the main example that comes to mind. So both of these trends glorify women, and in parallel, chess is used as a cover for men and women to interact and progress their relationship.

Part 1 – The Mystery of the chess queen’s birth

Chapter 1 – Chess before the chess queen

Chess has its origins in India no later than the sixth century, and quickly spreads to Persia, where they rename the figures to fit their own culture. The view of chess in Islam varies over time: some shahs see it as permissible as long as it was not played for money, while others saw it as unnecessary, destructive, or unclean. Caliph Harun al-Rashid is credited with popularizing chess while he reigned in Baghdad, from 786 to 809. Queen Toda of Navarre (northern Spain) becomes a powerful, competent ruler after her husband dies, and sets the standard for how a queen can effectively rule a kingdom.

Chapter 2 – Enter the queen

The Einsiedeln Monastery has a Latin manuscript, the “Verses of Chess” (990 CE), that contains the first European description of chess (and includes the queen in it, as opposed to the vizier). It also specified chessboards as having black and white squares, to make the board easier to see (in contrast with Eastern boards that only had a single color). The original movement roles for the pieces were much weaker than their modern day equivalents (except for the rook, who was unchanged). The emergence of the queen was not controversial, and was just another adaptation of the pieces (like the elephant to bishop). Promoting a pawn to a queen was a controversial issue in the West (because of Christian monogamy), but naturally was a non-issue in the East.

If the chess queen was based on a real person, it was likely to have been Empress Adelaide or Empress Theophano, two powerful women who lived as chess was being translated from the East to the West. Alternatively, right before the verses were written, there were an abnormally large number of regent queens, which may have greatly influenced the decision to include one on the chessboard. The church shows opposition to chess early on because dice were frequently used to determine which piece moves next, making it a game of chance (and thus distasteful to the church).

Chapter 3 – The chess queen shows her face

Two chess queens have survived from the eleventh century, carved in Southern Italy. Believed to be owned by Charlemagne, and are thus called the “Charlemagne chessmen”, even though they now have been dated to roughly 1100 C.E.. Their large, unwieldy size implies that they were display pieces, and not actually played with.

The Norman conqueror Robert Guiscard captures Salerno, Italy in 1076, and solidifies his position by marrying Princess Sikelgaita. She faithfully serves him, and after his death, serves their son, Roger, over his son from his first marriage. She gains a lot of power from marriage and motherhood, but little from her actual position. At the same time, Matilda of Tuscany comes to power as a queen regent and negotiates between Emperor Henry IV and Pope Gregory VII, who are at war with one another.

In the late 1100s, Constance of Hauteville (the Sicilian princess) marries the German king Henry of Hohenstaufen, and eventually return to conquer Southern Italy (including Sicily). Their son, Frederick, follows in his father’s footsteps, becoming Holy Roman Emperor, and finds a strong love for chess. He encourages and Italy becomes one of two countries producing strong chess players (the other being Spain).

Part 2 – Spain, Italy, and Germany

Chapter Four – Chess and Queenship in Christian Spain

As chess was transmitted to the West through Spain, chess has been played there the longest of all the European countries. Queen Toda of Navarre and her nephew, Caliph Abd al-Rahman III of Cordoba, are credited with religious tolerance for Muslims, Christians, and Jews, which contributes to culture and commerce in the region.

In Spain, wealthy nobles begin donating their chess sets to the church after their death, with Countess Ermessenda being the most notable donor. She is another one of these successful queen regents, ruling for 41 years alongside her son and grandson. At the same time period, the most well known chess set is the Ager chessmen, which show that even though the queen was well established throughout Europe, she was still not present in Spain, due to the strong Moorish influence.

Dona Urraca comes to power as queen of Burgundy, but doesn’t gain much power until her husband dies (becoming the ruler of Galicia) and her father dies (becoming the ruler of Leon-Castile). Urraca gets dragged into a second marriage to Alfonso I of Aragon, but after he consistently mistreats her, she is able to get out of the marriage by claiming that they are within the forbidden degrees of kinship. They eventually go to war with one another, and Urraca is eventually victorious. Urraca then has to deal with the Portugese, who rise up to seize Spanish land while Urraca and Alfonso are distracted with one another. She successfully defeats them as well, and is able to raise her son as queen regent without further problems.

While not fully established by the 12th century, there is sufficient evidence to show that the chess queen had seen some use within Spain. An excellent quote from the author sums up the thesis of the book, based on an ivory queen from Spain that now belongs to the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore:

[The queen] represents the constricted power of queenship, an ultimate female status, but one that is played out in chess as in life on a predominantly masculine playing field. The chess queen, like other ladies of her rank, does well to keep a constant eye on her enemies and, depending on their moves, to be ready to retreat to a protected space.

A game book created by Alfonso X, now stored in the Escorial Monastery Library in Madrid, discusses chess and its relation to gender roles. It depicts women as playing the game, and Alfonso playing the game with a woman. It also discusses the “confusion” about the gender of the figure standing next to the king (the vizier or queen), as in the West, it was firmly decided that it was a female queen, and in the East (which extended to Moorish Spain), it was a male vizier.

Alfonso’s wife, Violante of Aragon, starts off with little power because she does not conceive a child for nearly three years. However, she eventually does produce ten children and secures her safety. Yet she still has to fight her husband to pass the succession to the younger children instead of her (deceased) eldest son’s child, as in that case, that son’s mother (French-born and Violante’s daughter-in-law) would rule instead of her. Alfonso and Violante do not persecute Jews, but instead use them to mass produce texts thought to be lost to the West, preserved in the East.

Chapter 5 – Chess Moralities in Italy and Germany

A Dominican friar, Jacobus de Cessolis, writes his “Book of Chess”, describing chess as a model of the social order. This comes at a time when the church softens its stance towards chess, and it is no longer seen as a war game in the West. The Italians take the elephant, an animal they had never seen, and recast it as a standard-bearer, eventually to become the bishop. Cessolis’ success as a writer and preacher come from his focus on the common people, telling them of their importance and representation in the noble game of chess as pawns (and in essence, validating their status in society). The pawns were not identical, and each of them represented different professions (e.g., merchants, physicians).

The rules described in the Book of Chess were also slightly different from other styles of chess, and most pieces could vault over others on their first move. The book was evidently so popular that, after the Bible, it was the most printed book upon the advent of the printing press, and over two hundred copies have survived to date.

In Germany, chess becomes popular at all levels of society, and songs written to the tempo of Carmina Burana describing chess are written, which positively reflect on the importance of the queen.

Part 3 – France and England

Chapter 6 – Chess Goes to France and England

There are no medieval French or English queens that we know have survived, and instead have to rely on literature of the time and the stories of two notable queens: Eleanor of Aquitaine and Blanche of Castile. Chess comes to France via the Spanish at the turn of the millenium, and shows up in myths involving Charlemagne and King Arthur. Northern France begins to glorify war, while Southern France begins to glorify the domna (beloved woman).

Eleanor of Aquitaine was sought after by Louis VII of France and Henry II of England because of of the territories Aquitaine controlled (larger and richer than the king of France possessed), Eleanor was believed to be able to reproduce for the crown, and Eleanor was believed to be exceptionally good-looking. By the end of her lifetime, the queen replaced the vizier throughout Europe (except for in Spain). She married Louis VII when she was 16 but did not produce any children for 8 years, and eventually journeys with Louis to Constantinople during the Second Crusade. Eleanor eventually delivers two daughters and Louis agrees to an annulment for their marriage (since he desperately needs a male heir). Eleanor quickly remarries Henry, duke of Normandy, who within two years becomes Henry II, king of England.

Eleanor’s daughter, Marie de Champagne, was the patron of the writer Chretien de Troyes. He writes of the chess queen favorably, but a different writer, Gautier d’Arras, depicts her negatively, worrying that she could be a liability for the king, since the real-life queen could endanger the throne by being promiscuous, manipulative, and so on. Yet both of these opinions appear to have been typical for the time.

Eleanor’s children rebel against Henry II, and after the rebellion is put down, Eleanor is put in the Tower and imprisoned until Henry dies. After his death, she is freed and becomes a major influence upon her son, Richard the Lionhearted.

Eleanor’s granddaughter, Blanche of Castile, marries Louis VIII, and after he dies, she gains control over the state. Blanche finds a match for her son (Marguerite), and keeps a strong influence over the throne.

Chapter 7 – Chess and the Cult of the Virgin Mary

A short poem in the Bodleian Library in Oxford equates a game of chess to a battle between God (the white pieces) and Lucifer (the black pieces), which gives the author the information she needed to begin connecting the chess queen she originally saw with the Virgin Mary. The king is described as Jesus and the queen as the Virgin Mary. Gautier de Coinci’s Miracles of Our Lady takes a more serious, focused approach to this topic, likely influenced by Blanche of Castile. It takes on a common motif of Mary as a “New Eve”, who will redeem mankind from original sin.

The curiousness comes in when we consider that the queen is elevated to such power, even though she’s the weakest piece on the board at this time. The explanation is that this isn’t that curious – e without the taint of original sin.

Mary originally gets attention in 431 when she gets this title, gets more fame in 500-600 C.E. (likely modelled after the Empress Theodora), but finally gets elevated to cult status in the twelfth century. Mary is presented in a coronation style alongside Jesus (imitating kings and queens), and from this, she gains the title of the Bride of Christ. This mimics the model seen where the queen regent rules in tandem with her son, but is still referred to as a queen. This idea eventually comes full circle, and female sovereigns use the idea of having Mary as the Queen in Heaven as proof that women can be queen on Earth.

Chapter 8 – Chess and the Cult of Love

The cult of love becomes a cultural craze during the turn of the twelfth century, touted by troubadours in Southern France. This idea represents a role reversal in gender relations, in which a (often married) woman is courted by a man for largely romantic (non-sexual) reasons. This vision tended to be largely mythical – women still had little power compared to their husband, but the myth of it (and limited manifestations) provided women with an outlet from an otherwise dismal life.

The chess queen emerges on the chessboard around this same time, and legitimizes the presence of women on a previously all-male game. The game of chess could then be played between women and men as a cover for a romantic relationship, or between two men, competing for a woman. This was the case in both the West and the East, although in the East, it’s not limited to the upper class.

Apparently the literature suggests that there were dangers for women to play chess, because of the sexual implications. The dangers came both from women playing with random men as well as playing with other family members (especially fathers), hinting at the sexual abuse that could be involved.

Part 4 – Scandinavia and Russia

Chapter 9 – Nordic Queens, On and Off the Board

The Lewis chessmen are a collection of roughly one hundred chess pieces found in Scotland, and were likely created in Norway around 1200. Chess likely came to the Nordic regions via England and France in the eleventh century, being referenced by Harald Haardraad of Norway (from Hastings fame?). Old Norse sagas are full of tales of fights breaking out during chess games, with often lethal results.

The most well-known Swedish queen is seen riding a horse, instead of the Western European queens, who rest on thrones. Two other Danish queens also follow the same style as the Swedish queen. Most of these queens were carved from walrus tusk, but one was also done in wood, which has shrunk over time due to oxygen exposure.

Women in Scandinavia have little power or authority until the thirteenth century, when the development of feudal society solidifies their position (especially the queen’s). Women at this time are now regularly given dowries, and queens are publicly crowned with their king.

Ingeborg of Norway marries the Duke of Sweden in the 1300s, and after his death, she gains political control (implicitly, as usual) over Norway and Sweden, while her son is still in his minority. She eventually clashes with the nobles in 1321 and takes control over the state by force, and at the age of 20, becomes a young and effective ruler. The nobles in Norway and Sweden eventually unite against Ingeborg, removing her from power, and while she still has influence of her son, the nobles eventually turn against each other and the king, breaking up the union between Norway and Sweden.

Margaret of Denmark follows a similar pattern, eventually uniting Denmark, Norway, and Sweden under her son’s rule, and maintaining power even after he marries. Margaret avoids Ingeborg’s fate by reducing the power of the nobles, taking lands from them and the church to back up the royal coffers, and keeps her son out of trouble. This is eventually undone by her successor, whose failures led to the union dissolving.

Chapter 10 – Chess and Women in Old Russia

The chess queen in Russia only emerged in the eighteenth century, having been strongly influenced by the male vizier from the Middle East / Near East. The pieces typically were of an abstract nature, due to the strong Muslim minority in Russia, and in lieu of a rook, there was originally a boat (believed to be due to Russia’s strong seafaring traditions).

Culturally, chess was fiercely attacked by the Orthodox Church as sinful, but after the eighteenth century, the church eases up on this stance. Yet stories and myths still evolve where chess is used to push a romantic relationship between a couple or is involved with “saving the day” (e.g., a woman frees her husband from jail by defeating the prince in a game of chess).

Women appear to have a similar experience in Russia as they do in Western Europe – generally mistreated by their husbands and expected to be submissive (and that any punishment was justified to make this work out). Upper class women seemed to get a better quality of life and enjoyed much more influence over their husbands, and widowed women/mothers tended to fare the best in this system (inheriting their husband’s lands and keeping their own).

Russia becomes Orthodox Christian after Princess Olga converts them in the tenth century. While Russian princes originally find brides outside of Russia (for political purposes), they eventually stick with brides internal to Russia, losing the ability to transmit cultural ideas in a crucial fashion. Catherine II (Catherine the Great), a German-born, French-educated empress in Russia, makes sweeping reforms in the eighteenth century, influenced by the ideas of Voltaire and other Enlightenment Age thinkers.

Part 5 – Power to the Queen

Chapter 11 – New Chess and Isabella of Castile

The rise of the power of the chess queen coincides with the reign of Isabella of Castile, a strong, fierce ruler for Spain. Lucerna’s Art of Chess describes the “new rules” that took hold in Spain by the end of the fifteenth century, which we would be familiar with as the standard chess rules of today (almost). Specifically, queens and bishops could now move as many squares as they like in a diagonal fashion (and horizontal for the queen). It also codified the ability for pawns to optionally move two squares on their first move. The only difference from modern chess is that in “new chess”, the king could move up to three squares on his first move (if not in check), which eventually gets replaced by castling.

Isabella of Castile remains a controversial figure to date. She is given positive credit for uniting spain with her husband (Ferdinand), but is negatively credited with instituting the Spanish Inquisition and various anti-Jewish/anti-Moorish policies. Isabella was last in line to succeed the Castilian crown, but after her brother Alfonso dies, she readies herself for succession. Her brother Enrique wants her to marry the king of Portugal, but she instead marries her cousin, the prince of Aragon.

Enrique dies within five years of Isabella’s marriage, and Isabella becomes queen of Castile and Leon. Isabella and Ferdinand defend their new nation against attacks from the king of Portugal and Enrique’s illegitimate daughter, Juana. Isabella negotiated loans from the Church, and instituted reforms that undermined the rights of non-Christians (Jews and Moors specifically). She also produces numerous children: a daughter (Isabella), a son (Juan), and a daughter (Juana).

In 1482, Isabella begins reconquering the southern Spanish kingdom of Granada, previously held by the Moors. She is able to reclaim Granada at great cost, and gives birth to her daughter Catalina during the reconquest. Throughout this time, she persecutes the Jews and Moors, and this culminates in 1492, when Isabella and Ferdinand sign an expulsion decree, ordering Jews who refuse to convert to leave the country. The justification for this was that it was “well known” that the Jews had damaged Christians (likely by “distracting” them from their chosen path).

Chess may also have played an important role in Christopher Columbus’ ability to discover the New World. Ferdinand and Isabella both loved chess, and a nineteenth century source (which discusses a primary source from 1492) may provide evidence that Ferdinand only okayed Columbus’ journey based on being in a positive disposition from a chess game he was playing while making the decision. Isabella dies in 1504, and was compared to both the Virgin Mary and the Virgin of Battles, in a similar fashion to Joan of Arc prior to her. The hypothesis that the book puts forward is that the chess queen was strengthened not explicitly because of Isabella, but implicitly due to her.

Chapter 12 – The Rise of “Queen’s Chess”

“Queen’s chess” spread from Spain and was met with both praise and hostility throughout Europe. It became accepted that the queen could move just as the rook and bishop could, but people rejected giving the queen the same powers as the knight, “on account of their frailty”. By the seventeenth century, “queen’s chess” spreads throughout Europe (seeing resistance in Germany), and players begin to announce whenever the king or queen is in check. The quick spread of queen’s chess was likely due to the widespread use of the printing press, allowing manuals like Lucerna’s to be easily propogated throughout Europe.

Italian sources indicate that they may have been familiar with queen’s chess before Lucerna’s publication, but they agree that they were unsure about what to make of the queen’s enhanced powers. A backlash arose in response to the queen’s new powers, with those who were offended calling the game “mad queen’s chess”.

Chapter 13 – The Decline of Women Players

By the turn of the seventeenth century, it was no longer fashionable for upper-class women to play chess. Art depicting mixed-gender matches became rare. One hypothesis about why this was is that the increased power given to queens and bishops turned chess from a multi-day game in which men and women could flirt and learn about one another into a multi-hour game in which men and women had to pay strict attention on the game (else be mated in minutes). The ability to love or learn about the other player was lost, as now it became truly about the game itself.

Chess became less social, and professional players emerged on the scene, such as Ruy Lopez in Spain and Paulo Boi in Italy. This caused chess to become more public, and the rise of chess clubs, which were dominated by men. The twentieth century saw a dramatic increase in the number of professional female players, but despite this, only 5% of chess players are women. The author hypothesizes that as chess becomes more socially acceptable for women to specialize in, we will see more professional female chess players.


The queen’s increased power is evidence that the king cannot survive without the queen by his side. Yet while the vizier is still dominant in the Middle East and Near East, he has the increased power that the queen has.