A Chess Allegory


One of my summer holiday reads is the mid-fifteenth-century allegory The Court of Sapience.  It’s not the most appealing title, and the poem is not to everyone’s taste.  The poem is a triptych of three episodes each centered on Sapience or wisdom.  An opening passage explains why the narrator is in need of wisdom in all its forms.  He has allowed himself to succumb to the vices  of childishness and ignorance.  The consequences of this are explained in an allegory, played out on an eschekkere, a chessboard ‘in my mynd’ (scroll down for text and translation).  (The marginal decoration above is from Bodleian Library MS Laud Misc 751).

He contemplates his mental chessboard, uncertain as to how to begin his game.  He wants to move his king first, but knows he isn’t allowed to do this under the rules of chess, so gives up because he does not have the skill to move all of the pieces (each of which represent some part of society and worldly authority).  Then chess allows him to express his despair: whatever move he makes, he is defeated by daily life and by reversals of fortune.  Finally, Reason appears to tell him what a fool he is for playing this kind of game (and so the narrator begins his search for Wisdom).  It’s a lively allegory, precise in its use of chess and its rules and language.

Chess is often used allegorically in medieval love visions (most famously in Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess).  But it can also be a way of talking about politics (as Jenny Adams’ recent book explains).  The register of chess in English has useful puns for vernacular poets: drawen can mean both ‘to move’ and ‘to depict’, draught can mean both ‘a move’ and ‘a line, a piece of writing’.  So the narrator might also like to write about or for his king first, but cannot, because of the king’s limited moves and the complexities and vicissitudes of society and secular authority.

The narrator’s self-declared childishness, ignorance and despair echo the Prologue of the Privy Seal clerk Thomas Hoccleve’s 1411 Regiment of Princes (which also uses chess language in this punning way as it refers to its own creation and to one of its sources, Jacobus de Cessolis’s Liber de moribus hominum et officiis nobilium ac popularium super ludo scachorum, translated by William Caxton as The Game and Playe of the Chesse).  I was surprised to find echoes of a political poem in this didactic allegory.  But perhaps, given the political disorder of the middle of the fifteenth century, when Henry VI was first mentally incapacitated, then rebelled against, deposed and imprisoned, it is not so surprising that a search for Wisdom begins with a chess allegory like this.

The chesplayer, or he a man have drawen,
Hath only thought to make good purveaunce
For kyng and queen, aulfyn, knyght, roke and pawne;
Echone of these he hath in remembraunce.
So eche estate and worldly governaunce
In one eschekkere in my mynd I sawe,
But I ne wyst what draught was best to drawe.

[The chess player, before he has moved a piece, concentrates on making good preparations [i.e. strategies?] for king and queen, bishop, knight, rook and pawn; he pays attention to each one of these.  Just so I in my mind saw each part of society and worldly authority on one chessboard, but I did not know which move was best to make.]

Fyrst, my desyre was to have drawen my kyng,
At hertes lust, in sure prosperyte;
But in the chesse I had espyed a thyng:
The kyng to purpoos may not passe his see,
To make hym way, or some pawne drawe bee;
Than bothe to guyde the kyng and pawnes eke
And al other, my wyttes were to seke.    […]

[First of all my intention was to have moved my king, according to [my? his?] heart’s desire, in certain good fortune; But I had discovered a thing about chess-playing: the king, apropos of this, is not able to move from his position, to make his move, before some pawn has been moved; Then my wits were too feeble to direct both the king and also the pawns and all the other pieces. […]]

For in this bord eschekker of my mynd
As I forth put a man, or drawe a draught,
Forth come the World, with Dame Fortune unkynde,
And sayd, “Eschek!” and so strongly they faught
Ayenst me that al my men were caught
With theyr eschekkes – so touche they eche astate
That, or I wyst, sodeynly I was mate.

[For in this chess board of my mind, whenever I moved a piece forward or made a move, the World advanced, with cruel Lady Fortune, and said “Check!” and so fiercely they fought against me that all my pieces were taken by their attacks – so do they harm each part of society so that, before I knew what had happened, I was suddenly checkmated.]

Than come Reason, and thus to me she sayde,
‘With moble Fortune and fals Worldlynesse,
O foole of fooles, hast thou thy wyt assayde
With any man to countre them at chesse?
Thou mayst not fynd a poynt of sykernesse,
For in theyr draught al deceyte is include.
Go foorth,’ quod she, ‘a foole I the conclude!’

[Then Reason came, and she said this to me, ‘O fool of fools, have you tried your luck against with changeable Fortune and deceitful Worldliness to play them at chess by moving any piece?  You cannot find a safe square [on the board] for in all their moves/tricks treachery is concealed.  Go away,’ said she, ‘I deduce that you are a fool!’]

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