Sarah's Chess Journal
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The History and The Culture of Chess
Chess and literature have been bedfellows from the earliest of times. Manuscripts and books devoted exclusively to chess and its precursors are well known even to individuals with only casual interest in the history of the game. Much of the credit for what is known about the origins and evolution of chess belongs to those works that are not exclusively about chess, but in which chess is mentioned in passing. Historians have been able to make broad and specific inferences and assumptions about the role of chess in certain cultures, the movement of chess across continents and the development of the game itself from information gleaned for these general sources. The problem, perhaps even the beauty, of this is that these references are seldom sought out but rather stumbled upon. Since the historians studying these non-chess texts generally have little interest specifically in chess, and since these ancient writings have been, for the most part, inaccessible to all but a select few researchers, often these citations have been ignored or fallen by the wayside. Regardless of any such citation's practical value, each one has an intrinsic value and should be fully documented as it is noted.
Lawrence Totaro, chess collector, researcher and author of Fisching for Forgeries, recently encountered such a citation in a rather well-known, ancient tome while browsing in a rare book shop on a whim. This incidental discovery, like so many others, was the result of the serendipitous nature of directed activity - while expending the effort to search for one thing, often unrelated, yet potentially more valuable things turn up in its place. The 1493 book, written by Hartman Schedel, officially named Liber Chronicarum but commonly referred to as the Nuremberg Chronicle, contains a rather obscure and well hidden allusion to chess that, after much research, seems to have been been noted only vaguely and never by chess historians.
THE CHESS CHASE
Mr. Totaro set about researching this accidental find by corralling a group of expert or simply potentially interested persons for their individual input with the hope of determining just how exclusive and important this find might be. Of all who were enlisted, none could find any previous documentation, other than a couple rather vague footnotes in non-chess-related reviews.
The citation itself is relatively unimportant. It mentions the invention of chess by the philosopher Xerxes in Babylon during the rule of Evil-Merodach, the son of Nebuchadrezzar and illustrates the citation with a charming woodcut of Xerxes. This myth, related in later works, is well known, but its origin is unclear. The first line of business was to determine if this was the first known reference to Xerxes, which would raise the importance of the discovery considerably. It was relatively simple to find earlier references to the myth.
Jan Newton, one of the deities from Chessgoddess wrote, quoting from Murray's History of Chess:
I had found what I thopught was even earlier references to the Xerxes myth indirectly through several peculiarly similar statements [as if they come from the same source] in several 18th and19th century texts citing John de Vigney's "Moralization of Chess." However, outside of this, I couldn't find a single mention of John de Vigney.
Ms. Newton's entirely reasonable explanation was that "John de Vigney" is an erroneous spelling of John of Wales (or John Waley or John Gallensis) who wrote the Innocent Morality c.1260.
Prof. Jenny Adams of the University of Massachusetts Amherst who who specializes in medieval literature, however, has more to say on this:
Undoubtedly, John de Vigney
is a bastardization of Jean de Vignay.
William Caxton published the
first few books in the English language. His first book was The Recuyell of
the Historyes of Troye, translated from the French book
Recueil des histoires de Troye by Raoul le Fèvre,. His second book was The Game and
Playe of Chesse, a quasi-translation into English of Cessolis' Ludo
Scacchorum, incorporating a mixture of translations from two
Latin-to-French translations, one by by Jean Ferron and the other by Jean de
Vignay entitled Jeu des echecs moralisés. It's possible that
Caxton also referred to the original Latin in making his translation. It's
unclear why Jean de Vignay's work has been singled out to contain the reference
Combine the above references with this understanding that Chronicarum derives from the latin chronica-ae, which means Annuls (annales), as opposed to Historia, which means History, we can see that the Liber Chronicorum is simply a chronology of persons, places and events by years with all the information within extracted from various earlier works and compiled in a chronological order with the bottom line that not only is this not the first mention of the Xerxes myth, but there was never really any reason to believe it was.
On other fronts,
Michael Negele of the Ken
Whyld Association wrote: "...no one in the chess scenery has ever mentioned
the Hartmann Schedel citation. But I will ask a friend of mine - Siegfried
Schönle who is an absolute expert on old chess literature."
THE BOOK AND CITATION
The book itself is quite amazing. It was written by a Nuremberg doctor named Hartmann Schedel and published in Latin on June 12, 1493. On December 23 of that same year, it was published in German. Approximately 1500 Latin copies and 1000 German ones were printed. Some of the books were in Black & White, others colorized. Today, it's thought that around 400 Latin and 300 German copies still exist. There is also only one known English version - by Walter Schmauch who translated one of the German copies into English. [There are some slight difference between the German and the Latin editions.] Schmauch's manuscript is retained at the Free Library of Philadelphia (That's the name of Philadelphia's library system). The details - the artists, the printers, the benefactors - are all well known and documented.
All the exquisite details, as well as the book itself, can be found at the sites listed below:
Ludus scacoru(m) "The game of chess was invented by the philosopher Xerxes for the correction of the tyrant Evil-Merodach."
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