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         The History and The Culture of Chess

Nuremberg  Chronicle  -  Liber  Chronicarum
March 2008

     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.


     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:

Footnote 5 on page 501 contains a long quotation from John Lydgate's English translation (1412-20) of the Latin "Historia Troiana" of Guido de Columna "which was written in the 13th c." which mentions this:

          (5) Lydgate, "Troy Book" (E.E.T.S., 1906, I. ii. 806-23):

"And ther was founde by clerkys ful prudent,
Of the Ches the pleye most glorious,
Whiche is so Sotyl and so meruelous,
that it were harde the mater to discryue;
For thoughe a man stodied al his lyve,
He shal ay fynde dyuers fantasyes
Of wardys makyng, & newe iuparties (MS. C imparties)
ther is ther-in so gret diuersite.
And it was first founde in this cite,
Duryng the sege, liche as seyth Guydo,
But Iacobus de Vitriaco (? error for Cessolis)
Is contrarie of oppynyoun:
For, like as he makyth mencioun,
And affermeth fully in his avys,
How Philometer, a philysofre wys,
Vn-to a kyng, to stynte his cruelte,
Fond first this pleie & made it in Calde;
And in-to Greece from thense it was sent."

Philometer is the Greek name for Xerxes


Murray talks about four "books or tractates" in his 'sermon': "Liber de moribus hominum et offciis
nobilium" written by Cessolis and that in the first 'book' Cessolis states his belief as to the origin of the game:

...Cessolis deals very briefly with the history of chess. He attributes the invention to an Eastern philosopher, named by the Chaldeans Xerses or Hyerses and by the Greeks Philometer, who invented it in the reign of Nebuchadnezzar's son and successor, Evil-Merodach, who is presented regularly in mediaeval works as a monster of cruelty.

 'Under this kynge than Evilmerodach was this game and playe of the chesse founden /  Trewe it is that some men wene / that this playe was founden in the tyme of the bataylles & siege of troye. but that is not soo For this playe cam to the playes of the caldees as dyomedes the greek(29) sayth and reherceth That amonge the philosophrs was the most renomed playe amonge all other playes / And after that / cam this playe in the tyme of Alixandre the grete in to Egipte And so unto alle the parties toward the south /'

Whence Cessolis obtained this legend is uncertain, but if Lydgate's statement in his "Troy Book" is well founded, it occurs in the chronicle of the earlier writer Jacobus de Vitriaco (D. 1240-4); this, however, is inaccessible to me. Cessolis adds three reasons for the invention: to correct the evil manners of the King, to avoid idleness and sadness, and to satisfy the natural desire for novelty by means of the infinite variety of the play.

The spelling variations of Xerxes and Philometer typed above are as they appear in Murray's text.


     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. 

[e.g.  English Etymology by George William Lemon - 1783

Stowe, p. 23, tells us, that John de Vigney, in hys booke named the Moralization of the Cheffe, fayth, that the fame game was deuifed by Xerxes, the philofopher, otherwife named Philometre, to reproue, and corred the crtiell mynde of a famous ]

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:

I'm guessing that the "original" (and I use that word loosely!) chess reference comes from Jacobus de Cessolis, who wrote a "moralization" (not my preferred term, although the one Murray uses and thus the one we are pretty much stuck with) of chess in the late thirteenth century.  The Latin name for it is the Liber de Moribus Hominum et Officiis Nobilium Sive Super Ludo Scacchorum.  Jean  de Vignay translated Jacobus's text in the early fourteenth century.

Undoubtedly, John de Vigney is a bastardization of Jean de VignayWilliam 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 to Xerxes.

     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.

[note: In his 2002 book, The Medieval Chronicle II, Erik Kooper devotes a chapter, written by David Dumville, to the definition of Chronicle. Different from historia,  chronica is more closely related to annales. For our purposes, a Chronicle is a broad, dated,  chronology of persons, places and event with no attempt to evaluate such as a Historia might.]

     On other fronts, Dr. Michael Negele of the Ken Whyld Association wrote: " 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."
Siegfried Schönle's appraisal was  "The motif of chess-playing Xerxes is used by the late German collector and chess historian Gerd Meyer of Lübeck.  So the book itself is quite a find but this citation is not unknown."
Dutch collector
Dr. Jurgen Stigter wrote, "The reference on p. 62b is a reference to the supposed invention of chess by Xerxes (but not during the siege of Troje). See Murray, p. 217, 541 and 645. On the latter page, a similar quote is given from the manuscript Gu(arino) 1512. The source is probably Cessolis. But I don't know of a reference to Schedel . However, it seems to be very short and the main interest may be the illustration."   Mr. Totaro added, " The woodcut either might be from Wolgemut, Pleydenwurff or Albrecht Durer (the latter was an apprentice) Although many chess historians have not noted this chess citation, I had a chance to look through the book and noticed the chess excerpt. It is not an important citation but a nice discovery. . . I also agree that nothing on websites [ . . .], other publications, or the older manuscripts or printed chess books mentions this discovery." 

     My own involvement was that of Chronicler.




    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:


Page LXIIb
colorized Latin

One the left side of the page it says:  Reges Babilonie - The Kings of Babylon
pictured top - Merodach
pictured bottom - Nabuchodonzor  (Nebuchadrezzar)
Merodach who is more commonly called Avel-Merodach or Evil-Merodach, was the son of Nebuchadrezzar. Evil-Merodach, considered a poor leader, was eventually dethroned and assassinated.


Page LXIIb
black and white German


The Philosopher Xerxes


The text begins: "Merodach was the first Babylonian King who retreated from the Assyrian Monarchy..."

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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