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Queening: Chess and Women in Medieval and Renaissance France
By Regina L. O‘Shea
Master’s Thesis, Brigham Young University, 2010
Abstract: This work explores the correlation between the game of chess and social conditions for women in both medieval and Renaissance France. Beginning with an introduction to the importance and symbolism of the game in European society and the teaching of the game to European nobility, this study theorizes how chess relates to gender politics in early modern France and how the game‘s evolution reflects the changing role of women. I propose that modifications to increase the directional and quantitative abilities of the Queen piece made at the close of the fifteenth century reflect changing attitudes towards women of the period, especially women in power. In correlation with this, I also assert that the action of queening, or promotion of a Pawn to a Queen, demonstrates evolving conceptions of women as well. This work seeks to add to the growing body of work devoted to the exploration of connections between chess and political and social circumstances during the periods under consideration. As the question of the interconnectedness between the game and gender relations is in its beginning stages of exploration, this thesis is offered as a further analysis of the gender anxieties and conceptions present in the game‘s theory and history.
Chess, as much as it seems to be a frivolous past time for old men or child mathematical prodigies, was once a leisure activity of choice for kings, queens and nobles in European society, and was indeed a case of play imitating life. Nobles recommended and encouraged their children to learn to play, as it was a lesson in strategy and cunning. It is not by happenstance that the board represents a battlefield where two armies compete against one another in an effort to protect their respective kings; a scene which is not all too uncommon during the period under consideration. A young heir who might find himself thrown turbulently into the political arena would surely find the imitative strategy of war a boon to his monarchical savoir faire.
As we know it today, the game consists of the following player pieces: King, Knight, Bishop, Rook, Pawn and Queen, each possessing their individual powers and attributes depending on the relative influence and symbolic rank of the piece. However, the game at the moment of its introduction into Medieval European society was somewhat different. Originally, the pieces maintained their Arabic names of shah, faras, baidaq, oliphant, rukh, and fierz. The names of the pieces that were understood were translated directly or given an equivalent expression, while other words were left relatively the same depending on whether or not their translators understood the original term. The original board was also uncheckered.