24 April 2012

Davidson's Mismatch

In A Difference of Centuries, I compared an illustration from Henry Davidson's 'Short History of Chess' (1949) with another from Dylan Loeb McClain of the New York Times. Both purported to show the spread of chess from its origin in India, but there was a difference of hundreds of years between the two. What was the reason for this?

I looked at Davidson's book more carefully and extracted relevant passages on the introduction of chess into major Western European regions. Here is a summary.

  • Spain: Nursery of European Chess • At the turn of the millenium chess was a Moslem activity, and Spain was the country in Europe most intimately associated with Islamic influences. It is not surprising then that modern European chess began in Spain. [...] The date at which chess entered Spain may be fixed at sometime between the years 900 and 1000. (p.123)

  • Italy as a focus of European Chess • While for much of its early culture Italy was indebted to Greece, this current was reversed in the case of chess. [...] Chess reached Italy in the middle of the 11th century, not many decades after the game was known on the Spanish peninsula. It was ferried over the Mediterranean from North Africa, either through Sicily, which retained Moorish influences for many centuries, or through Marseilles. (p.128)

  • Chess in Medieval France • Chess was not played in France before the end of the 11th century. [...] Medieval France acquired chess from two sources: Spain and Italy. (p.134)

  • Germany • Chess entered Germany by two routes. The earlier was the pass through the Alps connecting with Italy [...] The second source of German chess knowledge was France, and the two streams amalgamated to form a center for the subsequent dispersal of the game into Scandinavia and Eastern Europe. (p.137)

  • Scandinavia • The Scandinavian countries acquired chess from Germany. It is hard to accept [Daniel Willard] Fiske's theory that the game was introduced more or less directly from the East [i.e. Russia]. (p.139)

  • Britain • There is nothing to indicate that chess was played in Great Britain prior to the Norman conquest in 1066, and the linguistic evidence points to a French source. (p.140)

Compare that to the centuries shown in Davidson's March of Chess: Spain: 1300, Italy: 1300, France: 1400, Germany: 1500, Scandinavia: 1600, & Britain: 1500. Davidson's illustration simply doesn't match the information given in his book. I have no idea why that should be, but if Davidson's text is right, it is entirely possible that the Lewis pieces were carved in the 12th century in Northern Europe.


Later: Davidson had an unorthodox opinion on the origin of the Lewis pieces.

They are often assigned to the 12th century, but the 16th century seems more likely since the pieces are probably of Icelandic origin, and it is doubtful if the game was known in Iceland prior to the 16th century. The fact that the Rook is represented as a soldier establishes the Icelandic origin of the set. In Icelandic, the piece is called brokur which means 'hero' or 'soldier'. In no other language in the world is the Rook so named. (p.166)

The mystery around their geographical origin also popped up recently. Even more fundamental: are they really chess pieces?

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