13 November 2012

The Innocent Morality

On the way to writing the post that eventually became Top eBay Chess Item Twins, I had several other eBay auctions short-listed. The most intriguing was titled '1496 Welsh John of Wales INCUNABLE / CHESS Origin / Welsh / Incunabula Venice', subtitled '1st printed book describing game of CHESS'. It sold for US $4999 on a single bid. The description said,

John of Wales, OFM (Wales, 13th century - Paris 1285), a.k.a. John Waleys and Johannes Guallensis, was a Franciscan theologian who wrote several well-received Latin works, primarily preaching aids, in Oxford and Paris in the late-thirteenth century. This book has somewhat recently gained great fame as being the first printed book to describe the game of chess. I find no other incunable editions for sale worldwide, but do find a 2011 auction of an incunable edition of this title selling for 12,000 EUROS!

Main author: Johannes Guallensis / John of Wales
Title: Communiloquium [...]
Published: Venetiis [Venècia] : Giorgius Arrivabene, 30 juliol, 1496
Language: Latin

I decided to check the phrase 'recently gained great fame as being the first printed book to describe the game of chess'. The book is described in Murray's 'History of Chess' (1913) in the section 'Chess in Europe', where he divided early European chess literature into two categories: 'Didactic Literature' and 'The Moralities'. The Communiloquium was grouped with the earliest of the moralities, of which he examined a dozen manuscripts. Murray paraphrased the chess portion of the work starting,

The world resembles a chess-board which is chequered white and black, the colours showing the two conditions of life and death, or praise and blame. The chessmen are men of the world who have a common birth, occupy different stations and hold different titles in this life, who contend together, and finally have a common fate which levels all ranks. The King often lies under the other pieces in the bag.

Using that paragraph as a start point, you can find the entire passage copied elsewhere on the web. Murray called it 'the Innocent Morality, leaving the question of authorship open'. Of the many variations he examined, some he attributed to Pope Innocent III (1163-1216), others to Johannes Gallensis (John of Waleys). He had much more to say about the work, starting with 'neither authorship can be accepted in the present form'.

A different, later work by Jacobus de Cessolis -- see my related page Chess Bibliography (before 1800) for years -- is the best known of the moralities. There are even more variations in existence than there are of the earlier work.

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