One of the remarkable things about gaming texts is that they tend to show up in seemingly random places. Whether they are hastily scratched onto the back of some poor parchment wrapper or carefully scripted in a lovely illuminated manuscript, the range of manuscripts in which game texts appear attest to their popularity and variegated audience. But this variation also often means that one must tread to unlikely places to find them (and they sometimes take a scholar on quite a journey as well). One such chess treatise in London, which I had the pleasure of consulting, resides in a very unlikely place: the London College of Arms.
Founded by royal charter in 1484 by King Richard III, the College is one of the few remaining official heraldic authorities in Europe. Most visitors to the College seek knowledge of heraldic arms, genealogies, and pedigrees. As I walked into the building, a seventeenth century wooden paneled room—in pristine condition—greeted me (and, from the images, doesn’t seem to have changed much in the last three hundred years or so) along with a kind secretary.
Everyone else in the room was asking for (or awaiting) information about family records. In order to visit the College as a researcher, a scholar must email them first. They do not hold regular hours for scholars, so research appointments must be set up in advance and the College charges five pounds to access the materials. The College of Arms’ reputation as a hereditary office somewhat masks its extensive archive; it currently holds over seven thousand manuscripts and rolls, and many of them (according to the archivist) have not been studied, catalogued for content, etc. The archivist meets the researcher in the lobby and then leads them up a narrow, winding staircase. As I made my way up the several flights of stairs, I noticed a number of portraits on the walls, many of which dated from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The stairs eventually lead to the top floor—with a low, curved ceiling, exposed wooden beams, and creaky little doors. So this is where they put the scholars, I mused, the attic.
I opened the wooden door to a small, dusty room. Old books and catalogues lined three walls and two windows protruded from the fourth wall facing outside. Only glimmers of light poked through the windowpanes. On the left wall opposite to the door I had entered was another wooden door, in which people sometimes entered only to leave through the other door—a makeshift hallway. An oak table stood in the middle of the room and upon it sat a single medieval roll. I began to unpack my belongings. The archivist1 , a woman in her mid-thirties, carefully began unrolling it as we chatted:
“Medieval chess problems?” she asked inquisitively.
“Yes,” I replied.
She glanced at the wrapper contents, which read ‘Early Saxon Kings to Hardicanute / Chess Problems: dorso.’ “I’m glad someone is looking for something other than genealogies or main content.”
We placed weights onto the roll as we began to scan the membranes, looking for any sign of a chess problem. It struck me that this roll was in a later secretary hand, possibly from the fifteenth century. The chess problems in my journal were clearly marked, “early 14th c.,” which should have been my first clue.
“There should be chessboard illuminations,” I said, “they should be unmistakable.”
We looked and looked, reading through the Anglo-Norman text, but we could not find the problems. “Perhaps these ones were not illuminated,” she wondered. We turned the roll over and began reading down the other side. Still nothing. My heart began to sink. Where were they?
“I’m going to go get the head archivist and see if he knows where they might be,” the archivist noted and left through a door opposite to the door I had entered. I began to inspect the roll closely, making doubly sure that there was nothing in it to indicate ‘gameliness’ of any kind. Scanning the script, I came across a different discovery of sorts. Within the chronology of kings on a separate membrane appeared an entire paragraph on King Arthur and his succession as king. I had heard of such things occurring in twelfth-century chronologies and have read extensively about King Arthur’s insertion into British history—thinking, of course, of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae, Wace’s Brut, and others—but I was even more surprised to find that this particular paragraph had not yet been transcribed, discussed, or recorded (and I suspect that there are many other documents recording King Arthur’s reign alongside royal genealogies and lists of kings on rolls).
As I pondered these questions further, the archivist returned with a much older gentleman; he carried a large green catalogue in his hands. “That’s the wrong manuscript,” he asserted, “someone must have placed the wrong wrapper onto it.” The younger archivists’ brows furrowed.
“The last person that worked on this roll (and who had anything published on it) was Tony Hunt in 1985,” I added.
“Hm. Yes. Someone had two rolls out at once.” He glanced at the archivist, “could you go get Roll 20/25?” She nodded and scurried out of the room again. The head archivist departed through the other door on the left. I waited.
I thought about how this might make for an interesting sit-com scene: a scholar goes to the archives only to be lead on a wild goose chase through various rolls and manuscripts.
After ten minutes, the archivist returned with another roll, which read: ‘History of Kings, from Edward the Confessor to Edward I / Welsh Princes.’ “Hopefully this is the one.”
We rolled it out and, with a huge sigh of relief, immediately identified the fifteen chess problems. The script was identifiably early fourteenth-century and the lovely illuminations of little chessboards shone from the membranes. The archivist took the other roll and left me to work with the chess roll. Harold Murray, who wrote the highly influential tome A History of Chess, did not know of this roll. Hunt had remarked on its location and added a few details of the roll in his edition of ‘Two Anglo-Norman Chess Treatises,’ but only the problems that had any similarities to other existing problems in circulation. The fifteen chess problems have never been analyzed in any detail (I will discuss them in my ‘chess problem’ section of my dissertation). Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this particular chess problem collection is that they are on a roll at all. While most chess problem collections appear in household, academic, and princely books, someone in the early fourteenth century had decided to order it on a roll—since they are on the dorso, they certainly are not the main feature, but their careful illumination and majuscules, which alternate red/blue and green/gold, certainly testify to the importance of chess skill at court. The knowledge of chess follows the knowledge of royal succession and, more generally, clarifies one way in which the world could be ordered.2
But I found more than simply chess problems that day. The path to discovery led me to some wonderful, helpful archivists and to some texts no one might otherwise know existed. Sometimes it pays to receive the ‘wrong’ manuscript in order to find the ‘right’ one!3
- I’m withholding the name for the purposes of this post [↩]
- Numerous chess allegories exist, such as Jacobus de Cessoles’ Liber moribus de hominum…scaccroum, which use the chessboard as a microcosm in which to order society. See Jenny Adams’ book Power Play: The Politics of Chess in the Late Middle Ages (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006). [↩]
- I was unfortunately unable to take any photographs of the roll, by request of the archivists. Instead, a scholar must make an order and when the College has enough orders they bring in a professional photographer. Also, no one can publish an image without approval of the heralds. They hold a monthly meeting in which to discuss the publication of photos and other matters. [↩]