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A few people expressed interest at solving ‘medieval puzzles of the week,’ so this post is a trial run. Similar to the game puzzles you find in a newspaper, I would post a new premodern game puzzle each week (e.g. chess, nine-man morris, alquerque, recreational math problems, etc) and provide historical, manuscript, and practical information about the problem. On the following week, I would provide the solution to the previous problem before supplying the next puzzle. I thought this may be a fun way to experience various premodern games firsthand. If you guys enjoy this one, please do tell me and I will gauge whether there is enough interest to post more puzzles (since they take awhile to put together!)

I thought we could start with a chess problem since these are one of the most common puzzles found in newspapers. I took this particular problem from two fifteenth-century Middle English problem books, MS Porter (now lost) and Oxford, MS Ashmole 344 (c. 1470). Middle English problems are exceptionally rare; the forty problems found in MS Ashmole 344 are the only Middle English texts in the manuscript—the other four items are in Latin. The composer of this puzzle was interested in end-game, bare king, and introductory problems in order to increase the reader’s skill at playing chess. I shall be writing up a post on the rules of premodern chess soon (specifically, about the the Lombard assize), but this problem does not need any special knowledge to solve: all the pieces move as they would in our modern game.1 Since the composer was focused on illustrating to the reader how to solve the problem, I shall post the manuscript image of the problem next week.

To Solve: The Black King must be mated in the corner (A8) in 5 moves. Red to move first.

Hint: try to keep the Black King cornered.

King

King

Rook

Rook

Knight

Knight

Pawn

Pawn

MS Ashmole 344, Problem 4, fol. 4v

MS Ashmole 344, Problem 4, fol. 4v

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  1. If you need a refresher: Kings can only move one square in any direction; pawns can only move forward and capture diagonally; rooks can move both vertically and laterally the entire length and width of the board (fluidly); and knights move three squares in an “L-shaped” pattern. Kings cannot move into a checkmate. Pawns can be promoted to Fers (Queen)-only. []