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 – Read More –
Last Saturday, May 4th, marked the 5th annual World Labyrinth Day. People from all over the world walked labyrinths together in celebration of this cultural construction, “Walk[ing] as One at 1”.1 Labyrinths have existed for over 4000 years across multiple cultures and settings, including classical, Roman, medieval, and contemporary. Today, the medieval labyrinth has endured as one of the most popular styles of labyrinth construction. In one manuscript I studied a few weeks ago, I came across a labyrinth image among a collection of other game problems.
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.
Chess problems have been around for about as long as the game itself. Murray documents over three hundred chess problems (or, Shatranj problems) in various Persian and Islamic manuscripts dating from the sixth century.
The beauty of the game lies not only in its material properties—such as golden chessmen or ornately jeweled gaming boards—but also in the game’s complexity. With over 10^120 possible chess game variations, the game’s elegance also lies in its logic, geometry, and computation. For chess problems, the most aesthetic are also sometimes the most deceptive: a simple-looking problem can prove to be the most difficult, as in the case of Richard Réti’s famous end-game problem first published in 1921:
Sometimes called “The Hunt of Two Hares,” this problem presents a chase scenario, where a king can make multiple threats and move in a variety of ways.1
- This problem has been published numerous times in problem book and is, arguably, the most famous chess problem. [↩]