Chess, as any Nabokovian knows, is a superb metaphor for life. As Marilyn Yalom illustrates in her fascinating new book, Birth of the Chess Queen, the metaphor works the other way as well. Yalom, a senior scholar at Stanford’s Institute for Women and Gender and author of A History of the Wife and A History of the Breast, makes a convincing case that the queen’s prominence reflects the evolution of the female in the Western world. In India, where the game began in the fifth century, there was no female piece, and most versions to be found in Muslim countries still have none.
The chess queen got her first break in 12th-century Spain, replacing the vizier, who represented the king’s chief counselor in Eastern chess (apparently Spaniards noticed who got the most attention when she whispered in the king’s ear). From Spain, the game moved to the South of France, where Eleanor of Aquitaine gave the chess queen her first real-life role model, epitomizing “the trappings of queenship that worked their way into the symbolic system on the chessboard.”
The rise in the chess queen’s power stirred an increased passion for chess in men. Chess became the common man’s form of knightly combat. Men fought for their chess queens as nobles fought for their real-life counterparts. According to English legal documents, in 1251 and 1256 there were at least two “chess homicides” and several other chess-related brawls. The church reacted to the new sexual element in the game with alarm: In 1291 a prior and canon were condemned to bread and water for (as the record has it) “being led astray by an evilly-disposed person . . . who had actually taught them to play chess.”
But the old girl’s power was stronger than the forces of reaction. The Book of Chess, written in the late 12th century, exploded into popularity with the advent of the printing press, and by the mid 15th century, only the Bible was printed in greater numbers. The chess queen reached the zenith of her supremacy on the board in the late 15th century under the powerful Queen Isabella of Spain.
Today in the Western world, according to Yalom, the chess queen “has entered the academy of gendered icons, alongside the Earth Mother, the Amazon, and the Virgin Mary.” Now, if we could just get her onto game boards in the Middle East, a renaissance for women there might be just around the corner.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 20, 2004