The Senses of Early Chess: Songs, Objects, Allegories
2023-2024 (September - December)
Mary Franklin-Brown is Associate Professor of Medieval French and Occitan Studies at the University of Cambridge, where she is a fellow of Christ’s College. She was previously Associate Professor at the Department of French and Italian at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities and has held a fellowship at the Radcliffe Institute of Advanced Study. She has published widely on medieval poetry, learned writing, and manuscripts. Her Reading the World: Encyclopedic Writing of the Scholastic Age (Chicago, 2012) received the Harry Levin Prize from the American Comparative Literature Association. She holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of California, Berkeley and earned her MA and AB from Dartmouth College.
This book project is a new history of the game of chess in its first millennium, ca. 650–1650. The “senses” of its title are construed in several ways. First, the book construes “sense” as meaning and examines the earliest lay poetry from the Christian world to make use of chess as an allegory for the world: the songs of the troubadours of southern France. The troubadours developed allegories of love and war, but they also played on the words of chess and their Arabic derivation, demonstrating a sophisticated awareness of cultural exchange. The book then turns to material culture and the much-neglected role of physical sensation in chess. The experience of touch allows us to understand the choice of materials and forms for chess sets in the Islamic and Christian worlds. The mind’s eye, abstraction, and memory provide a new way to understand how the forms and words for chess pieces developed. This allows us to move beyond historically inadequate accounts based on assumptions about the role of images in early Islam. The final meaning of “sense” is the sense of direction or orientation, and the book closes by sketching a geography of chess according to medieval and early modern perceptions of the world, as represented in texts, maps, painting, and the material culture of lay courts and households. In the chess furniture of Renaissance Italy, stones and techniques derived from other lands mapped the world into the interior of the home.