Here we have an image of two Templars playing chess in the Middle Ages. It’s a well known and heavily reproduced image on the web. Just one thing vexes me – the Templars were officially forbidden to play the game.
In the Rule, largely devised by Bernard of Clairvaux, it’s quite clear that Templar knights are not to indulge in gaming and chess is specifically off the Templar menu. Bernard was an austere Cistercian monk who hated the daily pleasures of secular folk and anything that distracted holy men from scripture and contemplation of God.
Chess might also have been frowned on as an ‘eastern’ import – originally from India, it seeped in to pre-Islamic Persia and after the Arab/muslim conquest spread throughout the Islamic world which included, at one time, southern Europe. The term ‘chess’ is believed to be a derivation from Shah, the title of a Persian king and used by the rulers of Iran up to the 1979 revolution. Check mate was originally ‘Shah mat’ or ‘the king is helpless’.
By the 1100s, when the Templars come on the scene, the famous ‘Lewis chess’ had been made in Norway and many centuries later discovered by archaeologists on the Scottish Hebrides (originally ruled by Norway) in 1831. There can be little doubt then that the game was well known throughout the Templar period.
Could Templars have played it to improve their battle strategic skills? Well, the 20th century Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky once pointed out (possibly excusing his poor grasp of the game compared to Lenin who loved it) that people who are good at chess are not always good in real battles. There spoke the commander of the Red Army.
But as anybody who plays chess can appreciate, it does alter your way of thinking. It’s a great way of forcing you to look several steps ahead to developments that may not always be immediately visible. So the Templars may have warmed to the game in spite of Bernard’s strict prohibition.
The picture above is from the ‘Libro do los Juegos’ (book of games) published in 1283. That’s over a hundred years after the death of Bernard. It may be that over the passage of time, the attitude towards chess changed within the order.
There’s no doubt the church had its misgivings about chess as it became something of an addiction in courtly circles and games were played for money. But in spite of ecclesiastical grumbling, it was the board game that refused to die. Indeed, the Middle Ages saw the rules refined to create new names for the pieces and faster openings as sometimes games could last days – rather like cricket.
Gajah, the elephant in the original Indian game, became the bishop and Ratha the chariot became the rook.