Games Around the World: Mediaeval Spain
Friday, 28th August 2015
The North African games I reviewed two months ago have been so much fun that it's taken me two months to cross the Straits of Gibraltar for this next article in my armchair journey around the world. But I'm finally here in mediaeval Spain, and there's a magnificent array of games to play. In fact there's even a book about them, published in 1283!
It's from this book that much of our information about mediaeval Spanish gaming comes. The Libro de los Juegos ("Book of Games"), commissioned by King Alfonso X, is richly illustrated and covers a lot of games. It shows that old favourites like chess, nine men's morris and various forms of backgammon are popular in Spain at this time. But there are a number of other interesting games in there too.
One game whose origins are mysterious makes its first known appearance in Spain. Alquerque is a forerunner of draughts and many other games. Twenty-four pieces, twelve per player, move around a board to adjacent playing spaces, and capture one another by jumping. Some believe it came from the middle east, and there's a theory that it was present in ancient Egypt. But the ancient Egyptian theory rests on the slenderest of evidence; Spain is its first certain home.
One of the earliest hunt games seems to have come from Spain. Catch the hare is played on the same board as alquerque. One side controls a single piece, the hare, while the other controls twelve hunters. The pieces move around the board with the same rules as alquerque, only the hare being allowed to jump and capture enemies. The hunters win if they trap the hare so it cannot move; the hare wins if it captures enough hunters to make their task impossible. Fox and Geese is virtually the same game, but our first evidence for that comes from the 1460s.
A number of chess variants appear in the Libro de los Juegos. One of the most interesting is Four Seasons Chess, "ajedrex de los quatro tiempos". This is a four-player variant, as the name suggests. The board has the usual 64 squares, but each player takes just half the army from the usual game: a king, a bishop, a knight, a rook and four pawns. Along with the four seasons, the game is also said to symbolise the four ancient elements, and the four bodily humours.
Backgammon, "tablas" in the book, is also given a four-player variant. The board is circular and bears around its circumference the same 24 points, six in each of four "tables". The pieces were moved around the board according to the rolls of three dice, not two, as was usual in mediaeval European backgammon games.
The book of games contains an interesting collection of Astrological games. These are inspired by the seven celestial bodies of mediaeval astronomy and astrology. Escaques, sometimes called "Zodiac" has seven players each controlling one of the celestial bodies in its orbit; the board consists of seven concentric circles each having a different number of spaces. The innermost circle has twelve spaces, the outermost 84, each one between having a multiple of twelve in reference to the signs of the zodiac. More understandable today is a seven player backgammon played on a heptagonal board, each side having seven points on which the pieces are placed. Both of these games are controlled by seven-sided dice, which the Libro de los Juegos has instructions how to make.
Some of the games in the Libro de los Juegos appear to have been invented for the book, not being mentioned in any other source. Alternatively, they may have been played but probably only in the court of Alfonso. The astronomical games are a particular case, being based on Alfonso's own preference for the number seven.
For the next article in this journey I'll be staying in the Mediterranean but travelling east, and somewhat further back in time. Ancient Rome and Greece are important in the history of board games, so I'll be travelling those classical civilisations to observe the games that they were playing.