Today I Discovered That Medieval Chess Had A Lot More Characters

King, Queen, Bishop, Knight, Castle/Rook, these pieces all make sense in an ancient game of strategy, right? And then there’s the whole row of pieces that are just… pawns. Yawn. As it turns out, they haven’t always been so homogeneous – in one version of the game they all had their own titles and backstory.

The original basis for what we now know as chess came from an ancient Indian strategy game known as Chaturanga. Based on Indian warfare, the game focused on four types of military units – Ratha or chariots, Gaja or elephants, Ashva or horses, and Bhata, the infantry.

When this game started to be brought to the west, these pieces were localised to make more sense to European players. The Raja became the king, while his attendant minister piece eventually evolved into the queen. The elephants became bishops, the chariots were rooks or towers, and the horses/knights stayed the same.

The infantry pieces saw some bigger changes during parts of the late Middle Ages however, with the monks who adapted the game assigning each piece a commoner’s occupation. As armies in this time were most often made up of local peasantry, it would have made a lot of sense in that society.

The pieces and their placements were very specific – reflecting the clearly defined feudal systems of the time.

The leftmost piece was a gambler or lowlife, with left being considered literally ‘sinister’. Next was the city guardsman, standing in front of the knight as they trained the city guards. The innkeeper stood in front of the left bishop, and the queen’s pawn was known as the doctor. The wealthiest commoner, the merchant, stood in front of the king.

On the right side, a weaver or clerk stood in front of the bishop (someone who they would have worked for in either instance), a blacksmith or groom stood in front of the knight to care for horses or armour, and finally the farmer stood in front of the castle for whom he worked.

One of the main sources for these interesting additional roles was a book called The Game and Playe of the Chess, published in the 1470s – however it’s been long considered to be more of a social commentary than it is a resource on chess, so it makes sense that it would define all the pawn’s roles so closely.

Do you think chess could tempt you more if it still had a richer backstory and more characters? Let us know in the comments!

Today I Discovered is a daily dose of wisdom for Lifehacker readers – the weird, wonderful and sometimes worrying. Most of the time, it’s just mind-blowing. Let us know if you discovered anything that blew your mind in the comments!


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