Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

  • Title: Muslim women playing chess
  • Creator:
  • Description:

    This is an image from the Libro de acedrex, dados e tablas, or Chess, Dice, and Backgammon, written in Castilian and commissioned by Alfonso X between 1251-1282 in Seville. Divided into three parts, chess, dice, and other board games, like backgammon that combine strategy and luck, the book is frequently used in scholarship on medieval studies of leisure and entertainment.

    The book was never copied or distributed. Though little information is available about the book’s scribes, it is thought to have been written by Christians, like Alfonso’s other book, the Cantigas de Santa Maria. As for the illustrations, there appears to be two or three different artists because of the varied styles of the images. The original is at El Escorial Museum in Madrid. This is an image from a facsimile.

    Following an introduction of the text, the first and longest section of the book goes on to describe 103 chess problems and how to solve them. Chess may have been privileged in this book because games of strategy were seen as more suitable for the noble class, rather than games of chance which were associated with gambling. In fact, in Alfonso’s law code, the Siete partidas, clerics were prohibited from partaking in dice and board games. Most of the problems illustrated in the text reflect Arabic chess tradition as similar strategies were used in earlier Arabic manuals. Portions of these problems are also influenced by Christian tradition. There are 20 problems in the book that do not have links to either tradition and may have been invented by the king’s court or Alfonso himself.

    Each of these described problems in the text corresponds to an image that includes the chess board, identifiable chess pieces, and players, providing a visual aid to the reader. The images depict the chess players actively engaged with the game, illustrating gestures, facial expressions, and chess pieces in the hands of the players. Though the book does not have an explicit storyline, props are used and context is created, usually through signs of romance or war. Readers were able to learn new and traditional chess and game strategies to improve their play, and they were encouraged to identify with the diverse subjects represented in the images as the illustrator made it obvious through clothing, language, and color to which religious, gender, and racial groups each subject belonged. Alfonso X defines his standards for playing games and includes Muslim, Jews, Christians, adults, children, men, women, whites, and blacks in this definition, reflective of the king’s multicultural court and his target audience. The book appeals to those who have the means to be leisurely, the aristocracy.

    A quote from the introduction of the book describes its purpose, “… and women who do not ride and are housebound can play them [games]…And therefore, we, Don Alfonso, by the grace of God king of Castile...order to make this book wherein we speak of the way these games are played best, such as chess, dice, and board games.” Learning to play chess was considered an essential aspect of education for noble boys and girls and was a personal passion for Alfonso. Women are referenced in text and image in an attempt to represent a wide variety of possible chess players and to highlight women as optimal candidates because, as the book asserts, they had more time for leisure than their male counterparts.

    The women in this image have been identified as Muslim through their headdresses and clothing. Women in Islamic traditions mostly occupied and exercised power in the private sphere, and this is how we see them pictured here. During their free time in the home, they play chess and music. Golladay has recently argued that the figures are not Muslims but Christian members of the royal court. Namely the woman in the sheer gown is Mayor Guillén de Guzmán, Alfonso’s mistress from his youth, and her opponent is Violante, Alfonso’s wife. Furthermore Golladay has identified the lute player as Beatriz, the illegitimate daughter of Mayor and Alfonso. However, given the many figures of Muslims in the chess scenes it is more likely that the figure of the lute player refers to a class of Muslim courtesans in Spain who skillfully played stringed instruments. The images are colorful as the artist used blue and red for the women’s clothing, the background, and the chessboard, drawing the audience to a place of luxury and leisure where players enjoy the challenges posed by the game of chess.

  • Source: Alphonso X, Book of Games: A Game Researcher's Resource. A website created by MacGregor Historic Games.
  • Rights: Use of images granted for study and research
  • Subject (See Also): Alfonso X, el Sabio, King of Castile Chess Games Muslims Music
  • Geographic Area: Iberia
  • Century: 13
  • Date: 1283
  • Related Work: See 15 images from the Libro de los juegos de ajedrez on the Index of Christian Art website. Note the label Scene, Sports and Games: https://ica.princeton.edu/millet/main.php?country=Spain&site=&view=country&page=8
  • Current Location: Madrid, Escorial Museum, ms.T.l.6, f. 18r
  • Original Location: Iberia
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital Images; Manuscript Illuminations;
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Vellum (parchment); Paint;
  • Donor: Layman ; Alfonso X, King of Castile
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): 40/28 [full page]/
  • Inscription:
  • Related Resources: Constable, Olivia Remie. "Chess and Courtly Culture in Medieval Castile: The Libro de ajedrez of Alfonso X, el Sabio." Speculum 82, 2 (2007): 301-347;
    Fajardo-Acosta, Fidel. "The King is Dead, Long Live the Game: Alfonso X, el Sabio, and the Libro de açedrex, dados e tablas," eHumanista 31 (2015): 489-523;
    Golladay, Sonja Musser. Los libros de Acedrex, dados e tablas: Historical, Artistic and Metaphysical Dimensions of Alfonso X's Book of Games. Ph.D. dissertation. University of Arizona, 2007;
    Wollesen, Jens T. "Sub specie ludi... : Text and Images in Alfonso El Sabio's Libro de acedrex, dados e tablas." Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte 53 (1990): 277-308.