The Game and Playe of the Chesse: Introduction


1 For an extended discussion of Caxton and his use of the Liber, see Adams, Power Play. Much of this introduction has been framed by my work in that volume.

2 Such diagrams, more commonly known as chess problems, were popular in the Middle Ages, as they are today.

3 In this story, popular throughout the Middle Ages, Lucretia kills herself to preserve her honor after she is raped by Emperor Tarquin’s son, also named Tarquin. Her act inspires a man named Brutus to kill the younger Tarquin and to chase the emperor from the throne. See, e.g., Gower, Confessio Amantis 7.4593–5123, and Chaucer, Legend of Good Women 1680–1885.

4 Although most of the rules of chess have remained static since its entrance into Europe in the tenth century, there are several exceptions. Most notably, the medieval queen could move only along a diagonal line for a limited number of squares. This number differed throughout Europe. In some places she could move only one adjacent diagonal square. In other places her first move could be a three-square diagonal leap. Bishops, although moving diagonally like their modern counterparts, could in some places move only three squares at a time. The lack of universal rules was addressed in the Lombard universities, and lawyers there ultimately dictated that games should be played according to the customs of the country in which they took place (Murray, History of Chess, p. 456). For a complete explanation of the various medieval rules, see Murray, pp. 452–85.

5 John of Salisbury, Policraticus, ed. and trans. Nederman, p. 66.

6 John of Salisbury, Policraticus, ed. and trans. Nederman, pp. 66 and 67.

7 Some writers positioned the monarch as the heart of the kingdom, although in these cases the heart, in keeping with medieval custom, contained the attributes we normally assign to the head or brain.

8 Thanks to an allusion to a statue of Frederick II on a marble gate at Capua, we can be fairly sure that the Liber was not composed before 1240, the year that Frederick had the statue erected. Nor could it have been written much later than 1320. In a University of Chicago master’s thesis, Judith Kolata notes that “Jean-Thiébaut Welter suggests that Cessolis must have written his sermons before 1325 because he speaks favorably of tournaments which were specifically prohibited that year by Pope John XXII’s Extravagantes” (Welter, L’Exemplum dans la littérature religiuese et didactique du Moyen Age [Paris: Occitania, 1927], p. 351, cited by Kolata, “Livre des Echecs Moralisés,” p. 5). Burt notes that the earliest extant metrical translations of the text appeared in German in the 1320s and 1330s, which include the undated Das Schachgedichte, Das Schachbuch des Pfarrers zu dem Hechte, and Kunrats von Ammenhausen’s Schachzabelbuch (Jacobus de Cessolis, Libellus, ed. Burt, pp. xxx–xxxi). These suggest that Latin versions of the treatise were in circulation well before this time.

9 Kaeppeli, “Pour la biographie de Jacques de Cessole,” pp. 149–50. As Kaeppeli observes, earlier scholars placed Cessolis in France, specifically at the convent of Rheims, an idea that he traces to a catalogue of Dominican writers composed in the mid-thirteenth century by a certain Laurent Pignon, who lists “Fr. Ioannes de Teryace, de conventu Remensi” as the author of “moralitates super ludum scacorum.” For more on Jacobus see Murray, History of Chess, pp. 537–38.

10 Epstein, Genoa and the Genoese, p. 149.

11 Epstein, Genoa and the Genoese, p. 149.

12 Most modern scholars believe that Caxton did not know the duke of Clarence and used his name only as a means to sell his book.

13 Axon, Caxton’s Game and Playe of the Chesse, 1474, p. 2.

14 Medieval writers in general saw Jacobus’ text as malleable. Two fourteenth-century French translators of the work, Jean de Ferron and Jean de Vignay, follow the text faithfully, retain most of its parts, and address their translations to noble patrons. Yet in the fifteenth century, Guillaume de Saint André produced a 1,200-line French metrical version in which he omits most of the moral stories and moves the rules found in the Liber’s fourth book to the front. Such changes strip the work of any viable claim to the speculum tradition, turning it effectively into a book about chess. German poets had an even greater tendency than their French counterparts to redact Jacobus’ text and transform it into verse. At least four different metrical versions appeared in Germany in the fourteenth century, and most of them considerably abbreviate the Liber’s scope. Nor was translation the only means used to reconfigure the original text. The anonymous author of the fourteenth-century Les Echecs amoureux frequently references the Liber’s symbolic system yet uses his poem to recast the chess pieces as the qualities and emotions of the two lovers who play the game. For more on the other translations of the Liber, see Murray, History of Chess, pp. 546–48. For a more complete discussion of Les Echecs amoureux, see Adams, Power Play, pp. 57–94.

15 Details of Caxton’s life before he began his career as a printer can be found in Blades, Life and Typography of William Caxton, 1:1–32; Blake, Caxton and His World, pp. 13–45; Painter, William Caxton, pp. 1–42; and Gill, “William Caxton and the Rebellion of 1483.” The subsequent historical information has been taken primarily from Gill and Blake.

16 A staple was a town or region in which a body of merchants had the exclusive right of purchase of certain goods for export. From 1390 to 1558, the Staple at Calais was the chief staple and was also known as The Staple.

17 Russell Rutter has argued that “the sustenance Caxton received from patrons was by comparison [to authors of manuscripts] thin and inconsequential” (“William Caxton and Literary Patronage,” p. 444). Yet later in this same article Rutter argues that the printer did rely on patronage in the early parts of his career, and that it was only “once Caxton [had] begun to reach a larger public” that “patrons became less important to him” (p. 463).

18 Caxton, Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye, 1:5.

19 Describing Caxton’s shop in Westminster, Blake refers to Caxton’s patrons as “the nobility . . . litigants, professional men and merchants” (Caxton and His World, p. 80).

20 Blake, Caxton and His World, pp. 86–87.

21 Blake, Caxton and His World, pp. 86–87.

22 While the principal figures included such high-placed people as Elizabeth Woodville and Henry Tudor, this rebellion was primarily a mutiny of Edward IV’s household nobles, and it failed (Gill, “William Caxton and the Rebellion of 1483,” p. 112).

23 Rutter, “William Caxton and Literary Patronage,” p. 463.

24 Caton, a translation of a French prose text of the writings of the classical author Cato, is not the same work as Benedict Burgh’s Cato, a poem that Caxton printed three times.

25 Blake, Caxton and His World, p. 92. Noting that “the book was designed to improve the morals of merchants rather than to amuse the nobility,” Blake goes on to argue that Caxton “had previously printed books for the merchant market without stating his allegiance to the merchant community” and thus reads the change as an attempt by the printer to distance himself from the Woodvilles.

26 Blake argues that Caxton’s French manuscript copy most likely did not contain a prologue, thus forcing Caxton to return to the Recuyell for a model. As in the Recuyell he uses this space to launch into “a rather extravagant praise of [his patron] which is expressed in laudatory platitudes” (“Continuity and Change,” pp. 75 and 76). In the introduction to his reprint, Axon posits that Caxton borrowed from Jean de Vignay’s preface, in which the writer dedicates his French translation to Prince John of France. The parallels between Jean’s preface and Caxton’s prologue are striking. Yet it is not clear that Caxton had access to one of Jean de Vignay’s manuscripts for his translation. It is also worthwhile to note that Jean de Ferron’s translation of the Liber is prefaced by remarks that resemble Caxton’s 1483 prologue.

27 Gerald L. Harriss has shown that the emergence of a political society in which all ranks “came to be involved in the activity of governing” grew out of economic, social, and political changes that took place from the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries, and that the changes in political order and descriptions thereof did not take place as a singular, rapid occurrence (“Political Society,” p. 33).

28 For a reference to this moment as one of communism, see Wilson, “Caxton’s Chess Book,” p. 97. For the idea that Caxton promotes “egalitarianism,” see Poole, “False Play,” p. 53. Poole’s idea that Caxton is responding to feudalism ignores the generally capitalist nature of late fifteenth-century London.

29 Notably, this passage does not appear in the chapter about the judges but in the one dedicated to the blacksmiths.

30 For a longer discussion of the historical incident that may have provoked Caxton’s remarks, see the Explanatory Notes on this section of the Game and Playe, Book 3, chapter 2 (p. 132 n. 238–39).

31 A scriptural mention of Evilmerodach appears in 2 Kings 25:27 “And in the thirty-seventh year of the exile of Jehoiachin king of Judah, in the twelfth month, on the twenty-seventh day of the month, Evil-merodach king of Babylon, in the year that he began to reign graciously freed Jehoiachin king of Judah from prison.” D. J. Wiseman describes Evilmerodach (Am?l-Marduk) as the son of Nebuchadnezzar, who took over his father’s throne in 562 (Nebuchadnezzar and Babylon, p. 9). Wiseman adds that Am?l-Marduk’s “reign was marred by intrigues, some possibly directed against his father.” The historical Nebuchadnezzar was famous for his immense building in the city.

32 In her study of early book illustration, Martha W. Driver remarks: “When we look at book illustration in particular, the movement from manuscript to print can be traced as a political act, with the print medium empowering newly literate readers, both women and men, to read and think for themselves” (Image in Print, p. 3).

33 Jacobus initially refers to Philometer as “Xerxes” but then reverts to his “Greek” name for most of the rest of the Liber. This historical Xerxes was the king of Persia and the son of Darius of Persia. In Book 7 of his Histories Herodotus describes Xerxes’ attacks on Egypt and Greece.

34 Although it is tempting to identify the piece in Philometer’s hand as the chess king, it is most likely the rook. Not only does the board feature a rook identical to the piece he holds, but earlier diagrams such as Alfonso el Sabio’s Libros del axedrez, dados et tablas depict the rook with a roughly similar shape.

35 N. F. Blake claims that it is not possible to know “how many copies of any first edition were printed,” yet also adds that “we must assume that he thought they would be sufficient to satisfy the expected demand” (Caxton: England’s First Publisher, p. 184). It is thus significant that of the many translations Caxton printed, he reprinted only four: Dictes or Sayengis of the Philosophres (reprinted twice), the Game and Playe of the Chesse, Mirrour of the World, and the Historye of Reynard the Foxe.

36 Wilson, “Caxton’s Chess Book,” p. 96.

37 Knowles, “Caxton and His Two French Sources,” p. 423. Knowles also observes that Caxton “seems to have made very careful and detailed use of the Latin [text]” (p. 420). N. F. Blake notes that the Game and Playe also resembles MSS fr. 2146 and 2471, both housed at the Bibliothèque nationale de France (William Caxton: A Bibliographical Guide, p. 31).

38 The Regenstein manuscript is missing leaves between 7v and 8r (the end of Book 2, chapter 3, through the first part of Book 2, chapter 4), and between 28v and 29r (the end of Book 3, chapter 6, through the first part of Book 3, chapter 7).

39 A list of extant copies follows this introduction.

40 Lisa Cooper has offered an enticing analysis of one particular change that Caxton made between the two editions. Of the 1483 version she notes that the artisans declare that “it is not [rather than most] necessary to studye for the comyn prouffit.” As she points out, the artisans in this instance suddenly “serve as arrogant and ignorant foils, beside which the judges appear serenely wise and virtuous workers for the common good.” She adds: “Although we find it in a passage about judges rather than kings, the irreconcilable difference here between Caxton’s two editions of the Game and Playe neatly captures not only the paradoxical position artisans hold in this one text, but also the position they most often hold in every mirror for a prince in which they are found.” I am extremely grateful to Cooper for sharing a draft of her forthcoming work on artisans, authors, and the literary artifact in late medieval England. My quotes are from that work. For a more complete analysis of orthographic changes that Caxton has made to his text, see Mizobata, “Caxton’s Revisions.”

41 This lack of attention paid to editing the Game and Playe mirrors a more general scholarly disinterest in analyzing the text on its own merits or considering it in the context of Caxton’s other publications. Indeed, only a handful of articles have addressed this work as a text in its own right. See the Bibliography.

42 For facsimiles of the 1483 text, see N. F. Blake and Vincent Figgins. It should be noted that Figgins’ “facsimile” does not reproduce the original text exactly but rather in a print type that imitates Caxton’s own. For a transcription of the 1474 edition, see Axon’s Caxton’s Game and Playe of the Chesse, 1474. Axon’s transcription is also accessible online through the Project Gutenberg at (accessed on 11/2/06).

43 Mizobata concludes that unlike the Mirror of the World and Reynard, texts whose second editions were inferior to the first, the 1483 edition of the Game of Chess represents a significant improvement in quality (“Caxton’s Revisions,” p. 262).

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The Game and Playe of the Chesse: Introduction

Despite its title, Caxton’s The Game and Playe of the Chesse does not, in fact, have much to say about a game or about playing it. First printed in 1474, then reprinted in 1483 with woodcuts added, it is instead a translation of Jacobus de Cessolis’ thirteenth-century political treatise, the Liber de moribus hominum et officiis nobilium ac popularium super ludo scachorum (The Book of the Morals of Men and the Duties of Nobles and Commoners, on the Game of Chess).1 Neither the Liber nor Caxton’s translation contains any diagrams of boards set up for play, nor does the text itself suggest any advice for a player’s improvement.2 Instead, the work uses the chessboard and its pieces to allegorize a political community whose citizens contribute to the common good. Readers first meet the king, queen, bishops (imagined as judges), knights, and rooks, here depicted as the king’s emissaries. They are then introduced in succession to the eight different pawns, who represent trades that range from farmers to messengers, and include innkeepers, moneychangers, doctors, notaries, blacksmiths, and several other professional artisans and tradesmen. Paired with each profession is a list of moral codes. The pawn who represents the moneychanger, for example, handles gold, silver, and valuable possessions, and thus “ought to flee avarice and covetyse, and eschewe brekyng of the dayes of payment” (3.600–601). The knights, entrusted with the safety of the realm, must be “wyse, lyberalle, trewe, strong, and ful of mercy and pyté” (2.448–49). The queen, charged with giving birth to the community’s future ruler, should take care to be “chaste, wyse, of honest lyf, wel manerd” (2.136). And so on. These pairings reinforce the idea of a kingdom organized around professional ties and associations, ties that are in turn regulated by moral law, rather than around kinship.

Fleshing out what would otherwise be a dry list of moral qualities are exempla, short stories highlighting the advantages attendant on those professional workers who follow their moral law, and sententiae, maxims usually derived from classical sources. For instance, illustrating the importance of chastity among a community’s doctors is the story of the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates, whose students pay a prostitute to seduce him. The prostitute uses all her wiles, even going so far as to lie next to him all night, but he remains immune to her charms and thus retains his good name. In the chapter on the queen we find the tale of Roman noblewoman Lucretia, whose suicide provides a model for women on the importance of their chastity.3 And the rewards of integrity among moneychangers are made clear in the narrative of Albert, an honest Genoese merchant cheated out of a large sum of gold by a swindler, who invests the money, makes a fortune, and then bequeaths it to the ever-honest merchant. As the subsequent proverb states, “hit is fraude to take that thou wylt not ner mayst [not] rendre and paye agayn” (3.694–95). (Although one might question the moral clarity of a story that never overtly punishes the swindler, this tale does indeed support that notion that upstanding moneylenders will be rewarded.)

Stories like these comprise the bulk of the treatise, and only in the final chapter do readers learn the rules of the playe, rules that were and remain largely unchanged since chess entered Europe in the tenth century.4 Yet even here the Game and Playe inscribes the board’s structure and the moves of the pieces within its larger moral lessons. Thus the king has limited movement on the board because he “holdeth the dygnyté above alle other and the seignorye royall. . . . For whan he wyl meve hym, he ought not to passe at the first draught the nombre of three poyntes” (4.130–34). And the queen, who under medieval rules advanced diagonally like the bishop, does so because she should “have parfyt wysedom as the alphyns [bishops] have, whiche ben juges, as hit sayd above in the chappytre of the quene” (4.217–18). Even the layout of the pieces has social and moral significance: for “what may the knyght do yf he ne had tofore hym the smyth for to forge his armours, sadellys, axys, and speres, and suche thynges as aperteyneth to hym? And what is a knyght worth wythout hors and armes?” (4.46–49). Thus while many medieval readers might (and did!) find this text compelling, a serious chess player would have little use for Caxton’s translation.

So what, then, was the value of the Game and Playe, or for that matter of the Liber itself to its non-chess-playing audience? Or, rephrasing this slightly, if the Game and Playe is not about playing a game, what exactly is it about?

Most scholars would describe the work as a speculum regis, or a mirror for a prince. A standard genre throughout Middle Ages, such specula reached an apex of popularity in the second half of the thirteenth century, a time when dozens of advice books appeared across Europe. Most were written under the pretext of offering counsel to the reigning ruler or to another well-placed member of the nobility. Yet in reality many specula also served as a forum for thinking about the nature and organization of government itself, and it is in this more philosophical mode that such works could become more daring. Giles of Rome’s thirteenth-century De regimine principum [On the Government of Princes] is perhaps the best known (at least among medievalists) example of this genre, and it embodies this duality. On the one hand, this work endorses the primacy of the royal body over all others in the realm, and the author, quite conservatively, addresses himself to this reader above all others. On the other hand, in the body of his treatise Giles encourages all citizens to read the text, a proposition that challenges the very nature of the speculum genre itself. Always his descriptions of moral self-governance emphasize royal restraint rather than royal prerogative.

Although writers varied in the powers they attributed to the king, almost all relied on the metaphor of the human body, a comparison that emphasized the naturalness of a community’s hierarchical ordering and helped explain the elevation of some of its parts over others. Just as in a physical body, a foot could not wake up one day and be a stomach, so in a civic body an illiterate farmer was expected to spend his life working the land; he could not abruptly decide to become a tax collector. This image of the state as a naturally occurring and physiologically functioning unit owed much of its popularity to John of Salisbury, whose twelfth-century Policraticus describes the state as “a sort of body which is animated by the grant of divine reward and which is driven by the command of the highest equity and ruled by a sort of rational management.”5 The position of the head is occupied by the king; the ears, eyes, and mouth by the governors; the hands by the officials and soldiers; the flanks by the king’s assistants; the stomach by the treasurers and record keepers; and the feet by the peasants, who are bound to the land.6 These different versions of the allegory assigned different powers and virtues to the ideal monarch, yet all placed the monarch in the center as the heart or head of the kingdom.7

One of the few works to offer an alternative allegory of the political state was Jacobus’ Liber, which appeared soon after Giles of Rome’s De regimine.8 Whereas a state-as-body model, such as that imagined by Giles and his contemporaries, saw its members bound by organic ties, Jacobus’ chess allegory conceives of individuals as contractually connected. In the Liber each piece corresponds to a specific professional identity, with all pieces being interdependent; just as the knight needs the blacksmith, represented by the pawn before his square, so farmers depend for protection on the knights, who are found on an adjacent square.

In envisioning a social order as a game governed by rules rather than as a physical, organic body, the Liber did not offer the promise of complete independence for the various members of a civic community. After all, everyone still had to follow the rules. But in breaking with the state-as-body model, the chess allegory imagined a more diverse social order organized primarily around associational and professional ties. Rather than having actions dictated by the “head” of the state, members of a civic community, including the king, would follow moral codes particularized to their own social stations. And while it is impossible to read this allegory as a reflection of a viable social order, it is notable that Genoa, the city in which Jacobus most likely lived while writing his treatise, was by the late thirteenth century governed by a much larger and diverse group of people than had been the case in the several centuries previous.9 An illustration of this political shift can be seen in Genoa’s reconfirmation, in 1257, of its trade pact with Sicily, a document signed by the podestà, or hired manager of the city, the parlamento, or parliament, the anziani, a council of elders, and the consuls of the craft guilds. As Steven A. Epstein notes, “no previous official act of the commune had included the guilds or their leaders as institutions or people having any say in the affairs of government.”10 Similarly, at the end of the Treaty of Nyphaeum, a trade agreement made with the Byzantines in 1261, a variety of Genoese representatives swore to uphold the accord, each signing his name and listing his trade. This diverse list included an innkeeper, a spicer, a draper, a dyer, a butcher, a barber, a cutler, and a smith, a list remarkably similar to the trades that Jacobus assigns to the Liber’s eight pawns.11

When, in the late fifteenth century, Caxton decided to translate and print the Liber, he capitalized on the text’s broad scope and depiction of a diverse body politic. While his translation remains faithful to the original work, he uses his two prologues to frame Game and Playe as a text more concerned with the moral instruction of an entire community than with that of a single ruler. In the 1474 prologue, Caxton dedicates the work to his purported patron George, duke of Clarence, for whom he claims to have translated the book.12 Clarence held the title of neither king nor prince, although he was one of the king’s brothers. Several years later he would be executed for treason. Yet in this same prologue Caxton upends the text’s speculum regis aspects by alluding to a readership far beyond that of a single ruler. He has, or so he claims, translated this book of “the auctorites, dictees, and stories of auncient doctours, philosophes, poetes,” so that they may be “recounted and applied unto the moralité of the publique wele as well of the nobles as of the comyn peple.”13 Here, the Game and Playe becomes more of a mirror of a political body, a speculum corpora politica, than a speculum regis.14

In the 1483 prologue Caxton draws even more attention to the text’s potential for widespread application. “Wherfore bycause thys sayd book is ful of holsom wysedom and requysyte unto every astate and degree,” he writes, “I have purposed to enprynte it, shewyng therin the figures of suche persons as longen to the playe, in whom al astates and degrees ben comprysed” (Pref.18–21). Presumably Caxton has little difficulty imagining a readership as diverse as the allegory itself. If this description of the text’s scope is sweeping, so too is Caxton’s entreaty to all those who read, or who hear the book read to them, to follow the precepts appropriate to their social role.

Caxton’s own role as a fifteenth-century businessman, one with ties to the noble class, was a product of the same redistribution of political and social capital imagined in the Game and Playe. Before becoming a printer, Caxton had worked as a mercer, or merchant, with a trading circuit that kept him traveling between the Low Countries, the French seaport of Calais, and London.15 By the mid-1450s, Caxton had become one of England’s main importers of luxury goods, including cloth, silk, fur, and saffron, and his success as a merchant and financier provided entrée into powerful circles. Although no one has established the year Caxton began to serve as an envoy for the Crown, a 1458 charter referring to him as a person “of the Staple at Calais” provides the first record of this type of service, and other historical documents point to his ever-expanding role as a diplomat.16 By 1462, Edward IV had appointed him governor of the English Nation at Bruges, and in this role he functioned on several occasions as the king’s representative for trade negotiations with the dukes of Burgundy and the Hanseatic League, an alliance of German and Scandinavian trading groups that formed a monopoly in the Baltic region.

When Caxton, who was at this point most likely based in Bruges, turned to printing in the early 1470s, he was embedded in a matrix of commercial and political power, and his social position stood him in good stead. Although at least one scholar has recently downplayed his reliance on patronage and connections, there is no doubt that the young printer capitalized in the early stages of his business on regular trading allies and on royal support.17 Caxton himself writes in his prologue to his first book, the Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye, that his translation was partially funded by the king’s sister, Margaret of York, who gave Caxton a “yerly fee and other many goode and grete benefetes.”18 Caxton does not always provide accurate information about his channels of commercial and social support. As mentioned above, he dedicated the first edition of the Game and Playe to the king’s brother, a man he had most likely never met, and this attribution suggests a tie between the two men that in reality probably never existed. Yet even if this particular attempt at forging a connection failed, it nonetheless bespeaks Caxton’s attempts to promote himself as a printer who catered to royal tastes, who produced his texts for a courtly audience, and who endorsed the traditional authority of a patron over a producer, which in the case of Caxton functions as an extension of royal authority over lay power. Not just anyone bought Caxton’s books; members of the king’s household were his clients. Or at least this is the impression Caxton strives to create in his prologues and prefaces, which he uses to position his patrons as literary and political authorities.19

When Caxton returned to England, he continued to cultivate his connections to the royal household and the court, and continued to use their names in his prologues and epilogues, evidence that he needed or at least wanted such endorsements to publish his books. His most powerful patrons were members of the Woodville family, and foremost among them was Earl Rivers, for whom Caxton printed Rivers’ own translations of Christine de Pizan’s Moral Proverbs (1478) and Cordial (1479), the latter of which Caxton had printed earlier in French while still in Bruges.20 For Elizabeth Woodville, wife of King Edward IV, Caxton translated and printed Jason, a continuation of the Troy story, which he presented to her son, the Prince of Wales, in 1477.21

In April of 1483, however, Edward IV died, thus initiating a shift in political power that would in turn have implications for Caxton’s printing business and, by extension, for the ways he set about crafting his prologues. In June, after a struggle with the Woodvilles, Edward’s brother Richard, duke of Gloucester, claimed the throne. Southern England never acknowledged King Richard III’s legitimacy, and various dissidents planned a series of rebellions for October.22 Rutter has surmised that Caxton’s decrease of dedications around this time offers evidence of his increased independence from patrons.23 Blake, observing the same phenomenon, has argued that the change was one of political necessity and sees Caton, which was finished in December of 1483, as Caxton’s attempt to change his approach to patronage.24 “Up till now,” Blake writes, “books had been produced without dedication or under the patronage of a nobleman. . . . Caton marks a break with the past for it is dedicated to the City of London. Not only did he dedicate it to London, but he stated his own allegiance to that city in no uncertain way; the prologue opens: ‘I, William Caxton, cytezeyn & coniurye of the same [i.e., liveryman of London], & of the fraternyte & felauship of the Mercerye.’”25 Rather than continue to foreground his affiliations with the nobility, as this argument goes, Caxton now addressed his fellow merchants and effectively severed his allegiance with the Woodville camp. While Caxton would continue to produce texts for the Woodvilles, and while the Woodvilles themselves would eventually return to power, the printer never again readopted the same glowing and florid style characteristic of his early prologues.

It is likely that Caxton’s embracing of the merchant class represented a prudent business decision. But his writings also seem to be reacting to this changing landscape of royal power, which formed the backdrop for his mercantile activities. As noted above, his two editions of the Game and Playe ultimately reflect a continuation of the complex discourses that had surrounded fifteenth-century political organization. His dedication of the 1474 Game and Playe to Clarence and his prologue to this printing help him to present the text as a speculum regis, and this textual frame in turn gestures overtly to royal authority even as it simultaneously claims a larger audience.26 His 1483 prologue, however, directs the work to all people, thus emphasizing the increasing importance of all classes and professions as arbiters of power at the expense of monarchial authority.

The changes Caxton made to his prologue might imply either a radical reformulation of political power or a sudden shift of sentiment on the part of Caxton or on the part of his readers, or even a more general change that affected both the printer and his audience. Such a reading, however, would be misleading at a time when there were many different models of royal authority available and in circulation, and when monarchial control was still strong.27 While the death of his dedicatee furnished a reason to rewrite the volume’s prefatory matter, Caxton’s decision to direct his 1483 prologue to all men rather than toward a specific person poses a challenge to received order by suggesting that a stable realm requires virtue on the part of all citizens, not simply on the part of a king. Or put another way, by emphasizing the need for all men to act virtuously, Caxton, like Jacobus, recognizes that a community consists of multiple nodes of power, and he foregrounds this fact in his prologue.

In the body of his translation Caxton makes even stronger suggestions about the importance of individual morality and of a shared responsibility for the common good. In a passage absent from Latin versions of the Liber and its French translations, and apparently original to Caxton himself, the printer includes a passage about communal property, which, as he sees it, is the form of life most acceptable to God:
And also, it is to be supposid that suche as have theyr goodes comune and not propre is most acceptable to God. For ellis wold not thyse religyous men as monkes, freres, chanons, observauntes, and al other avowe hem and kepe the wylful poverté that they ben professyd to? For in trouth I have myself ben conversaunt in a religious hows of Whyt Freres at Gaunt, whiche have al thyng in comyn among them, and not one richer than another, insomoche that yf a man gaf to a frere three pence or four pence to praye for hym in his masse, as sone as the masse is don, he delyveryeth hit to his overest or procuratour, in whiche hows ben many vertuous and devout freris. And yf that lyf were not the best and the most holyest, Holy Chirche wold never suffre hit in religyon. (3.238–47)
Seeing this addition as an indication of Caxton’s “communism” or as “an anti-clerical tirade of his own invention in which he praises egalitarianism as a better social arrangement than feudalism” is to push past reasonable interpretive limits, especially given the printer’s own success as a businessman.28 The White Friars that Caxton has met do not avoid profit; they sell their prayers and share the take. And it is not that they are not rich, but rather that there is “not one richer than another.”29 Nevertheless, Caxton’s praise of common belongings gestures toward a fantasy of communal responsibility just as it acknowledges a more general dispersal of power already present. That private property forms a locus of concern means that property owners had some degree of economic and political power, and thus Caxton has good reason to address “the moralité of the publique wele as well of the nobles as of the comyn peple.”30

In the second printing of the Game and Playe, a series of woodcuts, made especially for this text, further emphasizes the work’s endorsement of associative political order, and they move the reader from the image of a literally fragmented king to a ruler who has mastered his role within the kingdom. In the first image, a decapitated body offers a striking commentary on royal authority. The king, reduced to a crowned head with closed eyes, lies on the ground in front of a chopping block as his executioner looks on. Four carrion birds swarm within the frame, each holding a body part it has seized from the corpse. In the text, this king is Nebuchadnezzar, a ruler in Babylon who, as the text explains, is killed by his despotic son, Evilmerodach.31 One would be hard-pressed to make any claims about the identity of the king, nor does the picture match the narrative of Richard III’s rise to power, which took place after his brother Edward IV had died of natural causes. Nevertheless, this representation of regicide would have had strong cultural reverberations in the context of Richard’s assumption of the throne, an act that resulted in the execution of several people with royal connections, including Edward IV’s two sons, who disappeared into the Tower never to be seen again. Even if the picture does not offer a specific reprimand of Richard’s actions, it presents a graphic reminder of the destructibility of the royal body.32

At the same time, the subsequent woodcuts, like the chapters they introduce, do not wholly condemn such destruction. Although never sanctioning regicide, the image series positions this act as the fulcrum for the game’s creation, which subsequently refashions the king’s relationship both to his own body and to the body of the state. In the second woodcut we see Philometer, a philosopher who lives in Babylon, the kingdom depicted in the Liber.33 Here the chaos and disorder of the swirling birds has given way to this single figure, who sits calmly in a room carefully studying the chessboard in front of him. The picture’s symmetrical design and the frame around the image, which features thick pillars on both sides, highlight the logic and reason of his pastime and reinforce the idea of stability and permanence. By matching the checkered pattern of the floor with the checkered pattern of the board, the illustrator reminds us that the game should model real life.

In the third woodcut Philometer and Evilmerodach sit at a chessboard. Again, the board is located in a room and framed by pillars, although in this picture the differences between the two players disrupt the symmetry of the image. The king sits on a throne to the left, while the philosopher sits on the board’s right, perched, it seems, on an invisible stool. The king’s throne, crown, and fur-lined robe help us to identify him and also confer on him his political power. Yet the limits of his power are emphasized by Philometer, who holds a piece and shows the king the proper rules of play. Positioned to the right side of the board, the side that connotes his moral and intellectual authority, the philosopher prepares to explain to Evilmerodach the king’s position on the board and the ways the game represents the king’s relationship to the other subjects in his realm.34 The picture offers a blunt reminder that the king derives much of his power from his counselors, who represent him in his kingdom.

In the fourth woodcut we finally see the king alone. Once again, sturdy pillars frame the image, and an arch with two windows reinforces the scene’s symmetry. The king sits on the throne facing the reader yet with his eyes closed, and he holds an apple of gold and a scepter. According to the text that follows, the apple indicates the king’s ability to think about the administration of justice while the scepter represents the ruler’s ability to punish any rebels.

In sum, these first four woodcuts thus move from an image of a king’s fragmented body to a picture of a king intact. Between the two lies the process of reconstitution, namely, the creation of the chess game, which allows Philometer to reconceive of the king’s body as one among many. “The kynge must be thus maad,” explains the first sentence in the chapter, the verb “make” reminding the reader that the king’s body as a manufactured entity over which the writer and illustrator have control. The piece itself is portrayed as a composite of the kings from the first two woodcuts; his robe, his smooth face, and his throne match those of Evilmerodach, while his closed eyes recall Nebuchadnezzar’s corpse. The fifth woodcut, which shows the king seated next to the queen, pushes this point even further by adding a beard to the king’s face while at the same time carrying over the scepter from the previous drawing. Although the beard can be taken as a sign of the king’s maturity and readiness to marry, a contrast with his unshaved and youthful face in the previous woodcut, it also firmly links the picture back to the initial image of Nebuchadnezzar’s decapitated head.

By showing the destruction and subsequent rebuilding of the king’s body, Caxton offers a graphic reminder of the limits of monarchial authority. The royal body’s transience, so graphically illustrated by the dismemberment depicted in the first image, enables the refashioning of the civic body in the form of a chess game. This new metaphor for social order reimagines the king as a member of the kingdom; the realm is no longer a reflection of royal will but rather a complicated matrix of different affiliations in which the king is one piece among many. The importance of all the pieces is made manifest by the woodcuts that follow, each of which illustrates a different piece/profession and emphasizes its contributions to the community as a whole. Just as the farmer’s plow represents his identity as the provider of food for the kingdom, so too do the king’s apple and scepter symbolize his job. As the manager of the realm, he has a responsibility to dispense justice. And if he fails to do his job correctly, he can be held accountable by the people he governs. The chess king, already a composite of both Evilmerodach and Nebuchadnezzar, is representative of all kings, including the one currently occupying the English throne.

The volume’s appearance in 1483, the same year that Richard III seized the throne, thus reflects the complex state of royal authority and shifting political climate.35 Again, this is not to say that Caxton had a sudden change of heart about rule by monarch. But his two prologues to the Game and Playe, his story of London’s White Friars, and his woodcuts all reflect an ambivalent attitude about governmental power, an ambivalence reflected in the instability of the politics and of the sociopolitical and literary discourse of the time. In a country torn apart by the Wars of the Roses and still recovering from the fiscal drain of the Hundred Years’ War, the idea of a civic body with multiple and self-regulating nodes of power apparently held particular appeal.


In keeping with what would become his custom, Caxton used a French translation as the basis for the Game and Playe, although it is likely that he had access to an earlier Latin text as well. Robert H. Wilson has argued that the extant copy closest to Caxton’s version is the “Cockerell” manuscript, now more commonly known as the Regenstein Library MS 392 at the University of Chicago. Judging from the illustrations, this manuscript was produced by Flemish scribes and illuminators working in the late fourteenth century. Although Wilson admits to numerous small differences between this manuscript and Caxton’s translation, he also argues that “on the basis of the fundamental correspondence, one must believe that Caxton derived his combination of Faron and Vignay [the two main French translators of the Liber] from a MS related to the Cockerell.”36 Christine Knowles supports this claim: “a comparison of the English version with a microfilm of the Chicago manuscript shows an exact correspondence between the two, including the change-over to Jean de Vignay’s translation towards the end of the chapter on the Rooks.”37 I tend to agree with Knowles and Wilson, with the caveat that it is impossible to know for sure if Caxton used this particular text as this manuscript is missing several lengthy sections.38

Roughly a dozen copies of each printing of Caxton’s Game and Playe (eleven of the 1474 edition; thirteen of the 1483 edition) are currently extant.39 There do not appear to be any textual variations or stop-press corrections within each edition. There are also only minimal customizations that various owners have made to their copies. For example, the Newberry Library version of the 1483 Game and Playe (fol. Inc. 9643) has large, lightly hand-painted initials opening each chapter, whereas the Yale Center for British Art’s copy of the same (GV1442.C3 Oversize) has only lightly traced indications of where such initials should be. Excepting these differences, the copies of each text are identical.

By contrast, the 1474 and 1483 editions contain typographical differences, orthographic changes, subtractions (or occasionally additions) of individual words and phrases, and a recasting of the entire work from a 31-line to a 29-line layout. To give a sense of the orthographic alterations, here is the opening to Book 2, chapter 5, the chapter on the rooks:
1474: “The rooks whiche ben vicaires and legats of the kynge ought to be made lyke a knyght upon an hors and a mantell on hood furryd with menevyer holdynge a staf in his hande.”

1483: “The rookes whiche been vycayrs and legates of the kynge ought to be maad a knyght upon an hors and a mantel and hood furrid with menevier holdyng a staf in his hand.”
Here the printer’s changes consist of: e’s, some added (rooks/rookes), others dropped (hande/hand); y’s and i’s, some switched one way (vicaires/vycayrs) and some switched the other (menevyer/menevier); and the omission of the word “lyke.” More substantial changes than these are rare. Nevertheless, more sizeable alterations occasionally do appear. In the third chapter of Book 3, for example, Caxton describes a sermon preached in the Vitas Patrum in which the priest notes that “deth spareth none. And as wel dyeth the yonge as the olde.” This is a slight modification of the 1474 version, which reads “deth spareth none, ne riche ne poure. And as wel dyeth the yonge as the olde.” While the deletion of “ne riche ne poure” might signal a larger shift of emphasis on class, economics, or monetary interest, such changes are not significant enough to note in this edition, and I leave it to others to examine more carefully these individual instances.40

Unlike Caxton’s other publications — the History of Troy, the Canterbury Tales, and most notably the Morte d’Arthur — the Game and Playe has never been edited or published in a modern edition.41 Currently, the only accessible copies are two facsimiles of Caxton’s 1483 edition and one nineteenth-century transcription of the 1474 text.42 I have chosen the 1483 edition as my base text for several reasons. First, it contains corrections to the 1474 text and thus reflects Caxton’s more finished copy.43 But second, and more importantly, this edition was printed in England for an explicitly English audience. As noted above, Caxton’s change in prologue, which is now freed from its ties to the nobility, and his addition of woodcuts reveal the printer’s desire to reorient the text towards the body politic and to package it anew for a wider audience.

In keeping with standard editorial practices of the Middle English Texts Series, I have used modern punctuation and capitalization. I have also regularized i/j, u/v, and ƒ/s spellings (thus I rather than J, have rather than haue, and wysedom rather than wyfedom) and have expanded any standard printer’s abbreviations (thus the admynystracion, founden, somme, commaundementis, and the ende rather than thadmynystracion, foûden, sôme, cômaûdementis, and thende). I have differentiated between the and thee by silently expanding the latter, which appears almost uniformly as the in Caxton’s text. In the very few instances where ff is used to designate a capital F I have used the latter. Finally, all Roman numerals in the body of the text have either been spelled out or replaced with Arabic numbers.


Caxton’s Game and Playe of the Chesse, 1483 Edition (folio, 84 leaves, a–i8 k–l6; type 2*)

Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas, Austin (missing thirty-eight leaves)
Huntington Library, San Marino, CA (complete)
Library of Congress, Washington, DC (one leaf in facsimile and one leaf blank)
Newberry Library, Chicago (complete) [copy text for this edition]
Pierpont Morgan Library, New York (complete)
Yale Center for British Art, New Haven (missing final folio)
British Library, London (missing six leaves, supplied in facsimile)
Bodleian Library, Oxford (two copies: one missing several leaves and one fragment)
St. John’s College, Oxford (missing one leaf)
John Rylands Library, University of Manchester (complete)
Magdalene College Pepysian Library, Cambridge (incomplete)
Trinity College, Cambridge (complete)
Austrian National Library, Vienna (missing six leaves)

Caxton’s Game and Playe of the Chesse, 1474 Edition (folio, 74 leaves, type 1)

Newberry Library, Chicago
Pierpont Morgan Library, New York
New York Public Library, New York
Huntington Library, San Marino, CA
Library of Congress, Washington, DC
Yale Center for British Art, New Haven
Bodleian Library, Oxford
British Library, London
British Library, London
John Rylands Library, University of Manchester
Austrian National Library, Vienna



  • Catalogue of Books Printed in the XVth Century Now in the British Museum. London: British Museum, 1908–. IX, p. 130.
  • Duff, E. Gordon. Fifteenth Century English Books; a Bibliography of Books and Documents Printed in England and of Books for the English Market Printed Abroad. London: Oxford University Press, 1917. Pp. 81–82. Goff, Frederick R. Incunabula in American Libraries; a Third Census of Fifteenth-century Books Recorded in North American Collections. New York: Bibliographical Society of America, 1964. C 413 and C 414.
  • Pollard, A. W., and G. R. Redgrave. A Short-title Catalogue of Books Printed in England, Scotland, & Ireland and of English Books Printed Abroad, 1475–1640. 2nd edition. London: Bibliographical Society, 1976–1991. 4920 and 4921.
  • Proctor, Robert. An Index to the Early Printed Books in the British Museum. London: Holland Press, 1960. 9322 and 9323.

    Facsimiles of Game and Playe of the Chesse
  • Caxton’s Game and Playe of the Chesse, 1474. Ed. William E. A. Axon. London: Elliot Stock, 1883. (Available online at:
  • The Game of the Chesse by William Caxton. Ed. Vincent Figgins. London: John Russell Smith, 1860.
  • Jacobus de Cessolis, The Game of Chess: Translated and Printed by William Caxton, c. 1483. Ed. N. F. Blake. London: The Scholar Press, 1976.

Webmaster's note: The images included in the printed version are originally from the 1483 Newberry Library copy of the text. As we do not have permission to reproduce these images electronically, the images presented here are from William E. A. Axon's 1883 volume.

Go To William Caxton, The Game and Playe of the Chesse, Preface and Table of Contents