The Game and Playe of the Chesse: Book One
BOOK ONE: FOOTNOTES
Title maad made.
2 he fereth not ne dredeth, does not fear or dread; wroth, angry.
3 disordonatly, not according to order or moderation; retcheth, cares.
4 repreve, reprove; sleeth, slays.
5 did do slee his mayster, had his teacher slain.
6 somtyme, once.
8 did do hewe his fader’s body, had his father’s body cut up.
9 voultres, vultures.
11 wold do slee, would have slain.
15 wene, believe.
17 Caldees, the Chaldeans (see Explanatory Notes); saith and reherceth, says and recounts.
18 renomed, renowned.
22 fonde, invented; Caldee, the language spoken by the Chaldeans.
26 connyng, knowledge.
27 lever, rather.
28 durst, dared.
30 parel, peril; chees, chose.
31 disfamed, deprived of fame and honor; beste, beast.
34 dyd do hange on the crosse, had hung on a cross.
36 robys, robes.
38 make no force, do not care.
39 as who sayth, as much as who says.
41 eyen, eyes; bycause, so that.
44 dampned, condemned.
45 pees, peace.
46 meritorye, meritorious.
51 merveylled, marveled; beaulté and noveltee, beauty and novelty.
53 but yf, unless; hit was reson, this was reasonable.
55–56 chesse meyne, chessmen.
56 the maners and the condycions, manners and moves.
58 amende, improve.
63 endoctrined, taught; that had, that achieved.
64 than, then; thenne, than.
65 seignourie and maistrie, governance and control.
67 comaundour, commander.
68 domyne, rule over.
69 oon, one.
71–72 here her corrigiours, hear their correctors.
73 reherceth, recounts.
74 renomed, renowned.
75 in especial, in particular; Yf, If.
77 lifte, left.
78 Sith than, Because; or . . . or . . . or, either . . . or . . . or; nought, nothing.
81 noon, no.
82 feble, feeble; casteth doun, casts down.
83 strengest, strongest.
86 ydlenesse, idleness.
87 sepulture, sepulcher.
89 gyven, given.
92 drawe them, occupy themselves.
93 the herte is quenchyd, the spirit is extinguished.
95 noveltees, new things.
97 enpessheth and letteth otherwhyle, forbids and prevents sometimes.
99–100 for as moche as, so that.
100 entendement, learning.
101 ben, been.
105 emonge, among; demaunded, asked.
106 dysplesid, displeased.
108 mervaile, marvel.
111 aungellis, angels.
112 thise causes forsayd, these forementioned causes.
113 pensifnes, anxiety.
BOOK ONE: EXPLANATORY NOTES
Abbreviations: CA: Gower, Confessio Amantis; CT: Chaucer, Canterbury Tales; LGW: Chaucer, Legend of Good Women; OED: Oxford English Dictionary; PL: Migne, Patrologiae cursus completus, series Latina; Whiting: Whiting, Proverbs, Sentences, and Proverbial Phrases.
4–5 in suche wyse as did the emperour Nero, whiche did do slee his mayster, Seneque. Lucius Annaeus Seneca (4 B.C.E.–65 C.E.) was a philosopher, statesman, and advisor to the Emperor Nero. When he fell out of favor with Nero, the emperor ordered him to commit suicide. The account of his death was popularized by the Roman de la Rose where he is said to have bled himself to death in a warm bath (Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun, Romance of the Rose, lines 6211–22, pp. 122–24).
7 Evylmerodach. In many places Caxton substitutes an “n” for a “v,” thus “Enylmerodach” rather than “Evylmerodach.” A scriptural mention of Evilmerodach appears in 4 Kings 25:27: “And it came to pass in the seven and thirtieth year of the captivity of Joachin, king of Juda, in the twelfth month, the seven and twentieth day of the month: Evilmerodach, king of Babylon, in the year that he began to reign, lifted up the head of Joachin, king of Juda, out of prison.” D. J. Wiseman describes Evil-merodach (Am?l-Marduk) as the son of Nebuchadnezzar, who took over his father’s throne in 562. Wiseman adds that Am?l-Marduk’s “reign was marred by intrigues, some possibly directed against his father.” See Wiseman’s Nebuchadnezzar and Babylon, p. 9. The historical Nebuchadnezzar, who was the king of Babylon in the sixth century B.C.E., is famous for his immense building in the city.
11 Nabugodonosor. In Daniel 2:12, Nebuchadnezzar [Nabuchodonsar] orders his wise men to be slain after they are unable to interpret his dream.
17 Caldees. Also called the Chaldeans, they were the inhabitants of the region in which Babylon was the main city.
Diomedes the Greek. This is most likely a reference to Diomedes, a Latin grammarian and author of Ars grammatica, who was writing at the end of the fourth century C.E. See The Oxford Classical Dictionary, p. 476.
19 Alixander the Grete. Alexander (356–323 B.C.E.) conquered much of Persia and the Middle East. Legends of his rule, along with those of Charlemagne and King Arthur, enjoyed tremendous popularity throughout the Middle Ages.
23 “Exerses,” or in Greke “Philemetor.” 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.
33–34 And therfore reherceth Valerius that there was a wyse man named Theodore Cerem. The Valerius here is Valerius Maximus, author of Factorum ac dictorum memorabilium, or the Book of Memorable Doings and Sayings, which he wrote in the first century. This was one of the primary sources for Jacobus de Cessolis, author of the Liber de ludo scacchorum, and it also served as a sourcebook for many other authors throughout the Middle Ages. A brief version of the story of Theodorus of Cyrene (Theodore Cerem) is recounted in Book 6.2. See Memorable Doings and Sayings, 2:29. In the introduction to his 1883 transcription of the 1474 Game and Playe, Axon writes: “[Theodorus] was banished from the (supposed) place of his birth, and was shielded at Athens by Demetrius Phalerus, whose exile he is assumed to have shared. Whilst in the service of Egypt he was sent as an ambassador to Lysimachus, whom he offended by the directness and plainness of his speech. The offended monarch threatened him with crucifixion, and he replied in a phrase which became famous, ‘Threaten thus your courtiers, for it matters not to me whether I rot on the ground or in the air.’ The king’s threat was not executed, as Theodorus was afterwards at Corinth, and is believed to have died at Cyrene” (Caxton’s Game and Playe of the Chesse, 1474, pp. lxvi–lxvii). The life of Theodorus is described in more detail in Diogenes Laertius’ third-century Lives and Opinions of the Eminent Philosophers, 1:224–33.
41 In like wyse as Democreon the philosopher. The story of Democritus is recounted by Aulus Gellius in Book 10.18 of his second-century Noctes Atticae. See Attic Nights, 2:258–61.
43 And also Desortes the philosophre. This story of Socrates, here called “Desortes,” comes from Book 7.2 of Valerius, Memorable Doings and Sayings (2:114–17). Axon notes: “The transformations of some of the names are peculiar. At p. 12 we read of Desortes. The philosopher disguised under this strange name appears to be Socrates. The story is told in the Apology of Socrates attributed to Xenophon. The person to whom the saying was addressed was not Xanthippe, but was a disciple named Apollodorus, whose understanding was not equal to his admiration” (Caxton’s Game and Playe of the Chesse, 1474, pp. lxvii–lxviii).
73–74 In like wyse, as Valerius reherceth, that the kyng Alixandre had a noble and renomed knyght that sayd in reprevyng of Alixandre. Although this is credited to Valerius Maximus, such an episode does not appear in his Memorable Doings and Sayings. However, it does appear in a modified form in Gautier de Châtillon’s twelfth-century Gesta Alexandri Magni, Book 8, lines 434–64 and lines 536–41. (Gautier de Châtillon is also known as Gaultier de Lille, Gautier de Ronchin, Gualterus de Insulis, and, in English, Walter of Châtillon.) Gautier’s primary source for the Gesta was Quintus Curtius Rufus’ Historia Alexandri Magni. See The Alexandreis of Walter of Châtillon, pp. 142–43 and 145.
86 Wherof Seneque sayth unto Lucylle. From Seneca’s Moral Letters, Number 82.3 (2:242 and 243).
88 And Varro saith in his Sentences. This is most likely taken from the Menippean Satires of Marcus Terentius Varro (116–27 B.C.E.). Neither Jacobus nor Caxton states which satire is cited.
99 Therfore we rede that Democrite the philosopher. As noted above, the source for this reference to Democritus is most like Aulus Gellius’ Attic Nights. However, there are two other sources that might have contributed to this reference. One is Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations, or Tusculanae Quaestiones, a meditative treatise he wrote in roughly 45 B.C.E. Cicero’s mention of Democritus comes in Book 5, chapter 39. See Tusculan Disputations, p. 471. The other possible source is Plutarch’s first-century Moralia, 521(D). In his description Plutarch claims that the story is false but that the sentiment is true. See Moralia, vol. 6 (ed. and trans. W. C. Helmbold, 1934), pp. 506(G)–507(E).
101–04 Didimus, bysshop of Alixandrie . . . Anthonye. The writer and theologian Didymus the Blind (c. 310–98 C.E.) lost the use of his eyes when he was four years old. (Contrary to popular belief, Didymus always remained a layman.) Gregore Nazanz is Gregory of Nazianzus born at Arianzus, in Asia Minor, c. 325. Although he served for awhile as the bishop of Sasima, he eventually quit to become a hermit. Saynt Jerome, c. 347–420 C.E., is known primarily for his revisions and translations of the Bible. Saynt Anthonye was purportedly the founder of Christian monasticism. This description comes from St. Jerome’s De viris illustribus CIX: “Didymus of Alexandria, while still quite young, became blind and as as a result never learned the alphabet. He presented to all an extraordinary proof of his talent by acquiring complete mastery of dialectic and geometry, which particularly needs the sight.” See St. Jerome, On Illustrious Men, pp. 142–44.
BOOK ONE: TEXTUAL NOTES
This first chappitre of the first tractate sheweth under what kyng the playe of the chesse was
founden and maad. Capitulo primo.
Amonge alle the evyl condicions and signes that may be in a man, the first and
the grettest is whan he fereth not ne dredeth to displese and make wroth God by
synne and the peple by lyvyng disordonatly, whan he retcheth not nor taketh hede
unto them that repreve hym and his vyces but sleeth them, in suche wyse as did the
emperour Nero, whiche did do slee his mayster, Seneque, for as moche as he myght
not suffre to be reprevyd and taught of hym. In likewise was somtyme a kyng in
Babilon that was named Evylmerodach, a jolye man without justyce and so cruel
that he did do hewe his fader’s body in thre hondred pieces and gaf hit to ete and
devoure to thre hondred byrdes that men calle voultres. And [he] was of suche
condicion as was Nero, and right wel resemblid and was lyke unto his fader,
Nabugodonosor, whiche on a tyme wold do slee all the sage and wise men of
Babilone, for as moche as they coude not telle hym his dreme that he had dremyd
on a nyght and had forgoten hit, like as hit is wreton in the Byble in the Book of
Danyel. Under this kyng, thenne, Evylmerodach, was this game and playe of the
chesse founden. Trewe it is that somme men wene that this play was founden in the
tyme of the bataylles and siege of Troye. But that is not so. For this playe cam to
the playes of the Caldees, as Diomedes the Greek saith and reherceth, that amonge
the philosophres was the most renomed playe amonge al other playes. And after
that cam this playe in the tyme of Alixander the Grete into Egypt, and so unto alle
the parties toward the south. And the cause wherfore this playe was so renomed
shal be sayd in the third chepitre.
This chappytre of the first tractate shewyth who fond first the playe of the chesse.
This playe fonde a phylosopher of the Oryent, whyche was named in Caldee
“Exerses,” or in Greke “Philemetor,” which is as moche to say in Englissh as “he
that lovyth justyce and mesure.” And this philosopher was renomed gretly among
the Grekes and them of Athenes, whyche were good clerkys and phylosophers also
renomed of their connyng. This philosopher was so just and trewe that he had
lever dye than to lyve long and be a fals flaterer with the sayd kyng. For whan he
behelde the foul and synful lyf of the kyng, and that no man durst blame hym, for
by his grete cruelté he put them al to deth that displesid hym, he put hymself in
parel of deth, and lovyd and chees rather to dye than lenger to lyve. The evyl lyf,
and disfamed, of a kyng is the lyf of a cruel beste and ought not longe to be
susteyned. For he destroyeth hym that displesith hym.
And therfore reherceth Valerius that there was a wyse man named Theodore
Cerem whom his kyng dyd do hange on the crosse for as moche as he reprevyd
hym of hys evyl and foul lyf. And alwey, as he was in the torment, he sayd to the
kyng, “Upon thy counceyllours and theym that ben clad in thy clothyng and robys
were more reson that this torment shold come. For as moche as they dar not say
to thee the trouth for to do justyse rightwyslye. Of myself, I make no force whether
I dye on the lond or on the water or otherwyse,” as who sayth he retched not to dye
In like wyse as Democreon the philosopher put out his owne eyen bycause he
wold not see that no good myght come to the evyl and vycious peple wythout right.
And also Desortes the philosophre, as he went toward his deth, his wyf that
folowed after hym sayd that he was dampned to deth wrongfully. Thenne he
answerd and sayd to her, “Holde thy pees and be stylle. Hit is better and more
meritorye to dye by a wrong and unrightful jugement than that I had deserved to
The thyrd chappitre of the first tractate treteth wherfore the playe was founden and maad.
The causes wherfore this playe was founden ben three. The first was for to
correcte and repreve the kyng. For whan this kyng Evylmerodach sawe this playe,
and the barons, knyghtes and gentilmen of his court playe wyth the phylosopher,
he merveylled gretly of the beaulté and noveltee of the playe and desired to playe
agaynst the philosopher. The philosopher answerd and sayd to hym that hit myght
not be doon but yf he first lernyd the play. The kyng sayd hit was reson and that
he wold put hym to the payn to lerne hit. Than the phylosopher began to teche
hym and to shewe hym the maner of the table of the chesse borde and the chesse
meyne, and also the maners and the condycions of a kyng, of the nobles, and of the
comyn peple, and of theyr offyces, and how they shold be touchyd and drawen, and
how he shold amende hymself and become vertuous.
And when this kyng herde that, he reprevyd hym. He demaunded hym upon
payn of deth to telle hym wherefore he had founden and maad this playe. And he
answerd, “My right dere lord and kyng, the grettest and most thyng that I desire
is that thou have in thyself a glorious and vertuous lyf. And that may I not see, but
yf thou be endoctrined and wel manerd. And that had, so mayst thou be belovyd
of thy peple. Thus, than, I desire that thou have other governement thenne thou
hast had, and that thou have upon thyself first seignourie and maistrie suche as
thou hast upon other by force and not by right. Certeynly hit is not right that a
man be maister over other and comaundour when he cannot rewle nor may rewle
hymself, and that his vertues domyne above his vyces. For seignourie by force and
wylle may not longe endure. Thenne thus may thou see oon of the causes why and
wherfore I have founden and maad this playe, whiche is for to correcte and repreve
thee of thy tyrannye and vicious lyvyng. For all kynges ought specially to here her
corrigiours or correctours and her correccions to holde and kepe in mynde.”
In like wyse, as Valerius reherceth, that the kyng Alixandre had a noble and
renomed knyght that sayd in reprevyng of Alixandre that he was to moche
covetous and in especial of the honours of the world. And sayd to hym, “Yf the
goddes had maade thy body as grete as is thy herte, alle the world coude not holde
thee. For thou holdest in thy right hond al the Oryent, and in thy lifte honde the
Occident. Sith than hit is so, or thou art a god, or a man, or nought. Yf thou be
God, doo than wel and good to the peple as God doth, and take not from them
that they ought to have and is theyres. Yf thou be a man, thynke that thou shalt
dye, and than thou shalt doo noon evyl. Yf thou be nought, forgete thyself.” There
is no thyng so stronge and ferme but that sumtyme a feble thyng casteth doun and
overthrowe hit. How wel that the lyon be the strengest beest. Yet somtyme a lityl
byrde eteth hym.
The second cause wherfore this playe was founden and maad was for to kepe
hym from ydlenesse. Wherof Seneque sayth unto Lucylle “Ydlenes wythout ony
ocupacion is sepulture of a man lyvyng.”
And Varro saith in his Sentences that in lyke wyse as men goo not for to goo, the
same wyse the lyf is not gyven for to lyve but for to doo wel and good.
And therfore secondly the philosopher fond this playe for to kepe the peple
from ydlenes. For there is moche peple, whan so is that they be fortunat in worldly
goodes, that they drawe them to ease and ydlenes, wherof comyth ofte tymes many
evyllis and grete synnes. And by this ydlenes, the herte is quenchyd, wherof comyth
The thyrd cause is that every man naturelly desireth to knowe and here noveltees
and tydynges. For this cause they of Athenes studyed, as we rede, and for as the
corporal or bodelye sight enpessheth and letteth otherwhyle the knowleche of
Therfore we rede that Democrite the philosopher put out his owen eyen, for
as moche as he myght have the better entendement and understondyng. Many
have ben made blynde that were grete clerkis, in like wyse as was Didimus, bysshop
of Alixandrie, that how wel that he sawe not, yet he was so grete a clerke that Gregore
Nazanz and Saynt Jerome, that were clerkes and maysters to other, cam for to be
his scolers and lernyd of hym. And Saynt Anthonye, the grete hermyte, cam for to
see hym on a tyme. And emonge alle other thynges, he demaunded hym yf he were
not gretly dysplesid that he was blynde and sawe not. And he answerd that he was
gretly abasshyd for that he supposid not that he was not displeasid in that he had
lost his sight. And Saynt Anthonye answerd to hym, “I mervaile moche that hit
displesith thee that thou hast lost that thyng whiche is comyn betwene thee and
bestes. And thou knowest wel that thou hast not lost that thyng that is comyn
betwene thee and the aungellis.”
And for thise causes forsayd, the phylosopher entended to put awey al
pensifnes and thoughtes, and to thynke onely on this playe, as shal be sayd and
appere in this book after.