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Art. 109, Mundus iste totus quoddam scaccarium est: Introduction

Abbreviations: AND: Anglo-Norman Dictionary; ANL: Anglo-Norman Literature: A Guide to Texts and Manuscripts (R. Dean and Boulton); BL: British Library (London); Bodl.: Bodleian Library (Oxford); CT: Chaucer, Canterbury Tales; CUL: Cambridge University Library (Cambridge); DOML: Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library; FDT: French Devotional Texts of the Middle Ages (Sinclair 1979); FDT-1French Devotional Texts of the Middle Ages, . . . First Supplement (Sinclair 1982); IMEV: The Index of Middle English Verse (Brown and Robbins); MED: Middle English Dictionary; MWME: A Manual of the Writings in Middle English, 1050–1500 (Severs et al.); NIMEV: A New Index of Middle English Verse (Boffey and Edwards); NLS: National Library of Scotland (Edinburgh).

This anonymous moralization likening the world to chess was tied in the Middle Ages to two purported authors: Pope Innocent III (1198–1213) or John of Wales (a late thirteenth-century Franciscan). Scholars now, however, ascribe it to neither. The title given it here adopts the opening phrase and the Shakespearean title bestowed by Thorndike. An alternate title applied to it in some manuscripts is Quaedam moralitas de scaccario, or The Morality of Chess. H. J. R. Murray refers to it as The Innocent Morality (p. 530). As a didactic comment on society, it circulated frequently with John of Wales’s Communeloquium, a popular handbook for preachers crammed with extracts from a large variety of sources. When it is preserved with John’s treatise, which divides humanity’s social strata into a host of classifications, its interpolated position occurs in Part 1, distinction 10, chapter 7, a section that discusses entertainments and games for the laboring classes. It appears often in early printed editions of the Communeloquium, which received ten printings between 1472 and 1556. Little, pp. 232–34, prints it from the 1516 edition.

Despite its anonymity, the presence of this moralization in MS Harley 2253 may suggest that John should be counted among the Ludlow scribe’s influences. Elsewhere in Part 1, John critiques the legal system and also high taxation, and he expresses sympathy for the poor. According to Swanson, John of Wales “gives every indication that he feels the present system is too harsh, and . . . [he is] anxious that rulers should take proper advice before making important decisions” (p. 100). Another of the scribe’s selections in quire 15, Against the King’s Taxes (art 114), fiercely expounds similar sentiments. At the same time, the Communeloquium is a model of collecting, selecting, and arranging items from various writers, all the while expressing an authorial point of view, so it might have offered the Ludlow scribe a precedent of sorts for how he understood his own activity of creative compiling.

The author of All the World’s a Chess Board muses on how chess pieces and their moves may be compared to different social stations and their habits or proclivities. The pieces represent the monarch (king), judges (rooks), women (queen), lords (knights), churchmen (bishops), and common folk and laborers (pawns). The only pieces that are just and straightforward are the king and the rooks. The others are devious and backhanded, as indicated by their crooked moves and greedy ambitions. While the author thus has an interest in social comment, he desires yet more, in the manner of a churchman, to deliver a soul-saving message: all who live will suffer a common fate, and the world should be recognized for what it is: the Devil’s playground. To gain salvation, one must reject the game altogether and seek divine forgiveness.

For commentary, see H. J. R. Murray, pp. 530–34; Thorndike, pp. 461–65; and Adams, pp. 43–46. The paragraphing used here agrees with Thorndike’s edition, which is based on a different manuscript. The Ludlow scribe marks in red the initial words of all the paragraphs except for those of the third and eighth ones. The translation printed here is by Jan Ziolkowski, prepared for this edition.

[Fols. 135v–136r. Scribe: B (Ludlow scribe). Quire: 15. Layout: No columns, written as prose. Edition: H. J. R. Murray, pp. 559–61. Other MSS: Numerous, as listed by H. J. R. Murray, pp. 559–60, e.g., Oxford, Balliol College MS 274, fols. 54v–56v (ed. Thorndike); London, BL MS Royal 12.E.21, art. 11 (cited by Ker, p. xv). Translations: None, but see English paraphrase by H. J. R. Murray, p. 530.]

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