The Queen in Chess: A Feminist Historical Lesson

When I think about how far we’ve come, and how far more we have to go, in pursuing gender equality, I think about chess. Not because I see the fight for gender equality as a ponderous game of logic and strategy in which you plan your moves two, or more, steps ahead (although there is a strong argument for it being one), but because chess reflects our sensibilities more than we give it credit for.

Chess has a checkered 1500-year history, since its origins in the Gupta Empire of India in the 6th century. Back then, it was called chaturanga, a Sanskrit term for the four divisions of the military: infantry, cavalry, elephantry and chariotry. These four divisions would later evolve into the modern pawn, knight, bishop and rook respectively. The game was devised by military strategists to induce a simplistic representation of the battlefield on a board, and to craft tactics that can be reproduced in war.

A 14th-century painting of a Jew and a Muslim playing chess. Not pictured: Armed conflict and disagreements over the legitimacy of the other’s claims for statehood.

Through trade and cultural exchange, the game spread to the Persian Empire, and subsequently, during the Islamic conquest of Persia, the Rashidun caliphate. At this point in history, the Islamic empire of the Rashidun caliphate comprised of Egypt, Mesopotamia (the area marked today by Iran and Iraq), Central Asia, the Middle East and finally, Persia. It was a major player in Mediterranean as well as Silk Route trade and politics. This facilitated the spread of chess throughout the Old World.

The Silk Route facilitated the spread of chess Eastwards to China and from there, on to Mongolia and Japan. Many centuries later, a game that similarly took up too much of humanity’s time would spread in the reverse direction: the Playstation.

In these early days, there were no “feminine” figures in chess. Flanking the King in the pioneering Gupta Empire version of chess was his Mantri, a minister-adviser. In Persia, this role was known as the Vizier, or the Wazir in the Islamic empire. Mantris and Viziers could only move diagonally by one tile.

As it spread to Japan, the minister was replaced with two Golden Generals on either side of the King in a larger 9-by-9 board. The Mongols, masters of animal husbandry of the time, replaced most of the pieces with animals. Puppies replaced pawns. Horses, of course, represented the knights, and a camel replaced the bishop. Since the Mongols were a feudal culture, the King was replaced by a Lord. Next to the Lord, interestingly, was a dog, given prestige and position for its role in protecting livestock.

The concept of the Queen as the King’s right hand in chess only evolved in Western Europe between the 10th to 12th centuries, coinciding with the transition of the Early Middle Ages to the High Middle Ages. This period was marked by European reorganization and a pursuit of intellectual and artistic development, spearheaded by resurgent monarchies, after the Dark Ages of the 7th to 8th century CE. Monarchies were not only lauded for their efforts in leading and organizing their charges, but popular opinion grew that Kings and Queens were anointed by God to lead the nations of the Earth.

This was most obvious in King Otto I, the German monarch who was made Holy Roman Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire (which was was neither holy, Roman, nor an empire) by Pope John VII after he liberated the Papal States from the tyranny of Berengar II, King of Italy.

Behind the shock and awe of Otto’s military might, however , is the story of Queen Adelaide of Italy. The widow of Lothair II, the nominal King of Italy, was the one who called for German aid when her husband’s unpopular successor began military occupation of the State of the Church. After marrying Otto in 961 CE, she was made Holy Roman Empress when her husband was coronated in 963 CE. The marriage was perhaps partly borne from necessity. Adelaide needed to unite Italy with the strongest military entity in Europe, to ensure stability for her people, and the protection of the Catholic Church from those who did not hold it as sacred as she did. She would go on to outlive her second husband (and rather sadly, her son Otto II), and, in 991 CE instated as Regent of the Holy Roman Empire on behalf of her grandson Otto III before he reached legal majority four years after. In her capacity leading the greatest political entity of the era, Queen Adelaide was perhaps the most prominent woman in Europe of the 10th century. Even after her death, her popularity ensured that she was canonized as Saint Adelaide, patron Saint of empresses, widows, second wives and exiles, among others.

Otto’s face: When Italians like bae more than they like you

Meanwhile, back in chess, the Queen has gradually replaced the Minister, but inherited its very limited range of movement: one tile, diagonally in any direction. More and more people were acknowledging the role women had to play in major political affairs and this was reflected in the game. Nevertheless, the successes of women were deemed insignificant when juxtaposed with the conquests and achievements of great men. Kings and heroes were immortalized in history, while Queens, only seen in the supporting role, quickly became footnotes.

As a matter of fact, in lands where the imperium of Queen Adelaide was not as influential, Queens were seen as nothing more than consorts to the King, uninterested in political affairs. Take the Queen in the Lewis chess set, a collection of 12th century Skáktafl, or Norse chess, pieces found off Lewis, Scotland:

The face you make when Marvel gives your God of Thunder and Lightning a British accent butchered by the Australian Hemsworth.

The Queen in Skáktafl cuts a morose, dispirited figure, dragged into affairs that she has neither the interest, energy nor capacity to partake in. Clearly, in 12th century Scandinavia, the Holy Roman Empress did not leave her mark upon the social consciousness.

For most of the next three centuries, chess was played with a feminine figure on the board, but one whose reach was limited to the point of being pointless. Her ability to move only one tile diagonally meant that it was still difficult for her to navigate and manoeuvre across a treacherous, male-dominated board, and a well-placed Bishop could effectively put the Queen out of the game. In many ways this translated to real-world affairs. In 1210 CE, Pope Innocent III famously wrote, “No matter whether the most blessed Virgin Mary stands higher, and is also more illustrious, than all the apostles together, it was still not to her, but to them, that the Lord entrusted the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven.”

Change came in the 15th century, when a certain Maid of Orléans took up arms against the English in the Hundred Years War. Jeanne d’Arc, better known in the Anglicized form of her name, Joan of Arc (racism at its worst is when you get your name changed so it sounds less foreign), entered the public consciousness with her audacity in battle, the peasant girl who defeated the English siege on Orléans in just nine days, and spearheading the subsequent counterattacks that sparked the beginning of total defeat for the English in the Hundred Years War. As we all know, Jeanne would not live long enough to see the end of the war, and was burnt at the stake in 1431 CE, at the age of 19.

Later that century, in 1474, Isabel I de Castilla (her Anglicized name was Isabella I of Castille, which begs the question: was it so difficult to say ‘Isabel’?) would ascend to the throne of Spain with her husband Ferrando II of Aragon (Ferdinand II to English speakers) by her side, inheriting it from her half brother King Enrique (English: Henry…goddamned Anglicization). Enrique left his half sister an empire in turmoil. His decision to decentralise governance to nobles meant that taxation went to their coffers and not to the Royal Treasury. That, combined with some rather extravagant bouts of personal spending, meant that the Spanish Crown was in debt. Henry’s incompetence also led to rebellions in regions such as Segovia, and increased crime rates among the disenfranchised peasants.

“Stay cool, stay cool. If all this goes well, I get a gig on Civilization 5.”

When she was coronated as Queen, Isabel acted swiftly. She rode out to Segovia in person, an act rare even among supposedly more lionhearted male monarchs, to successfully negotiate a truce with the rebels. She introduced La Santa Hermandad, or The Holy Brotherhood, a sort of police force driven by Christian values and sensibilities. More importantly, she tackled crime at its source: income disparity between the rich and the poor, and a growing belief that the noble and royal elite had little concern for the sufferings of the poor. She did this by increasing the taxation on estates and rent, and using the income to overhaul governing institutions, instating professional administrators there rather than the lackeys of nobles. She also began to streamline the legal system in Spain, doing away with outdated royal decrees and compiling a detailed codex of Spanish laws called the Ordenanzas Reales (pictured below). She was also the first monarch to take the time every Friday to interact with her subjects, listening to their grievances and complaints and offering solutions for her governors to enact.

Also known by its other name ‘Why We’re Better Than Catalans’

Isabel’s greatest achievement, however, was heralding the Spanish Empire and the Golden Age of Spanish exploration and colonisation. It all began with her patronage of an Italian man named Cristoforo Colombo, better known today by the Anglicized version of his name, Christopher Columbus (possibly because Americans immediately think of pizza if they heard his actual name, and it would be counterproductive in U.S. History class. I REALLY don’t get these modifications to someone’s birth name just so it would sound better on the tongue of another). Cristoforo went on to discover America, and thus began the European colonization of the New World.

A woman paved the way for the modern world.

Chess, ever the touchstone for humanity’s perception of power, was powerless to resist the onslaught of feminism that rode with Isabel into the consciousness of early 16th century Western Europe. Spreading out from Spain, a new rule was storming across the board. Queens were now able to move horizontally, diagonally and vertically through any number of tiles, like a combination of both the rook and the bishop. This new ruling was dubbed scacchi de la donna, or Queen’s chess.

Some players proposed that Queens should be able to move in the L-shape of the knight as well, but opponents to the ruling said it was very unladylike for a Queen to gallop like a horse. It was discourse such as that, however, that led to backlash against this new Queen in chess. Others began to voice out their own concerns, their own ideas of how a Queen should behave on the board. The idea of an Amazonian warrior-Queen perturbed conservatives (and these were medieval European conservatives, so those mofos were CONSERVATIVE). Others used this chance to reinvigorate the case against having women on the chess board in the first place.

Critics of this new chess Queen called it scacchi alla rabiosa, or madwoman’s chess, satirically comparing the chess Queen with an insane woman hysterically running up and down the board, breaking up the better-planned strategies of far more composed, logical men.

With the Queen’s new power, pawn promotion, in which a lowly pawn who has made its way across the board can be promoted to a stronger unit, always resulted in the pawn being upgraded to a Queen. This, again, was met with backlash, as critics point out the scandal of a (inanimate, wooden, non-real) King having two (again, inanimate, wooden, non-real) Queens.

But these voices were no match against the popular support Queens were getting from the general public, as well as in chess. It took a while for women who were not royalty or nobility to be seen as equals to men from a sociological and constitutional standpoint, but the Queen had become the strongest unit in chess. The fight for gender equality was taking shape, and its leaders were Queens whose intelligence and tenacity shaped the world.

Chess has long provided a platform for our brightest minds to shine, and our dullest minds to impose their blunt brand of narrow-mindedness on us. And now, at this crucial juncture, we need those brightest minds – male and female ones alike – to take us through our next steps, and call checkmate on sexism, bigotry and gender inequality.

For a deeper look at the Queen in chess, read Marilyn Yalom’s very enlightening Birth of the Chess Queen: A History.

To give girls and women across the world better moves across the chess board of life, support the women-focused charities and foundations of your choice here.


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