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Tuesday, September 13, 2011

An Illuminated Book of Games

Statue of Alfonso X at the entrance to the National Library of
Spain in Madrid, sculpted by José Alcoverro y Amorós, 1892.

Alfonso X of Castile, Calicia and León was a Castilian monarch who ascended the throne in 1252, and ruled until his death in 1284.  He began the Siete Partidas, or "Seven-Part Code", a statutory code, which was followed up to the 19th century in Latin America, and is considered one of the most important judicial works of the Middle Ages.  Besides Latin America, parts were in effect in areas of the United States, such as Louisiana, that had belonged to Spain and used civil law.  Most of its principles can still be found in the civil codes and laws of Latin American countries.  Because of this, he is one of the twenty-three lawmakers depicted in the United States Capitol, in the House of Representatives chamber.

Alfonso X.  Image courtesy of this U.S. Capitol.

But he is also famous for a manuscript on games, Libro de los Juegos, or The Book of Games.  This was an Arabic work he translated into Castilian with added illuminations.  Completed in 1283, he had intended to create the perfect manuscript.  Alfonso had a scriptorium in Toledo, a major cultural center of Europe at that time.  A scriptorium, literally "place for writing" was a room devoted to the copying of manuscripts.  Most of the work in Alfonso's scriptorium was of translations of Arabic, Greek, and Hebrew texts into Castilian.  While a huge number of translations were made, there were very few original works.

Manuscript book mural, part of Evolution of the Book series, by John W.
Alexander, 1896.  LOC Thomas Jefferson Building.  This depicts a scriptorium.

The Libro de los Juegos mainly examines three games:  chess, dice, and backgammon.  It includes some of the earliest known descriptions of these games. It holds that chess demonstrates the merit of the intellect; dice exemplifies that chance has supremacy over intellect; and backgammon is a melding of chance and intellect.

Alfonso X de Castilla (close-up from above).

The original is in the library of the monastery of San Lorenzo del Escorial near Madrid.  A later, 1334, copy is in the library of the Historical Academy of Madrid. Because there was only the one copy originally made, this suggests it was for Alfonso's personal use.  This is an important text in the research of the history of board games.

The library at the El Escorial monastery.  It has 45,000 printed works from
the 15th and 16th centuries, and 5,000 manuscripts.

The manuscript consists of 98 leaves of parchment, bound in sheepskin, and is roughly 16" x 11" in size.  There are many color illustrations, and 151 miniature paintings.  It was common for multiple artisans to work on a manuscript in a scriptorium.  Although they were given different assignments, some shared the same task.  This would account for the variety of framing techniques in the illustrations - some are geometric and have embellished corners; others have architectural elements like rooftops, colonnades, and tents.  Facial types and the posturing of figures also differ.

The text is divided into seven treatises, and each deals with a specific category of board games.  Altogether there are 144 games, problems, and variants.  In the first part, "Libro del acedrex", there are 103 chess problems and a variant.  The second part, "Libro de los dados", shows twelve dice games.  The third, "Libro de las tablas", has fourteen versions of backgammon.  The fourth has three related games:  a chess variant; a dice game using seven or eight-sided dice (invented by Alfonso); and a larger variant of backgammon.

The fifth treatise has games designed for four players.  The sixth explains four variants of a type of game called mill, or Nine Men's Morris in English, and describes the boards they are played with.  The last part has elaborate and symbolic variants of chess and backgammon, including a gamed played on a board with concentric circles with radii dividing it into twelve areas, each assigned to a sign of the zodiac, called "astronomical chess".  (In the final section of the book, the games are discussed in terms of astronomy and astrology - "as above, so below".)

The illuminations are an integral part of the manuscript, and the symbolism is explained by the accompanying text.  These have references to medieval literature, art, science, philosophy, and law.  The illustrations show many ethnicities and social classes playing the games.  They reveal a culture with rich communal and religious diversity.

Libro de los juegos is a manual that serves to explain why games are played, but is also thought to be an allegory for leading a balanced life.  While it is not moralistic, it appears that Alfonso intended it to be a tool for teaching how to play the game of life.  Each game, it would seem, holds a clue.  For a long time, this manuscript was considered merely an interesting catalog of 13th century board games with great illustrations, but scholars who have studied it claim it reflects a complex attempt to relate the workings of the cosmos with those of humans.

Playing Mill, or Nine Men's Morris.

There are only two English translations of the book.  The first has been deemed to have quite a few problems, as the 12th century Castilian of the book is difficult to translate.  It is part of the biggest collection of chess books in the U.S., in the Cleveland Public Library's John G. White Chess Collection, and was done by George Fraser, circa 1895.  The second is a PhD dissertation by Sonja Musser, written in 2007.

This depicts the manuscript being made.

With modern methods of reproduction that would not harm the original manuscript, one can only hope that it can be made readily available.  A reproduction printed with an English translation would make this reader ecstatic. In the meantime, a trip to Spain in hopes of seeing one of the two copies there is on my bucket list.
Images of the illuminations only of Libro de los juegos
courtesy of Wikipedia.
Images of illuminations with original text
courtesy of http://games.rengeekcentral.com.

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