Geoffrey Chaucer


The medieval name of the draughts piece

 It was Harold Murray's firm belief that the roots of draughts should be found in chess. The draughts piece received features of the chess pawn: both pieces could only move in forward direction and both pieces were promoted to queen when reaching the promotion row, he argued (In some draughts varieties from later time the piece could also take backwards). He adduced, among others, several similarities in the terminology: in some languages the draughts piece and the chess queen have the same name. And also in the Middle Ages.

 The original name for the medieval chess queen was fers, fierge or a related word. In the past there were no spelling rules, everybody spelled as he liked. In two texts this word meant draughts piece. At least in Murray's view [1952:73-74].


 The first quotation is taken from a French work about the kings reigning over France from the Trojan time until 1242. In a penegyric on king Philip II August, Philippe Mousket exclaimed:

 Cis n'estoit mie rois de gas, / Ne roi de fierges, ne d'escas, / Ains iert à droit fins rois entirs (In my eyes he was no pseudo-king, nor king of fierges, nor of chess pieces, but tot the eind a real king)

[Philippe Mousket, 13th c., "Chronique rimé" book II, ll. 23167-9].

 In his chronicle, Mousket repeatedly used the word fierge as a metaphor for an indispensable power to win a war [Murray 1913:753]. This fits in the medieval culture: chess was often used in a figuratieve way application [Murray 1913:713, Eales 1985:60-68]. Without any problem the quoted lines can be read as a metaphor bases on chess: Philip August commands powerful warriors, no wooden puppets as chess queens and (other) chess pieces. An interpretation of fierge as draughts piece in a chess context is rather incredible.

 And there is a terminological problem. The French word roi and the English word king mean both king. In English, the promoted piece in draughts is called king, but in France the king in draughts was never called roi genoemd. For this reason, Murray's interpretation fails.

 The second text is English, and in this text also the word fers occurs in a context where chess has a metaphorical funtion. Geoffrey Chaucer ˗he lived at the royal court for some time˗ wrote an elegy on the death of Blanche, the wife of one of king Edward IIJ's sons. In his dream Chaucer met a knight who bemoaned that false Fortune who had taken his fers when they played chess, and his life lost its lustre. The poet did not notice the allegorical meaning and says disapprovingly: "What a fuss about a chess queen". And he continues:

 Thogh ye had lost the ferses twelve / and ye for sorwe mordred yourselve, / You should be dampned in this cas [Geoffrey Chaucer, 14th eeuw, "Boke of the duchesse" ll. 722-4].

 Neither in Mousket's nor in Chaucer's text the interpretation of fierge / fers is imperative, and therefore Murray's interpretation does not convince.


 And then there is another and deciding objection: we don't know any reference of the French game name jeu des ferses or the English game name game of ferses. But we know references of the French game name jeu de dames from about 1380 [Van der Stoep 2007:21-24] and the English game names checkers (1426) and draughts (from about 1440) [Van der Stoep 2007:162].