Can the stars tell if modern chess was invented in Salamanca or Valencia?

Diagram of the work of Luis Ramírez de Lucena, Repetition of loves and Art of chess.
Leonardo Hutz and Lope Sanz / Wikimedia Commons

Sometime in the late s. XV someone had the happy idea of ​​modifying the rules of Arabic chess, used for seven centuries, introducing the lady or queen to replace the clumsy alferza.

In addition, the bishop’s moves were extended and other less relevant changes were introduced, such as the double advance of the pawn, the promotion of the queen pawn and the en passant capture. These rules, which are the ones we use today, made chess more fun and quickly became successful.

Salamanca and the book of Lucena

The oldest document preserved under the new rules is the book by Luis Ramírez de Lucena entitled Repetition of loves and chess artwith 150 match games, published in Salamanca in 1497.

However, in Valencia, Juan A. Calvo and his successor Jose C. Garzón defend the Valencian origin of these new rules.

The main argument about this Valencian priority is the book Llibre dels jochs partits dels scachs on behalf of 100 (Book of games and games of chess in number of 100) attributed to Francesc Vicent, which was supposed to have been published in 1495, two years before the Lucena one. They even state that Lucena’s was basically a translation of Vicent’s.

The problem is that no copy of the free. Apparently, the last specimen of which there is reference disappeared in 1811 from the Montserrat monastery when it was assaulted by Napoleonic troops. In fact, there is currently a prize of 18,000 euros for whoever finds one.

The lack of a copy of this desired copy generated great frustration among the defenders of the Valencian origin of chess.

Scachs d´amor

In 1905 a strange manuscript appeared in the Archive of the Royal Chapel of the Palau Requesens in Barcelona. Father Ignasi Casanovas made it known. His title was: Work entitled Scachs d’Amor, feta per Don Franci de Castelvi and Narcis Vinyoles and Mossen Fenollar, sots nom de tres planetas, ço es Març, Venus e Mercuri, per conjunccio e influence dels quals fon inventada, whose beginning is key to what we are going to tell here. The names of three poets appear in it and it is said that they wrote it inspired by the conjunction of three planets: Mars, Venus and Mercury. Its content was a poem now known as Scachs d´amor.

The poem describes in 64 stanzas a game that includes movements of the lady (queen) and the bishop. We would be facing the first known game where the new rules of chess are applied. It is striking how poetically an invented game can be described.

But two important doubts arise: the date on which it was written, and that it really is an original text by the three poets to whom it is attributed.

The planetary conjunction and the dating of the poem

Reproduction of the first page of the manuscript of _Scachs d'amor_.
Reproduction of the first page of the manuscript of Scachs d’love.
Library of Catalonia / Wikimedia Commons

To date the poem, the defenders of the originality of the document are based on the fact that on June 30, 1475 there was a conjunction between the mentioned planets. Although conjunction has a precise definition, we can understand that the poets refer to a visual approximation between them.

Indeed, there was a conjunction on June 30, 1475. It occurred at dawn and with the Sun in front, which makes it difficult to appreciate Mercury. This always happens: when it is visible, it has the Sun nearby and you have to be trained to distinguish it.

Similar conjunctions can be found a few years later. In other words, when dating it, a conjunction prior to 1497 could have been arbitrarily chosen to justify the priority over the Salamanca text. Not to mention that we don’t know if the poets were really referring to a real sky or if that was a literary device. To this we must add that the poems written by three poets were infrequent, that there is no news of the text before the 20th century and that the original disappeared shortly after being found.

Astronomical evidence, as we have seen, is very weak as a dating element. There is another key aspect that would help in dating: analyzing the material of the manuscript itself. But the original is not available. If we know its content, to which we have referred, it is because the text was photographed in its entirety by Ramón Miquel y Planas in 1914.

Two women play chess under the gaze of a girl and a lady.
the chess gameby Sofonisba Anguissola.
Wikimedia Commons

The Sky of Salamanca in 1475

There is a curious temporal connection between Valencia and Salamanca. On dates close to which the poem was supposedly written Scachs d’lovein Salamanca the library of the University was built, whose vault was decorated with an astrological painting: The Sky of Salamanca.

Since Ernst Zinner (1960), it has been assumed that it represents the arrangement of the Sun and Mercury in the celestial vault on an undetermined date in the month of August 1475. Various attempts have been made to justify that the painter represented this sky several years before have the order of the painting. Planetary arrangements allow you to play with them and build legends. It has been done since humans observed the sky. But the most poetic and real thing is that each night is unique.

As for the matter of chess, the defenders of the Valencian route do not lose hope: intense research has been carried out on the biography of its authors and their linguistic style to argue that it must have been written around 1480. In addition, they argue, the book of Vicent (1495), the works of Fenollar (one of the authors of the poem) and the book of Lucena in Salamanca (1497) have common printers.

In other words, there are circumstantial indications in favor of Valencia’s priority, but the only convincing evidence we have about the new chess rules is still Lucena’s book. His greatest hope is that at some point a copy of Francesc Vicent will appear.

What is clear is that few question that current chess was born in Spain.

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