Jacobus de Cessolis


Jacobus de Cessolis (1315)

Jacobus de Cessolis proposes every Sunday that sermons be inspired by the game of chess. In 1315, he decides to compile his sermons be inspired by chess. The royal game is used as a basis to the devices of young aristocrats, who became acquainted with various categories of medieval society symbolised by pawns. 

First printed in Utrecht in 1473, chess historian H. Murray suggests that the popularity of de Cessolis’ writings rivaled only that of “the Bible itself”. The work was the basis for William Caxton’s “The Game and Playe of the Chesse” (1474), one of the very first books printed in English.

A social organisation of the city 

In Italy at the beginning of the 14th century, the Dominican monk Jacobus de Cessolis (c.1250 – c.1322) preached commonly on “The customs of Men and The Duties of Nobles” through the game of chess. Yielding to requests from clerics and “nice people” who urged him to compile his sermons in writing, the preacher composed – in Latin – the “Liber de moribus hominum et officiis nobilium sive super ludu scacchorum” or the “Book of the customs of men and the duties of nobles or the Book of Chess”. It is a moral treaty applied to the states of the world which finds in the game of chess its framework and its common thread. The work, known in French under the title “Le Jeu des échecs morales”, is divided into twenty-four chapters grouped in four parts: history of the game of chess, description of the noble pieces, description of the secondary pieces, generalities on the rules and the chessboard. In fact, the book considers chess only as a pretext to moralize the order of the world and of society.

Cessolis gives each piece and its movement on the chessboard a symbolic value representative of the new social relationships which were established at the end of the Middle Ages. It is around the city, which has become economically pre-eminent, around which medieval society is now organized. For the author, “the chessboard represents the city of Babylon. It has sixty-four squares for each district of the city, built according to a grid plan”. The pawns symbolize the different trades and administrative functions that govern the city. The chess board itself looks like a “villeneuve”, with its grid, its surrounding walls (the edge of the board) and its four corner towers. 

Through the game of chess, Cessolis develops an idealized conception of the social organization of the city. On the one hand, he attributes power and duties to each “noble” piece: the royal couple (supreme authority), the “alphins” (justice), the “knights” (defense), the “rooks” (public order). It is no longer a question of waging war but of administering the city. On the other hand, the hitherto undifferentiated mass of pawns is presented according to precise social categories. The original de Cessolis pawns include a labourer, a woodsman, a physician, a magistrate, a chemist, an innkeeper, a constable and a villain. The pawns no longer represent the “pedestrians” delivered as mere pasture on the chessboard, as described by chivalry novels. They are “social actors”, distinguished by their individual functions and assigned with missions and rules of behavior. As part of the “exemplary” literature – the collections of examples having provided the author with numerous developments -, the book offers everyone an example to follow, by “subjectifying” each piece, whose place and behavior on the chessboard must apply to the city.

A Treaty for Education 

Originally intended for preachers, the book was a huge success. The game of chess is then in common use and figures in the education of young aristocrats of both sexes. While specifying the rules of the game, the text by Jabobus de Cessolis serves as a basis for the civic education of feudal nobles, but also educated clerics, the bourgeois and students who thus become aware of the different social categories of the medieval society. By establishing a parallel between chessmen and the states of the world, between the movement of the pieces and social relationships, the book offers its passionate readers a representation of the world where the medieval utopia of an idealized power is expressed.

A Best-Seller of the Middle Ages

The success of the book continued for more than two centuries. It is a real “best seller” at the end of the Middle Ages. Two hundred and twenty manuscripts of the Latin text have been preserved and more than double the various translations and adaptations in the vernacular. From the first half of the 14th century, the work knew three French translators: Jean de Vignay, an anonymous from the Loire region, and Jean Ferron. Printed in the 15th century, the book reached an increasingly large audience. Sixteen editions were printed before 1500, four in Latin and twelve in German, English, Italian and Dutch.