The Game of Chess by William Caxton

The Game of Chess by William Caxton – Scolar Press – Library of the Trinity College (Cambridge, United Kingdom)

United Kingdom — Ca. 1483

One of the first books to be printed in the English language: an allegory for medieval society in which chess pieces stand as metaphors for the different classes

  1. William Caxton (ca. 1422 – ca. 1491) was an English merchant, diplomat, and writer

  2. Caxton is also credited with bringing the first printing press to England in 1476

  3. The early English print is based on the work of Jacobus de Cessolis (ca. 1250 – ca. 1322)

The Game of Chess by William Caxton

  1. Description
  2. Facsimile Editions (1)
The Game of Chess by William Caxton

William Caxton was an English merchant, diplomat, and writer who is believed to have brought the first printing press to England. One of the first books to be printed in the English language was The Game and Playe of Chesse, which was published in 1474 and is based on the work of Jacobus de Cessolis. It presents the game of chess as an allegory for medieval society and used chess pieces as metaphors for different classes of people. The work also emphasizes the roles played by various members of the social hierarchy and the obligations they owe to one another. The second edition from 1483 was additionally furnished with 16 artful woodcuts that illustrate the various chess pieces and their corresponding members of society.

The Game of Chess by William Caxton

Despite its name, The Game and Playe of the Chesse has very little to say about the game of chess or how it is played, but rather uses it as an allegory for how members of society both great and small can contribute to the common good. The rules of the game and the appearance of individual pieces were used to describe the duties of different professions. It is based on the Liber de moribus hominum et officiis nobilium super ludo scacchorum (Book of the customs of men and the duties of nobles or the Book of Chess) by Dominican friar Jacobus de Cessolis (ca. 1250 – ca. 1322), which was translated and printed by William Caxton (ca. 1422 – ca. 1491), an English merchant, diplomat, and writer active in the Low Countries and the Rhineland. After the success of the original edition, which was printed in Bruges or Utrecht sometime after March 31st, 1474, a second illustrated edition was published in 1483 at Caxton’s new printing house in Westminster.

A Society Governed by Moral Law

The text begins with the king, queen, bishops (who serve as judges), knights, and rooks (who serve as the king’s emissaries). It then introduces the eight pawns, each of which represents a different group of commoners including farmers, innkeepers, moneychangers, doctors, and various artisans. Each profession is presented with a list of moral codes: e.g. knights are charged with the safety of the realm and the queen, as mother of the future ruler, should be chaste, wise, honest, and well-mannered. These virtues are followed by exempla, short moralizing stories, and sententiae, truisms usually based in stories from classical antiquity. Only in the final chapter are any rules of play discussed, and only in a cursory fashion for the purpose of explaining the metaphor: e.g. the king’s movements are limited to one space at a time because of his dignity and the knight is positioned behind those who make his sword and saddle. The work envisions a society of professional ties and associations governed by moral law instead of kinship.

The (Second) Oldest English Printed Book

It was long believed that The Game and Playe of Chesse was the first book printed in the English language but in fact is predated by another work that was also translated and printed by Caxton. He began translating The Recuyell of the Histories of Troy in 1469, continuing the work in Utrecht and completed in Cologne at the behest of Margaret of York (1446–1503), the Duchess of Burgundy and sister of two English kings, on September 9th, 1471. This collection of chivalric stories loosely based on the Trojan Wars became the first book to be printed in the English language in 1473 or early 1474. Printed shortly thereafter, The Game and Playe of the Chesse was dedicated to or commissioned by Margaret’s brother George, Duke of Clarence (1449–78). Margaret had been a major supporter of her brother, an important figure in the Wars of the Roses who was executed for treason against his brother King Edward IV (1442–83). As a result of his fall from grace, the dedication to George does not appear in the second edition from 1483.

Different Prologues, Different Audiences

The first difference between the editions lies in the prologues: the 1474 edition is directed at an aristocratic audience, makes overt references to royal authority, and is presented as a speculum regis or “mirror of princes” while the 1483 edition is directed to all classes of people, dedicated specifically to the city of London, and more closely resembles a mirror of a political body, a speculum corpora politica. This is a reflection of England’s chaotic contemporary political landscape because Edward IV had just died and the crown was seized by his brother Richard, the Duke of Gloucester, whose rule was never acknowledged in Southern England and Richard III would become the last English king to die in battle two years later.

The Second – Illustrated – Edition

The second major difference is that the second edition was furnished with 16 refined woodcuts depicting the various chess pieces / classes of people, but hardly any depictions of a chess board can be found in the work and none with practical advice to improve one’s play. The opening woodcut depicts the decapitated body of a king, identified as Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon in the accompanying passage, which consists of a commentary on royal authority. This representation of regicide would have had powerful implications in a kingdom divided by civil war and is a reminder of the limits monarchical authority because even the king is dependent on his counselors, who ensure that his royal will is done.

Caxton as Translator

The original Latin text of this chess-based allegory was written by Jacobus de Cessolis in the late 13th century. Enjoying great success, the work was translated into numerous languages and had already been translated into English by John Trevisa (fl. 1342–1402) at the end of the 14th century and Thomas Hoccleve (1368/69–1426) at the beginning of the 15th century. However, neither of these translations appears to have enjoyed any lasting success and were virtually unknown in Caxton’s lifetime. As such, Caxton’s translation, which he created from a pair of French sources including one by Jean de Vignay (ca. 1282/1285 – ca. 1350), became the authoritative English version.


Alternative Titles
Das Schachspiel von William Caxton
The Game of Chess Translated by William Caxton
The Game and Playe of the Chesse
Liber de ludo scaccorum
De ludo scaccorum
Ca. 1483
English version of the Latin text Liber de Ludo Scaccorum by Jacobus de Cessolis
Artist / School

Available facsimile editions:
The Game of Chess by William Caxton – Scolar Press – Library of the Trinity College (Cambridge, United Kingdom)
Scolar Press – London, 1976
Limited Edition: 500 copies
Facsimile Editions

#1 The Game of Chess

Scolar Press – London, 1976

Publisher: Scolar Press – London, 1976
Limited Edition: 500 copies
Commentary: 1 volume by Norman F. Blake
Language: English
1 volume: Exact reproduction of the original document (extent, color and size) Reproduction of the entire original document as detailed as possible (scope, format, colors). The binding may not correspond to the original or current document binding.
Facsimile Copy Available!
Price Category: €
(under 1,000€)
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