A question concerning Alea Evangelii

cgrn asked:

Hi. I am not a professor or anything, but I would like to learn more about Alea Evangelii and your link came up. Do you know if the original manuscript has been translated into English by anyone? and is it possible to get a copy of the translation? I am interested to find out more about the original meanings behind the game. I would be very grateful for any information. Thanks for your help.

Hi! Thanks for taking the time to ask me a question. I have been searching a bit and found that the part of the manuscript concerning Alea Evangelii has been translated in this article: “Game-Playing, Moral Purpose, and the Structure of “Pearl””, Michael Olmert, The Chaucer Review (if you sign up for a free account on JStor you can read it for free here: Olmert article).

I also found an interesting discussion on this forum, the people involved also post translations of the manuscript to discuss how the game was played.

I hope this helps. Don’t hesitate to ask more questions if you need any more information, I’m glad to help.

– Christel

Has Hnefatafl been introduced in Ireland?

Considering the extensive and intense contact between the Vikings and the people of the British Isles, it is not unlikely that some form of the Old Norse hnefatafl game has been introduced in Ireland. As we’ve seen in my previous post, fidchell seems an unlikely candidate. In the case of Brandub, which means ‘raven black’, however, we do find evidence that it might be a variant of a tafl game.

Extensive evidence concerning hnefatafl can be found in a riddle contest in the Hervarar Saga. The saga has been preserved in six different manuscripts representing three strikingly different versions of the saga. The riddle episode combines riddles in verse with the solutions entirely in prose. According to Turville-Petre the riddles did not all come into existence at the same time as the story of the contest, he argues that the writer who composed the scene collected riddles that were circulating in verse before that time (Turville-Petre 1956: xiv).

Combining four different manuscripts – one from the 14th century called Hauksbók, one from the early 15th century (referred to as R and believed to be the most traditional), two older paper manuscripts from the 17th century (presumably indirect copies of Hauksbók) and a highly corrupt mid-seventeenth century manuscript referred to as U – the entire riddle episode can be recreated (Turville-Petre 1956: xvii-xviii).

The two riddles concerning hnefatafl contain the following information:

(56) Hverjar eru þaer brúðir, er um sinn drottin vápnlausan vega; inar jarpari hlífa um alla daga, en inar fegri fara? Heiðrekr konungr, hyggðu at gátu.

“(…) þat er hnettafl; inar dekkri verja hnefann, en hvítar sækja” (op. cit.: 43).

What women are they, warring together, before their weaponless king, day after day,  the dark guard him, but the fair go forth to attack? King Heiðrekr, solve this riddle!

“(…) this is hnefatafl, the darker ones defend the hnefi, but the white ones attack”.

(59) Hvat er þat dýrja, er drepr fé manna ok er járni kringt útan; horn hefir átta, en höfuð ekki, ok fylgja því margir mjök? (…) .

“Þat er húnn í hnettafli” (op. Cit.: 44-45).

What is that creature that kills men’s flocks and with iron all about it is bound; eight its horns are but head it has none: there are many that move at its side? (…)

“That is the húnn in hnefatafl.

Hauksbók adds to the solution of the second riddle: ‘It has the same name as a bear; it runs as soon as it is thrown.’ The word húnn apparently had two meanings, which is played upon here: ‘bear’s cub’ and possibly ‘die’ or a special piece in the game. The word horn could mean both ‘horn’ and ‘angle’ possibly describing specific places on the board (Tolkien 1960: 38-39, 88-89).

Tolkien also notes that different versions in different manuscripts differ in words and meaning concerning the sentence above (56). Hauksbók and U have vápnlausar meaning the maidens were weaponless instead of killing their weaponless king (Tolkien 1960: 36-38). Here I have used Turville-Petre’s transcription who consistently uses the R-manuscript where possible.

The answers to these riddles pose the question whether a die was used in hnefatafl or if two different games are mentioned in these riddles, which are both referred to as hnefatafl. The word húnn could possibly also simply refer to a specific, special, piece used in the game.

Looking closer at the evidence about brandub, we find an Irish poem from Acallam na Senorach mentioning brandub. This is a late Middle Irish text dated around the end of the twelfth century (Dillon 1970: ix). The poem mentions: “my famed brandub is in the mountain above Leitir Bhroin, five voiceless men of white silver and eight of red gold” (Stokes 1900: i ll. 3949-50). This shows that brandub was probably played with unequal amounts of pieces on either side and a king-piece.

Another poem, Abair riom a Éire ógh attributed to Maoil Eóin Mac Raith, gives another description. Taking into account the meter, language and style, this poem seems to belong to the court poetry from 1200-1640.

A golden branán with his band art thou with thy four provincials; thou, O king of Bregia, on yonder square and a man each side of thee.

The branán plays an important role in this game, as it is made of gold. The word branán  is a common epithet for chief.

Summarizing the evidence, we now know that brandub was played with one branán  and four ‘provincials’ on one side, these are the five white men mentioned in the Acallam na Senorach  poem, and eight red men on the other side. This is consistent with the tafl games.

Archeological evidence might tell us something about the origin of these games and whether they were introduced by the vikings.

In 1932 the Ballinderry gameboard was found. Research shows that this board was manufactured in Dublin and it dates from the 10th century. The board dates to the tenth century. As Dublin was founded by Vikings, the board’s origin implies that it is a Viking artefact. The board was however found in a crannog in Ballinderry. This shows that the board was used by native Irish people.

It is not entirely certain what game was played using this board, brandub is one of the possibilities. MacWhite points out that Brandub would fit perfectly on the Ballinderry board. He proposes that the men should be placed in the shape of an orthogonal cross. The corner cells could then be marked to indicate that men placed here would be safe from capture. In hnefatafl a piece is captured by surrounding it on two opposite sides. Therefore a piece standing in the corner could not be captured (MacWhite 1946: 34).

If brandub was indeed played on the Ballinderry gaming board, it would prove that the Vikings took their games to Ireland and introduced them to the Irish people. Considering the layout of the board, it seems very likely.

The Chessmen Unmasked exhibition

The Lewis Chessmen (or, more correctly: gaming pieces) are currently on tour for the Exhibition “The Lewis Chessmen Unmasked. Currently they are in The National Museum of Scotland. On their website you can find loads of interesting information concerning the pieces and current research.

Exhibition: The Lewis Chessmen Unmasked

On the website you can also discover the history and stories concerning the pieces and you can even learn to play Hnefatafl 🙂

Unmask the Lewis Chessmen

During the tour interesting events are taking place, on September the 5th you can for example carve your own chesspiece:

Medieval Soap Sculptures

Date: Sun 5 September
Venue: Hawthornden Court, National Museum of Scotland
Cost: Free
Time: Drop-in

Carve your very own chess piece inspired by the Lewis Chessmen. Look closely at the Chessmen to create your own queen, bishop or humourous beserker. Or invent your own chessboard character to add to the board.

On september 11th (my birthday) a seminar is held – very very interesting, I wish I could go there. If anyone does attend, please take extensive notes for me! You may even write a guestblog.

Unmasking the Lewis Chessmen

Date: Sat 11 Sep
Venue: Bute Room, National Museum of Scotland
Cost: £20 / £15 book your place by telephone 0131 225 7534 or online by clicking here (select the September 2010 calendar to access seminar booking page).

To accompany the important exhibition tour of the Lewis Chessmen, this interdisciplinary seminar will highlight recent research into the origins, history and making of these iconic figures from a range of perspectives.  There will also be an opportunity to visit the exhibition during the day.  This seminar will appeal to students, academics and those with a general interest in the period and subject areas.

10.45: Registration (tea and coffee on arrival)

11.00-11.45: The Lewis Chessmen – their place in the Kingdom of the Isles.
Dr David H Caldwell, Keeper of Scotland and Europe, National Museums Scotland

11.45-12.30: The Lewis Chessmen:  Art and Avatar
Dr Heather Pulliam, Lecturer, History of Art, University of Edinburgh

12.30-13.30: Lunch (not provided)

13.30-14.15: Facial Analysis of the Chess Pieces – the use of forensic science techniques for archaeological investigation.
Dr Caroline Wilkinson, Senior Lecturer in Facial Anthropology, University of Dundee

14.15-15.00: The Norwegian Empire, Fantasy or Fact? 
Alex Woolf, School of History, University of St Andrew’s

15.00-15.15 Tea/coffee

15.15-16.00: ‘To you he left … his brown ivory chessmen’, Ships, play and cultural value in the Lewis gaming hoard.
Mark A Hall, History Officer, Perth Museum & Art Gallery

16.00-16.30: Questions/discussion.

Celtic and Old Norse boardgames vs the omnipresent Chess

In both Celtic and Old Norse texts board-games are mentioned and described.In translations all these different games, the Irish fidchell, the Welsh tawlbwrdd, the Old Norse hnefatafl or other tafl games, are often identified as chess. In the case of fidchell this preoccupation with presumably chess already started in the 15th century, as is shown by a gloss incorporated in the text of a 15th century MS. of Cath Maige Tuired:

But if fidchell was invented at the time of the Trojan war, it had not reached Ireland yet, for the battle of Mag Tuired and the destruction of Troy occurred at the same time (Gray 1982: 40-41)

The glossator sees fidchell as a foreign game that has been brought to Ireland, this in accordance with a thirteenth century work by Guido de Colomna ‘Historia Troiana’ where chess was described as being a Trojan invention (Murray 1913: 501).

Nowadays it has, however, been established that these board-games are not necessarily the same as or descended from chess. In fact many of these games predate the introduction of chess in Europe (in the early 9th century, chess probably reached the British Isles by the 12th century) by a few hundred years (Thomsen 2002: 102). The glossator’s error can be explained by people’s natural need to relate unknown phenomena, such as board-games, to things they do know.

As chess was presumably the most popular and well-known board-game in the 15th century, it is only natural for the glossator to equate fidchell to it. Jan Assmann’s theory of cultural memory confirms this, as he argues that the view of a man’s past is influenced by his need of identity and security. He claims that writing functions as a medium of memory and that therefore one may speak of a cultural memory. This memory soon becomes vast and diverse. Man sees himself in relation to the cultural memory and that it shapes his identity. Accordingly, history may be said to be governed not so much by the search for “the truth” as by people’s need of a past (Assmann 2006: 6-7, 87, 179). This should be held in mind during research, earlier research on these board-games, in my opinion, shows a lack of this awareness.

Most of previous research focuses on only one game or sometimes even a single game board (cf. Rundkvist 2008). Other research tends to disregard evidence. R.C. Bell in his volumes on board and table games, for example, concludes that fidchell was probably just a variant of brandub or the tafl games (Bell 1969: 43-46). This shows, in my opinion, a lack of in depth analysis of the source material and a tendency to speculate and generalise.

The evidence found in the Irish ‘Eulogy of Colum Cille’, Amra Coluim Cille illustrates this, as it contradicts the equation with the tafl games. Amra Coluim Cille was composed in 597. In this eulogy we are told that Crimthann Nia Nar’s fidchell board had half its men of yellow gold and the other half of silver:

Fidchell Crimthan Niad Náir., nis-beir mac bec dia lethláim
leth a fairni d’or buidi. in leth aili d’findruine
oenfer dia fairinn namma. dos-cicher 5 secht lánamna.

The draughtboard (sic) of Crimthann Nár’s champion, a small boy carries it not in one hand. Half its set of yellow gold, the other half of white bronze: one man only of its set will purchase seven couples (of slaves). (Stokes 1899: 282-283)

Since all tafl games always have twice as many pieces on one side as on the other (plus a king), fidchell could not have been a tafl game. Stokes’ translation of draughts illustrates that an equation with the tafl games is not called for here, his translation also suggests that we do not know enough of this game to connect it to any game known to us modern people. Eoin MacWhite already showed in his pioneering ‘Early Irish Boardgames’ that, although the pieces probably were captured in the same way as in hnefatafl, fidchell cannot have been an asymmetrical game (MacWhite 1940: 35).

The preoccupation with chess unfortunately also still remains. Allesandro Sanvito makes desperate attempts to link the amount and arrangement of the pieces in the Welsh game tawlbwrdd to a form of unorthodox chess, even though he also establishes that tawlbwrdd is not derived from or in any way related to chess (Sanvito 2002: 22). This seems highly contradictory and illustrates (and exemplifies) the focus on chess that is still evident in modern research of these board-games. Therefore I feel further, unbiased, research should be done.

During my research I will analyse what we are able to find out about these games and their function in society through analysing Old Norse, early Irish and Welsh texts and by analysing archeological finds in the Celtic and Scandinavian countries connected to gaming boards and gaming pieces. I aim to view these board-games in a different light: I want to construct their own history and determine their role and function from a critical and unbiased starting point.