Early Irish Board Games – article from Eigse
Owing to the meagre and vague character of the evidence, the student who would elucidate the nature of the various board games mentioned in early Irish literature must tread warily. Not only is the evidence slight and ambiguous but it is sometimes contradictory. However some possibilities and probabilities can be shown, and a few impossibilities likewise. One of the latter is the popular fallacy that fidchell and brandub were chess or draughts. Both fidchell and brandub are frequently mentioned in the saga literature of the Ulster cycle, and fidchell is mentioned in the Laws, which would bring us back to the seventh century at least. The etymological identity of Old Irish fidchell with Old Welsh gwyddbwyll might well bring us into prehistoric times. H.J.R. Murray in his monumental History of Chess has demonstrated that “European chess is a direct descendant of an Indian game played in the seventh century with substantially the same arrangements and methods as in Europe five centuries later, the game having been adopted first by the Persians, then handed on by the Persians to the Muslim world, and finally borrowed from Islam by Christian Europe.” Draughts, whatever its exact origin was, cannot be traced back beyond the thirteenth century, and some of its characteristics (viz. the board and the idea of promotion) seem to have been borrowed from chess. Thus both brandub and fidchell were current in Ireland some five centuries before the introduction of chess into Europe, and for a longer period before the invention of draughts.
- Eoin Mac White’s article ‘Early Irish Board Games’ from Eigse V 1945 – http://www.unicorngarden.com/eigse/ – the most extensive article on boardgames I have been able to find.
The Book of Deer
“The Book of Deer is a tenth century illuminated manuscript from North East Scotland. As the only pre-Norman manuscript from this area known as “former Pictland” it provides us with a unique insight into the early church, culture and society of this period.Amid the Latin text and the Celtic illuminations there can be found the oldest pieces of Gaelic writing to have survived from early Medieval Scotland.”
- The book of Deer – http://www.bookofdeer.co.uk/
“CELT, the Corpus of Electronic Texts, brings the wealth of Irish literary and historical culture to the Internet, for the use and benefit of everyone worldwide. It has a searchable online textbase consisting of over 12.6 million words, in over thousand contemporary and historical documents from many areas, including literature and the other arts.”
- CELT – http://celt.ucc.ie/index.html – invaluable.
- Catalogue of Digitized Medieval Manuscripts – http://manuscripts.cmrs.ucla.edu/
Board Game Studies
The International Society for Board Game Studies is an interdisciplinary group dedicated to research on board games and the history and development of board games around the world. Some of the research is very general and examines board games as a part of play and learning in different cultures. Other studies relate to specific board games and their evolution; such games include backgammon, mancala (wari, oware, awele, et. al.), Halma (Chinese Checkers), the game of India (Parchesi, Ludo, et. al.), checkers, chess, and others.
The core information for this variant comes from the manuscript Corpus Christi College MS. 122. This manuscript is a Gospel Book written in an Irish hand containing a few notes in Irish. It is listed to the 12th century, although some scolars claim a 11th century date for it.
The manuscript is thus described in H.O. Coxe, Catalogus Codicum MSS. qui in Collegiis Aulisque Oxoniensibus hodie adservantur (Oxford, 1852)
This sources uses an Alea Evangelii board as a concordance to the Gospels.
The text relating to Alea Evangelii reads:
Incipit Alea Evangelii, quam Dubensi episcopus Bennchorensis detulit a rege Angelorum, id est a domu Adalstani regis Angelorum, depicta a quodam Francone et a Romano sapiente, id est Israel.
Si quis voluerit scire hanc aleam plene, illi ante omnia hujus discipline documenta hec .VII. scire animo necesse est: duces scilicet et comites, propugnatores et impugnatores, civitatem et civitatulam, et .IX. gradus bis.
(Alea Evangelii, the game of the Gospel, which Dubensi bishop of Bangor brought away from the King of the Anglish, that is, from the house of Athelstan king of the English; depicted by a certain Frank and a Roman sage, that is, Israel. If anyone would know this game fully, before all the lessons of this teaching he must thoroughly know these seven: to wit, dukes and counts, defenders and attackers, city and citadel, and nine steps twice over.)