hist-games: medieval chess pieces

Jon at Gothic Green Oak jon at gothicgreenoak.co.uk
Thu Jun 14 01:42:21 PDT 2007

Thanks to both Jim and Ulrich who replied to my message to the list which is at the end of this message.

I suppose my real question, for which there is most possibly no certain answer is though the number of chess pieces from the medieval period is small they are to a certain extent varied, especially those identified as king and 'queen' and less so for bishop, knight and rook. Courier chess is a 13th C game and has extra pieces that have not been identified. Has anyone considered that any of the chess or other gaming pieces found from the period could belong to this game.

The second part of the question is when do the first identifiable courier chess pieces appear. 

as far as I know, there are no medieval pieces resembling the extra men of the Courier-Chess around. Literature about pieces for medieval chess variants is extremely scarce. I have dealt with chess pieces for arabic medieval chess variants in a paper published in "The Chess Collector" 1, 1998, but it doesn't deal with Courier Chess. 


I'm a collector of historic forms of chess, off in Spokane, Washington in the US, and so may have some interesting, though less than helpful, info on this matter.

Although having been played for nigh on 600 years, no Courier chess sets have survived.  Apparently a wealthy prince donated a set and board to a chess-crazy town in Germany, but the silver pieces have since been nicked and only reproductions of some apparently exist in their museum.

Selenius devoted a section to Courier in his chess book, with designs for a figural set on pillars, rather like the Dieppe style of chess men, but whether any actual Courier sets looked like that is hard to tell, due to the lack of preserved sets.

You may be familiar with a painting done around 1500 of two people evidently playing the game.  Unfortunately even with a magnifier it is hard to say more than that the set apparently was fairly abstract, with knight horse pieces, but the rest fairly simple shapes (tiered pieces probably for the king and queen).  Since so many of the pieces are shown having ben moved or captured, it is hard to figure out which were what.

All that said, none of the pieces look especially similar to the ancient shatranj style designs, suggesting different roots for the Courier pieces.  The number of preserved chess sets or even isolated chess men is remarkably small (less so, for example, even than the preservation of early playing cards) and so trickier to try to discern trends or influences in designs.  My suspicion is that some chess sets may have been taken over from Courier ones, but in that case the odds would be that the unneeded pieces would have been simply discarded.

It is also possible that isolated Courier pieces may have been preserved but misidentified.  But so far in my study of the available sets and pieces nothing jumps out as likely here.



This question is about medieval chess men, not the beautiful and elaborately carved pieces but the symbolic pieces typical of the game in the early medieval period and their relationship with the early 13th C chess variant Courier Chess. This has four extra men: the courier (of which there are 2), the counsellor and the spy, sneak or jester. Have any of the chess pieces of the medieval period been identified with the additional men from this game?


Also, can anyone lead me to more recent examples of the additional men from this game? 



If you would like more detailed info, or have further questions or comments, feel free to post away.

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