Tag Archives: history

A History Lesson in Six Lines

Very little is known about Romanian medieval literature. This is not a geographical statement, but a cultural one that focuses on language. While literature was most definitely produced within the confines of what would be considered Romania and therefore Romanian medieval literature does exist, literature of any kind was not written in the Romanian language until centuries after the medieval period.

A brief history should explain the different processions of the territory.

The earliest records of the Romanians indicate they initially inhabited the land of Dacia, modern day Transylvania, Wallachia, and Moldova (the latter of which has been problematic until its recent independence). Around the mid third century the land was taken over by the Romans (which consequently brought Christianity to the people). Latin and Dacian mixed, and the dominant source of language, Latin, influenced the majority of the new language that eventually came to be known as Romanian. Interestingly, almost nothing is known of the Dacian language and its existence can be deciphered mainly by working backwards from early Romanian into Latin and noting the differences. In the mid sixth century Slavs invaded Romania, followed by several more invasions over the next six hundred years. Yet despite the disparate nationalities that were traipsing through the land, Romanians managed to maintain an almost impenetrable national identity and language, evident from historic accounts and linguistic studies which concur that while Romanian was influenced by its various invasions, the language only marginally acquired borrowed language, and to this day remains predominantly Latin based.

Nevertheless, the spoken language didn’t survive in extant manuscripts which mainly reflected the dominating nationalities, progressing from liturgical texts written in Latin, to psalters in Slavic, to general texts in Greek (while Romania was under Ottoman rule), until the early sixteenth century when Romanian as we know it finally became part of the textual tradition.

I rarely if ever encounter early texts written in Romanian, but today I was lucky and quite accidentally came upon a short poem written in 1644 by Udriste Nasturel, a scholar and poet. He was greatly concerned with the state of Romanian nationality in the face of so much diplomatic fluctuation where the country changed hands between neighboring nations on a consistent basis without ever holding autonomy.

His brief poem, “Stihuri in stema domniei Tarii Romanesti, neam casei basarabeasca” (Verses on the heraldry of the reign of the Romanian Country, nation of the House Basarab) already carries certain connotations in its title. Despite having been written in the mid seventeenth century, it recalls the rule of House Basarab that had solidified the Wallachia territory in the early fourteenth century, and successfully liberated the land from the Hungarians. Notably, while Nasturel is writing his work, the Romanian nation is juggling power back from the Ottoman Empire with various degrees of success. In other words, the title of his poem reminds his readers of their national descent from House Basarab, drawing on the houses’s success at fending off a vast enemy as a source of inspiration for a call to action against the Ottomans.


(The battle at Posada where the Hungarian forces were defeated by Basarab’s army – Chronicon Hungariae Pictum).

Secondly, “stema” has a double meaning of “heraldry” which I chose to use here, but also “tradition.” These are obviously intertwined even in our modern understanding as heraldry is steeped in tradition, but I think the latter word broadens the meaning outside of simply those who would use heraldry and becomes a nationally inclusive term. Tradition extends to an entire population of people who can identify with the symbols of their nation, as we will shortly see in the poem, whereas heraldry is far more confining to specific groups, namely families, and those in support of those families.

Here is the short poem with my own translation:

Ceastă ţeară corbu-ş poartă întru pecetea ei,
fericit acum se-au dat adaos peceţii.
Scut la pieptul corbului cu un semn ca acela,
om den jeţiu şezându-ş toiag laudă acela.
Mare neam băsărăbesc cu aceasta semnează,
că marea acelor isprăvi a toţ(i) să-i vază.
This country the raven carries in its seal,
Happy now to have been added as another symbol.
Shield at the breast of the raven with a sign that he,
A man gripping his throne, praises it.
Large Basarab nation with this signs,
So their great feats all will see.


The poem has a very direct aabbcc rhyme scheme which serves to divide the narrative as each couplet depicts a brief episode of the story. Tellingly, Nasturel uses a Fourteener for his lines, a metrical line of 14 syllables which was commonly used between the Middle Ages through the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries for narrative poetry. Despite the brevity of his words, he is noting his larger intention.

This is a very image oriented poem that derives meaning from envisioning a connection to the past, not unlike the ways in which the title draws a connection between the contemporary audience and its ancestors.

“This” at the start of the poem does not refer to the Romanian nation, but another, namely the Hungarians, which would be understood by the image of the raven that sits in the middle of their national coat of arms. In the first two lines one possessing entity is subsumed by another, and by the end of the second line the raven is carried not by its original country, but added as a symbol – won over – by another nation. The seal of Hungary becomes a trophy for a victor in the battle, here referring directly to House Basarab.

The image of the raven is again brought to the forefront, depicted on the shields of men in battle, with its heraldic meaning directly related to the king. However, this king that praises the raven and its significance is here shown practically at the edge of his seat, gripping his throne as he is about to lose it.

The last two lines solidify the victory of the Basarab nation over the Hungarians. By overtaking the raven the Basarab nation “signs” its fate, and parades their victory in terms of the enemy’s flag for all to witness.

Further, the last two lines also draw another parallel between past and potential future victories. At the time Nasturel is writing this, the ruler of Wallachia, Matei Brancoveanu, who would soon help the Romanian people in pivotal fights against invaders, had recently declared his descent from House Basarab and consequently rechristened himself Matei Basarab.

And finally, by naming Basarab within the poem he also pays tribute to a man who just a decade earlier made it possible for men like Nasturel to practice their arts with greater efficiency. Starting with his reign in 1632 Matei Basarab was a great patron of the arts and scholarship. With invariable influence from his wife, Elena, who just happened to be Nasturel’s sister, Basarab became the founder of schools and a university, and was responsible for bringing the printing press into Wallachia. He was perhaps the most literate and literature oriented ruler the territory had at that point had, and culture flourished under his rule.

Thus in his brief poem Nasturel manages to navigate several narratives and tie together episodes from the past and present. What a neat little trick!


Ghyka, Matila. A Documented Chronology of Romanian History.

Giurescu, Constantin C. The Making of the Romanian People and Language.

Johanna Granville. “Dej-a-Vu: Early Roots of Romania’s Independence.”

Teodor, Dan. Istoria Romaniei de la inceputuri pana in secolul al VIII-lea. 

Theodorescu, Razvan. “Civilizatia romanilor intre medieval modern.”


In continuing my Arthurian research it has, perhaps most obviously, lead me to Glastonbury Abbey. While this is not necessarily conducive to my original goals, I think to better situate Paris, BnF, fr. MS 342 within the textual tradition, a broader survey of its various components must be taken into account. As MS 342 is a part of the Lancelot cycle that focuses on the latter parts, namely L’Agravain, Queste, and Mort Artu, it the last of these episodes that draws my attention to Glastonbury.

For those of you unfamiliar with the legend, most notably told by William of Malmesbury, to briefly retrace the history, in the seventh century Glastonbury Abbey had been built in the town of Somerset that had been previously conquered by the Saxons. In the tenth century it was reformed physically and conceptually by Dunstan (yes, *that* Dunstan). Then, the next change for the Abbey came with the Norman conquest of 1066 where the church was substantially enlarged with elaborate additions, a process that spanned the next several decades. By 1086, in the Domesday book it was stated to be the most wealthy monastery in the country.


(Stained glass of St. Dunstan- although this is not historic per se, and this particular image comes from a New York church circa 1920)

In the first century Joseph of Arimathea is said to have brought the Holy Grail containing the blood of Christ to a church, along with his body, where it was excavated in the twelfth century to produce relics of various natures in what was then known as Glastonbury Abbey. This is a fanciful account attributed to Robert de Boron, which would date the Abbey’s existence a good seven hundred years earlier. However, this legend is dubious for several more reasons, most prominently due to the fact that these findings along with other relics were found in 1191, following the fire at the abbey in 1184, drawing large crowds, and consequently funds for repair at the Abbey’s greatest time of need.


(MS Hatton 30 at the Bodleian Library with the inscription on the last page that the book was commissioned by Dunstan)

Medieval monks associated Glastonbury Abbey with Avalon, where not only the blood of Christ and his body were at one point thought to have been stored, but also the body of Arthur that supposedly constituted the aforementioned relics.

As for the the full history and minutia associated with the Abbey, refer to to William of Malmesbury’s  On the Antiquity of Glastonbury, which actually prompted my research to diverge from its original intentions (if any could be said to have existed). I set out to find the history of Glastonbury in an attempt to assemble a tie between Arthurian legends and British history, curious as to why his legend had survived for so long on the cusp between history and fiction where historians and laymen alike desperately seemed to want his legend to be founded in fact. Surely it was due to the grandeur associated with Arthur’s court, even if not to Arthur himself, but anyone familiar with insular history will attest to the numerous real life dramas of the Middle Ages without a need to embellish further and create persons who never existed.


(Round Table in the Great Hall of Winchester Castle)


(Close up)

Yet Arthur weaves himself throughout various accounts, and his round table can even be found in Winchester Castle, prominently displayed on the wall of the Great Hall (see above). I began working my way through the different historiographic records, and recalled Arthur is not mentioned by Bede, but he is a prominent figure in Galfridian accounts, however these are polarized sources, so I referred back to William of Malmesbury, the catalyst for my inquiries. In doing so, I found something most strange – conflicting accounts by the same author.

This is where I am currently stumped. Unfortunately, it is the winter holiday break, leaving me with few people I can call upon for help.

The two differing accounts refer to William of Malmesbury’s Gesta Regum Anglorum and De antiquitate Glastoniensis ecclesie. The former was composed circa 1125, while the latter came about in 1129, and therein lies the Arthurian question within a much larger historiographic problem.

In the Antiquitate, William of Malmesbury follows folkloric tradition of Arthur having been buried at Glastonbury Abbey with his remains serving as relics for medieval monks – a whimsical story for the masses, and certainly one that was quickly absorbed. However, I think it may be safely assumed that Arthur (at least as king) did not exist. William of Malmesbury’s retelling of the tale within his Antiquitate would make much more sense if it were an auxiliary work leading up to his magnum opus, Gesta Regum, where arbitrary localized legends were set aside in light of accuracy, especially considering his immediately apparent indebtedness to Bede. However, in Gesta, written later, he astutely asserts “Sed Arturis sepulchrum nusquam visitur, unde antiquita naeniarum adhuc eum venturm fabulatur,” meaning the place of Arthur’s sepulture was unknown, only to be undone by his later work, Antiquitate, where he affirms Arthur’s burial ground.

It appears he is regressing in his history, moving from a survey of British history to a myopic focus upon a single venue, complete with its history and tradition – one that includes Arthur. In fact, this is my only way of reconciling Gesta Regum with Antiquitate. I like to think they were intended for different audiences and thus catered to disparate tastes. However, this is my conjecture, and am basing this on only my reading of the works, hence my need, or perhaps want, for diverse opinions.

Essentially the question I am most stumped with is “why?” Why did a, for lack of a better term, “proper,” historian regress into popular history and pay homage to Arthur in a most factual sense as opposed to relegating him to folklore, or omitting his history altogether when discussing Glastonbury? While it would be easy to assume he may have been under the Arthurian spell that many others would be under for hundreds of years, his adamant denial of a tomb and final resting place for Arthur  in prior works attests to his denouncement of fairytales. Yet he resumes his writing less than five years later to forge a dedicated place for the once and future king of Avalon, or Glastonbury. Why?

The Game and Playe of the Chesse

Every time Sean comes home from grad school for a bit we have coffee and play chess. Last time was no exception, and somehow the conversation rolled around to the history of chess, specifically to the way it was played in the Middle Ages, and how the pieces differed (not just in appearance, but also movement).

Chess originated in India and through a series of moves ended up on Europe where it was widely played during the medieval period, resulting in the version of the game we have today.

First, chess is comprised of only six distinct pieces: pawns, rooks, knights, bishops, the queen, and the king. However, these pieces were for the most part created during the Middle Ages. Essentially the game was adapted from the east, but westernized to fit the purposes of those in the west – the new names and roles the pieces played were made to make sense to Europeans. One fact I found personally interesting was that there was no queen in the original game, but rather a male advisor figure was situated next to the king, evincing the important role queens played in western culture a thousand years ago. While the queen is the only female piece on the board, it is important to note she holds the most power and is allotted the most freedom of movement (with a caveat I will discuss shortly).

For those unfamiliar with the game, here is a brief outline what the pieces symbolize.


Looking at just the white pieces at the bottom, A2 thru H2 are all pawns. Symbolically the pawns were thought to resemble the serfs or commoners of the land. However, a more accurate description of them I found was of the infantry. The reasoning behind this altered analysis of the pieces was due to the significance of serfs versus infantrymen. The former were thought to have value attached to the labor they conducted, while the latter were often no more than fodder during war. While the pawns in chess can be invaluable in certain situations they are often sacrificed in order to clear the board and are the first to be captured as they advance the lines (aside from the knights, no other pieces can move until the pawns are moved out of the way). The pawns move forward only one square at a time, and during the early Middle Ages this was always the case. They “take” pieces diagonally. In the fifteenth century, perhaps to move the game along faster, each pawn could move two spaces for their first move if the player wished them to and this rule remains today. Another invention for the game that came during this same time which concerned the pawns was the en passant that allowed pawns to capture pieces “as they passed.”

The rooks are the “castle” looking pieces at the corners of the board. They represented quite literary what their name implies – castles, home, or refuge. Much likes castles or fortresses, strategically they function best together. They can move vertically or horizontally across the board just like castles or fortresses had command over vast amounts of land. During the Middle Ages the castling move was invented which serves two purposes: it shields the king into a corner to be better defended, and allows the castles more freedom of movement, brining them closer together.

The knights are pretty self explanatory in terms of historic meaning. In the game, portrayed as horses they are the only piece that can jump over other pieces as they move in an L shape (two squares up and one to the side). Sean briefly mentioned that the knight at one point in history moved in a different form, but so far I have not been able to find anything on that.

Bishops were during the original game portrayed by elephants, thought to be dependable animals, and the piece could only move one square at a time. However, considering the role of the bishop as advisor, on the western chess board he sits closest to the royal couple. He moves unlimited spaces diagonally across his base color (one bishop always sits on white and the other on black). Between the two of them, they can influence a large amount of the board.

The queen is now one of the strongest pieces on the board being able to move in the same way as every other piece except the knight. However, this was not always the case. While in the original version of the game she didn’t even exist, in later versions shortly after her introduction her movements were limited (late fifteenth century).

The king is the piece around which the entire game centers. The objective is the render the king helpless by placing him in direct peril (check) without the ability of aide (mate). The king can move one square at a time in any direction. When the majority of the more powerful pieces are removed from the board, the king by himself can do little more than hop away one square at a time as the opposing pieces are closing in on him. It is really quite a pathetic spectacle, but I think it speaks volumes of the distinction between perceived and actual power (and personally each time this happens in a game I can’t help but recall Shakespeare’s Richard II).

One of the earliest sources of chess play in medieval Europe came from Versus de scachis, a latin poem that is thought to have been written before 1000. It exists in two copies, MS Einsidlensis 365 and MS Einsidlensis 309. The 98 line poem describe chess, it’s rules, and contains some basic strategies. 

Then, in 1283, Alfonso X of Castile commissioned Libros de los juegos, a book dedicated to various medieval games and their practices. This too discusses strategies and rules of the game.


(Biblioteca Monasterio del Escorial – depicted: Alfonso discussing a chess problem with other players).


(same MS)

In 1474 William Caxton published The Game and Playe of the Chesse, a book which has very little to do with the actual game of chess. It is in fact a translation of Jacobus de Cessolis’ Liber de moribus hominum et officiis nobilium ac popularium super ludo scachorum (The Book of the Morals of Men and the Duties of Nobles and Commoners, on the Game of Chess). Yet, while this book in either Latin or English has nothing to do with the game, it serves to demonstrate the influence society had on the game, and vice versa. Further, I think it shows why this game was so important among the nobility, who were, for political reasons constantly playing metaphorical chess. Hence the pieces that were switched out from the original version to reflect medieval concerns and relationship among pieces (members of court). While chess, strategy, and politics are all loosely tied in our modern minds and we have all heard the metaphors, during the Middle Ages these same connections were being forged, and I love the idea of chess, a newly acquired game slowly seeping into the world of stratagem outside the corners of the board. 

By the fourteenth and fifteenth century, chess had the same notoriety it has today and references to the game were hardly novel. One last example is from Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess in the Knight’s complaint about Fortune:

“For fals Fortune hath pleyd a game

Atte ches with me, allas the while.

The trayteresse fals and ful of gyle,

That al benoteth, and nothing halt,

She goth upright and yet she halt,

That baggeth foule nad loketh faire,

The dispitouse debonaire,

That skorneth many a creature!”

Here chess is not a game of strategy as a game of deceit. The Knight does not understand the ways in which Fortune works so he may only apply them in terms of his own earthly understanding and compares Fortune’s bidding to a game of chess, where Fortune wins through foul guile that scorns his human mind – she does not cheat, but moves pieces in ways he cannot perceive. He cannot comprehend that he is a part of a larger scheme and Fortune’s actions do not necessarily focus on him. Further, the Dreamer has difficulty looking beyond the chess metaphor to grasp the Knight’s loss, consoling him not on White’s death, but reminding him that he should not weep over a game. Tellingly, and unwittingly, the Dreamer actually pinpoints the exact shortcoming in comprehension on both their parts – life is little more than a game where everyone loses in the end.

While examples of chess in literature at this point abound, I wanted to end with showing you some lovely medieval chess sets.


(The Original Chessmen – National Museums Scotland)

Above are the Isle of Lewis Chessmen which were created at some point between 1150 and 1200. Here is more information on them if you wish.

Here is the Charlemagne Set (despite that Charlemagne apparently didn’t play chess). These are housed in the BnF, and are made of ivory (which I will refrain from commenting on).


As you can see artists of the Middle Ages took great pride in producing their chess sets, crafting them into the actual pieces they were meant to represent very much unlike the little plastic generic pieces we have today. This is not to say such fine sets do not exist today, but the idea of a hand crafted unique set, not mass produced is rare.

Which brings me to my last point, of how the pieces were represented in earlier times. I thought there would be a difference. But, while the sets depicted above (among others) are exquisite, I have found that not much has really changed in terms of their appearance. As the scope of chess playing has broadened and the game has become public fair the pieces have taken on a more generic shape that could be easily disseminated to the masses. However, these rare sets do exist. I have seen collector shops that sell beautiful chess sets comparable to those seen in museums (despite having been recently created). In short, the appearance of the pieces has not dramatically changed. At least not so much so that these pieces would be indistinguishable from each other.

So while chess has come a long way, the various changes it has undergone have not altered the scope of the game, and it continues (from the 6th century when it was first created in India) to act as a cerebral exercise in strategy on and off the game board.


Adams, Jenny. Power Play: The Literature and Politics of Chess in the Late Middle Ages.

Davidson, Henry. A Short History of Chess.

Dwayne E. Carpenter, “Fickle Fortune: Gambling in Medieval Spain,”

Murray, Harold James. A History of Chess. 

Proctor, Robert. An Index to the Early Printed Books in the British Museum