The Metaphor of Chess in the Chronicles of Normandy in the 15th Century
Throughout its development and rewritings, the rich Norman historiography has constructed the history of the Duchy of Normandy’s reigning figures. The history of the Dukes of Normandy is sometimes genuine; romanticised at other times. In any case, the writers’ objective was to present the Dukes of Normandy as examples that the reader should follow.
One character in particular stands out among these writings: Robert the Magnificent, who ruled the Duchy of Normandy from 1027 to 1035. As history was rewritten, how the figure of Robert was handled became more and more acute, notably in his relationship to the three orders of feudal society. As a whole, his life story is rather negative. He is mainly known as the father of the future William the Conqueror, a central figure in the history of the Duchy of Normandy. However, he is also suspected of the murder of his older brother, Richard III, which allowed him to accede to the Duke’s crown. From one literary work to another, the writers credited him with one, two, then three acts of kindness towards his subjects. These acts of kindness are presented in the form of moralistic tales that would increase the standing of the fratricidal duke. If taken separately, these tales have little influence on Robert’s legend, therefore it is necessary to understand the three tales collectively in order to see the reference to the three orders of medieval feudal society.
The tale this article focuses on tells the story of a game of chess in which Duke Robert plays against a knight while a cleric is watching them, keeping tally of the score. A young squire comes to renew the homage for his fief and offers the duke a valuable vase made of gold. The duke immediately presents the cleric with the vase, which causes him to die of joy instantly. The tale ends with the physicians’ inability to explain the death of the young cleric, apart from considering that he died out of love for his lord.
The text rose in importance when the last Norman historiographic tale, known as the Chronicles of Normandy, was illustrated at the end of the 14th Century. Indeed, it is the motif of the aforementioned chess game that was chosen to illustrate the life of Duke Robert the Magnificent. Save for a manuscript that deals with the three acts of kindness, it is generally the chess game that iconographers preferred. However, this image has often been misinterpreted and mistaken for the Parliament of Normandy, also known as ‘Exchequer of Normandy’, which proves that the moralistic tales were lost to the mists of time. Through this iconographic analysis, a true metaphor of medieval society is inserted into the text.