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Issue 15 – Lent 2023

Historia Ecclesiastica

Squares All Chequered

On chess and the Church.


When the Moors invaded the Iberian Peninsula in 711, the popularity of the game of chess, which the Muslims had adopted after the Islamic conquest of Persia in the seventh century, spread quickly throughout southern Europe. According to the oldest myth that explains the invention of chess, King Hashrān of India asked his sage Qaflān to invent a game that would illustrate a human being’s dependence on destiny and fate. Qaflān conceived of nard, a board game between two players whose roll of the dice determined how their respective pieces move. When King Balhait, who succeeded King Hashrān, learned that the fatalist traits of nard were not in concert with his religious beliefs, he encouraged his subjects to adopt a new game of skill that appealed to the value he placed on free will and intelligence. King Balhait soon discovered, however, other uses for the board and pieces of this game he often played against the wisemen in his court:

He also made of this game a kind of allegory of the heavenly bodies (eleven planets and the twelve zodiacal signs), and dedicated each piece to a star. The game of chess became a school of government and defense; it was consulted in time of war, when military tactics were about to be employed, to study the more or less rapid movements of troops.

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About the author

Michael J. McGrath

Michael J. McGrath is professor of Hispanic studies at Georgia Southern University.