rise of the all-powerful chess queen & Gratien Dupont’s protest

medieval knights playing chess

When the game of chess was invented, probably in India about 1500 years ago, all the pieces on the board were masculine. Chess originally reflected the horrible reality of war structured as men’s violence against men. In the modern game of chess, the queen is the most powerful piece on the chessboard. The queen’s rise to dominance in chess reflects the general historical pattern of men’s symbolic displacement, mythic effacement of reality, and intensifying gynocentrism. In that context, Gratien Dupont created his Controverses that challenge gynocentric oppression with transgressive brilliance.

In early Indian and Persian forms, chess was an exercise modeled on war. The Indian form in the early sixth century was called chaturanga. That meant “four branches {of the military}”: infantry, cavalry, elephantry, and chariotry. Chaturanga included the following pieces:

  • Raja (king), early form of king
  • Mantri / Senapati (counselor / general), preceding piece for queen
  • Ratha (chariot), early form of rook
  • Gaja (elephant), early form of bishop
  • Ashva (horse), early form of knight
  • Pedati or Bhata (foot soldier), early form of pawn

These pieces were men, military equipment that men used, and animals that men took into battle. The early Persian form, called shatranj, followed the early Indian form.[1] In both the early Indian and early Persian forms, the counselor (called in Persian and Arabic the fers) moved only diagonally, and only one square per move. While the counselor was more powerful than the foot soldier, that power inequality was much less than that between today’s queen and today’s foot soldier (pawn).

Europeans transformed the Indian and Persian chess counselor into a queen and greatly expanded her power on the chessboard. The first surviving reference to chess in European literature is Versus de scachis (“Verses on chess”). A German-speaking Benedictine monk living in a monastery located in present-day Switzerland wrote Versus de scachis about 997. At least at that place and time, the queen had already replaced the counselor in chess. The queen’s movement then was only oblique:

And the way for the queen is by reason easily revealed:
That diagonal course, the color {of squares traversed} shall be the same.
{At via reginæ facili racione patescit:
Obliquus cursus huic, color unus erit.} [2]

Another Latin poem, Elegia de ludo scachorum (“Elegy on the game of chess”), is attested from second half of the eleventh century. This poem suggests that the queen had become very powerful:

And if ever he {a pawn} reaches the summit of the chessboard,
he snatches up the queen’s customary duties,
Man made woman, he as a fierce arbiter keeps close to the king,
Commands and rules, here seizes, there yields.
{Et si quando datur tabule sibi tangere summa,
Regine solitum preripit officium.
Vir factus mulier regi ferus arbiter heret,
Imperat et regnat, hinc capit, inde labat.} [3]

The poem indicates the preeminent value of the queen:

The king by himself remains uncaptured, his spouse taken away
His spouse taken away, nothing has value on the chessboard.
{Rex manet incaptus, subtracta coniuge solus,
Coniuge subtracta, nil ualet in tabula.} [4]

Men in medieval Europe were socially constructed as persons who fight and die on behalf of women. Long before the sixteenth century, rules of chess changed to give the chess queen more capabilities to fight on behalf of her king:

Other ferses {queen-type pieces} move but one square,
But this one invades so quickly and sharply
That before the devil {opposing king} has taken any of hers,
She has him so tied up and so worried that
He doesn’t know where he should move.
This fers mates him in straight lines;
This fers mates him at an angle {or, in the corner}
This fers takes away his bad-mouthing;
This fers takes away his prey;
This fers always torments him;
This fers always goads him;
This fers from square to square
By superior strength drives him out.
{Autres fierces ne vont qu’un point,
Mais ceste cort si tost et point
Qu’ainc qu’anemis ait del sien pris,
L’a lacié et si souspris
Ne seit quel part traire se doie.
Ceste fierce le mate en roie,
Ceste fierce la mate en l’angle,
Ceste fierce li tolt la jangle,
Ceste fierce li totl sa proie,
Ceste fierce toz jors l’aspoie,
Ceste fierce toz jors le point,
Ceste fierce de point en point,
Par fine force le dechace.} [5]

A detailed description of chess preserved in the late-thirteenth-century Gesta Romanorum indicates that the queen had the power to move both to squares of different colors and diagonally to squares of the same color. Enumerating chess pieces from one (rook) to six (king), the text describes the queen’s movement:

The fifth, who in that {game} played and called chess, is the queen. Her move is from white to black, and she is placed next to the king. When she leaves the king, he is captured. When she has moved from her own black square, where she was first placed, she cannot move, except from one square to {another} square, and this diagonally, whether she go forward or return, whether she captures, or is {threatened with being} captured.
{Quintus, qui in isto scacario ludit et nominatur, est regina, cujus progressus est de albo in nigrum, et ponitur juxta regem; et quando recedit a rege, capitur. Que cum mota fuerit de proprio quadro nigro, ubi primo fuit locata, non potest procedere, nisi a quadro in quadrum unum, et hoc angulariter, sive procedat, sive retrocedat, sive capiat, sive capiatur.} [6]

The leading authority on the history of chess called the Gesta Romanorum’s account of chess “a hopeless muddle” and declared “the carelessness of the compiler, who was clearly incompetent to write anything exact on chess.”[7] The Gesta Romanorum’s account of chess was meant to be morally important and impressively expressed. In describing the king without the queen and the actions of the queen, Gesta Romanorum described a relatively powerful queen with echoes of antitheses from the earlier chess poem Elegia de ludo scachorum.[8] Gesta Romanorum was widely disseminated in Europe. The chess queen across Europe for centuries prior to the late fifteenth apparently had movement capabilities and importance lacking in the fers that she displaced.[9]

By the mid-sixteenth century, the chess queen throughout Europe had the movement possibilities of the piece today. Apparently beginning in Spain and Italy in the last decades of the fifteenth century, the queen gained the power to move horizontally, vertically, or diagonally as far as open space allowed or capturing a piece required. These movement possibilities, which define the chess queen today, make her by far the most powerful piece on the chessboard. Within a half-century, the queen had such power in chess throughout Europe. This new version of chess was called names that highlight the queen: in Spanish, axedrez dela dama (“chess of the lady”); in Italian, scacchi de la donna (“chess of the lady”) and scacchi alla rabiosa (“madwoman’s chess”); in French, eschés de la dame (“chess of the lady”) and eschés de la dame enragée (“chess of the enraged lady”).[10] The epithets “madwoman” and “enraged” hint at diffuse fear under intensified gynocentrism.

Gratien Dupont de Drusac transgressively challenged the intensified gynocentrism that the new chess queen indicated. Dupont’s book Controverses des sexes masculin et femenin (Controversies of the Masculine and Feminine Sexes) was published in France in 1534. Among ingenious visual poetry and shocking verbal constructions, it included a lengthy poem with puns on con (“cunt”):

The word con appears in every line. In the extract below, it can be read as part of the verb connaitre, to know’, or it can be read as a variation of ‘du con naitre’ meaning that all humans are ‘born from the cunt.’ Thus ‘nous connaissons’ can mean we know’ or ‘du con naissons’ can mean from the cunt we are born’. If something is ‘connu’, it is known, but the ‘con nu’ is a naked cunt’. And so Dupont seems to delight in the opportunity for play on words and double entendre. [11]

Protesting the queen’s dominance on the chessboard, Dupont constructed a chessboard with transgressive disparagement of women written within each square. The white squares contain words rhyming in -ante or -ente: De vice regente (“Queen regent of vice”), Par trop deplaisante (“Much too displeasing”), Folle impertinente (“Foolishly impertinent”), Cruelle mordante (“Cruelly biting”), En bien negligente (“Very negligent”), etc. The black squares contain phrases with words rhyming in -esseFemme abuseresse (“Abusive woman”), En sçavoir asnesse (“In learning asinine”), Sans fin menteresse (“Lying without end”), Vraye diablesse (“True she-devil”), etc.[12] Dupont thus created a critical perspective on the queen’s dominant power to cover the chessboard.

Gratien Dupont's chessboard protest

Dupont endured fierce backlash for ridiculing dominant gynocentrism. He had sought to remain anonymous, but his name was exposed. A contemporary high French official accused him of folly. A scholar wrote six Latin odes attacking him and suggested using Dupont’s book for toilet paper. Another declared that Dupont was a “detractor of the feminine sex” and urged the public to toss Dupont’s book into the fire. The Impregnable {sic} Fort of the Honour of the Feminine Sex, which a man wrote, declared Dupont a “Captain of contempt.” Another book castigated Dupont de Drusac: Anti-Drusac or Little Book Against Drusac Made in Honour of Noble, Good and Honest Women. Engaging in their usual name-calling, modern scholars have called Dupont a misogynist — “one of the most vehement misogynists of the sixteenth century.”[13] A few men who were his contemporaries initially praised Dupont for daring, honesty, and truth.[14] But praise of women was the sixteenth-century European norm:

It is essential to consider why, in the sixteenth-century Querelle des femmes, the opportunity to spread tales about female vice and the inferiority of women seemed to interest so few French writers. Most Querelle writers were only willing to blame woman once they had already confirmed their praise of the female sex. … By the mid-sixteenth century, the defender of woman was the literal ‘champion’ of views acceptable for airing on the printed page; the poor ‘mysogynist’ became the underdog. [15]

Praising women supports dominant gynocentric interests. Just as is the case today, in sixteenth-century France the superiority of women was the accepted opinion in public discourse.[16] Gratien Dupont’s protest against gynocentrism had little effect. His protest is scarcely remembered in literary history.

The historical transformation of chess in Europe shows a female symbol (the chess queen) displacing a male symbol (the chess counselor or fers) and then gaining dominant power within the formerly male space of the chessboard. Today men have no reproductive rights whatsoever. Today paternity is publicly established in patently unjust ways. Today family law is enormously biased against men. Mortal violence against men and rape of men are more prevalent than the corresponding offenses against women. Yet current affirmative-consent sexual initiatives are squarely targeted at men. Those initiatives potentially could raise the highly disproportionate imprisonment of men much higher. Chess players should understand the broad dimensions of the game they are playing.[17] Perhaps a chess genius can figure out a successful attack on gynocentric oppression configured on the large, vital chessboard of social life.

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[1] The Middle Persian and Arabic term shatranj comes from the Sanskrit term chaturanga. The Persian and Arabic pieces followed those of the early Indian form.

[2] Versus de scachis (Einsiedeln Poem) ll. 63-4, from Latin my translation. The Latin text is also given in Murray (1913) pp. 512-4. For the dating, Gamer (1954) p. 742. In Latin before 1200, the chess queen was called regina, femina, and ferzia. Eales (1985) p. 45.

With the provincialism associated with gynocentric scholarship, Yalom (2004), Ch. 2, speculates on “living models for the chess queen.” That exercise mainly serves dominant ideological interests. A less prominent scholar astutely observed:

the search for an historical queen or series of queens behind the chess queen does not help us to better understand the chess literature nor the dynamic phenomenon of the game itself.

Taylor (2012) p. 180. An independent scholar dared to state the obvious:

There could be something wrong with my sense of logic, but I am not able to understand why there should be a connection between a chess queen and a female sovereign because the latter has a working knowledge of Latin.

Van der Stoep (2014) p. 154.

[3] Elegia de ludo scachorum (Qui cupit egregium scacorum…) ll. 8-9, from Latin my translation, with help from Marshall (2014) p. 253. The poem occurs as Carmina Burana, no. 210. Murray (1913), pp. 515-6, provides a critical edition of the poem. Since Murray wrote, two new manuscripts have been discovered (for a total of ten surviving manuscripts), and the poem has been convincingly dated to the second half of the eleventh century. In some manuscripts the poem is entitled Ludus scacorum. The poem came to be associated with the Latin poem De vetula, which includes a discourse on chess. Both poems in some manuscripts are wrongly attributed to Ovid. Gamer (1954) pp. 739-40, Eales (1985) p. 51.  Carmina Burana 209, a poem of four lines, also concerns chess. Placed between Carmina Burana 209 and 210 in the manuscript is a color illumination of chess-playing.

[4] Elegia de ludo scachorum l. 17, from Latin my translation. The fourth clause of the line has variant readings. A common reading is rex manet in tabula. That makes for a dull, repetitive poetic line. An antitheses occurs in the immediately preceding line: A dominis minimi, domini capiuntur ab imis (“By the lord the little ones {are captured}, and the lord is captured by the lowly”). Another occurs two lines earlier: hinc capit, hinc capitur (“here he captures, here he is captured”). An earlier reference to the pawn made queen also included antithesis: hinc capit, inde labat (“here seizes, there yields”). In that poetic context, nil ualet in tabula seems to me a much better reading. That’s the preferred reading in Murray (1913) p. 516.

In Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess, a knight playing against Lady Fortune declares:

with her various little cheating moves, she tricked me and stole away my queen. And when I saw my queen had been taken away, alas, I could not figure out how to continue playing, but said, ‘Farewell sweet always, and farewell everything, now and forever!’

ll. 653-8, modernization thanks to eChaucer, with my slight adaptation based on the Middle English text. The knight’s view of losing his queen piece (in the Middle English text referred to as fers) is consistent with reading nil ualet in tabula in the earlier Elegia de ludo scachorum.

[5] Gautier de Coinci, Miracles de la Sainte Vierge (also called Les Miracles de Nostre Dame) ll. 281-93, from Old French trans. Taylor (2012) p. 182, with my minor adaptations. Gautier wrote this poem early in the thirteenth century. The word fierces (“fers”) makes a pun with vierge (“virgin”). Id. n. 19. Virgin in medieval thought was associated with Mary, the mother of Jesus. She was called the Holy Queen and Holy Virgin (Sainte Vierge).

[6] Gesta Romanorum, Tale 166, from Latin text of Oesterley (1872) p. 552, ll. 5-10, my translation, with help from Swan & Hooper (1877) pp. 316-7. Murray provided only the introductory paragraph of Oesterley’s text of Gesta Romanorum. Id. pp. 562-3. Murray argued that the English Gesta Romanorum was prior to the continental Oesterley text. The former, but not the latter, includes a tale entitled De Antonio Imperatore. That tale includes a similar description of the chess queen’s movement. Two manuscripts of the English Gesta Romanorum described the queen’s movement as de albo in nigrum (“from white to black”), while others state de nigro in nigrum vel de albo in album (“from black to black and from white to white”). Id. p. 562. Murray provides a muddled account of this difference. Id. p. 553.

[7] Murray (1913) pp. 553, 552.

[8] See discussion above of Rex manet incaptus, subtracta coniuge solus, / Coniuge subtracta, nil ualet in tabula. Jacobus de Cessolis, Liber de moribus hominum et officiis nobilium super ludo scacchorum, Bk 4, Ch. 3, contributed text to Gesta Romanorum’s description of the chess queen. Compare Williams (2008) pp. 108-10 to Swan & Hooper (1877) pp. 316-7, and see Murray (1913) pp. 550-4, 562-3. Cessolis’s work is from the second half of the thirteenth century. It was one of the most popular texts of the European Middle Ages. Id. pp. 539, 537.

[9] Yalom (2004) obscures earlier evidence of the chess queen’s greater power relative to the fers:

We have seen how the chess queen appeared around the year 1000 as a European replacement for the Arabic vizier, taking over his slow, one-step-at-a-time diagonal gate. Despite slight regional differences, this is the pace she maintained throughout the Middle Ages.

Id. pp. 191-2. Taylor (2012) insightfully focuses on the expansion of the queen’s movement possibilities prior to the new chess. Under the Lombard rules, the queen on her first move could jump two squares on the diagonal. Taylor (2012) p. 176, Murray (1913) p. 462. That was a move to a same-color square. Gesta Romanorum, in contrast, describes a queen’s move to a different-color square.

The chess queen’s preeminent power gave poets the opportunity to reverse scenes of men fighting on behalf of women. Marcus Hieronymus Vida’s Latin poem Schaccia, Ludus (The Game of Chess) was published in 1525. It described chess queens fighting to death on behalf of their kings:

The dreadful Amazons {chess queens} sustain the fight.
Resolved alike to mix in glorious strife,
Till to imperious fate they yield their life.
{Foemineis ambae nituntur Amazones armis,
Usque adeo certae non cedere, donec in auras
Aut haec, aut illa effundat cum sanguine multo
Saevam animam, sola linquentes praelia morte.}

ll.379-82, from Latin trans. Oliver Goldsmith (1527).

Yalom attributes the new chess to gynocentrism expressed as gynarchy under Isabella of Castille (reigned 1474 to 1504):

the new chess queen was raised to the stature of the living queen, and hence forth the revised game would be called “queen’s chess” — an epithet that honored Queen Isabella as well as her symbolic equivalent on the board.

Id. p. 211. That claim rests on little more than biographical fallacy (some woman ruler must have been the model for the chess queen) and mythologizing. Taylor (2012) pp. 179-80, Van der Stoep (2014) p. 156. However, as Yalom’s work documents, the intensification of gynocentrism is a real historical phenomenon.

[10] In the context of chess, the words donna in Italian and dame in French came to mean the chess queen. Luis de Lucena, Repetición de amores y arte de ajedrez, described the new power of the chess queen. That book was printed in Spain in 1497. Eales (1985) pp. 72-3. Francesch Vicent, Jochs partits del sachs en numbre de 100, printed in Catalan in Valencia in 1495, and Le Jeu des Eschés de la Dame moralisé, from the late fifteenth century, also attest to the new chess rules. Murray (1913) pp. 776-80, Eales (1985) pp. 71-6, Taylor (2012) pp. 175-9. Concluding her ridiculous, mythic account of the birth of the chess queen, Yalom declares:

the chess queen evokes a distant era when respect, admiration, and fear were lavished on numerous living queens. Yet the chess queen is still a fitting image for women’s place in the world, and not just for royalty.

Yalom (2004) p. 241. Given the harsh anti-men bias pervasive in modern criminal justice systems and the serious problem of false accusation, women in general are probably much more feared today than they were in sixteenth-century Europe.

[11] Warner (2011) p. 111, with some small, non-substantial changes for ease of reading. The word controverses (“controversies”) itself makes a play on con. Id. Dupont also set up an allegory in which Masculine Sex chooses Lady Truth as his advocate, while Lady Strong Opinion defends Feminine Sex. Id. pp. 110, 118. One of Dupont’s sources was Matheolus, a brilliant voice of medieval men’s sexed protest.

[12] Warner (2011) p. 113. Below the chessboard, Dupont labeled it Eschequier en forme d’eue (Chessboard in the form of Eve). He decorated the chessboard with a conventional lion-head mask with a ring in the lion’s mouth. Dupont attached to the ring what appears to be a moneybag. That may allude to men being treated as wallets in relation to women. Financial exploitation of men through paternity claims became an issue in the French Revolution.

Nash (1997), pp. 380-1, and Yalom (2004), pp. 219-20, discuss Dupont’s work with conventional name-calling in support of the dominant gynocentric ideology. Authors of literature of men’s sex protest have suffered such attacks throughout history.

[13] Warner (2012) pp. 105-7. Dupont was not named on the title page, but his name was exposed within the book. Id. p. 105.

[14] Letters included in the first edition of Controverses des sexes masculin et femenin endorsed it. In one letter, Guillaume de la Perriere praised the author for having “written freely without fear and pursued his intent without flattery or adulation.” In another, Bernard d’Estopinhan urged the author:

do not fear the insults of the envious, put behind you the fear of feminine fury {and} take the safe conduct of truth which will make you secure from the assaults of your adversaries

Estienne de Vignalz praised the author for being “truthful and not a lying flatterer.” Fear of the dominant ideology rapidly became an issue. Editions of the work published in 1536 and 1537 suppressed printer attributions and letters of support. Id. pp. 108-9.

[15] Id. pp. 104, 118. The framework of debate — Querelle des femmes — itself indicated gynocentrism.

[16] Id. p. 117. Id. asks, “what happens when the so-called paradox of the superiority of woman becomes the ‘received opinion’ in print?” Belief in the superiority of women coexists with vigorous pursuit of professed ideals of gender equality.

[17] Discussion of injustices against men is actively and viciously condemned today. Discussion of injustices against women, in contrast, is highly privileged. That’s no more reasonable today than it would be in the sixteenth century:

If we fail to compare the debate on the nature of woman with the contiguous debate on the dignity and misery of man, then we risk misinterpreting the Renaissance idea of human nature. Without the context and comparison, one might find misogyny in places where a simple lament on human weakness or a satire on the human condition was intended. To separate the ‘Renaissance man’ from his female counterpart misleads the modern reader about how these concepts occur in the sixteenth-century sources.

Id. p. 6.

[images] (1) Knights Templar playing chess. Illumination made in 1283. From Biblioteca del Monasterio de El Escorial, ms T. I 6, fol. 25. Thanks to Wikimedia Commons. (2) Eschequier en forme d’eue (Chessboard in the form of Eve). From Gratien Dupont, Les controverses des sexes masculin et féminin (Toulouse: 1534), p. XLIV (f157). Thanks to Bibliothèque nationale de France / Gallica.


Eales, Richard. 1985. Chess, the history of a game. New York, N.Y.: Facts on File Publications.

Gamer, Helena M. 1954. “The Earliest Evidence of Chess in Western Literature: The Einsiedeln Verses.” Speculum. 29 (4): 734-50.

Marshall, Tariq. 2014. The Carmina Burana: Songs from Benediktbeuren: a full and faithfull translation with critical annotations. 3rd edition. Los Angeles: Marshall Memorial Press.

Murray, Harold James Ruthven. 1913. A history of chess. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Nash, Jerry C. 1997. “Renaissance misogyny, biblical feminism, and Hélisenne de Crenne’s Epistres familières et invectives.” Renaissance Quarterly. 50 (2): 379-410.

Oesterley, Hermann, ed. 1872. Gesta Romanorum. Berlin: Weidmann.

Swan, Charles, trans. and Wynnard Hooper, ed. 1877. Gesta Romanorum. London: George Bell & Sons.

Taylor, Mark N. 2012. “How Did the Queen Go Mad?” Ch. 7 (pp. 175-89) in O’Sullivan, Daniel E., ed. Chess in the Middle Ages and Early Modern Age: a Fundamental Thought Paradigm of the Premodern World. Berlin: De Gruyter.

Van der Stoep, Arie. 2014. “Review: Marilyn Yalom. Birth the chess queen.” Board Game Studies 8: 153-8.

Warner, Lyndan. 2011. The ideas of man and woman in Renaissance France: print, rhetoric, and law. Farnham, Surrey, England: Ashgate.

Williams, H. L., trans. 2008. Jacobus de Cessolis. The book of chess. New York: Italica Press.

Yalom, Marilyn. 2004. Birth of the chess queen: a history. New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers.

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