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Blogging my Thoughts: Bishops versus Runners in Chess and the Investiture Controversy

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Blogging my Thoughts:

Bishops versus Runners in Chess and the Investiture Controversy

The famed Norse Chessmen, made out of the ivory of walrus tusks that were discovered in 1831 on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides in Scotland are rather telling for insights about bishops in history.[1] The controversy brought up in this New York Times article is if they were made in Iceland or Norway.[2] Made between 1150 and 1200 A.D., they feature bishops after the king and queen and the fellows arguing for their Iceland’s origin, claim they were called runners and not bishops at that time in Norway. Actually, in German we still call them runners (Läufer). In Iceland these chess pieces were already called bishops in the tenth and eleventh centuries. A counter argument insists that the origin for calling the pieces bishops derives earlier from England and then spread to Iceland and Norway.

Be that as it may, the medieval investiture controversy never entered the chess game it seems. The pope wanted the sole right and power to ordain bishops, while kings wanted to have that power, because bishops could have no heirs, legitimate ones anyway, and their property and holdings would revert back to the king as they did at the time to the church. Secular nobles, who were vassals of the king, always sought their advantage and rights for their heirs, giving their kings the royal headaches of power struggles.

So when you play chess, remember that there is no pope on the board, and the bishops with battle-axe in hand, are on the field fighting for their king as if his kingdom, the church, and the kingdom of God were all one and the same. Chess is a medieval game!


[1] “Reopening History of Storied Norse Chessmen,” New York Times, (September 9, 2010), p. C2.

[2] A comment opposing the theory of Icelandic origins made me laugh: “Iceland was a bit of a scrappy place full of farmers”  according to Dr. Alex Wolf. “The pieces are also exquisite works of art,” and, “You don’t get the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Iowa.” My mentor Prof. Robert Goeser came from Iowa and was always very sensitive to comments disparaging his home state. He would have winced at that one. No rebuke, I’m sure, for our Wartburg in Dubuque!

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Written by peterkrey

September 9, 2010 at 6:33 pm

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