15th century book

The 15th century copy of a chess book bought for £16,000 at Forum.

Enjoy unlimited access: just £1 for 12 weeks

Subscribe now

Known as John of Wales, the author was a Franciscan friar who became sixth regent-master of the Friars Minor at Oxford some time before 1260 and later was a lecturer and Doctor of Theology in Paris.

His written output was extensive and this manual – written in Latin – was intended as guidance for priests and preachers and is regarded as the first printed book to describe, albeit in moral and allegorical terms, the game of chess. It was compiled in the late 13th century and copies were printed in Germany in 1467 including this one.

Readers, who would have been familiar with the game, are warned that “the world resembles a chessboard which is chequered white and black” and if a man falls into sin then “in this game of chess the devil says ‘check’.”

The moves of the various pieces are described in symbolic terms: the king can move in all directions because “his will is law”; the knight’s move consists of a straight move and a sidelong one, to illustrate “his legitimate powers and his illegal extortions”; the bishop moves obliquely “because nearly every bishop misuses his office through cupidity”; and the queen’s move of just one square diagonally (under the medieval rules, before her range of movement was greatly enlarged during the Renaissance) “is aslant only, because women are so greedy that they will take nothing except by rapine and injustice”.

At Forum Auctions (25/20/12.5% buyer’s premium) on January 26, the book was estimated at £18,000-22,000 and sold to a room bidder, someone known for being a strong chess player but who wishes to remain anonymous, for £16,000.