John Sharples
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Sinner, melancholic, and animal
Three lives of the chess-player in medieval and early-modern literature
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This chapter considers three chess-playing figures: sinner, melancholic, and animal. It provides prominence to the fragmented shape of the cultural chess-player by successively presenting three short readings of the figure. Within medieval European society, chess-play assisted the education and socialising of the aristocracy. The later middle ages saw that the ambiguous status of chess-play persisted. Indeed, the period had been characterised as both a time of 'progressive relaxation' towards chess-play and a time of hardening religious opinion from disapproval to condemnation. Melancholy was the theme of one of the more impressive efforts of early-modern literature, Robert Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy, which included chess-play as an activity that, like cards, tables, and dice, was 'often abused'. The sixteenth-century tale of a chess-playing Indian or Iberian ape or monkey was characteristic of the manner in which the animal world was utilised in narratives for self-reflection and also amusement.

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A cultural history of chess-players

Minds, machines, and monsters


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