Photo on a Mantel piece
"How could you have known? I'm not reliably where I shouldn't be. Are you moving that pawn, or just patting it?"Two short and puzzling passages from Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, winner of the 2009 Man Booker Prize and the subject of last Saturday's post.
"J'aboube." Rafe snatches his hand away.....
...from a distant room a child is crying. Footsteps overhead. The crying stops. He picks up his king and looks at the base of it, as if to see how it is made. He murmurs, "J'adoube." He puts it back where it was.
Puzzling, because of the reference to j'adoube: the earliest occurrence of that term in English - at least, the earliest so far located - appears to be in the first decade of the nineteenth century, which is not far short of three hundred years after Thomas Cromwell, in the novel, plays chess with his chief clerk.
Doubly puzzling then, because this is not a thinly-researched novel, rather the opposite. The present writer, a history graduate, was impressed. (I was also pleased to come across a novel which went some distance to overturn the received view of Thomas More, for which we can perhaps blame Robert Bolt.) Moreover, and perhaps unusually where our game is concerned, the chess seems to me to be well-observed, sensibly underplayed and undramatic.
But where did the j'adoube come from? I did wonder whether Ms Mantel knew something we did not:
Dear Ms MantelMs Mantel was kind enough to send a reply (and equally kind not to reply along the lines of "why are you wasting my time with this pointless piffle").
Sorry to bother you, but I have an enquiry about a possible error in your book, Wolf Hall, that I recently enjoyed reading.
While Cromwell is confined at home, just after the death of his wife, he plays chess with Rafe who, absent-mindedly touching a piece, says "j'adoube". Cromwell repeats the term himself not long after.
What is puzzling about this is that there does not seem to be any recorded usage of the French term, in English anyway, until more than two hundred and fifty years after your scene is set. It first appears in print at the start of the nineteenth century and though we can assume that it had been current for some time before then, it seems unlikely that it was used for 250+ years without this practice being referred to in print.
It may be worth mentioning that at the turn of the eighteenth century, France was the pre-eminent nation in chess and had been for some time, not least due to the celebrated Philidor, and this might help explain why a French term came to be preferred. But when Cromwell was playing Rafe, the centres of the chess world would have been in Spain, and Italy.
That said, as far as I am aware there is no record of what was said in English, when adjusting a piece, prior to our first recorded references to "j'adoube" and it is also possible that you have a source which indicates that the use of "j'adoube" is much older than previously thought. If you do, it would be useful to the study of chess history (and indeed literature) to know that this were so!
Thank you for your interesting letter. I am sure you are right, & I am aware of the Spanish/Italian pre-eminence but I feel sure there must have been a term with the same meaning - I decided to use the one that would be familiar to readers. Sometimes an anachronism must be judged worthwhile - of course, it is what Cromwell does, he 'adjusts' the King. I hope chess fiends will be forgiving.Be glad to: one to file under how-could-they-possibly-have-known rather than the more habitual carelessness*. But the question Ms Mantel's letter raises is an intriguing one: was there a precursor, in English, to j'adoube, and if so - what was it?
All best wishes
- - - -
Ludo? What do you mean, Ludo?
Talking of intriguing questions, the inside cover of Wolf Hall is decorated with illustrations from De ludo scachorum: the manuscript by Luca Pacioli, devoted to chess, which is the subject of this passage from Wolf Hall.
Thomas Avery smuggles in to him Luca Pacioli's book of chess puzzles. He has soon done all the puzzles, and drawn out some of his own on blank pages at the back.Only recently discovered, the manuscript was the subject of some controversy between competing authorities, as to whether or not Leonardo da Vinci might have had a hand in the composition of the problems or the drawing of the diagrams - or that the design of the pieces might have been based on his work.
As the New York Times reported, these were dismissed by Leonardo expert Professor Martin Kemp, who:
emphatically dismissed the possibility that Leonardo had any hand in the drawings. "There is not an earthly chance of them being by Leonardo," he said in a telephone interview.This was considerably less hopeful and enthusiastic than the assessment of the chess correspondent of the Times of London, who had suggested that Leonardo
He said that there was no resemblance between the drawings and Leonardo's work. Nor did he find the designs particularly compelling, he said.
Asked whether Leonardo might have designed the actual chess puzzles, Kemp said he doubted that. While Leonardo was interested in geometrical games, Kemp said, no information in surviving manuscripts suggests that he played chess.
may well have supplied the original designs for the pieces.and mentioned
the alluring possibility that Leonardo himself composed the problem...the possibility that Leonardo did compose this puzzle is enticing and by no means impossible.Not, to be fair, that Ray was alone in displaying rather less scepticism than he might: the Guardian's Italy correspondent was no better, not in that respect at least.
You can always rely on Ray to go one better, though. While the Guardian piece ends with Pacioli's advice on bookkeeping - advice which is, as it happens, recycled in Wolf Hall - Ray ends his with a plug for a book published by his friends and publishers, Hardinge Simpole. The author of that book, chess historian Richard Eales, is quoted in his article.
There is no doubt that Richard Eales is a reputable chess historian. There is also no doubt that he is married to Ray Keene's sister.
As Ray should mention, but - unaccountably - does not.
[* albeit somebody has missed that the first "j'adoube" is in fact misspelled "j'aboube".]