My thought is that whenever wars were fiercely serious (that is, other than boys-will-be-boys raiding each other's cattle or stealing wives for exercise and amusement), women were intimately involved. From thus arose the myriad legends of the Amazons, for instance. When survival was on the line, women went to war beside their men or led men into war. We all have heard about Cleopatra, Zenobia, Bodiccea, Joan d'Arc and Elizabeth I.
Spain, with its unique historical blend of Christianity on the one hand, and several centuries under Islamic rule on the other hand, would have had several models to draw upon for women warriors. The Islamic tradition is the Battle Queen, the epitomy of which was the Hind of Hinds. The Christian tradition of warrior women in Spain reveals several strong females who either inherited their rulership upon the death of husbands, fathers, brothers; those who ruled as regents for minor sons; and those who, like Queen Isabella of Castile, inherited her own kingdom and ruled in her own right:
- Toda Asnarez of Navarre (d. 970), widow of Sancho Garces, King of Pamplona (d. 925)
- Ermessenda, countess of Barcelona (d. 1058), widow of Count Ramon Borrell (d. 1017)
- Reign of Urraca, queen of Leon-Castile (d. 1126)
- Reign of Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon (1474-1504)(Their marriage joined the two kingdoms and, together, they drove the last of the Moorish forces from Spain)
(Information from Birth of the Chess Queen by Marilyn Yalom)
The Chess Queen in Spain: Hebrew Evidence
During the twelfth century, the chess queen would make her first definite appearance in Spain. Her reception on the board was largely determined by local custom and religious belief. The Muslim world was uninviting: chess figures continued to be represented abstractly, and the vizier did not give way to the queen. European Christianity, in contrast, both allowed and actively encouraged the representation of humans, animals, and the divine, including easily identifiable queens. Jews found themselves somewhere in the middle. On the one hand they, too, were prohibited from making "graven images," but they were less rigid on the matter than Muslims. And while the queen never gained admittance to Muslim chess, she made her way into the hands of Jewish players, as evidenced by three Hebrew texts of Spanish origin.
First, in a poem written by the Spanish rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra (1092 - 1167), we see the Arab-style game played without a queen. Ibn Ezra was a renowned mathematician, astronomer, scriptural exegete, and poet, greatly respected by Jews, Muslims, and Christians alike. His "Verses on the Game of Chess" lovingly describe the moves of each piece, as summarized below.
The chariot (rook) moves across the board's whole length and breadth in a straight line. The horse (knight) moves three squares along a "crooked path" - two squares in a straight line and one at right angles. The elepahant (bishop) moves diagonally three squares at a time. The vizier, called paraz in Hebrew (ibn Ezra's equivalent for the Arabic firz), moves diagonally one square at a time. The king steps to any contiguous square. The foot soldier (pawn) advances in a straight line, but to take a piece, he moves diagonally. If he advances to the eighth row, then he can return in any direction (like a "queened" pawn today).(7)
Comparing the lowly foot soldier with his modern counterpart, one sees that he has not made any progress over the centuries. Similarly, the king, the rook, and the knight already had the moves they have today. But the ancestor of the bishop - the elephant - could move no more than three squres at a time, instead of the whole length of the board as he does in modern chess. The vizier, though, bears little resemblance to today's queen since he could move only to the adjacent diagonal square, except on his initial move when he could move three paces, including the square of departure.
A second Hebrew poem on chess that may also have been written by ibn Exzra, after he left his native Toledo, reveals the existence of the chess queen. Now the king has at his side the Shegal (Hebrew for "queen") instead of the vizier or general. Otherwise the pieces are the same.
The king and the Shegal at his side And the elephants and horses next to them And [you also have] two chariots And [warriors] in front of them. ... And the king [and likewise] the Shegal And their steps [are not very different].(8)
Presumably, in the course of his lifetime and travels, which took him to many parts of Spain, Western Europe, and the Near East as far as Persia, Rabbi ibn Ezra played with both Muslim and European-styled chess pieces. What did he think when he first saw a chess queen? I like to imagine that, after his initial surprise, he welcomed her to the game. In spite of the misogyny that permeated medieval Judaism, there were enough powerful women in the Old Testament, including the judge and war leader Deborah, to warrant the rabbi's respect. "What! A woman on the chessboard? Well, why not!"
A third Spanish Hebrew text, attributed to Bonsenior ibn Yehia, possibly twelfth century, possibly later, lines up the chess pieces like mighty armies with "the king in his glory" and the queen [Shegal] at his right hand":
She sits at the top of the high places above the city. She is restless
and determined. She girds her loins with strength. Her feet stay
not in her house. She moves in every direction and into every corner. Her evolutions are wonderful, her spirit untiring. How comely are her footsteps as she moves diagonally, one step after another, from square to square!
And the King, dressed in black robes, stands on the fourth square, which is white. His queen stands on the square next to him, which is black. He draws near to the pitch darkness; his eye is upon her, for he has taken an Ethiopian woman [as his consort]. There is no difference between them as they come towards you. They set out towards you along the same path, at the same pace and by the same route. When the one dies, so does the other.(9)
This passage, recalling Proverbs 31 and the Song of Songs in the Bible, is an amazing tribute to the chess queen and to women in general, bringing together the Jewish wifely virtues of beauty and energy with a warrior's strength. And it presents the king and queen as loving equals, who cannot live without each other.
(7) Keats, Chess in Jewish History, pp. 67-72. Professor Robert Alter of the University of California at Berkeley also provied help with this poen.
(8) Keats, Chess in Jewish History, p. 73.
(9) Ibid., pp. 77-78.