Gaming Piece with the Fable of The Fox and the Stork

Northern France, early 12th century
Walrus tusk, 5.8 cm

Walrus tusk

The Vikings

Our gaming piece

A characteristic feature of walruses – that live primarily in the northern hemisphere – are their impressive tusks, also known as walrus ‘ivories’, that can grow up to one metre in length. For indigenous peoples the walrus had always been fundamental to everyday life. Walrus tusk was also used for decorative purposes such as jewellery or combs. Around 500 AD demand in western Europe for this raw material grew considerably as the Byzantine Empire kept elephant tusk largely for its own needs. The Vikings established a supply chain from the north. After the conquest of North Africa by Muslims in the 8th century, when the shipment of ivory from the Orient had stopped altogether, walrus tusk was used almost exclusively in the Anglo-Saxon world and in northern Europe for delicate carvings as well as for gaming pieces such as ours.

Monk Adémar

Aesop’s Fables

Martial and Limoges

One of the earliest illustrated manuscripts of Aesop’s Fables was created by the Benedictine monk Adémar de Chabannes (989–1043) around 1025 in Limoges. Adémar’s name, however, crops up predominantly as a chronicler although objectivity was not one of his strengths. The monk did not shy away from forgeries either so that he could adapt the course of time to his own aims. Saint Martial, Bishop of Limoges in the 3rd century, was a prominent saint well known beyond the city borders. Adémar turned him into Christ’s Thirteenth Apostle and wrote a biography about him by correspondingly dating Martial’s life to an earlier era. He claimed that the author was actually Bishop Aurelian of Limoges. A travelling monk, Benedict of Chiusa, revealed that the ‘Life of Martial’ was a forgery and accused Adémar of blasphemy. Instead, however, Adémar continued to spin a web of lies and even invented the Council of 1031 that supposedly confirmed Martial’s ‘apostolic’ status. In addition, he forged a papal letter that declared Martial’s biography and the Council to be true.

People and games

Alfonso X of Castile

Religious fanatism

Games have been a popular pastime since time immemorial. King Alfonso X of Castile and Léon explored the theory behind this phenomenon in the book Libro de axedrez, dados e tablas (‘Book of chess, dice and tables’) he wrote in 1283. It mentions all the typical games of the time, calling chess the most aristocratic of board games. However, not everyone appreciated the game, some – including the Dominican friar Savonarola (1452–1498) and the papal inquisitor John of Capistrano (1386–1456) – even considered playing chess to be a sin. They ordered game boards, cards and dice to be thrown onto bonfires.