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Celtic Chess? Ficheall and Gwyddbwyll In Medieval Ireland And Wales

The modern Irish word for the game of chess is ficheall. However this term, literally “wood wisdom” or “wood sense”, originally referred to a native board game in Ireland that was almost certainly of great antiquity among the Celtic peoples. It appears in nearby Wales under the closely related and similar meaning name of gwyddbwyll, while Cornwall and Brittany have the terms goedhboell and gwezboell respectively. In Scotland, fidhcheall is used while the Isle of Man has the simplified feeal. These names were eventually applied to the imported Indo-Persian-Arabic pastime of chess in the late Middle Ages as the indigenous games were pushed to the margins by alien settlers in all six countries.

In Medieval Ireland the dual-player challenge was fought on a square board sharing the same name with the game, each contestant taking turns to move an equal number of different coloured pieces or pegs from opposite ends of the patterned surface in a series of separate, possibly rook-like jumps. The overall objective was to take or capture enemy pieces by flanking them individually with two others, eventually denuding an opponent of all options. In most cases the losing side was expected to concede rather than continue until outright defeat.

Though usually of carved and possibly painted wood, among the wealthier nobility the gaming sets may have been decorated or manufactured with more ornate materials, as suggested by the references to gold, silver and bronze in Irish and Welsh manuscripts. Some indeed may have had special names, such as the Ceannchaomh Chonchúir, the “Fairhead” gaming board of Conchúr. This personalisation reflected the importance of the game both as an everyday leisure activity and as a dramatic device for storytellers where gaming contests between legendary kings or euhemerized gods often paralleled or predicted events in the myths themselves.

A Roman Origin, Ludus Latrunculorum?

Several scholars have argued that the original Celtic prototype for these games must have been a pastime very similar to the ancient Roman board game known variously as ludus latrunculorum, latrunculi or latrones (which some have derived from far earlier Greek hobbies like petteia, pessoí, psêphoi, poleis and pente grammaí). This was popularised throughout the late empire by touring soldiers and merchants, leading to the obvious suggestion that it had been adopted under a Celticised form in the prehistoric period. In the case of Britain, this may have been just before or after the Roman conquest in the 1st century CE, while in the case of Ireland, transmission would have taken place following the partial occupation and annexation of its island neighbour.

Admittedly there were strong similarities between both hobbies. Ludus latrunculorum required two players using evenly matched dual-coloured counters, frequently of glass or stone, on a board with a grid-like pattern, with the aim of eliminating opposing pieces by capturing them between two others. In contrast, the counter argument that a widespread Celtic strategy game was borrowed by the Romans at a relatively late date seems somewhat weaker if not impossible. Unlike the Mediterranean pastime, the Irish version probably used wooden pegged pieces with conical heads that fitted into holes in the board as they moved. Indeed, in the example of sets made of metal or plated with some heavy alloy, the pieces themselves could become dangerous, with several manuscript stories referring to injuries or deaths caused by thrown gaming pieces. And linguistic evidence alone indicates that the Irish name predated or inspired the Welsh one, with a proposed Insular Celtic form of *widu-kwêllâ. One would expect this arrangement to be the other way around if sustained Celtic British contact with Rome was the immediate source of the game.

Viking Board Games, Brandubh and Tawlfwrdd

Around the 11th century CE the name of another board game began to appear in Irish literature; brandubh or “black raven” (the related title of brannámh probably refers to the same pastime or a derivative of it). While some have argued that this was an alternative description for ficheall or a very similar hobby, brandubh was almost certainly an entirely new game. Unlike its predecessor, in this contest the two players used uneven numbers of opposing pieces, taking turns to play the smaller side with its king-like piece at the centre (perhaps called a brannán), using a chequered or latticed game board. Here, the objective was to capture the main piece on the minority side in a winner-takes all challenge, with far fewer descriptions of ornate sets, reflecting its lower social or cultural status.

While the ultimate origins of very early strategy games like ficheall and gwyddbwyll are debatable, there is little doubt that brandubh and its Welsh equivalent, tawlfwrdd or tawlbwrdd “throw-off board (?)”, were adopted at a late date from the tafl or hnefatafl family of board games in Medieval Scandinavia. These in turn were almost certainly nativised versions of the Mediterranean ludus latrunculorum, albeit with several important changes to better reflect local sensibilities, including changing from two equally opposing “armies” to rules requiring a central king-piece protected by his soldiers facing a larger attacking force.

Tafl-style games were brought to Ireland and Britain by Viking settlers in the 9th and 10th century CE, becoming the more popular leisure option until they too were displaced by Continental games like chess and draughts (checkers) in the 12th to 15th centuries. By the time Irish and Welsh scholars and writers began to express an interest in such hobbies the exact rules and procedures of play were lost beyond memory. And in the case of “wood wisdom” apparently beyond hope of recovery, despite many modern articles and theories claiming otherwise.

Glossary

Ficheall. From Old Irish fidcell, consisting of fid “wood” + cíall “intelligence”. A very early high prestige Celtic board game, closely related to Welsh gwyddbwyll, popular in early and late Medieval Ireland, of native, Roman or mixed origin. Exact rules and dimensions now unknown. In the very late Middle Ages and modern era, ficheall became the Irish word for the unrelated game of chess.

Brandubh. From Old Irish brandub, consisting of bran “raven (leader, lord, king)” + dub “black”. A late and relatively low prestige board game, related to Welsh tawlfwrdd, popular in late Medieval Ireland, of Scandinavian origin. Exact rules and dimensions largely unknown.

Brannámh. From Old Irish bran “raven (leader, lord, king)” + ?. A rare game name in Medieval Ireland, probably referring to a board-playing pastime, likely related to brandubh or simply an alternative title for that game. Exact rules and dimensions unknown.

Buanfhach, buandhach. From Old Irish búan “enduring, lasting” + ?. A rare game name in Medieval Ireland, probably referring to a board-playing pastime, related to either ficheall or brandubh or simply an alternative title for one of these hobbies. The title may indicate a defensive strategy game like brandubh. Exact rules and dimensions unknown.

Gwyddbwyll. From Old Welsh gwŷdd “trees, wood” +‎ pwyll “consideration, reason”. A very early high prestige Celtic board game, closely related to Irish ficheall, popular in early and late Medieval Britain, of native, Roman or mixed origin. Exact rules and dimensions now unknown. In the very late Middle Ages and modern era, gwyddbwyll became the Welsh word for the unrelated game of chess.

Tawlfwrdd (tawlbwrdd). From Old Welsh tawl “a throw; interruption” +‎ bwrdd “table; board”. A late and relatively low prestige board game, related to Irish brandubh, popular in late Medieval Britain, of Scandinavian origin. Exact rules and dimensions largely unknown.

Postscript

While the rules of ficheall were not recorded, and most contemporary deductions are little more than highly imaginative guesses, not all ancient games have remained lost to the world. Irving Finkel, the Assistant Keeper of Ancient Mesopotamian script, languages and cultures at the British Museum, has done an amazing job of recovering the 5000 year old Royal Game of Ur, as can be seen below. We can but hope that some as yet unnoticed manuscript lies somewhere deep in the vaults of a library or museum in Europe with a full description of ficheall gameplay within its pages.

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5 comments on “Celtic Chess? Ficheall and Gwyddbwyll In Medieval Ireland And Wales

  1. Fascinating, I remember digging into this when trying to work out the correct spelling for fidhcheall. One thought though, in tawlbwrdd it seems rather contrived to invoke the verb tawl, given the Norse origins, I’d bet the farm this is just a Welsh rendition of tafl – tautologous à la Eas Fors Waterfall and many others but nonetheless common.

    • Quite possibly and so I’d assume myself. But most conventional translations of the term invoke the tawl by referencing the game-style or rules.

      Certainly it’s all open to question since we are dealing with textual hints of board games rather than actual descriptions of such games. To make matters worse, these are not value free hints but are sometimes romanticised or even misunderstood by the scribes.

      I’ve read innumerable reconstructions of ficheall and brandubh none of which were very convincing. And some of which were outright shams. The nearest we can get to both is by referencing the Roman and Viking games. And even then, all your really doing is slapping the Irish name on some imaginative theory.

  2. Independent evolution of these boards games, seems like a real possibility.

    There are examples of Native American board games (pre-Columbian/pre-Hispanic) in different parts of what are now the US and/or Mexico that look an awful lot like The Royal Game of Ur, or that Egyptian game with the rows of holes and stones, or Brandubh, and more early variations of chess, or Alquerque, Similarly these pre-Columbian ones had different versions in different places, and it’s hard to reconstruct the rules in many cases.

    Trying to look for a “single origin” might be missing the point entirely. It’s possible people were playing versions of these games with stick and stones in the dirt before any humans left Africa at all. But I’d lean to independent evolution.

  3. If: Gwyddbwyll. From Old Welsh gwŷdd “trees, wood” +‎ pwyll “consideration, reason”. And: We know Gwydion fought against Pwyll in stories from the Mabinogi, Then: the game might have something to do with their battle over the pigs from Annwn.

    • Well, we know from Irish and Welsh literature that ficheall/gwyddbwyll wasn’t just a game of skill, of intellectual one-upmanship. Players frequently placed wagers on its outcome, forfeiting some treasured item if defeated. While that may have been just a narrative device for a good story it probably reflected real life too. Albeit among the nobility.

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