Stories and Essays

Chess and bees

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Chess and bees

The Howard Staunton Memorial Chess tournaments were staged for several years at Simpson’s-in-the-Strand, the traditional home of British Chess. At one of these august events, Professor Michael Crawford, in his persona as Director of The Institute for Brain Chemistry and Human Nutrition, based at London’s Imperial College, delivered an opening speech, and one deliberately aimed at the players in the event. His point was that the consumption of marine based nutrition was beneficial for the brain.

Listening in the audience was the Grandmaster Nigel Short, Britain’s only challenger for the World Chess Title in the 20th century. Emulating Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson after the successful denouement of the short story, The Dying Detective, Nigel went to Simpson’s dining room for “something nutritious” — a giant Dover sole. Nigel persevered with his piscatorial, brain-enhancing diet throughout the competition and duly turned in a superb performance.

Professor Crawford does not just confine his dietary advice to fish and related aquatic delicacies. He is also a keen apiarist and advocate for the health benefits of honey, in particular raw honey, that retains the vital pollen, which the EU would so like to remove. In his guise as a beekeeper, Professor Crawford has now challenged me to write a column for TheArticle, linking bees and chess.

The solution to this conundrum is, in fact, relatively simple, in that both bees and chess have famously been invoked as models for exemplary social structures. There is a vase by Exekias in The Vatican Museum, as indeed another in The British Museum, which depicts the heroic warriors Ajax and Achilles absorbed in a board game, one of the hallmarks of a civilised society, during the siege of Troy.

The game involved was almost certainly not chess, but Achilles himself definitely figures in Homer’s use of bees to delineate the harmonious running of society. In his bee similes, Homer underscores the reciprocal dependency of the collective, the individual, and the household, extolling unity within diversity. Homer describes the Greeks gathering for a council of war, writing in his Iliad circa 700 BC, and , in this instance, they resemble a cloud of bees: 

“…as when of frequent bees
Swarms rise out of a hollow rock, repairing the degrees
Of their egression endlessly, with ever rising new
From forth their sweet nest; as their store, still as it faded, grew,
And never would cease sending forth her clusters to the spring,
They still crowd out so…
(Homer’s Iliad, Book II, lines 87-93. Translated by George Chapman, first published in 1598).

This simile emphasises the unity of the individuals who make up the Greek army, illustrating the ideal dynamic, in which neither the interests of the individual, nor those of the collective, take excessive precedence. According to Homer, a fully functioning society will, therefore, maintain a balance between unity and diversity.

 Yet they, as yellow wasps, or bees (that having made their nest
The gasping cranny of a hill) when for a hunter’s feast
Hunters come hot and hungry in, and dig for honeycombs,
Then fly upon them, strike and sting, and from their hollow homes
Will not be beaten, but defend their labour’s fruit, and brood;
No more will these be from their port, but either lose their blood
(Iliad, Book XII, lines 167-170).

Thus, each Greek warrior is actually promoting his own personal interests, whenever he defends the collective. It is at the tipping point where individuality exceeds its bounds and proper discipline is abandoned, that disaster strikes, as when Achilles sulks in his tent and his soul mate, Patroclus, is inadvertently slain, by the Trojan hero, Hector.

Shakespeare encapsulates this problem in his tragedy Troilus and Cressida, when the wily Odysseus (identified by his Latin name Ulysses in the play) explains that order, or degree, has broken down: “Take but degree away, untune that string, and hark, what discord follows!

Bee similes also figure prominently in Virgil’s Aeneid, appearing first in Book I, then in Book VI, and finally in Book XII. Their studious arrangement suggests that, like Homer, Virgil regarded bees as significant, in order to fully comprehend his entire magnum opus. Indeed, Virgil’s other works support this inference, because they prove that Virgil considered bees to exemplify a well-organised, homogenous, and dutifully obedient society.

In his poem Georgics (Book IV) Virgil discusses bees and their habits at length, using bees as a paradigm for his vision of the perfect society: a hardworking, patriotic, thrifty, disciplined community, all striving towards a single, noble end. Each of the four references to bees in the Aeneid provides an insight into this model community, especially emphasising the collective, renascence, and the future foundation of Rome itself.

In Virgil’s time (writing in the late 1st century BC), it was still believed, following Aristotle’s lead, that the hive was ruled by a king bee (rather than a queen) which makes the deployment of the bee simile/metaphor of precise relevance in the transition period between the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire. In fact, it was not until 1609, with Charles Butler’s The Feminine Monarchy, that the Queen was correctly identified, not so much as a leader, more as a fons et origo of the hive.

Such is their toil, and such their busy pains,
As exercise the bees in flow’ry plains,
When winter past, and summer scarce begun,
Invites them forth to labor in the sun;
Some lead their youth abroad, while some condense
Their liquid store, and some in cells dispense;
Some at the gate stand ready to receive
The golden burthen, and their friends relieve;
All with united force, combine to drive
The lazy drones from the laborious hive:
With envy stung, they view each other’s deeds;
The fragrant work with diligence proceeds.
(Virgil’s Aeneid, Book I, lines 430-436. Translated by John Dryden and first published in 1697.)

Virgil’s bees are not a “clustering swarm,” like Homer’s, but a homogenous mass, divided only by their varying tasks, which they perform faithfully and mechanically. Such a devoted and focused society, in Virgil’s mind, represents the ideal human template for civilisation. The poet illustrates the importance of the collective, but dismisses individuality altogether, a shift that distinguishes him from Homer. It is easy to see the direction in which the poet is leading us.

In sharp contradistinction to the poet Ovid, who was banished by the Emperor Augustus far from Rome to Tomi on the Black Sea, Virgil is composing state-sanctioned, if subtly disguised, propaganda, where one emperor and one unified compliant imperium are the order of the day. In actual bee society, this is stretching the metaphor, but as a refined political message within human society, it is highly persuasive. It is a feat of legerdemain, not lost on contemporary environmental advocates, to imply that the path to paradise for humans lies in a direction imposed by nature itself. As Alexander Pope put it in his An Essay on Man:

All nature is but art, Unknown to thee;
All chance, direction which thou canst not see.” 

Virgil emphasises the paramount importance of society and the need for people to have their appointed place in it, implying that the collective must take precedence over the individual. Roman society was, indeed, highly stratified, and, again, Shakespeare points the way in the opening lines of Julius Caesar: 

Hence! Home, you idle creatures, get you home. Is this a holiday? What! Know you not. Being mechanical, you ought not walk. Upon a labouring day, without the sign of your profession. Speak, what trade art thou?

Liberal arts or professions in Rome were those practised by free men and included rhetoric, law, politics, poetry, medicine and architecture. Opposed to these were those considered sordid, such as portitor (the boatman or carrier), fenerator (the usurer), while lowest of the low were craftsmen who worked with fire, such as smiths and potters, known as banausic in Greek and mechanical in Latin.

Virgil understands a beehive to be an illustration of human civilisation. Though the individual will pass away, the legacy of the community will endure. Over and over again, the hive is reborn as a new generation of insects rises to take the place of the old one, defying and surviving various crises, such as…

Thus, when the swain, within a hollow rock,
Invades the bees with suffocating smoke,
They run around, or labor on their wings,
Disus’d to flight, and shoot their sleepy stings;
To shun the bitter fumes in vain they try;
Black vapors, issuing from the vent, involve the sky
(Aeneid, Book XII, lines 587-592).

This simile introduces a significant, final aspect of Virgil’s ideal society: the shepherd, or leader of the people.

According to Virgil, the ideal society must have a ruler. Again, Georgics Book IV provides an explanation, using the bees’ devotion to the ruler, which the Romans, as we have seen, interpreted as a king, although due to more modern science we now know to be a queen. The bees labour intensively and selflessly, because of the ruler; but when that ruler eventually expires, the hive degenerates and the bees annihilate their own work. Likewise, a ruler’s wise guidance unifies the Apian way and thus preserves the people’s purpose.

It is impossible, once again, to avoid inferring a reference here to the rise of Augustus. In particular, his soi distant necessary slaughters of the opposition on his way to the top, such as the proscriptions of the second triumvirate, and the cauterisation of the wounds caused by fanatic republicans, such as Brutus and Cassius. In Virgil’s vision of the perfect Roman society, such harsh measures are justified, if order and universal peace, the Pax Augusta and the closing of the doors of the temple of Janus, are to be the beneficial outcome.

Now we come to the chess element of the equation, proving unequivocally that chess, in common with bees, has been adapted as a social model, one singularly popular in the late Middle Ages. At that time, chess was already recognised as one of the seven liberal arts, supposedly promulgated by Aristotle, no less, the sage described by Dante as “il maestro di Collor che sanno” (“the Master of the men who know”). These were meant to be the common attributes of knights and their ladies, embracing, inter alia, equestrianism, toxology, pugilism and de arte venandi cum avibus (“the art of hunting with birds”, or in other words falconry).

Around 1300, the northern Italian Dominican Friar, Jacobus de Cessolis published his moralising book about chess, Liber de Moribus hominum et officiis nobilium super ludo scacchorum. Packed with entertaining stories and material ripe for sermons, this book proved inordinately popular, even appearing as the first book ever published in English, in England, by Caxton in the late 1470’s, The Game and Playe of the Chesse. 

One turns to Cessolis in vain for instruction on how to win at chess, instead the descriptions of the pieces and pawns stratify and reinforce the prevailing social order. Although a hierarchical social model is by no means inherent in the game of chess per se, it is no surprise that such a self-perpetuating template was so popular with kings, dukes and other members of the ruling nobility, whose libraries often contained multiple copies.

The ranks of society, according to the Cessolis template, began with the King and Queen, at the apex, followed by the Alphins, aka bishops or judges, then knights and rooks, or royal messengers, followed by the common people, in other words, the pawns. Indeed, the eight pawns on each side were actually credited separately with their trades, much as in the antique Roman classification mentioned both by Shakespeare and the Lewis & Short Latin dictionary. The trades included labourers, tillers of the earth, drapers and makers of cloth, merchants, money changers, physicians, taverners and the banausic or mechanical trades of smiths and other workers in iron and metal.

The word Alphins (bishops) requires some explanation. The concept still survives in Spanish (Alfil) and Italian (Alfiere) where the “L”/”F” sound is more important than the meaning, signifying a reference to the word elephant, the root of which is “Aleph Hind”, or Indian Ox. Since most Western Europeans would never have seen such a pachyderm, it was the phonetic representation, rather than the meaning, which travelled with the expansion of chess. Traces of Alphin can also be found in other languages, where the word for a chess bishop embraces Le Fou, “the jester” in French, Loper in Dutch, Läufer in German, both meaning “runner” and Lovac  (“hunter”) in Serbo-Croatian. As one journeys further East, however, the modern mammoth reclaims its own, as in the Russian for Bishop, Slon which translates as the “elephant”.

The book of Cessolis drew on and strengthened the late mediaeval mind-set that chess was a symbolic representation of society and imparted to that notion much greater force and precision. At one point it was, though still a distant rival, second only to The Bible in terms of popularity, and thus merits its place alongside the bee metaphors of Homer and Virgil, as a genuine attempt to describe an ideal social structure of civilisations which have long since fallen into desuetude.

Fascinating, as it is, to excavate mediaeval views about chess, the modern game still continues apace and two chess news items of note occurred this past week. The first was the 87th birthday of Dr. Jonathan Penrose. He won The British Chess Championship a record ten times and was subsequently awarded the Grandmaster title Emeritus. His doctorate is in Psychology. His brothers are Oliver Penrose, as well as prominent author and physicist Professor Sir Roger Penrose, who was honoured with the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physics, for his discovery that black holes are a robust confirmation of Einstein’s general theory of relativity.

The second momentous item of note was the first loss by World Champion Magnus Carlsen in classical chess for two years, two months and ten days. Carlsen suffered this rare setback against Jan-Krzyztof Duda last Saturday in Stavanger, Norway, where the first over the board elite event for many months has been taking place, in spite of Covid 19 restrictions. Here is a link to the game, with commentary. Carlsen’s 125 game unbeaten streak is a World Record and in next week’s article I shall be looking at world records, including Carlsen’s unbeaten run in chess, as well as two in other sports, which occurred recently, in both tennis and Formula 1.

Member ratings
  • Well argued: 95%
  • Interesting points: 96%
  • Agree with arguments: 92%
51 ratings - view all

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