Thursday, February 26, 2009

Jenny Adams' "Power Play": Book Review

"The Immortal Game" by David Shenk (recently reviewed here by me and on Amazon US) summarized Professor Adams' medieval study; she thanks him in her acknowledgements in hopes that a reader of his book may read hers, or vice versa. I found out about Adams' study through Shenk's own. As a new learner of chess and one earlier trained in medieval literature, I anticipated Adams' work would be more academic and analytical than Shenk's popularized account. I was right.

Adams incorporates ambitious questions. She wonders
"about the intersections between the medieval cultural understandings of the game and of political responsibility. How does chess break with earlier models of secular government, in particular the state-as-body model that dominated political discourse? What are the political and cultural implications of a game with pieces designed to match European social roles? Why did allegorists repeatedly promote the similarities between the game and real life, in some cases differentiating the pawns so that each could represent a specific trade?"(5)
As this excerpt shows, Adams moves in a straightforward fashion as her own strategy.

She selects four specialized examples. Jacobus de Cessolis' "Liber de ludo scachorum," "Le Echecs amoureux," Chaucerian (and pseudo-Chaucerian "The Tale of Beryn") texts, and fifteenth-century English works, especially Caxton. Rather than offer a broader survey of medieval evolution of the pieces and their contexts in a variety of works, Adams' narrows her text considerably. She explains her "tight thematic focus as a way to help clarify my overall argument." (9)

I cannot disagree, but given it's been nearly a century since Murray's massive if unwieldy and uneven "A History of Chess" summed up the literature then known to one diligent scholar, I do register my wish that a book with wider range could be produced. I recognize that Adams concentrates on a few texts to argue larger topics. Those coming to this concentrated textual presentation expecting a work with broader perspective into the Middle Ages and one of its most popular pursuits may not expect what the subtitle presents in four case studies as "The Literature and Politics of Chess in the Late Middle Ages." For the texts that Adams recovers, the results are what a scholar will expect. Her prose follows the conventions of current academia; "taxonomies of desire," rigorous interrogations and class anxieties abound within her explanation of the decorous verses and detached discourses explicated.

The need for a scholar such as Adams to return to the sources Murray used and which other chess historians have corrected or castigated remains crucial for contemporary students of medieval studies and of chess itself. The restrictions may, I suspect, have been placed on her by the pressures of her own research deadlines (she mentions a rather tumultuous period of preparation of this book!) or the contingencies of an academic press' generosity in the pages allotted her for her manuscript.

It's a solid work, but a general reader less enthralled than a medievalist may be by works today more known than taught even by many in the field might find one's self rather challenged by these meticulous, carefully reasoned interpretations. This work proved difficult for me to track down; however, the only copy in a public library near me had gone missing, like many books on chess-- the librarian informed me many such titles are stolen and smuggled to people in prison!

Still, within this more academic work, as Adams provocatively reminds us, the slippage between the "real" and the world of "play" surfaces on our reality shows every night beamed on many networks. We too act out roles as powerful commanders and dashing warriors. The appeal of "Homo Ludens" and playful people dramatizing in role play and complicated interactions dictated by producers and directors display their tensions and dreams. The lure of playing a role and entering a game that others flock to watch remains persistent as ever, in newly manifest media six centuries later.

While her work delivers the specificity that supports her generalizations, the introductory pages reveal glimpses of a more panoramic approach. Its closing chapter with its look into the woodcuts illustrating Caxton offers another valuable glimpse into the visual representations of the game. The wider implications of its reception by a wider, literate audience, and the male-female tensions inherent in its reproductions on the page and in image both open up intriguing areas for inquiry.

Perhaps Adams will return to expand upon this subject? I look forward to a future book which will update the wider literary history of medieval chess. For now, Adams' work pushes us back to a few squares down one file. They lead us back only to an still often overlooked row in chess history, a corner awaiting more attention from those who scrutinize the figural arrangements from the past on this checkered board.

(Posted to Amazon US today.)


Anonymous said...

Many thanks for your review! As you aptly observe, the pressures of tenure and the restrictions of presses often combine--as they did in my case--to produce more focused and shorter studies. I wrote the book in the expectation that others would start to expand on and improve my own research, and I can only hope that together we can all push some of these medieval texts back into the academic spotlight.

Jen Adams

Úna said...

Chonaic mé go raibh an shuim agat ins an ficheall. Bhfuil tú fós ag foghlaim nó bhfuil feabhas deas ag teacht ar do chuid straitéis? Níl fhios agam an bhfuil suim agat ach tá mé faoi láthair ag scríobh leabhar fichille i nGaeilge. Ag súil go mbeadh sé amach i rith na samhraidh, le guí. Bhí mé ag déanamh google ar “fichillín” mar bhí an Coiste Téarmaíochta tógtha leis an focal “fichillín” in ionad “ceithearnach” agus fuair mé thú, ana shuimiúil ar fad.
Mise Úna O Boyle, ceoltóir agus ficheallaí anseo i nÉireann.
Mise le meas,

Fionnchú said...

Úna, go raibh maith agatsa faoi an post seo duit! Foghlaim Gaeilge uaidh féin beagán ar bhéagan-- agus foghlaim fícheall uaidh féin le déanaí fréisin! Mar sin, scríobh mé clarú (níl fhios agam an ciall faoi "blog entries" as Gaeilge) ficheallachta agus Éirinn anseo ar feadh an blían deireanach seo anois agus ansin.

Cruinníonn mé na clarú seo triu an cláraim ar anseo níos síos ar "Blogtrotter" s.v "chess" leis "my bilingual Irish entries." Chuir mé léirmheasannaí eile faoi ficheall anseo agus ar Amasóin SAM le gairid. Is maith liom ag léamh faoi an domhan fichille fós. Tabharfaidh cuair ort ag suíomh ar an ghréasán agatsa féin go luath! Le dea-mhéin!

Is mise, Seaghán Ó Murchú.