Piece of the Charlemagne Chess Set: The Pawn


The famous chess set called the Jeu d'échec de Charlemagne (Charlemagne’s chess set) was once part of the treasury of the Basilica of Saint-Denis. It was made near Salerno, Italy, at the end of the 11th century. It was long thought to have belonged to Charlemagne, who was said to have received it as a gift from Caliph Harun al-Rashid. In fact, this cannot have been the case, because the game of chess was only introduced to the Western world by the Arabs two centuries after Charlemagne’s reign (762−814). The set was intended more as a symbol than to be used for play. Its dimensions are unusual. The knights are 12.3 centimeters, the pawns eight centimeters high. The bishop is represented as an archer ready to shoot an arrow. The game itself is an exemplary symbolic system, depicting each individual’s place in medieval society. The set became part of the collections of the National Library of France in 1793 as a result of confiscations during the French Revolution. It is now kept by the Money, Medals, and Antiques Division of the library. The set is incomplete. While it included 30 pieces in 1534, only 16 were left at the time of the French Revolution.

Last updated: July 31, 2014