The Astronomical Games

Translation by Roselyne l'Estrangere, AKA Sue Kronenfeld

Introduction (by Justin du Coeur, AKA Mark Waks)

Libros de ajedrez, dados y tablas, sometimes called simply "The Alfonso MS" in historical gaming circles, is arguably the most important single source for medieval games. It was commissioned by King Alfonso X in the 13th century, and covers a large number of games.

Two of the more intriguing entries come at the end of the MS, and describe a pair of games based on astronomy. The first has been described in a number of sources, but the second -- a seven-sided tables game -- has been relatively neglected. Out of curiosity, I wanted to try the tables game out.

However, the MS has not been translated into English (or, more correctly, no translation has been published to date), and my poor language skills were not up to the task. So I put out a call for translators interested in trying it out. I got the following from Sue Kronenfeld, known as Lady Roselyne l'Estrangere in the SCA. My thanks to her for providing this valuable resource.

The following translation is based on the final few pages of the MS, specifically pages 95r to 97r. A low-resolution facsimile of these pages (and indeed, the entire book) can be found at Charles Knutson's Alfonso page. Note that Roselyne did the translation in plaintext. I have formatted the HTML to be somewhat similar to the original MS, to aid in visual correspondence between them; any formatting errors should please be brought to my attention.

This translation is based upon the transcription prepared by the Hispanic Seminary of Medieval Studies, Ltd. This transcription (along with transcriptions of the rest of the Alfonso corpus) is available on CD-ROM. Ordering details can be found at the transcription homepage. The translation follows the protocols laid down by the transcription. In particular, "%" is used to indicate breaks within a paragraph; in the original, the conventional chapter marker is used. I have introduced line breaks at these points solely for readability; there are no such breaks in the original (making for rather long paragraphs).

Translator's note

I'm translating tablero as board, and I'm usually leaving the word escaques (which means squares on a chess board) and tabla(s) (which also seems to mean a board of some kind). I'm not sure of the difference between tabla and tablero, but tablero seems always to mean board unambiguously. [Justin: actually, from context I think that "tabla" means a "tableman". That certainly is the sense that works in the second game, and I think it may make more sense than "board" in the first one as well.]

[pg. 95R]

This is the Board for escaques and for tablas, which is played using Astronomy.

All three types of Games that are mentioned in the Books before this have been shown. Also in the game of Escaques what the dice and the [tablas] like and how all the partitions that there are in them are divided; and how they can be played, according to the most elegant ways that all have hit upon for them, for understanding and for use.
% Now it is fitting that another type of game<,> very noble and very strenuous and very elegant, and of great intellect for the wise, and especially for those who know the Art of Astronomy<,> be shown.

And this new game is made according to the seven heavens in which the Seven planets are. And the eighth in which the twelve Signs and the other fixed stars are. And showing for each one how their wanderings go and how they are observed shedding their rays upon one another, some aspects of love, others of hatred. And thus according to the wise, they divide heaven into twelve rooms, and they demonstrate for each of them according to the movement of the planets, what is the aspect of love or of hatred.

On the Sixths.

And there are seven aspects, two that are called sixths, which are of love, which are counted from the same sign to the third, such as if they count, from Aries to Gemini<,> which is the third ahead of it, or from Aquarius, which is the third behind.

On the Thirds.

And furthermore there are two thirds, as from Aries to Leo, which is ahead, or from to Sagitarius<,> which is behind.

On the quarters and on the opposition.

Furthermore there are two quarters which show themselves of hatred, such as from Aries to Cancer or from to Capricorn,
% And there is an opposition which is made from the same sign to another which is opposite it, such as from Aries to Libra or from Cancer to Capricorn.

On Corporeal Conjunction.

And [aside from this] there is corporeal conjunction<,> which is a union of two planets in a sign, and [sometimes] it shows love and [sometimes] hatred. And this is stronger than any aspect either for good or for ill. And this game is based on what we have now said here.

On the shape of the Board and on how it should be made.

This Board must be of Seven sides [on the outside] because seven players have to play here<,> each with his planet. And they have to have twelve (twelve) counters of whatever value [are agreed] . And it has in it eight [concentric] circles, according to how the eight heavens are.
% And the eighth circle has to be [filled] and the forms of the twelve signs placed in it as they should be, which are these: Aries,
% Taurus,
% Gemini,
% Cancer,
% Leo,
% Virgo,
% Libra,
% Scorpio,
% Sagittarius,
% Capricorn,
% Aquarius,
% Pisces. And it is divided into twelve parts [pg. 95V] according to these twelve signs.
% And from the beginning of each Sign a line comes out and divides the other seven circles, and reaches the circle of the element of fire.
% And the other seven circles are according to the seven heavens, in which the seven planets are, and they are a little hollowed out, and in each of them there is a square board <i.e. tabla> which goes around
% And on these boards <i.e. tablas> there are places where they place the forms of the seven planets when they want to play, and each of these boards must be of the color of the planet that they must put in it.
% And furthermore there are four concentric circles which are according to the four elements, which are inside these eight.
% The first is red which is for the element of fire.
% The second is light purple for the element of air.
% The third is white, for the element of water.
% The fourth is round like a ball and dun in color<,> which is for the element of earth.

On the partitioning of the seven circles, and how many spaces there are in them.

These seven aforesaid circles, The first is divided into eighty-four spaces.
% The second is divided into seventy-two spaces
The third is divided into sixty spaces.
% The fourth is divided into fourty-eight spaces.
% The fifth is divided into thirty-six spaces.
% The sixth is divided into twenty-four spaces.
% The seventh is divided into twelve spaces.
% And since you want the Seven heavens to be divided into more spaces and they cannot fit here on this board so as to be elegant let us take up those divisions according to that smallest count which is fitting for this game.

On the forms that the sages of old gave the seven planets, and on what colors they are. On the form of Saturn.

Saturn is the first<,> which is the highest of all<,> and they attach to him the form of some old and skinny man who goes bent and naked without underwear and wrapped in a black mantle on his head and who is woeful of countenance and holds his hand on his cheek like some care-worn man.

On the form of Jupiter.

Jupiter<,> who is next to him, has the appearance of a lord of middle age, and of cheerful countenance and dressed in green clothes<,> and who has on his head an ultramarine coif and holds a book before him.

On the form of Mars.

Mars has the appearance of some young man, and dressed in ancient Greek armor<,> all red<,> and holds in his right hand a sword removed from its sheath, and in the other<,> the recently decapitated head of a lord hanging by the hair.

On the form of the Sun.

The sun has the appearance of a young King who has a golden crown on his head, and wears gleaming gold clothes, and holds in his left hand a round apple, and in the other (a branch) a Branch with flowers such as the Emperors when they crown them.

On the form of Venus.

Venus has the form of a very beautiful young woman and her long very blond hair over her shoulders<,> and she wears on her head a garland of Roses, and wearing clothes of violet, and she holds in her right hand a stone and in the other a mirror in which she regards herself.

On the form of Mercury.

Mercury has the appearance of a young lord, dressed in clothes of [pg. 96R] many colors, and he is writing in a Book.

On the form of the Moon.

The Moon has the appearance of a young woman, dressed in white, and she holds a picture of the Moon on her head with both her hands.

On how these seven Planets should be placed on the Board when they wish to begin to play with them.

In the first circle<,> which is closest to the circle of the Signs, must be the planet that they call Saturn.
% In the second must be the planet that they call Jupiter.
% In the third must be the planet that they call mars.
% In the fourth must be the planet that they call Sun.
% In the fifth must be the planet that they call Venus.
% In the sixth must be the planet that they call mercury.
% In the seventh must be the planet that they call Moon.
% And thus they must be placed in their spaces. And because most of them have two (two) spaces indicated in their Signs, let us put it in the one which is most powerful, such as.
% Saturn in Aquarius.
% And Jupiter in Sagittarius.
% And Mars in Scorpio.
% And the Sun in Leo.
% And Venus in Taurus.
% And Mercury in Virgo.
% And the Moon in Cancer.

On how this game of escaques must be played with one die and not with more.

This game must be played in this way, that each of the players throws their chance with the die on which there are seven surfaces and has dots on it, from one to seven, so that each should know with which planet he must play.
% He who by chance happens 7<,> which is the most points, will have Saturn.
% And he who happens 6, will have Jupiter.
% And he who happens 5, will have Mars.
% And he who happens 4, will have the Sun.
% And he who happens 3 points, will have Venus.
% And he who happens 2, will have Mercury.
% And he who happens 1, will have the Moon.
% And furthermore they will do battle, and he who wins it will have the hand, and throws the die, and shows you how many points; he must go that many spaces with his planet. And if it should not go enough spaces so as to leave the sign in which he is, he neither gains nor loses, but if it will enter into another Sign, he loses or gains according to the aspect that he happens on with the other planets.
% And if this planet enters into the sixth of the other, he gains two twelves, and if it will enter into its third, he gains three twelves. And if it will enter into its quarter, he loses three twelves. And if it will enter into its opposition, he loses six twelves. And if it will enter into its conjunction, he must pay twelve.
% And in this manner the game must be played.
% And this is the shape of the board, and how the seven planets are placed on it.

[pg. 96V: seven men playing this game]

[pg. 97R]

This is the Board of the Tablas according to the nature of Escaques, which is played by Astronomy.

The Board for Tablas must be of seven sides, just like the Board for Escaques, in the inside as on the outside, and of the part of the side that is inside, it must have seven spaces.
% And this must be in each of the other sides, and between the one side, and the other, there must be a partition that divides both the sides.
% And from that partition, there must be a long Line that reaches in the middle of the [center] of the board.
% And each of the tablas of these sides must be of the color of the planets. And there must be as many tablas as spaces.
% And on each side there must be, pictured the planet to which it belongs; that side painted and colored with the appropriate color.
% Saturn with black.
% Jupiter with green.
% Mars with red.
% The Sun with Yellow.
% Venus with purple.
% Mercury with many diverse colors.
% The moon white.
% And for this reason those tablas that belong to that planet, must be of its color.
% And the placement must be in this wise; let all seven tablas be placed on the first space of the group of seven that is at the left hand, and they must always play toward the right, according to the points that the dice filled with the seven dots show, as we have mentioned above. And the space on which they are (initially) placed on the board does not count nor the other space that is on the right hand, which is the placement of the other seven tablas, if no single tablas should have ended up there that it may take the empty space<,> so that it can end there, as the ?? will tell you.
% And the game is in this wise, that each one of the players, should have seven tokens of whatever value of moravedi they agree on, or of whatever coinage they wish, and if it will take the tabla of the other, it must not return and it should take one token for itself and for as many as it will take, and thus all go around, until the whole game concludes with one of those who play, for this finishes with a victor.
% And this is the shape of the Board and of the tablas.

[pg. 97V: seven men playing this game]

maravedi - smallest spanish coin, worth 1/6 cent or 1/3 farthing