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The Queen’s Gambit: Women’s Empowerment in the Global Middle Ages

Canchen Cao

English Literature and History of Art


Year of study:

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In the Middle Ages, the promotion of a Pawn to Queen on chessboard not only reflects an evolution of chess, but also reflects the growth of female power in a patriarchal society, which paved the way for modern feminism. This research places a particular focus on the use of the chess game as a representation of female power and ways of dealing with power and knowledge in the misogynistic context of the Middle Ages. It will present how medieval queens set up the chessboard of power, and how medieval women used chess as a potent tool to promote learning, to develop skills in critical thinking and problem solving. For example, King Alfonso X’s thirteenth-century Spanish manuscript Libros des ajedrez (The Book of Chess) offers an illustration that depicts two Moorish courtly ladies in Arab clothes playing chess. Also, this research will demonstrate how medieval women outside the court play the game of chess for entertaining themselves, such as the famous Northern Song dynasty female poet Li Qingzhao.

I am a fourth-year English Literature and History of Art student at the University of Glasgow. During my undergraduate studies, my interest in medieval studies has blossomed into a passion for medieval literature and visual arts, especially gender and monsters. Focusing on the representations of women and monstrous female figures, my undergraduate dissertation examines the extent to which a triptych by the late medieval Netherlandish painter Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights, negotiates with medieval misogynist stereotypes. In 2021, my first peer-reviewed journal article, ‘Pride as Women: The Gendered Presentation of the Sin of Pride in Medieval Art and Literature’, was published in Volume 6 of [X]. In July 2022, I will present my research on the transmission of monsters in the Middle Ages for the Once and Future Fantasies conference at Glasgow. I hope that my presentation at Let’s Talk About [X] will share a feminist understanding of the game of chess between the West and East, developing people’s insights into the medieval period in the global context. In future research, I aim to learn how the medieval sciences and practical arts formulated people’s understanding of the human body and the whole world, seeking to uncover the nexus between the arts and sciences in the global Middle Ages.

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