The game of draughts, was it played before 1500? Board game historians don't know this for sure: supposing people have played the game in the Middle Ages it cannot have been popular [Murray 1952:75-76; Mehl 1990:148; Parlett 1997:257]. However, in my opinion there is no reason for doubt: Westerveld [1997:96-97] has proved that in Spain in the 15th c. draughts was a widely played game, and my own inquiries reveal that in France in the Middle Ages -at least in the period 1000-1500, we don't have information from earlier times- draughts was exceedingly popular.
This disagreement has been caused by a different interpretation of the medieval French game name merelles. According to lexicographers merelles meant 'morris', according to me both 'morris' and 'draughts'. For the history of board games this question is important, for the piece name merelle occurred in a great number of frequently used metaphors, which points to a great popularity of the game the metaphors referred to. As a matter of course the question arises whether this game was morris or draughts. In my book of 2005, see pages 121-128 and 149-151, I have dealt with the verb merelles and the noun merelle elaborately. In Chapter 6 I'll prove, that French merelles, Spanish marro and Italian marella were medieval names for draughts and that they were later superseded by French jeu de dames, Spanish juego de las damas en Italian dama; the titles of the oldest Spanish draughts books, for instance, mentioned two names for draughts.
Title page of Ruiz Montero's draughts book (1591)
If the game name French merelles meant 'morris' as well as 'draughts', it is reasonable to assume the piece name merelle meant both 'morris piece' and 'draughts piece'. However, see this table.
merelles = 'morris'
merelles = 'draughts'
dames = 'draughts'
| 1400 1500 1600
< ────────── >
< .........─────── >
The metaphors based on the piece name Fr. merelle disappeared after the rise of the game name French dames, from which we may conclude that French merelle meant 'draughts piece'. If you are not convinced, we play a game of question and answer. I ask: "Why does a word disappear?" Your answer: "Simple question: since people do not need it anymore". Second question: "Why did French merelle = 'morris piece' disappear?" The answer "Because people did not need a name for the morris piece any longer" is preposterous, of course: ever since 1000 AD or longer the French played morris with pieces they called merelles, but at the end of the 15th c. they decided they did not need a name for the pieces any longer, from now on they would play the game without a name for the pieces.
Conclusion: French merelle meant 'draughts piece', not 'morris piece', the metaphors were based on draughts. Not morris has been the popular board game in medieval France, as our board game surveys tell us, it was draughts.
N.B. The Dutch language had neither a name for the morris piece nor for the morris board. French had no name for the morris piece, and I doubt whether the word merelier (or a similar name) has ever meant 'morris board', its sense was rather 'draughts board'. See for this fascinating question Stoep 2005. It stands to reason that these puzzles are not merely brainteasers for unworldly linguists, they are significant for the history of board games. There are, for example, records of a merelier in inventories made up with families of the French upper classes [Stoep 2005:154-156]: have they played morris or draughts?
The famous poet Charles d´Orléans, count of Burgundy, wrote a poem on the game of tables, and we know he played chess too. My inquiries lead me to the conclusion he also played draughts, see Stoep 2005:124. He might be portrayed on this beautiful illu-stration [source?], walking in the gardens round his castle in Blois.