Author Spotlight: Krisztina Ilko

Let's learn more about one of our recent authors: Dr. Krisztina Ilko 

  • What have you contributed to Medieval World?

I have written an article, ‘The Game of Kings: The Origins, Forms & Functions of Chess’ for Medieval World: Culture & Conflict 12.

  • Tell us a bit about your background as an historian (education or otherwise). What edge do you think it gives you as an author and as an historian?

I firmly believe in the importance of interdisciplinarity. Objects and written sources can be equally informative. This might sound very simple, but I think in practice scholars often focus on one over the other. I always aspire to focus on a particular problem and aim to bring into conversation all the surviving pieces of evidence that can help my investigation.

This broad interdisciplinary approach also underpins my current book project. Provisionally entitled, The Pawns of History: A New Approach towards the Global Middle Ages. This book will use the game of chess and chess pieces as a tangible approach to examine global interconnectivity in the pre-1400 world.

  • Do you have a favourite event or figure or object from the Middle Ages?

One of my favourite objects is a large elephant-rider chess king. Sometimes called the ‘Charlemagne chess king’, it has nothing to do with the Carolingian emperor. Instead, it originates from ninth- or tenth-century Greater Sind, in modern-day Pakistan. It was carved from a huge piece of elephant ivory, and with great attention to detail. In addition to the royal rider on the top, the elephant is surrounded by various armed figures and horsemen. This is the sole survivor of a grandiose medieval chess set. I wrote about this piece in my recent article in Speculum (2024), and I was absolutely delighted to see it last autumn in the newly re-opened galleries of the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris.

  • Tell us a bit about your research and writing process. What research do you usually undertake for your articles? What is the perfect environment/circumstance for you to write?

The perfect environment for me to write is my lodgings at Queens’ College in Cambridge. My rooms are in the fifteenth-century part of the college, extended with a tower, where the Renaissance philosopher Erasmus was supposed to have lived. I love the beautiful interior of my office, a bit like a medieval hall, with Gothic windows and dark wooden beams against white walls. I cannot dream of a more inspirational place to think and write about medieval history!

  • What book(s) are you currently reading? 

I am currently reading Anthony Grafton’s new opus, Magus: The Art of Magic from Faustus to Agrippa, which explores the emergence and perception of mages or learned magicians in Renaissance Europe. It is a later and different topic than what I work on, but I find it useful and stimulating to read books beyond my field.

More within my wheelhouse, I am also reading Kalīla wa Dimna. This is a charming collection of medieval animal fables in Arabic, named after the two protagonists, the jackals Kalīla and Dimna.

  • What book(s) on medieval history and culture would you recommend to our readers? Why?

As one of my all-time favourites, I would recommend Chris Wickham’s Sleepwalking into a New World. I wrote my dissertation on medieval Italy, and this is a superb book on the emergence of Italian communes in the twelfth century. It is very informative and draws on robust research, but at the same time written in an engaging way. I think volumes like this prompt readers to want to learn more, and it could work as a sort of ‘gateway’ book to medieval history.

  • Finally, be sure to check out Dr. Ilko's latest publication!

My most recent article, ‘Chess and Race in the Global Middle Ages’ has just been published in Speculum 99/2 (2024): 480–540.

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