Ivory Vikings: The Mystery of the Most Famous Chessmen in the World and the Woman Who Made Them–Nancy Marie Brown

Nancy Marie Brown is not a historian or an archaeologist, but she holds a Master’s Degree in Comparative Literature from Penn and has authored several books on Norse topics (http://www.nasw.org/users/nmb/bio.html).  In the Ivory Vikings, Brown explores the various stories and scholarly theories surrounding the beautiful Lewis chessmen.  She says in the introduction that “their story questions the economics behind the Viking voyages to the West, explores the Viking impact on Scotland, and shows how the whole North Atlantic was dominated by Norway for almost five hundred years….It reveals the struggle within Viking culture to accommodate Christianity, the ways in which Rome’s rules were flouted, and how orthodoxy eventually prevailed.”  The chessmen also, she asserts, bring to light the story of the craftswomen, Margaret the Adroit of Iceland, who is referenced as the creator of the chessmen in the subtitle.

Brown draws beautiful portraits of the pieces then explores what scholars have said about them before digging into the Icelandic sagas and the Norse history that suggest potential sites for the chessmen’s creation.  She emphasizes the isolation of anything written in Icelandic and the priority given to anything written in English.  Brown favors Skalholt, the seat of Bishop Pall and the possible site of Margaret the Adroit’s workshop.  Unfortunately, Skalholt has been occupied over various centuries and excavating to the twelfth-century layer is nearly impossible.

Along the way Brown explores walrus hunting and the uses for walrus products, including the tusks, from which the Lewis chessmen are made.  She traces decorative motifs in wooden church portals and Bishop Pall’s ivory crozier.  In doing so she traces the wide trade networks of the Vikings and the history of chess itself, which began in India and traveled through Arab networks to the west.  Brown’s sympathy for the Vikings sneaks in, as when she notes that, although we hear of the brutality of Viking raids on monasteries, we do not hear of the brutality of Charlemagne’s men as they conquered and forced the conversion of the Saxons.  “We deplore the brutality of the Vikings,” she writes, “but not the atrocities of the Emperor of the West.”  The Vikings seem terrible because they did not play by the rules.

Vikings were lured to Iceland and Greenland in part by walrus.  The lure of Christianity for the Viking kings was more complicated and seems to have begun, at least in part, to smooth trade partnerships.  Once the connection became deeper, education, the church, and politics wove a complex web between the Norse and the rest of Europe.  Educated Icelanders created an alphabet in which the Icelandic sagas were composed.  Christianity brought rules that limited the definition of family to monogamous couples transmitting property and title through primogeniture, but the Norse did not submit quickly to these rules.  Their priests (and bishops) continued to marry.  Brown is fascinated by the gesture of the Lewis queens–one hand on their cheeks.

Margaret of Adroit appears in the Saga of Bishop Pall. She was the wife of a high priest who carved beautiful pieces, such as an altarpiece and a crozier.  The politics of her time were nearly as complicated as the modern politics surrounding the attribution of the Lewis chessmen.  The British Museum currently lists them as made in Norway, which is a bit of a fudge since Norway held sway over so much of the North in the twelfth century.  Even the National Museum of Scotland recently supported the Norwegian theory (centered on Trondheim).  A spirited group, however, have been forwarding the Icelandic theory and adding the fine visual arts to the literary arts of the medieval Icelandic sagas.  Despite all of the history, literature, art history, archaeology, and politics, the mystery from Brown’s subtitle remains and the woman who made them remains conjecture.  Brown closes with a quote from archaeologist Birna Larusdottir, who excavated the fishing village of Siglunes, where more chess pieces were found.  “They were making chessmen in Iceland at the same time as the Lewis chessmen were made,” she said.  “We can say that.”  The mystery remains, but thanks to Brown and the Lewis chessmen, I know more about the world from which they came than I did before I opened the Ivory Vikings’ pages.

Finished 6/14/15


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