The Icelandic Theory: Experts Challenge Establishment Dogma to Reveal History of Ivory Vikings
In 1874, the Norwegian chess historian Antonius Van der Linde belittled Frederic Madden’s suggestion that Iceland could produce anything approaching the sophistication of the Lewis chessmen. Icelanders, he scoffed, were too backward to even play chess.
To learn the fascinating backstory of the most famous chessmen artifacts in the world, see The Missing Pieces: Unraveling the history of the Lewis Chessmen
The Lewis chessmen (Ninox / CC BY-NC 2.0 )
Reading Van der Linde, Willard Fiske became annoyed. Founder of The American Chess Monthly , first librarian of Cornell University, and fluent in Icelandic, Danish, Swedish, and German (he also read Latin, French, and Persian), Fiske amassed a private collection of Icelandic literature that rivaled that of the Royal Library in Copenhagen. He traveled to Iceland in 1879, crossing the island on horseback. Pleased the Icelanders shared his twin passions for books and chess, he endowed libraries and donated chess sets to several towns.
Iceland’s long fondness for chess
Fiske’s preface to Chess in Iceland , published posthumously in 1905, promised a second volume that would contain “notes on the carved chessmen and other chess objects found in the museums of Scandinavia and England, commonly regarded as the productions of Icelandic workshops.” Sadly, he never completed that volume. Chess in Iceland makes no direct reference to the Lewis chessmen. Fiske doesn’t mention Madden’s name. But he takes great enjoyment in rebutting Van der Linde, whose “knowledge of Iceland and Icelandic is too limited to enable him to treat Icelandic chess with the extraordinary accuracy and logical judgment evinced in his investigations into other domains.”
Fiske brings up numerous examples from medieval literature and from more recent letters of Iceland’s long fondness for chess. In 1627, an Icelandic priest wrote that he was sending a “set of Icelandic chess men” to the Danish antiquarian Olaus Worm. Another priest in 1648 sent Worm “a snuffbox carved out of a whale’s tooth ,” commenting that “the young artisan who wrought it also made pretty chessmen of the same material, and at a moderate price.” Said Fiske, “Thus we have accounts, by two contemporary parish priests of Iceland, of the manufacture by natives of sets of chessmen—two centuries and a half ago— which does not look as if the Icelanders had so little fondness for the game as Dr. Van der Linde would have us believe.”
The next to take up the Icelandic theory was H. J. R. Murray. Murray’s father, James, founded the Oxford English Dictionary , to which Harold was a prolific contributor, responsible for some 27,000 quotations. Fluent in twelve languages, including Icelandic, Harold decided to make his own mark by writing a definitive history of chess; it took him sixteen years. Published in 1913, Murray’s nine-hundred-page A History of Chess is still the authority. Fittingly, a Lewis knight is embossed on the cover.
Agreeing with Madden, Murray wrote of the Lewis chessmen, “The carving of the rooks as warriors on foot undoubtedly points to Icelandic workmanship.” But he questioned whether the chessmen were as old as everyone said. “If there were any truth in the tradition which Captain Thomas discovered to be current in Lewis, they may be the work of Icelandic carvers of the beginning of the seventeenth century only.” The tradition he means is the story of “The Red Ghillie,” which brings the chessmen to Lewis with a shipwreck and murder in the early 1600’s— about the same time an Icelandic priest sent a walrus-ivory chess set to Olaus Worm in Copenhagen.
Romanesque art, which went out of fashion almost everywhere else in the thirteenth century, in fact held on in Iceland for hundreds of years. Studying a group of drinking horns made in Iceland between 1400 and the late 1600s, Danish art historian Ellen Marie Mageroy noted that “the decoration is mainly Romanesque.” She continued, “The horn carvers were conservative, retaining medieval styles well into modern times. This makes it difficult to decide whether a drinking horn is earlier or later than the breakthrough of Protestantism in 1550, a date which is taken to mark the end of the Middle Ages.” The chess carvers might have been equally conservative.
The Roordahuizum drinking horn, made in the mid-16th century by silversmith Albert Jacobs Canter. ( Public Domain )
Murray’s query met with no reply. Art historians had little reason to read A History of Chess or Fiske’s Chess in Iceland . They had no interest in the game, only in the art. When Ormande M. Dalton published his Catalogue of the Ivory Carvings of the Christian Era in the British Museum in 1909, he responded only to Madden’s original argument that the chessmen were carried to Lewis by “an Icelandic kaupmann or merchant,” who was shipwrecked. “The theory that these objects were wrecked with a Scandinavian vessel,” he wrote, “is discredited by their discovery in a chamber”—a reference to Charles Kirkpatrick Sharpe’s description of the findspot, as reported in 1833. Dalton concluded, “There seems no greater reason to assign them a Norse than a British origin.” But he expressed no doubt that they were made in the Middle Ages.
German art historian Adolf Goldschmidt also believed the Lewis chessmen were from the twelfth—not the seventeenth—century. He included them in his exhaustive survey of Romanesque ivory carvings, published in several volumes between 1923 and 1926. There he pronounced the chessmen “distinctly Norwegian, as opposed to English, in character,” by comparison with other medieval ivory carvings—including the possible taucrozier head and the sword pommel and grip—none of which, as we discussed in chapter 4, was found in a datable archaeological context.
The Norwegian Theory
The Norwegian (or now Trondheim) theory was strengthened between 1965 and 1999 by a series of studies of Romanesque sculpture by Norwegian art historians Martin Blindheim and Erla Bergendahl Hohler and by the 1990 publication by Trondheim archaeologists Christopher McLees and Oeystein Ekroll of the sketch of the broken chess queen found in the ruins of Saint Olav’s Church in the 1880’s (and subsequently lost). But mostly the Norwegian theory has been strengthened by repetition—that snowball effect Daniel Wilson warned of in 1851.
The two museums that own the chessmen have been the most influential: It is to these institutions that people turn for the truth.
A selection of chess pieces, with a row of Bishops at the back, then a row of Knights. (© Andrew Dunn / CC BY-SA 2.0 )
The British Museum over the years has grown to be a forceful backer of the Norwegian theory—perhaps without even realizing it. Museum publications went from describing the chessmen as “Scandinavian” in 1978, to “Scandinavian, and in particular Norwegian” in 1997, to “probably made in Norway” in 2008. The museum’s “Objects in Focus” booklet from 2004 is an exception: Here curator James Robinson states, fairly, “The question of their place of origin, however, will probably never be satisfactorily settled. A number of different suggestions have been made, describing them as English, Scottish, Irish, Icelandic, Danish, or Norwegian. Occasionally, it has even been suggested that they were made on the Isle of Lewis, but the lack of archaeological evidence makes this a very distant possibility.” Yet when interviewed for the BBC Radio 4 special in 2010, Robinson was more blunt: “The chess pieces were probably made in Norway.” The poster, as we’ve seen, dispensed with all doubt. Beneath the image of the Lewis chess queen it said: “AD 1150–1200 Norway.”
The National Museum of Scotland has followed the same trajectory. The book accompanying the museum’s 2010 traveling exhibition, The Lewis Chessmen: Unmasked , coauthored by David Caldwell, Mark Hall, and Caroline Wilkinson, carefully lays out the Norwegian theory. It concludes, “None of this makes it certain that Trondheim was the place many or all of the Lewis chessmen were made, but it is at least a strong possibility.” The museum’s website cuts all the nuance: “They were probably made in Trondheim.”
Against the Establishment
Yet a second strong possibility is Iceland. In 2010, Icelandic chess aficionado and civil engineer Gudmundur G. Thorarinsson focused attention on the story of Margret the Adroit, the woman who—perhaps—carved the Lewis chessmen for Bishop Pall of Skalholt. Gudmundur commissioned an artist, Svala Soleyg, to imagine what Margret looked like and draw her portrait. He posted his Icelandic theory on a chess website created by his friend (and the artist’s husband) Einar S. Einarsson. A retired banker and former head of VISA Iceland, Einarsson is a consummate networker. Outgoing where Thorarinsson is quiet, efficient where Thorarinsson is idealistic, Einarsson had pressed him to publish. But that first version of “The Icelandic Theory” was a rambling and erudite saga, marked by the breadth of learning of an amateur—one for whom history is a passion, not a profession. Thorarinsson was unafraid to cross disciplinary boundaries. At times, he acted more like a journalist than a historian, quoting experts he had interviewed, not books and papers he had read.
His readers were not so accepting. After the website ChessBase linked to Thorarinsson’s paper and his theory found its way into the beautiful coffee-table book Chess Masterpieces , the Norwegian chess master Morten Lilleoren erupted: “The content is literally filled with faults and oversights…This whole argument seems farfetched.”
And in some ways, I agree, it was farfetched. Thorarinsson made too much of the idea that Icelandic was the first language to use the chess term bishop; as I wrote in chapter 2, a Latin reference to episcopi might predate the one in the Icelandic saga to biskup.
Thorarinsson also overstressed the resemblance of the knights’ mounts to Icelandic horses, as have other experts: Most horses in twelfth century Europe were as small.
But “faults and oversights”? I found very few as I traced his path through libraries, cathedrals, and museums, from Reykjavik to Skal holt, from Edinburgh to Trondheim, Lund, and Lewis. Fewer, in fact, than I found exploring the Norwegian theory, which seems mostly to be based on that grand medieval concept of authority.
Thorarinsson’s argument, Lilleoren insisted, “is filled with errors— i.e., not in accordance with well-established historical knowledge.” That may be, I determined, a very good thing. Rather than blindly accepting the pronouncements of great art historians like Goldschmidt (“distinctly Norwegian”) or Blindheim (“people trained as woodcarvers were frequently engaged to work in stone”), Thorarinsson took a fresh look at the subject. As Icelanders say , Glöggt er gests augað : The guest’s eye is clear.
Berserker, Lewis Chessmen, British Museum. ( CC BY 2.0 )
Building on Madden and Murray, Thorarinsson added the insights of scholars who wrote in Icelandic and whose voices had not entered the international debate on the origins of the Lewis chessmen. Art historian Bera Nordal, for example, placed medieval Icelandic wood carvings, along with Bishop Pall’s crozier, into the set of like objects to which the designs on the backs of the chessmen’s thrones must be compared. Excavating Skalholt, archaeologist Kristjan Eldjarn and his colleagues painted a picture of an extraordinarily rich twelfth-century bishopric, with a wooden church larger than any in Norway, and validated the basic truth of the Saga of Bishop Pall by uncovering his stone sarcophagus. Historian Helgi Gudmundsson traced the connections among Greenland, Iceland, and the larger Norse world, concluding that Iceland was a hub for the walrus trade and that ivory profits funded the writing of the sagas. Likewise, historian Helgi Thorlaksson found a series of place-names that mapped exactly from Lewis to Iceland, showing the strong connection between those two islands. Before Thorarinsson wrote his paper, none of these scholars had made the news in London, Edinburgh, Trondheim, or Lewis. None was cited in books or articles about the Lewis chessmen.
But Thorarinsson’s greatest contribution was to take the sagas seriously. He knew—as did few of the experts who have written about the Lewis chessmen—which sagas are considered to be largely historical and which, in general, are not. And he could read them. The Saga of Bishop Pall is hard going, even if you’ve studied Old Icelandic, and no English translation exists. Without Thorarinsson, the story of Margret the Adroit, who carved walrus ivory “so skillfully that no one in Iceland had seen such artistry before,” would have remained untold.
No one, of course, listens to outsiders. A seminar in conjunction with the exhibition The Lewis Chessmen: Unmasked was planned for September 2010. Einarsson wrote to the National Museum of Scotland offering Thorarinsson’s services as a speaker. He received no reply. He sent Thorarinsson’s paper to the British Museum; again, no response. Balked, Einarsson simply took another tack: He spoke with his friend Dylan Loeb McClain, chess columnist for the New York Times. And he called the Icelandic embassy in London.
Giant Lewis Chessman Replica at the British Museum Shop. ( CC BY 2.0 )
The story broke in the New York Times the week before the conference. It appeared on the front page of The Scotsman and in the London Daily Telegraph the day of the seminar. “The people at the British Museum told us afterwards,” Einarsson recalled, “that they get so many letters every day from nutheads! They considered us nutheads!” The embassy arranged a meeting for Thorarinsson and Einarsson with the British Museum curators; the pair then traveled on to the seminar in Edinburgh. Though he was not scheduled to give a talk, Thorarinsson was asked informally to present his theory. He told the story of Margret the Adroit.
Nor, having made a splash, did Einarsson let the idea die. He and Thorarinsson organized an all-day symposium at Skalholt in August 2011—on the eight hundredth anniversary of Bishop Pall’s death—to further explore the Icelandic theory. Experts who initially scoffed were invited, including David Caldwell and Mark Hall, representing the National Museum of Scotland, and James Robinson of the British Museum. Alex Woolf, the Scottish medievalist who had described Iceland to the New York Times as “a scrappy place full of farmers,” particularly became intrigued. “On reflection,” he afterward wrote to Thorarinsson, “I came to realize that in the Sturlung Age, when the chess pieces were produced, the social and economic structures of the Icelandic free-state had developed considerably… Chieftains and bishops of the later twelfth and thirteenth century were, unlike their predecessors of the tenth and eleventh centuries, perfectly capable of retaining high quality craftsmen in their households.”
The queen from the Lewis chessmen set. Photo courtesy of National Museums Scotland.
Thorarinsson and Einarsson included Woolf’s statement, with his permission, in the third edition of their illustrated booklet, The Enigma of the Lewis Chessmen: The Icelandic Theory , published in 2014. Their goal, Thorarinsson told me, was to change the history of Iceland. “Medieval Icelanders are known for writing the sagas, a literature of world quality. But if the Icelandic theory is right, Iceland was also a country of ivory carvers”—that is, of world-class visual artists as well. If Margret the Adroit did carve the Lewis chessmen, Iceland could claim those “outstanding examples of Romanesque Art” that “embody truly monumental values of the human condition.”
This article is excerpted from the book ‘ Ivory Vikings: The Mystery of the Most Famous Chessmen in the World and the Woman who Made Them ’ by Nancy Marie Brown .
Top Image: Lewis Chessmen king and queen, with rook and knight behind them. ( CC BY 3.0 )
By NANCY MARIE BROWN
Updated on December 23, 2021.