Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Were the Lewis Chessmen Made in Trondheim?

Google "Lewis chessmen" and--unless you come up with my book Ivory Vikings--you'll probably learn that they were made in Trondheim, Norway between 1150 and 1200. How do we know that? Actually, we don't.

Although the "Trondheim theory" of the origins of the Lewis chessmen is often presented as fact, art historians have been debating whether they were made in Iceland or Norway or Scotland or England or somewhere else ever since the chessmen were first studied at the British Museum in 1832. As one expert concluded in 1909, "Artistic influences were constantly interchanged, and common features of ornament are found on both shores of the North Sea, with the result that it is often difficult to say to which side a given object belongs."

When Icelandic art historian Bera Nordal studied the motifs on the Lewis chessmen in 1992, she compared them to stone carvings and wooden stave churches in Norway, to other walrus-ivory objects in the British Museum and the Danish National Museum, and to a little-known collection of Romanesque wood carvings in the National Museum of Iceland. She reached "no conclusive answers as to whether the Lewis chessmen originated in Norway or Iceland" or somewhere else.

Nordal's work on the Icelandic wood carvings is missing from most discussions of the Lewis chessmen. She wrote in Icelandic and published in an obscure journal.

Instead, experts cite a short report from two years earlier by a pair of archaeologists working in Trondheim, Chris McLees and Oeystein Ekroll, who published in English in the prestigious journal Medieval Archaeology. For many, McLees and Ekroll clinched the Trondheim theory. Their report discusses "a small sculpture of a Madonna with the Christ child, beautifully carved in ivory," that was found on the ancient site of Saint Olav's Church in Trondheim in the 1880s--and subsequently lost. All that remains are three sketches.

Rifling old files for information on Saint Olav's church, which was demolished in 1702, archaeologist Ian Reed stumbled upon the sketches and a few details from the finder's report. He shared this information with McLees and Ekroll. To them the sculpture was no Madonna but a Lewis chess queen. As sketched, the figure wears a veil but no crown. Only her head and one arm remained to be drawn, but the right hand was all that the researchers needed: She holds her hand to her cheek.

Touring modern-day Trondheim, especially with the authors of this report--as I did to research Ivory Vikings--it's not hard to find motifs like those on the Lewis thrones in Nidaros Cathedral, on stones displayed in the Bishop's Palace Museum, on the wall of a small church down a side street, and in the ruins of Saint Olav's Church (preserved inside the new library).

But the Trondheim theory is not watertight. To support their theory, McLees and Ekroll list in their paper "the characteristic 'Trondheim Group' of stave-church portals; the local strain of ornamental stone carving in the district's Romanesque stone churches...; and, if the inferences implicit in the motifs common to a number of carved ivories, including a possible crozier head found on the nearby island of Munkholmen, can be trusted, the range of skills and motifs shared by local sculptors also extended to the intricate carving of walrus ivory." The number of qualifiers in that last clause flags a problem the researchers readily acknowledge: Few of the artworks compared to the chessmen can be scientificially dated. Except for the stone carvings, none is indisputably a product of Trondheim.

An ivory chess piece, after all, would fit in an artist's pocket. The entire Lewis hoard could easily be transported by a carver coming from, say, Lund (then in Denmark, now in Sweden)--where another broken piece of a Lewis chessman, this time the front feet of a knight's horse, was found in the 1980s.

Or the chessmen could have been made in Iceland, as I argue, by an ivory carver named Margret the Adroit, who was hired to make luxury items for the bishop of Skalholt to send to his friends abroad.

I won't run through all the holes I poked in the Trondheim theory of the origin of the Lewis chessmen. You can read that for yourself (Chapter 4 of Ivory Vikings). It was, I think, the hardest part of the book to write--demolishing the theory of two clever and competent researchers whom I liked very much and who had been very generous with their time and expertise. I rewrote that section several times, trying to be fair. It's a good theory, I wanted to stress. It's just not the only one. And it's definitely not fact.

So I felt like I had aced an exam when I received, a few days ago, a letter from Chris McLees in Trondheim thanking me for sending him a copy of Ivory Vikings. "It was fun to see the story of the discovery of our Trondheim chess queen woven into the narrative as you did," he wrote. He hadn't finished the book, but "What I have read has greatly impressed me," he said.

"I reserve final judgment on your theory"--that the Lewis chessmen were made in Iceland, he added, "but I heartily agree that it is compelling. I'll get back to you on that after a closer reading."

I couldn't have asked for more.

Read more about Ivory Vikings on my website,, or check out these reviews:

"Briefly Noted," The New Yorker (November 2): (scroll down)

"Bones of Contention," The Economist (August 29):

"Review: Ivory Vikings," Minneapolis Star Tribune (August 29):

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Vikings and the Edge of the World

If you liked my book Ivory Vikings, and want to learn more about the North Sea culture in the Middle Ages, then the next book on your reading list should be The Edge of the World by Michael Pye.

There's some overlap. Pye covers some of the same ground--or waters--as I did. We're both fascinated by the Sea Road that connected the cultures bordering the North Atlantic and permitted ideas and art, as well as people, to travel freely around the north. But while Ivory Vikings emphasizes Iceland, The Edge of the World is centered on Amsterdam and the lands that will become the Netherlands. Reading the two books back to back shows how two writers can tackle the same topic--and produce completely different, if complementary, stories.

Pye has a wider historical sweep, too. While I focus on the years 793 to 1266, he is fascinated by the 14th, 15th, and even 16th centuries. Sometimes his grander sense of time can be confusing. In a paragraph on the history of written laws, for example, he jumps from the birth of Christ to the 12th century.

And, from my perspective, Pye gets some things wrong. His understanding of Iceland and Greenland, particularly their settlement, is a bit outdated and contradicted by newer research, as is his discussion of the Viking voyages to the New World. I found myself putting a lot of question marks, and a few exclamation marks, in the margins of these sections.

But though I might quibble with a few of Pye's conclusions, I learned quite a lot from the book.

His chapter on Fashion is particularly fun. "The great sagas from Iceland have everything you expect," he writes: "heroes, killings, dragons, feuds, great voyages, and great horrors. They also have something less likely: they have dandies."

Here he introduces one of my favorites, the future Earl of Orkney, Kali Kolsson. In Ivory Vikings, I discuss the references to chess in Kali's poetry; Pye zeroes in on his clothes. Fashion, he says, "is about choosing to reinvent yourself and your status."

How exactly were the Vikings reinventing themselves? To explain, Pye tells me about some archaeological finds I was unaware of. The port town of Bergen, on the west coast of Norway, he points out, burned down repeatedly in the Middle Ages, leaving treasures for today's archaeologists.

"In the layers from the 11th to the 13th centuries, there are shoes--shoes for women, men, and children--and a startling number of them are decorated with embroidery in silk. Now, Lucca [near Rome] was beginning to produce silk in the 12th century, and grumpy Paris clerics had begun to denounce the wearing of 'worm's excrement,' but silk still seemed a luxury to Southerners, mostly imported from the Middle East. In later illuminated manuscripts, embroidered shoes are worn by grand and powerful people to show rank and to show money. But the Bergen evidence does not come from the parts of town with castles or riches; it is everywhere. There are so many shoes, even grown-ups' shoes cut down for children, that it's clear that silk yarn was being brought in quantity to the Norwegian coast long before it was the mark of social-climbing persons in Paris..."

Finally, I have often wondered why Norway did not live up to its side of the bargain in the century after Iceland became subject to the Norwegian king. According to the agreement made at the Althing between 1262 and 1264, Norway was to send frequent ships carrying grain, timber, iron, and other staples Iceland needed: "Six ships are to sail from Norway to Iceland during each of the next two summers; from that time forth their number shall be decided according to what the king and the most judicious farmers in Iceland believe to be in the best interests of the country."

Yet in historical hindsight, this agreement seems to end Iceland's years of prosperity along with its independence. The Golden Age was over. Iceland descended into its own Dark Ages of colonial repression. Until about 1600 the island was known to the rest of the world only for its rich offshore fishing grounds, its barbaric, uncultured people (said to wash in urine and dine on candle wax), and its volcanoes, one of which—Mount Hekla—was known as the Mouth of Hell.

As Pye explains, it wasn't Norway's fault. The Norwegians, too, were short of food at the end of the 1200s.

"The Norwegian ports, Bergen in particular, were waiting for the last shipments of the things they needed for the winter: grain for bread and beer, peas, beans, malt and flour. They had come to depend on these shipments; their year was measured out by the ships from Lübeck that took away their butter and dried cod, their furs and their good axes, and brought back basics from around the Baltic—where there was land to grow things, not like their own narrow fields between mountains and fjords and forests. They had once done business with the English as well, but now they depended on the Lübeck merchants of the Hansa."

The merchants of the Hansa League, a loose confederation of trading towns in what is now Germany, "seemed to do business just as they liked." Having gained a monopoly, they refused to sell "the winter essentials"--grain, flour, vegetables, and beer--to Norway until the Norwegian king gave them better terms. They blockaded the Norwegian ports until they got what they want. "Everything the Norwegians did after that seemed only to make them more dependent on the Hansa," Pye writes. They didn't send ships full of grain to Iceland because they couldn't.

"Something is beginning on the edge of the world: the kind of multinational power that does not depend on where it is based, which flirts or fights in the modern world with the obvious kinds of political and state power, which usually gets its own way," Pye concludes. Something that brought the old Viking world to its knees. "The modern trade-off between politics and money had begun."

The Edge of the World: A Cultural History of the North Sea and the Transformation of Europe by Michael Pye was published by Pegasus Books in 2015.

Read more about Ivory Vikings on my website,, or check out these reviews:

"Briefly Noted," The New Yorker (November 2): (scroll down)

"Bones of Contention," The Economist (August 29):

"Review: Ivory Vikings," Minneapolis Star Tribune (August 29):

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Were Medieval Women Artists? How Do We Know?

In the subtitle for my book Ivory Vikings, I took a chance. I dropped all the qualifiers. Rather than cluttering up the cover of my book with "may have" or "perhaps" or "maybe," I came out and said that a woman carved the Lewis chessmen.

The subtitle reads: "The Mystery of the Most Famous Chessmen in the World and the Woman Who Made Them."

Some reviewers objected: "Though more full of conjecture than the assertive subtitle suggests, Brown's account is nonetheless fascinating," said Publisher's Weekly.

"OK," said a reviewer for a medieval studies blog, "that title is quite attention grabbing: women as medieval sculptors and artisans? Not sure how that will be discernible in the art but I have not read the book yet so..."

In the text of the book, I do carefully re-insert all the "may haves" and "maybes." "Did Margret the Adroit carve the Lewis chessmen under a commission from Bishop Pall?" I ask in the introduction. "Unless the Skalholt dig is reopened, and proof of an ivory workshop is found, we cannot say yes or no. But 'the limited evidence' places Iceland on equal footing with Trondheim as the site of their creation."

I also rail against the book editors and graphic designers who take out all the qualifiers when asserting that the Lewis chessmen were made, instead, in Trondheim, Norway. Yes, I did it too; guilty as charged. Reader, beware: titles exaggerate. Marketing is not scholarship.

We cannot say if Margret the Adroit really carved the Lewis chessmen or not. Medieval artists did not sign their work. Gender is not, as that reviewer noted, "discernible in the art."

And yet, should we so matter-of-factly dismiss, as that reviewer seems to do, the idea that Margret was capable of it? "Women as medieval sculptors and artisans?" Really? Pshaw!

The Saga of Bishop Pall presents ample evidence that Margret the Adroit was a true "medieval sculptor," working on an equal footing with her male colleagues Amundi the Smith, Atli the Scribe, and Thorstein the Shrine-Smith at the cathedral of Skalholt in Iceland in the late 1100s and early 1200s. This contemporary saga, written within a generation of the bishop's death, has never been translated from Old Norse, however, so you can't expect every medieval scholar to be familiar with it.

So let's look for women artists in a more mainstream place: medieval Spain.

In 2008, a pair of researchers from Duoda, the Women's Research Center of the University of Barcelona, M.-Elisa Varela Rodríguez and Teresa Vinyoles Vidal, published the essay “Scattering Light and Colours: The Traces of Some Medieval Women Artists” in a series called The Difference of Being Woman: Research and Teaching of History. The essay, which includes the images reproduced below, can be downloaded here:

In March 2014 it was circulated by the website, which is where I learned of it. That link is:

Rodriguez and Vidal write of women artists who lived and worked near Barcelona between the 10th and the 14th centuries--and who actually signed their work. "Some artists of embroidery wanted to leave their name for history," the researchers note.

One was the late 10th-century abbess Maria de Santa Maria de les Puelles de Girona. The epitaph carved on her tombstone begins: "Maria of venerable memory, working with great effort every day on holy works..." Add Rodriguez and Vidal, "Maria wanted to leave a trace and she did so in the way that she knew how. In the parish church of Sant Feliu of Gerona a magnificently woven and embroidered stole is conserved ... on which there appear some letters that identify Maria as the author of the work." Those letters read: "[Remember], friend, Maria made me, whosoever wears this stole on themselves take it from me that they will have God as their help." The researchers continue, "Although the words 'know' or 'remember,' are blurred on the weaving, we can permit ourselves to interpret it in the following way: Maria wanted to be remembered, she was conscious that she had realised a laborious and beautiful work."

Another textile artist who wished to be remembered for her work was Elisava. She "signed the so-called banner of Sant Otto, which, originating in la Seu d’Urgell, is conserved in the Textile Museum of Barcelona. An art historian defines Elisava as commissioner of the piece," Rodriguez and Vidal write, "but we do not agree with that theory, we think that the clear affirmation 'Elisava me fecit' has to do with the real work, not only with paying for or sponsoring the work." They date the banner to 1122.

A third medieval Spanish woman artist painted the 115 miniatures in the Beato de Girona, "one of the richest manuscripts pictorially within the tradition of commentary on the Apocalypse." It is dated to 975. An inscription in the manuscript, as Rodriguez and Vidal interpret it, "clearly declares the authorship of the work to be of a woman with the name of En who is a painter, is fully aware of her task, and is also aware of its importance. … we interpret the text Dei aiutrix, helper of God, in that sense that through her the divine is transmitted to us … And she does it as a woman, which is why the illustrations of the Beato de Girona are different to that of other Beatos attributed to men painters. The Beato de Girona is the richest of miniatures, it is the richest in the palette of colours that it uses, and it is also unique in the interpretation that the painter makes of some scenes or passages."

Is gender discernible in the art? These researchers believe it is, in this case and in that of the wall murals Teresa Diez painted in about 1316 for the Real Convento de Santa Clara de Toro, and which she also signed. Teresa chose to paint the life of Saint Catherine of Alexandria, contrasting feminine mediation and patriarchal power. "The exhibition of this pictorial-textual message, an explosion of colour and light, would undoubtedly move one to a religious devotion," Rodriguez and Vidal write. "Teresa Diez uses a language that is an invitaiton to life, full of poetry, light; an artistic language following the paths of the emerging gothic style. She interprets it in a personal way." Her work, they say, offers "an immense carpet of colour."

"It should also be pointed out that," conclude Rodriguez and Vidal, "when so few names of women artists appear to us, it must be deduced that there were many more that were anonymous, and also others that history may still discover."

One of those women artists whom I hope other medievalists will soon discover, through my book Ivory Vikings, is the 12th-century ivory carver from Iceland, Margret the Adroit.

Read more about Ivory Vikings on my website,, or check out these reviews:

"Briefly Noted," The New Yorker (November 2): (scroll down)

"Bones of Contention," The Economist (August 29):

"Review: Ivory Vikings," Minneapolis Star Tribune (August 29):

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

America2Iceland's Sagas & Vikings Tour

Iceland is the hot place to go these days (pun intended). Every week, it seems, I hear from someone who just "did" the land of fire and ice.

Well, I've got news for you. You can't "do" Iceland in one trip. I've been going to Iceland since 1986--and the place isn't done with me yet.

It's not only that I've missed whole quadrants of the country. The places I know still astonish me. Each year, I notice something new or--paradoxically--very old, like the Viking Age longhouse that was discovered under a Reykjavik parking lot last year and is forcing a critical rethinking of the city's development.

And then there's the weather. 

Last summer, from the farm where I like to stay, I gazed for days and days at the high white ice caps in the center of the island. But the one day we traveled toward the sea, the mountains by the coast wrapped themselves in clouds. Majestic Snaefellsjokull simply disappeared.

I knew it was there, laughing behind my back. The West is one part of Iceland I know very well: from Borgarnes to the Breiðafjorður, out to the tip of Snæfellsnes, and in to Surtshellir cave at the edge of the highlands. The West has a wonderful variety of landscapes--farms, fishing villages, lava fields, glaciers, beaches, waterfalls. On various trips I've found a path through the lava that had long been lost, crouched behind a rock while a sea eagle strafed me, rode a horse through a swift salmon river (careful not to let the eddies dizzy me), collected crowberries, watched fox pups play, rescued trapped sheep, frightened myself in a pitch-dark cave, drank sweet water from the well in another, soaked in a wilderness hot pool, sunned on the flank of a volcano.

I'm not a naturalist: What draws me to this part of Iceland are the medieval sagas, with their tales of sheep-farmers and sorcerors, horse fights and feuds, love and grief and hard times and strife. Tales of a satisfying life scratched from an unforgiving land. Tales tempered with poetry and grace. 

These sagas, this landscape, has inspired nearly all my books. It's here that I found one perfect horse in A Good Horse Has No Color: Searching Iceland for the Perfect Horse (Stackpole 2001), and learned how Icelandic folklore and mythology are infused with horses.

Here is where the story of Gudrid the Far-Traveler begins, the Viking woman who explored North America 500 years before Columbus. I've written about Gudrid twice, as nonfiction in The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman (Harcourt, 2007), and in the young adult novel The Saga of Gudrid the Far-Traveler (Namelos 2015). Guðriður grew up on the tip of Snæfellsnes, in the shadow of the glacier some people call the third most holy spot on earth. (Seeing it rise out of the sea is certainly one of my favorite views of Iceland). 

In the twelfth century, West Iceland was ruled by Snorri Sturluson, that unscrupulous chieftain who has become the most influential writer of the Middle Ages, in any language. My book Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012) is his biography. Here he wrote the Edda, which contains almost everything we know about Norse mythology. Here he wrote Heimskringla, his history of the kings of Norway. Here he probably wrote the first (and maybe the best) of the Icelandic sagas: Egil's Saga. And here he died, murdered, cringing in his cellar, for having betrayed the king of Norway.

Here, as well, Snorri and his family may have cornered the market on walrus ivory. As I argue in my latest book, Ivory Vikings: The Mystery of the Most Famous Chessmen in the World and the Woman Who Made Them (St Martin's 2015), the land of the sagas may also have been a land of world-class visual art in the Middle Ages. 

The best way to research my books, I've found, is to walk through the landscape where history happened, to live where my subjects lived and face some of the same challenges. To cross rivers on horseback, for example, or climb a volcanic crater. To experience the midnight sun in summer, when the birdsong never stills, as well as the dark days of winter (though I must admit, I've let a very few of them stand in for the rest). To marvel at the beauty of white glacier ice, black lava rock, blue (or slate-gray) sky, and jewel-green fields. To feel the spirits of the land in the breath of the wind, the sting of rain, and the warmth of the sun.

I'd like to bring you with me. Since 2012 I've been leading tours in West Iceland for the company America2Iceland, which is based on the farm of Staðarhús in Borgarfjörður. Earlier on this blog I've written about our Trekking Bootcamp I, an adventure tour for horseback riders. 

But we also offer a tour for non-riders, for people who like to learn about Iceland's sagas and its Viking past. For people who'd like to meet real Icelanders and see more of the country than just the surface it presents to the usual tourist.

This year's "Sagas & Vikings" tour will take place from July 10-16. We'll begin in Reykjavik, with a visit to the Settlement Exhibition, then travel to Thingvellir, site of Iceland's ancient parliament and locus of many saga episodes. We'll end our day at Staðarhús, where we'll settle in for a week in a comfortable, family-run country hotel.

Mornings we'll spend reading, taking nature walks, and observing the lifestyle of a traditional Icelandic horse farm. Those so inclined can take a riding lesson or short trail ride (for an additional charge). 

Each morning's assigned readings, from my own books, will introduce the sights we'll see on our bus tour in the afternoon. We'll hike into the lava fields at Eldborg and Budir. We'll tour the sea caves and bird cliffs at Hellnar and Arnarstapi, and visit Gudrid's birthplace at Laugabrekka. We'll explore the town of Borgarnes, with its museums and geothermal pools, and Snorri's estate of Reykholt. We'll visit hot springs, wander along black and golden beaches, and see glaciers, volcanic craters, and waterfalls. And we'll meet the Icelandic horse and learn why the horse, not the dog, is "man's best friend" in Iceland. 

Over dinner--a gourmet meal served at the farm--we'll discuss what we've learned and seen: How Iceland was settled, why the sagas were written, how the country has changed since the Middle Ages, how its culture has so powerfully influenced our own.

This tour is limited to 12 people, so each will get my personal attention. For more information, or to sign up, see or contact Rebecca at America2Iceland by email at or phone at 1-828-348-4257. I think this is the perfect tour for first-time visitors to Iceland. Even if you've been to Iceland before, you'll see it in a completely new light.