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.”

Icelandic Workmanship

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.

The King Defended. The Lewis Chessmen.

The King Defended. The Lewis Chessmen. ( BY 2.0 )

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.

The Roordahuizum drinking horn, made in the mid-16th century by silversmith Albert Jacobs Canter. ( Public Domain )

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