The Norwegian Controversy

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The Norwegian Argument

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Many aspects of the Lewis Chessmen generate discussion. The one aspect that generates the most controversy and dispute is that of the origin of the pieces. Though there are many commonly accepted theories, even expert scholars and historians agree that there is the possibility that less accepted beliefs have merit.

The strongest evidence so far uncovered gives indication that Norway, specifically Trondheim, is the most likely point of origin of the chessmen. It was in the excavation of the palace of the archbishop that another queen was found. This queen is remarkably similar to the queens of the Lewis Chess set. The newly found queen was broken and it appears quite likely that the breakage occurred as she was being made. A king similar to the Lewis set was also found on an island not very far away from Trondheim. The two new pieces, though not identical to those found on the Isle of Lewis, bear a close enough resemblance to make it very probable that the separate finds did actually originate in the same area.

The armour and shields that were carved onto the Lewis Chessmen have a strong tie to the armour and shields that were used in Norway at the time that the items were created. While the shields carried by the little men are replicas of shields excavated in Trondheim and the armour is of Norwegian style it is not only the protective accessories that are similar. The designs that had been incorporated into the thrones of the kings and queens of the Lewis pieces are very much in the same style as carvings that have been found in the Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim. The feature of two animals grasping on to each other is distinctively Norwegian art.

One other argument that favours Trondheim as the logical place for the manufacture of the pieces is that of finances and economics. Norway, during the 12th and 13th centuries, had enough wealthy patrons that could have feasibly afforded the commission and completion of the pieces. This was not so true of Iceland, the other country brought forth as the most probable location for the origin of the chess pieces.

Gudmundur G. Thórarinsson has recently published a paper on his theory that the birthplace of the Lewis Chessmen might possibly have been Iceland. He readily admits that the evidence he provides to support his contentions is, at best, circumstantial and that his main intention is to initiate rational and intelligent discussion of the topic. Debating the potential of Iceland as the point of origin of the Lewis pieces does not negate the likelihood that they may be of Norwegian origin.

The first argument to support Icelandic ties to the Lewis pieces hinges on the bishop. The word bishop used in the game of chess was not recorded to have been used in any other country than Iceland and the Lewis game pieces are the first discovered that have a connection between the game and the church. The bishop pieces appear to support Icelandic ties with respect to what they are not wearing rather than what they are wearing. The archbishop in Trondheim wore a pallium – a narrow band of cloth worn draped around the shoulders and down the front – and a local artisan would likely have carved that into the piece had it originated in Norway.

While the carving style of the Lewis set is closely related to carving styles found in Norway, Thórarinsson brings up the point that many Icelandic artists of the time had been trained in Trondheim. This would indicate that the style used does not necessarily narrow the region the pieces could have been made to Trondheim but rather extends that region to include Iceland after the trained artists returned home.

There is one Icelandic artist in particular that may have created the chess pieces. Margrét the Adroit was a phenomenal artist in the field of carving ivory; this expertise is how she earned the title of Adroit. Though Iceland was not as wealthy as Norway, Margrét was married to Bishop Páll of Skálholt and the Bishop would have had the means to commission the pieces and gift them to someone living along the shipping route. The purchase of the walrus ivory and whale teeth would not have been an incredible expense as there was an ample supply found in the trade between Iceland and Greenland that Margrét would have had access to.

Given these arguments and the entire bodies of evidence available, expert scholars and historians generally accept the theory that Norway is the birthplace of the Lewis Chessmen but they do not rule out the slight possibility that they may have come from Iceland instead. There is an understanding that regardless of how highly educated, possible and accurate guesses may be they are still only guesses. There is a belief among some people that the pieces should not be named after the Isle of Lewis as that is only the land where they were found and not the land where they were made. As indicated by the previous topic of debate the land where the pieces were made cannot be named with absolute certainty. It is not possible to rename the pieces after a country or city that itself has not been officially and positively declared and even if it were so it is doubtful that another name would be accepted for a set so well known to people as The Lewis Chessmen.

The final debate under this category does not pertain to the origin of the pieces but rather to their intended use. A theory exists that the Lewis Chessmen were not made for the game of chess but rather for the medieval Scandinavian game hnefatafl. This game was played with a king, eight defenders and 16 attackers. It is true that it could have been played with some pieces from the Lewis Chess set but no other explanations exist for the queens and other pieces that are not included in hnefatafl. There are advocates for this argument that claim the Lewis pieces could not have been intended for a chess game as no board was found with them. This becomes a moot point as hnefatafl requires a board as well and that board, by the same token, was not found. As chess was a very popular past-time of the period, especially in the houses of nobles, it is not an illogical assumption to believe that most houses would have contained at least one chess board and therefore the cumbersome burden of shipping a board may not have been considered necessary with each gift or sale of chess pieces.

While much of the existing evidence does indeed point to Norway as being the place where the items were created there is still enough reasonable doubt that minds can be kept open to other possibilities. The debate and discussions that revolve around the Lewis Chessmen will continue until the day that the origin has been declared with 100 percent certainty. This is a good thing as it does get people thinking, interested and – perhaps most importantly – learning about history.

There are many parts of the past that are filled with unknowns. That may be one of the reasons that people are drawn to the Lewis Chessmen: The idea that there are many possibilities allows imaginations to soar, question and wonder.

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