Medievalist and author, Nancy Marie Brown just might be Iceland’s hardest working advocate. She spends a part of each summer offering an educational experience about the sagas and Vikings, not in a tour bus, but on Icelandic horses! Her deep love and association with this country goes back to her early days when she was first assigned to read The Prose Edda. (Surprisingly, we could go even further back to discovery that J.R.R. Tolkien was an inspiration along the way in her journey.) Since then, she has read every single Icelandic saga, she has learned modern Icelandic as a language and immersed herself in a world of Viking history and folklore. Along the way in a decorated career, in which I will leave for the reader to discover, she has also written six exciting and absorbing history books (and one young adult novel) and in the process revealed some interesting truths.
I recently put out an invitation to Nancy to talk to me about one of her books that late last year grabbed my attention. It is called Ivory Vikings: The Mystery of the Most Famous Chessmen in the World and the Woman Who Made Them. Firstly, I have to admit, I love Chess. Secondly, the Age of Vikings and a colorful history when these people ruled the North Atlantic is one of my favourite periods in history. Thirdly, the idea that an astonishing woman by the name of Margret the Adroit possibly created the famous Lewis Chessmen is a story that I absolutely needed to read about. Drawing all these elements together I hoped that Nancy would give my readers an insight into a world that she loves and the interest and debate sparked around the Lewis Chessmen. Without further ado I would finally like to introduce my interview guest.
I received my own replica Lewis Chessmen set as a gift many years ago. One day I came across photos of them in an old Viking catalogue. I was surprised and excited by my find. Can you explain Nancy how you first came across the Lewis Chessmen? And why you thought it would be intriguing to write about them?
“As usual, one book sparked another. Ivory Vikings introduces Pall Jonsson, who was a bishop in Iceland around the year 1200. I met Bishop Pall while writing Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths, a biography of the 13th-century Icelandic writer and chieftain Snorri Sturluson. Snorri is the most influential writer of the Middle Ages: He is responsible for almost everything we know about Norse mythology and may also have established the genre of “saga.”
While gathering illustrations for that book, I stumbled upon the theory that the Lewis chessmen had been made in Iceland at Bishop Pall’s request. This fabulously wealthy bishop and art patron was Snorri’s foster-brother. That meant Snorri Sturluson would have known the ivory carver in Bishop Pall’s employ, a woman named Margret the Adroit.
I included a picture of one of the Lewis chessmen in Song of the Vikings, and referred to the Iceland theory of their origin, but there was no room to develop the idea that medieval Icelanders may also have been exceptional visual artists as well as world-class writers. So I had to write another book.”
Manuscript of the Prose Edda, also known as, Snorri’s Edda of 1666
Nancy you have written widely about the Viking age and enlightened the reader about many remarkable events. Is there one moment in particular that stands out as one of the most significant?
“For me, it’s the expedition to North America led by Gudrid the Far-Traveler and her husband, Thorfinn Karlsefni, just after the year 1000. I’ve written about it twice, in nonfiction in 2007 (The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman) and as fiction in 2015 (The Saga of Gudrid the Far-Traveler). Not only is it an incredible tale of discovery that helps explain the Viking Age archaeological site at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, but according to the Icelandic sagas one of its leaders was a young woman. That up-ends a lot of what we thought we knew about the status of women in the Middle Ages.”
Is there a very little known fact about the Vikings that you came across that would completely surprise us?
“They adored poetry. Viking skaldic poetry was a sophisticated art form. The rules are more convoluted than those for a sonnet or haiku. In the most common form, a stanza had eight lines. Each line had six syllables and three stresses. The rhythm was fixed, as were the patterns of assonance and alliteration. The musicality of a line was of utmost importance: A skaldic poem was designed to please the ear. It was first a sound-picture, though in a great poem sound and meaning were inseparable. Each four-line half-stanza contained at least two thoughts—and these could be braided together so that the listener had to pay close attention to the grammar (not the word order) to disentangle subject, object, and verb. Especially since nothing was stated plainly. Why call a ship a ship when it could be “the otter of the ocean”?
We know the names of over two hundred skalds. We can read (or, at least, experts can) hundreds of their verses: In the standard edition, they fill a thousand two-column pages. What skalds thought important enough to put into words provides most of what we know today about the inner lives of people in the Viking age, what they loved, what they despised. Vikings were ruthless killers. They were also consummate artists.”
The Queen is the most powerful chess piece on the board, but I wonder why this wasn’t always the case throughout history. Can you briefly enlighten the reader about the evolution of the Queen?
“When the Lewis chessmen were carved, the queen moved one space per turn, and only on the diagonal or “aslant,” as a thirteenth-century sermon explains, because “women are so greedy that they will take nothing except by rapine and injustice.” The queen was the weakest piece on the board, even weaker than the king.
Medieval chess was a very slow game—it’s been compared to a castle siege—and bored players invented a variety of ways to speed it up. Some house rules used dice to determine which piece moved next. Some gave the pawn its initial leap of two spaces or started with the pawns already engaged. Some let the king and queen take a leap as well. The first hint of the queen or “fers,” as she was called, as a powerful piece comes in a 13th-century French poem comparing the Virgin Mary to a chess queen. As translated by Mark Taylor in Chess in the Middle Ages and Early Modern World (edited by Daniel O’Sullivan), “Other ferses move but one square, but this one invades so quickly and sharply that before the devil has taken any of [her men], she has him so tied up and so worried that he doesn’t know where he should move. This fers mates him in straight lines; this fers mates him at an angle; … this fers drives him out from square to square by superior strength.” The poet is describing a “king hunt,” a chess strategy still used today. Yet it’s doubtful anyone in the 1200s played chess with this awesome queen. Not until 1497, when Isabella of Castile ruled Spain and its New World colonies, does a chess treatise recognize the queen as the strongest piece on the board.
Events throughout medieval European history have often been played out like a chess game. Historical figures are sacrificed or do I dare say, even used as pawns. Who in your reading from the Viking age can be said to be a pawn, and why?
“There’s a lovely story in the Icelandic Laxdoela Saga about a young Irish princess named Melkorka. She was captured and sold as a slave, became the concubine of a wealthy chieftain in Iceland, and eventually became a free woman of means and the mother of a similarly wealthy chieftain. She begins the story as a pawn, advances down the board, and becomes, if not a king, then almost a queen.”
The best way for us to get to know about the lives and exploits of Vikings is to listen to the sagas. Though I suppose we can’t believe everything we hear about them. Is there a place for Viking mythology in serious academic study?
“Not only is there a place for it, Viking mythology is a very active area of scholarly study. There’s some exciting new work being done on Viking belief systems—the work of Neil Price comes to mind—that is changing our way of thinking about the people who lived in the Viking Age.”
Is it fair to say that women in Norse society were well respected and appeared to have greater freedom, especially when compared to other European cultures of that age? What can we learn from the Vikings about respect for women?
“Compared to other medieval literatures, the Icelandic sagas do present a picture of a society in which women had more power. Scholars muse that women were more highly prized in Iceland because they were rare. If Iceland was settled by Viking bands disgruntled with the king of Norway, as the history books tell us (though archaeology provides a somewhat different view) there might not have been enough young women to go around. Yet a wife was essential to running a farm. There were certain things no self-respecting Viking man would do, such as weaving or sewing. No man would milk a ewe or make cheese. No Viking would cook, unless aboard ship, and even then it was considered demeaning. The wife taught the children their duties and obligations, which required an exact knowledge of family ties and degrees of kinship. The wife, in many sagas, determined when blood-money would be accepted for a man’s death, and when the killing demanded revenge instead. She hired and fired servants and was in charge of the food—preserving it, preparing it, and sharing it out. In those years when winter lingered and supplies dwindled, the wife decided who starved. The wife made the farm’s only marketable product—cloth—and she may also have done the selling, which, in a land with no towns, meant bargaining one-on-one with the captain or crew of a trading ship from Norway. In the grave of a wealthy wife in Kornsa, Iceland, dated to Viking times, was found a set of copper scales to weigh money, alongside the more usual womanly goods: kettle, shears, and cooking spit of iron; a comb; some brooches and beads; tweezers, a knife, and a bronze bell; her dog and her horse.”
One of the biggest controversies about your book “Ivory Vikings” is that Margret the Adroit just might be the carver of the famous Lewis Chessmen. Dismissed as nonsense by many, I personally hope that it might be true. How would this change our views about the Lewis chessmen, if a woman did in fact create these wonderful figures?
“The Lewis chessmen, noted one expert on Romanesque art, “are psychologically charged to a degree unusual in twelfth-century sculpture.” They show a “spontaneity and vividness of a worldly kind” missing from most art of the time. Compared to other ivories, added another, “the Lewis men are wholly naturalistic and remarkably accomplished in their execution.” They are “simple but powerful.” Concluded a curator at the British Museum, “The coherent and self-confident style of the Lewis chessmen is virtually without parallel. Indeed there is much uncertainty about the origins of the chessmen, both about their style and their date. This is due to a lack of comparable surviving material. There seem to be no counterparts for the very simply draped, compact and expressive human figures with their strong and forceful faces.”
Why are there no counterparts? Perhaps because we have very little medieval art remaining from Iceland, whose churches—sponsors of most art in the Middle Ages—were wiped clean of their artistic treasures after the Reformation. Everything of value in gold, silver, jewels, or ivory, even wood, was taken to Denmark, whose king then ruled Iceland. Much of it was destroyed or melted down to make new artworks.
Yet the Saga of Bishop Pall, written possibly by his own son, describes a bustling artists’ workshop at the bishop’s see of Skalholt around the year 1200. Pall surrounded himself with the finest artists in the land, four of whom are named. Pall beautified his church with stained glass windows and bells in a tall bell tower, which was extravagantly covered with woodcarvings done by Amundi the Smith. Inside were murals painted by an artist and scribe named Atli.
Pall commissioned an extravagant shrine or reliquary from a goldsmith named Thorstein, who was “the most skillful metalworker at the time.” Pall made sure Thorstein lacked nothing, the saga says: He “paid out an immense amount of money in gold and jewels, as well as pure silver. …This work of art was so well made that it exceeded in beauty and in size all other reliquaries then in Iceland, being better than four and a half feet long, while no other shrine in Iceland at the time was longer than eighteen inches.” According to medieval church inventories, there were once over a hundred reliquaries in Iceland.
Thorstein then collaborated with Margret the Adroit, “who at that time was the most skilled carver in all Iceland,” on an altar screen for the church. Thorstein worked the gold and silver, “and Margret carved the walrus ivory extremely well,” the saga says.
Pall also commissioned his own stone sarcophagus—the only one known in Iceland; it was discovered during an archaeological dig in the 1950s. Inside, resting on the skeleton’s shoulder, was a bishop’s crozier. Margret the Adroit would have remained a colorful detail in a little-read saga if the Icelanders had not decided to build a new, modern cathedral at Skalholt—and called first for that archaeological excavation. The existence of Pall’s sarcophagus vouches for the overall truth of the Saga of Bishop Pall. The ivory crozier found inside it calls to mind the one Margret carved out of walrus tusk, the saga says. The crozier described no longer exists, so far as we know: Pall supposedly sent it to Norway. But many experts attribute the crozier discovered in Bishop Pall’s sarcophagus to Margret.
Margret, the saga says, was the best ivory carver in Iceland—which implies there were others. She “made everything that Bishop Pall wanted,” but the saga doesn’t give us a lot of details. The saga only tells us that Bishop Pall sent many gifts to his friends abroad, both gerfalcons and “other treasures. He sent Archbishop Thorir a bishop’s crozier of walrus ivory, carved so skillfully that no one in Iceland had ever seen such artistry before; it was made by Margret.”
Like Bishop Pall’s crozier, the Lewis chessmen are whimsical and bold—and not wholly appropriate. They are the work of an artist who could capture the individuality of a face, of an emotion, of a moment in time; they are the work of an artist with a keen sense of humor and a light heart. That artist could have been Margret the Adroit.”
Can you indulge the reader on anything you are working on at the moment? (New book?)
“At the moment I’m juggling a number of projects, but the one that’s most likely to be finished first is a book of essays about my travels in Iceland over the last 30 years.”
Finally, on a lighter note, are you a good chess player? What would be your opening move?
“I’m embarrased to say that I am a very poor chess player. My son could beat me by the time he was six.”
A huge thank you to Nancy Marie Brown for her patience, time and contribution. You can visit or contact her via her website or you can read the many wonderful books she has written which include Song of the Vikings, The Abacus and the Cross and The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman. CLICK HERE for a tour of all her books. Interestingly, Nancy also has an incredible blog called God of Wednesday. Once a week she highlights something interesting about her world.
Photo Credit All images are in the public domain except the header image of Nancy Marie Brown. It is used with permission from Nancy Marie Brown. The photo is credited to Jennifer Anne Tucker and Gerald Lang. The real size replica of the 12th century Lewis chessmen is a photograph by Robert Horvat.