Norwegian-Icelandic war over the Lewis Chessmen?

3/5/2011 – Last year we published an article on the famous Lewis Chessmen. The two Icelandic authors claimed that the pieces were carved in their country. "With few reservations parts of the chess world have adopted this theory," writes Morten Lilleøren of Norway, who finds the article "filled with faults and oversights." Lilleøren sets out to correct the facts and prove: the Lewis Chessmen are from Norway.

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The Lewis Chessmen were never anywhere near Iceland
[abridged version]

By Morten Lilleøren

The Lewis chessmen are possibly the most famous chess pieces ever made. They were found on the island Lewis in the Hebrides in 1831. Altogether the finding contains 93 items, of which 78 are chessmen. 67 of them are in the British Museum (some of them are shown in figure 1) and eleven are in the Scottish National Museum. They are regarded as some of the most remarkable artifacts from the Middle Ages.

Figure 1 The Lewis Chessmen, 12th century, British Museum, London

In 2010 a ChessBase article was published entitled ”The Enigma of the Lewis Chessmen”, written by Gudmundur G. Thorarinsson, with a preface by Einar S. Einarsson. The content is filled with faults and oversights. All the same, with few reservations parts of the chess world adopted the theories put forward. It has also reached the books: Chess Masterpieces: One Thousand Years of Extraordinary Chess Sets, by Dean and Brady (2010) perpetuates the arguments of Thorarinsson (Dean and Brady, 2010, p. 39-40)

The arguments – a summary

In brief: Thorarinsson claims that the Lewis chessmen were made in Iceland. The main arguments are as follows: Icelandic and English are the only languages that use the words bishop/biskup and rook/hrokur. No other language has ever used these words for the pieces. This makes Iceland the most probable origin of the Lewis pieces. Another argument is the shape of the knights’ horses. They allegedly strongly resemble the Icelandic horse race. The fourth argument is that there were many good walrus-ivory carvers in Iceland, and the last main argument is that there were a lot of trade between Iceland and Greenland, where the ivory, the material for the chessmen, came from.

The bishop

Einarsson states on page 3: “The word 'bishop' for a chess piece is only used in two languages, Icelandic and English.” They stumble at the start: there are several languages that use this name nowadays: English, Icelandic and Faroese are in one special group, as they have most names in common. The former two are known – in The Faroe Islands the names of the major pieces are: rókur, riddari, bispur, frúgv, kongur. As Thorarinsson’s main point is based upon the assumption that Iceland and England alone are using these names nowadays, he is already proven wrong. The word meaning “bishop” is also used in Ireland (easpag), Wales (gaelic - esgob) and Portugal (bispo).

Thorarinsson states on page 16: “The Lewis Chessmen are the only chess pieces that connect chess with the church

Figure 2 Bishop, 12th c., English,
Metropolitan Museum of Art: New York

Figure 3 Bishop, 12th c., National Museum,
Copenhagen. Wichmann nr.46 (1960)

Figure 4 Bishop, 14th c., Staatliche Museum Berlin.
Greygoose nr. 21 (1979) (Cazaux, 2010)

Figure 5 Bishop, 14th c., Staatliche Museum, Berlin.
Greygoose nr.26 (1979) (Cazaux, 2010)

Figure 6 Bishop, medieval / undated, Kgl. Museet,
Stockholm. Mackett-Beeson nr 9 (1969)

Figure 7 Bishop, 14th c., Bayerisches Nationalmuseum,
Munich. Wichmann nr. 64 (1960) (Cazaux, 2010)

Figure 2-7 shows that Thorarinsson is wrong in this respect. All these bishops are from other findings than the Lewis chessmen. It all adds up to Hollander’s statement:

Der ‘reitende bischof’ ist als schachfigur besonders aus dem 14. Jahrhundert bekannt” .Translated into English: “As a chesspiece the riding bishop is well known, in particular from the 14th century”.

In this matter Thorarinsson  states (on page 16): “The Lewis Chessmen are the only chess pieces that include bishops with crosier and mitres and full ceremonial clothing”. Clearly he missed out on something. Einarsson goes on:

In most other languages, including Norwegian, this piece was – and still is – called a “runner” (ibid., p.3). Thorarinsson himself states: “In Scandinavia and elsewhere in Europe, this piece is called “löber” or “Leufer”, meaning runner or messenger. As far as is known, Norwegians have never called this piece a bishop” (ibid. p.9). 

The Figures 2 to 7 above tell us something else. Some written facts can be added: in a Danish (Norwegian)-Latin dictionary from 1626 one entry is: Bisspe paa Skackspil”  (transl: “Bishops in chess” ). The name “laufer” comes into ordinary chess at a late stage. The first known time the term laufer/runner is mentioned for the German piece, is in Hyde’s history of chess. At the very same page the names of the Danish (i.e. Norwegian) pieces are mentioned. The bishop was still: “biscop” or “bisp”. Thorarinsson misses the target by half a millennium.

The rook

Thorarinsson states:

“English and Icelandic speak of a rook (hrókur). Berserkers seem to figure nowhere except among the Lewis chessmen”. (ibid., p.12)

Again Thorarinsson is wrong: There are not as many old pieces of rook-warriors as there are bishops, but they do exist.

Figure 8 Warrier rook,13th c., Kgl.Museet, Stockholm, found in Øland. A.Goldschmidt: b. IV, nr.250 (1923-26). O.Ferm et al. (2005, p.33.)

Figure 9 Warrier rook,12th c., National Museum, Copenhagen. This one is Hollander nr. 25 (2005)

On the other hand, in this case we have several written sources, including Scandinavian ones, directly proving Thorarinsson wrong: The first is “Schack-tafvels Lek”, a Swedish translation of de Cessolis’ allegory “The Book of Chess”. In “Schacktafvels Lek” the rook is named “rok”, We also have the dictionary mentioned above: The entry is “Rocke paa Skackspill” Hyde is again relevant: “Rock” or “elephant”. In Poland they used these words, according to Hyde: “Pòp”, meaning priest, and “roch”. Murray tells that a Czech 14th c. Vocabulary gives exactly the same words.The German word through the whole medieval period is “roch”. The word appears as late as 1843 in Bilguer. Obviously oblivious to all this, Thorarinsson writes: “In Scandinavia and Germany, this chess piece is called “tower”, Swedish torn, Danish tårn..” ( p.12).

The fact is that in medieval times Rok/roch/rokur was the name of the piece in Germany, most of northern Europe and all over Scandinavia. It seems like Thorarinsson and Einarsson believe that because the names are what they are today, it must always have been this way. There are no literary proof of any “turm/tårn/torn/tower” in the languages of Scandinavia and Germany in medieval times.

Rewriting history

Now let us turn to another point, and this is where it all becomes serious: Iceland was inhabited as late as from 870 and onwards, mainly by Norwegians. This means that the Icelanders spoke the Old Norwegian (West Norse) language. The language of the sagas is in fact Norse, not Icelandic. The languages were almost the same until the middle of the 14th century. Here is in brief what then happened: The plague, the Black Death (1350), was definitely the worst disaster ever in Norway. It killed more than half the Norwegian population – and simultaneously more or less destroyed the written language. Too many people of literacy died. Looking at the documents shortly after the plague, it is possible to see that the scribes had difficulties handling their duties. At the same time, the political ruling class was decimated and, beginning a little after 1350 with personal unions between the Scandinavian kingdoms, Norway became a part of Denmark. After a while all official documents were written in Danish. The (written) language was gone. West Norse language (in Norway) was now only an oral language. And, during time, even the oral language grossly changed. Norwegians nowadays speak a language close to Danish.

But the language once existed in Norway, back when the Lewis pieces were made. It has therefore no merit to claim that Norwegians have never used the word "biskup". if the Icelanders used the word “biskup”, the Norwegians must have done the same!

The knight

Now let us turn to the knight – Thorarinsson states:

“The knights are mounted on horses that seem Icelandic in both size and head shape” (ibid., p.14)

Figure 10 Knight, 12th c., Museo Bargello, Florence. A.Goldschmidt: b. IV, nr.264 (1923-26)

Figure 11 Queen, 14th c. National Museum, Copenhagen.  (Cazaux, 2010)



Figure 12 Knight, 14th c., Staatliche
Museum, Berlin. (Cazaux, 2010)

Figure 13 Knight, Museo Bargello, Florence.
Sanvito p. 48 (1992) (Cazaux, 2010)

These images of other medieval chess pieces are shown because they have horses of a similar shape as the Lewis chess pieces.

This whole argument is far-fetched: The Lewis chessmen horses are highly stylized. Therefore the size and shape of them cannot be taken as an argument for any particular horse breed. The Lewis chess horses are not shaped and formed after the horse’s natural shape, it is mainly the chessboard and the shape of the other pieces that forms this piece. A horse is by nature, seen from above, of a more or less rectangular shape. Unfortunately this shape does not fit too well into the squares of the chessboard, which are quadratic. Therefore the horses as chess pieces are very often re-shaped – to fit into the squares. In this matter I have to add that the knights have another limitation: They should not be taller than the kings. This is an (unwritten) rule affecting all chess sets even nowadays. Both these limitations points towards a compact knight piece.

The carvings

Now to another matter: The alleged similarity between the ornaments on the back of the pieces’ thrones and Icelandic carvings. Thorarinsson states:

“Decorative art and carving were highly developed in Iceland at this time. Many examples are known of Icelandic bishops’ sending or bringing fine gifts carved from walrus tusks to foreigners. Artists, goldsmiths, and master carvers were employed at the bishops’ seats, and written records state outright that walrus tusk was among their raw materials.” (p.14)

And the evidence is:

The pattern of carving on the chessmen is in a Romanesque style. This style is well known in Iceland from the time of these carvings to the present day.”

And then it comes:

“In Ellen Marie Magerøy’s book Planteornamentikken i islandsk treskurd, there are pictures of contemporary carvings that do not seem to bear much resemblance to the patterns on the Lewis chessmen.” (ibid., p.7).

I could not have proven my point better myself. As it is written: “The proof of the pudding is the eating.”

In the aftermath of Darwin’s publication of “On the origin of species...” an important aspect of older archaeology was summarized as: what the species are for the science of nature, the type/form is for archaeology. This was later modified: the form doesn’t always change according to utility, but more according to whims of fashion. To rephrase Darwinism: in archaeology it is “the survival of the prettiest” that guides an aspect of the art. In a way this is similar to perhaps the most important ability of a chess player, generally recognized as “pattern recognition”. The chess player in a way x-rays the positions in front of him, to find chunks of pieces, clusters that form a familiar pattern. The archaeologists do the same, they look for fragments that have a familiar design. This means that it is possible to locate shapes, forms, figures, whatever, by resemblance, both geographically and in time. This is where Thorarinsson fails (see above) and where Trondheim/Nidaros (same city: Two names) during time has added up points (7).

The pamphlets of the British Museum make a thorough research in this respect: Taylor (1978) devotes a major part of his pamphlet to this (p.8-15, including a lot of pictures, showing the resemblance between the chessmen’s carvings and similar ornaments of Scandinavian – non-Icelandic – origin). Stratford(1997) devotes pp. 41-47 to the same, and Robinson(2004) pp.30-37 and p. 58.  


Figure 18 Lewis chess king, back of throne


Figure 19 Lewis chess king, back of throne

Figures 18-19 show the backs of some of the pieces. Many other pieces have similar ornaments. These ornament patterns, with plants and animals, are in particular located in ancient Norway. Liebgott writes (when discussing a similar object):

“The circular plant patterns are in its structure common throughout northern Europe. What makes the carving so distinctly Norwegian, is the peculiar animals that grab hold of each other”

Caldwell et al. writes:

“…most scholars would at present expect to locate the manufacture of such pieces in a town or large trading centre…(The craftsmen) had a good understanding of the robes, vestments and protective clothing worn by kings, queens, bishops and knights. This surely suggests that they had access to such people, or were perhaps employed in workshops provided by a king or archbishop. Lewis had no towns at the time in question, but there were strong links..(to) major Norwegian towns…”

Iceland did not have any such towns. And throughout his text, Thorarinsson makes a point about the fact that Iceland never had a king nor queen living on the island. Robinson concludes:

“Trondheim is the most likely candidate...“ (p.58) and Stratford (1997): “Trondheim or another Scandinavian town is at the moment the strongest candidate..”(p.47).

Why do they come to this conclusion? There have been some major findings that make Trondheim the likely place of origin, the most important being this:

Figure 20 Trondheim chess queen, image taken from McLees and Ekroll (1990)

Figure 20 shows the drawing of the Trondheim queen. I have to quote at length from the article reporting about the (re)finding:

The figurine is directly comparable with the queen pieces from the Isle of Lewis chess sets in terms of raw material, size, form and sculptural details. Regarding raw material, Krefting states that the piece consisted of ivory, and the probability is that it comprised walrus ivory. The eight Lewis queens vary considerably in size; however, the dimensions of the Trondheim figurine's surviving portion, at 4.5 cm high, would be compatible with an original height somewhere in the region of 9 cm (an additional 4.5 cm would accommodate a suitably proportioned lower body and throne), comparing favourably with the two tallest Lewis queens. The most striking and evocative trait, however, is the characteristic, indeed, idiosyncratic, pose adopted by the figure, where the right hand rests against the right cheek. This is the most eloquent clue to the piece's particular iconographic and functional status, and, with the design of the folded shoulder-length kerchief, places it conclusively in the company of the chess queens from Lewis” (McLees, C and Ekroll, Ø 1990, p. 151)

There can be no doubt that the Trondheim queen derives from the same workshop which produced the Lewis pieces.  By virtue of its art-historical dating, it is almost certainly the earliest chess piece yet found in Norway, and is possibly one of the earliest representational forms of chess piece known from Scandinavia.  The presence of this new member of the 'Lewis family' on Norwegian soil in the very heart of one of the country's most important 12th-century cities also serves to focus attention on contemporary developments in and around the city of Trondheim itself. These may have some relevance to any discussion relating to the location of the workshop in question. The manifest competence, inventiveness and interaction of local schools of Romanesque minor and monumental carving is well documented: the long-established presence in the town of professional woodcarvers and boneworkers who produced items of superior quality; the characteristic 'Trondheim Group' of stave-church portals; the local strain of ornamental stone carving in the district's Romanesque stone churches, centered particularly, from c. 1120, on the cathedral workshops; 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.”(ibid ,p,153)

Tithe and Trade

“Iceland had a strong connection to Greenland at this time. Icelanders settled  Greenland with a large fleet of ships, and these Greenlanders had many friends and relatives in Iceland. Records describe bishops’ ships that brought goods from Greenland at that time…. Icelanders thus had access to walrus tusks and other raw materials from Greenland.” (Thorarinsson (2010, p.14)

For once I agree with Thorarinsson. Both Norwegians and Icelanders travelled to Greenland, and all three areas eventually became united under the rule of the Norwegian king. But long before this happened, the churches of the two islands were connected to Trondheim/Nidaros. That happened when the archbishopric of the north/Nidaros was founded in 1152/53. From then on, the provinces had to pay tithe to the archbishopric. This came on top of commercial trade, social and family relations between the three countries. Walrus tusk came from the arctic region, from the shores of what is now known as Russia, but a lot of it came from Greenland. And, as written documents show, Greenland paid their tribute in naturals, amongst them walrus ivory. This means that when the archbishopric was established, Nidaros all of a sudden received a lot more ivory than before. Note the concurrence of the new archbishopric and the dating of the Lewis chessmen. It can of course be a coincidence, but the two parts fit well into each other. Again I quote McLees and Ekroll:

“A potential catalyst uniting home-grown talent with an assured source of appropriate raw material may be sought in the city's establishment as the seat of the Archdiocese of Nidaros in 1152/3, the resulting influx of walrus ivory as payment of tithes from the diocese of Greenland possibly engendering the local production of sophisticated carved ivories, perhaps under the aegis of the archbishopric itself. Such a workshop, drawing on a pool of indigenous skills and techniques, an abundant supply of ivory, and located in an appropriate and dynamic cultural setting, might conceivably have produced objects as extraordinary and as expressive of their time as the Lewis and Trondheim chess pieces.” (McLees and Ekroll 1990 p.154)

Before summarizing, I add another quote:

“According to Dr. Alex Woolf, director of the Institute for Medieval Studies of the University of St. Andrews, reasons for believing the chess pieces probably came from Trondheim include: a broken queen piece in a similar styIe found in an excavation of the archbishop's palace (it appeared the piece was broken as it was being made), the presence of wealthy people in Trondheim capable of paying craftsmen for the high-quality pieces, similar carving in Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim, the excavation in Trondheim of a kite-shaped shield similar to shields on some of the pieces, and a king piece of similar design found on Hitra Island, near the mouth of Trondheim Fjord. He said that the armour worn by the chess figures includes "perfect" reproductions of armour worn at the time in Norway.” (1)


For a conclusion, simply add the trade route and the tithe from Greenland to Norway to the last quote.

Continue by reviewing the pictures above, which show that bishops and rooks are found in various parts of northern Europe. Add to this the philology, the written facts about the existence of these names for the pieces almost all over northern Europe.

Look at the chess knights’ horses: They are stylized. Can they be used to sort out an existing horse breed? If so: Would it then be the Icelandic horse that had to be the chosen one? Is this at all a valid argument? I say no.

And, last but not least: How can Thorarinsson claim that the Norwegian words are differing from the Icelandic, when all dictionaries, all books on Norse language history claims that Icelandic and Norwegian were a common Old Norse language at least until the Plague, the Black Death, in 1350?

Seen from the outside it seems like Thorarinsson and Einarsson have started with the conclusion that Iceland is the place where the pieces were made. Then all the arguments that might possibly contribute to such a conclusion has been added, without taking such petty considerations as to examine historical facts, exercise source criticism and so on.

“When the beginning is a frenzy, the outcome often becomes an oddity”. Ibsen (1867, act 4)

A more extensive version of this article, with full notes and additional arguments, has appeared in Chess Cafe.
When it disappears from the Skittles Room you will be able to locate it in the archives.

References and sources

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  • Caldwell, Hall and Wilkinson (2010). The Lewis Chessmen Unmasked, National Museums Scotland, Nms Enterprises Ltd.
  • Caxton,W. and W. Axon (1474). “The Game and Playe of the Chesse”  a 2008 reprint of the 1883 edition
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Morten Lilleøren was born in 1955 and has lived most of his life in Oslo. He is a rock fan who owns several thousand albums, and chess addict who started to play competitive OTB chess when he was 21 and has (had) a rating of around 2100 FIDE. Morten has played over 1000 OTB tournament games over the years. He is better at correspondence chess than OTB. Over the years he played more than 450 games. In 2003 he got the ICCF IM title and in 2007 the GM title. In 2007 he became Norwegian champion and a member of the Norwegian team that won the 15th Correspondence Chess Olympic final. He usually prefers thematic tournaments, which give the players more room to research one opening.

Morten is not a book collector, but cannot resist buying them. He has somewhere around 7000 books, out of which there are a little over 1500 chess books. Somewhere along the road he discovered that the history of chess in northern Europe in medieval times was almost uninvestigated. Future plans include making a list of all chess pieces in Norwegian museums and all chess pieces found in the ruins of the Norse settlements in Greenland.

Previous ChessBase article on the subject

The enigma of the Lewis chessmen
11.09.2010 – In 1831, in Edinburgh, Scotland, a collection of chessmen found on the Isle of Lewis was displayed for the first time. These 12th century handcrafted pieces made from walrus tusks and whale teeth have since become iconic examples of our lasting love for wargames. Their origins, however, is one of theory and controversy. Here is an illustrated article on the world's most famous chess set.

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