On the origins of the Lewis Chessmen – A reply

by ChessBase
3/31/2011 – Gudmundur. G. Thórarinsson, the author behind the main material in The Enigma of the Lewis Chessmen, a discussion on the origins of the world's most famous chess set, was dismayed at the belligerent tone in an article seeking to refute his hypotheses regarding its Icelandic roots. He replies here and adds 'the potency of these arguments necessitates formidable counter arguments'.

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“On the origins of the Lewis Chessmen”
Answering the criticism from Morten Lilleören

By Gudmundur. G. Thórarinsson

I must admit that I was quite surprised when I read the article The Lewis Chessmen were never anywhere near Iceland, presented at The Skittles room at ChessCafé.com and ChessBase.com, written by the Norwegian Morten Lilleören. I also found the comments about my friend and colleague, Einar S. Einarsson, offensive and inappropriate.  Without his valuable help, my theory regarding the origin of the Lewis Chessmen would not have become global news. I would thus like to stress that Mr. Einarsson is not responsible for the substance and argumentation in my article – that is wholly my responsibility.

Through the years there have been various theories regarding the origin of the Lewis Chessmen. In my article I include the countries Iceland, Norway (or Scandinavia), Ireland, and England as possible originating locations. I still believe the hypothesis that the chessmen were made in Iceland is the most probable explanation for their origin. In my revised and extended article, I have compiled additional arguments that I think are of value. The article can be found online here. In my view, the potency of these arguments necessitates formidable counter arguments. At the very least, the dialogue about the Lewis Chessmen should remain fluid, open, and elevated. That said, I am thus far disappointed in Lilleören's handling of the case.

The arguments for the Trondheim origin are rather weak as they are rooted in oral, rather than written, sources.  This, however, is not surprising because the balance of pre-1200 Norwegian history was written in Iceland by Icelanders.  In my article I also state that the brochure from The British Museum says that the chessmen were probably crafted in Trondheim, Norway--but that their actual origin remains unknown. I also mention Frederic Maddens' theory from 1832 that the chessmen were made in Iceland.

Furthermore, the title of my article is Are the Isle of Lewis chessmen Icelandic?It is a question and not a statement of fact. In the article I say that I am advancing the hypothesis that the Lewis chessmen were made in Iceland. I never made a factual claim that the chessmen were made in Iceland—for the fabric of recorded history surrounding the Lewis chessmen is grainy during the years 1150-1200 and reliable facts are rare.

The bishop

The statement that the word “bishop” for a chess piece only exists in English and Icelandic is from Daniel Willard Fiske's book, Chess in Iceland, which was written in 1905. The conclusion I drew from my comparison of Icelandic manuscripts and English dictionaries is that the word bishop used as a moniker for a chess piece is older in Icelandic and Icelandic would therefore be the only language using this word in this context in the years 1150-1200. This in turn led me to the idea that the word bishop to denote a particular chess piece enters other languages at a later time. If that idea is correct, then the Lewis chessmen are indeed the first chess pieces to intertwine the Church and the chessboard. Furthermore, there are no sources that tell us that this word was ever used in Norway for a chess piece.

  1. Of course the word bishop is known in most languages. The question arises, when was it first used for a chess piece? That is the main issue here. In Iceland there are written sources that show the use of the composite word bishopsmate around 1300. These sources are rewriting of older manuscripts. Philologists tell us that a composite word shows the creative power of a language and does not occur before the original words have been in use for considerable time. From this the conclusion is drawn that it can be stated that the word bishop has been used for a chess piece in Iceland around 1200. The philological evidence is primary.  We are not aware of any sources showing that any other languages used this term for a chess piece at the time when the Lewis chessmen were made. 

Questions arise regarding the pictures of bishops in Lilleörens article.  Are they all chess pieces?  A bishop in a chair with children around him, is it a chess piece? Or might they be statues made for the church without any connection to chess?  What is their origin?  From where do they come?

  1. Three of the six pictures in Lilleören´s article are dated from the 14th century, more than a century younger than the Lewis chessmen. One is as mentioned a bishop in a chair and surrounded by children and may not be a chess piece.  One is a bishop on a horse and is from Copenhagen, dated from twelfth century, is it a chess piece? And one is not dated. The Lewis chessmen were bought at an auction.  Some believe that the farmer that found the Lewis chessmen kept some of them and sold them separately.  It is possible that these two last were bought to the museums from individuals and may have a similar or same origin as the Lewis chessmen?

  2. Sources point to the opposition of the Catholic Church toward chess in the years 1000 to 1300.  It was not safe in this time to rise against the church. Written sources tell us about the strong negative attitude of the Catholic Church towards chess which show us that one would have needed strong courage to carve bishops as a chess piece serving the king on a chessboard.  I refer to my full article on quotations from Dr I. Linders book.  The hostile attitude of the Catholic Church makes it unlikely that the church or other entities would engage in carving pieces in the image of bishops to serve the king on a chessboard. 

According to historians, the “Church politic” in Trondheim was clear: the Church should be peaceful and not participate in war or violence; the Church should be an independent, spiritual power – separated from the worldly power of kings.  Most of the artists were working in cooperation with the Church and its vast riches.  In Trondheim, a long and severe dispute between the bishop and the king resulted in the pope's excommunication of King Sverrir of Norway (1151-1202) in 1194. It is therefore highly unlikely that during the age of King Sverrir's excommunication, the Church would consent to or tolerate the involvement of bishops in a war game, where the clergymen are servants, fighters and defenders of the king, participating in battles and killing enemies--not to mention the hostile attitude of Rome, which the archbishop in Trondheim must have been aware of. Conversely, Iceland's “Church politic” at this time was much different. The bishop at Skalholt, Pall Jonsson (1155-1211), was a descendant of the Norwegian kings by way of his grandmother the father of whom was Norway's King Magnus Olafsson. The bishop was proud of his ancestry. Therefore, he would have espoused close cooperation between king and bishop. In his worldview, bishops stood beside kings.

The Icelandic settlement

At the time of the crafting of the Lewis chessmen, Icelanders were traveling throughout Europe. It seems that the vast riches derived from commerce with Greenland were the foundation for the writing of the Icelandic sagas and the development of carved and decorative art in Iceland.  In their travels, Icelanders brought with them goods to sell.  Might some of these small statues have come from Iceland? 

The Icelandic settlement routes

Our sagas tell of farmers’ sons that traveled to Norway, many of them swiftly becoming members of the Norwegian court --probably because of the precious gifts they brought with them. Some scholars claim that the Icelander Sæmundur the Learned was the first citizen of the Nordic countries to be educated in a university in France.  He studied there for many years and probably paid for his education with precious artifacts from Iceland.

  1. The horse is a minor thing in the argument.  The statement is not my invention. In the pamphlet The Lewis Chessmen by James Robinson of The British Museum, it says that the horses  “…appear almost Icelandic in character.“ I was merely adding this to my argumentation but it has little bearing.  I have been of the opinion that these horses are scarce in Scandinavia

  2. In my article I wrote:  Berserkers are presumably an older phenomenon and are well known from Scandinavia, but they were at the forefront of Icelanders’ consciousness at this time. They occur in Icelandic writings – Snorri describes berserkers in Heimskringla, and they also figure in The Saga of the Heath-Slayings.  In addition, they appear in Icelandic toponyms such as Berserkjahraun (berserkers’ lava field) and the name of an Icelandic farm, Berserkseyri. Written records of berserkers from other countries at the time of Lewis are scarce.

We know from our sagas the names of the berserkers that were in Iceland. It might therefore be reasonable for an Icelander to use a berserker for the rook.  In Iceland, there were no castles or towers. The pictures of berserkers in Lilleörens article are interesting, but still, there is the question of their origin. Might they be merchandise--artifacts made at the same place as the Lewis chessmen?

The carving

My article was clear about the lack of similarities between contemporaneous Icelandic carving and the carving of the Lewis chessmen. But their style was certainly known in Iceland and Icelandic carvers learned their craft in Trondheim and were familiar with the Romanesque style.

The Valpjófsstadur door, a church door in the Romanesque style
dating from about 1200 AD, is believed to have been carved in Iceland.

I now want to refer to the following: Some scholars seem to have been certain that the carving is Icelandic. In his book A HISTORY OF CHESS, published 1913, H.J.R.MURRAY says: “The carving of the Rooks as warriors on foot undoubtedly points to Icelandic workmanship”.  Also: “Sir Frederic Madden, in his Historical Remarks (Archaeologia, 1852, xxiv; also separately printed in CPC., i) endeavored to prove that these pieces are of Icelandic carving of the middle of the 12th century.

  • The findings and excavations from Trondheim are really worth consideration.  There is always the question, does this prove anything?  Of course chess pieces were made in many countries and some of these findings may have been imported. 

  • From our manuscripts we see that the bishopric at Skálholt was very rich. The bishops engaged highly qualified artists for carving and decoration. The church at Skálholt, built around 1150 was the largest wooden house in The Nordic Country at that time even though most of the wood had to be imported. 

A model of the 12th century Klaengskirkja Cathedral built with timber

The language: Icelandic-Norwegian

It is important to understand that although Old Norse was a common language of Norwegians and Icelanders until about the middle of the 14th century, many linguistic changes occurred in each of the dialects which ultimately resulted in two languages. The changes were gradual. More importantly, there were Icelandic and Norwegian sources. Since the word biskup and biskupsmát occur in Icelandic sources, they must be considered to be old Icelandic. There is no direct indication that the word was used in old Norwegian in this context. It is possible, of course, to speculate — but the preference should be with what is tangible and real. Lillenöres' quotation from the Arnamagnæan commission concerning a new dictionary of Old Norse prose is a misunderstanding. I do not believe that any philologist would claim that Norwegian had left Old Norse in 1370 and Icelandic Old Norse in 1540. 


In my essay, now available in an extended, revised version, I have argued that the Lewis chessmen might have been produced in Iceland. The question concerning the origin of these marvelously artistic chess pieces is not an easy one to answer. What really happened in the years 1150 to 1200 remains a mystery. Despite our best forensic efforts, our conclusions about the Lewis chessmen are, ultimately, speculative in nature. 

However, I must say that I find many of the arguments for the Trondheim theory unsupported by any substantial evidence. Morten Lillenören devotes considerable space to arguments which have little or no bearing on the central question of this riddle. On behalf of Norway, I am thoroughly disappointed if these are the strongest arguments for the Trondheim theory that can be harnessed.

I meant only to participate in literate discussions and studies made by the esteemed scholars that have for decades tried unsuccessfully to solve this mysterious and endlessly compelling enigma.

At any rate, I still believe that my theory regarding the Icelandic origins of the Lewis chessmen is at least as potent as any theory that has yet been put forth.  And perhaps someday excavations at the 12th century workshop site at Skálholt might reveal cuttings from walrus tusks and whale teeth which might then shed additional light on the question of where the Lewis chessmen originated.

Reykjavik, 25 March 2011 / GGTh


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