The Lewis Chessman by James Robinson

The British Museum published a dozen or so ‘Objects in focus’ books, short paperbacks (60 pages) focusing on one specific object from their vast collection (of some 8 million artefacts). Subjects include the Franks Casket, the Sutton Hoo helmet, the Rosetta Stone etc.

This one is devoted to the Lewis chessmen, 78 small (10cm high) chess pieces, carved from walrus ivory sometime in the 12th century. They were discovered in 1831 on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides and chapter one tells the obscure story of their discovery and sale in Edinburgh and London. The actual finder, supposedly a local peasant, is never interviewed, instead various collectors and antiquaries generated improbable and conflicting accounts of their provenance and discovery.

Number

What is certain is that there are in existence 93 artifacts: 78 chess pieces, 14 tablemen (flat discs with a hole in the middle) and one belt buckle. 82 pieces are owned by the British Museum in London, and the other 11 are at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.

Origin

They’re Scandinavian in origin, but from where? The most popular theory is that they come from Trondheim in Norway because Trondheim was one of the centres of the essentially Scandinavian trade in walrus tusks from further north in the Arctic circle or from overseas in Greenland. As such it was home to a number of walrus-ivory carving workshops.

So what were they doing buried on a beach in the Outer Hebrides? We’ll never know, but an educated guess is that they were temporarily hidden there by a merchant taking them to sell in part of what was then the network of Scandinavian kingdoms and earldoms stretching from Norway across the mainland and islands of northern Scotland, to Iceland in the north and Ireland in the south.

The kings The eight kings all sit on square thrones, hold swords in both hands, have long braided hair and patriarchal beards although two of them, surprisingly, are clean shaven.

The queens The eight queens sit on similar square thrones, their hair covered by lace-like drapery, holding their chins in their right hand, cupping the right elbow with their left hand – is this a stylised gesture of throughtfulness and wisdom? Whatever it is, it’s not uniform as two aren’t i that pose, instead holding a drinking horn.

The bishops Sixteen bishops, seven sitting on thrones, nine standing. All the standing bishops hold croziers and their full-frontal depiction helps date the pieces to after 1150 when this way of representing bishops came in. Also, surprisingly, no earlier known representation of the bishop in the game of chess survives. The arrival of the bishop in the game coincides with a surge in worldly power of bishops in the real world, epitomised by the conflict between Henry I and Thomas Becket (martyred 1170) in England, and warrior bishops who fought in the Third Crusade (1189-92).

The knights The fifteen knights sit on shaggy little ponies and hold kite-shaped shields in their left arms. Apparently, the range of arms, armour and equipment they carry has been a useful source of information on 12th century warfare.

The warders There are twelve warders, or rooks, wearing conical helmets and holding shields in their left hands, swords in their right. Three of the BM warders are biting the tops of their shields in the gesture described in contemporary texts as characteristic of berserkers, Norse warriors who whipped themselves up into a psychopathic frenzy before battle. Grettir fights one in the Norse saga, Grettir the Strong.

The pawns The 19 pawns are simple geometric salt cellar shapes.

The book goes on to describe the spread of chess from its origins in India into Persia and on into the Muslim world which, in the early Middle Ages included not only the Middle East and north African coast, but Sicily and most of Spain. It was probably through cultural interaction in these centres that chess spread north through Spain and into France, and up through Italy and across the Alps.

The Indian game consisted of four pieces: chariots, elephants, cavalry and infantry. Rukh was the Persian for chariot, which morphed into our castle. The bishop, who first appears in these pieces, was previously known as the ‘prince’ and, in the original Indian game, ‘the elephant’.

The existence of chess in the West in the 11th century is evidenced by a number of texts, including the 11th century poem Ruodlieb, in which a knightly guest is challenged to a series of games by his king host. The book mentions wills in which various rulers left their sets to religious houses, but in fact the Church had a big problem with chess as a time-consuming distraction from religious contemplation and made repeated attempts to ban it. On the other hand some writers thought the ability to play chess as one of the skills necessary to the elegant courtier. The book quotes texts from the 1100s and 1200s to bring out the pros and cons of what seems to have been a burning issue of the day.

I also learned that the heyday of carving in walrus tusk was from the 11th to the 13th centuries. It expanded to fill a gap in the market caused by the decline of elephant tusk imports, no-one is sure why, maybe because of conflict with the Muslim world. So while it lasted, the walrus ivory trade provided economic underpinning to the Viking settlement of Greenland (settled 985, flourishing in the 11th and 12th centuries). When elephant ivory again became accessible during the 13th century, the walrus trade fell off, possibly contributing the economic decline of the Greenland settlement which was abandoned in the 1400s.

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