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Ivory Vikings: The Mystery of the Most…

Ivory Vikings: The Mystery of the Most Famous Chessmen in the World and… (edition 2015)

by Nancy Marie Brown (Author)

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13110132,031 (3.39)15
Title:Ivory Vikings: The Mystery of the Most Famous Chessmen in the World and the Woman Who Made Them
Authors:Nancy Marie Brown (Author)
Info:St. Martin's Press (2015), 288 pages
Collections:Your library

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Ivory Vikings: The Mystery of the Most Famous Chessmen in the World and the Woman Who Made Them by Nancy Marie Brown



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Nancy Brown has created an interesting take on the history of Norway and the North of the Scandinavian world. The stem of the work is a description of the various chessmen discovered in 1832 on the Isle of Lewis. These are, aside from the ships and the horned helmets, the most widely displayed artifacts of the Scandinavian world of the Middle ages. The reader of course gets a description of the ivory and bone trade of the period, and a description of Norse and Icelandic churchmen and kings of the most likely period of the chess sets ' creation. The book reads well overall, and though it could use a more detailed map of the Hebrides and the Orkneys, a good time was had by this reader. ( )
  DinadansFriend | Feb 26, 2018 |
The Lewis Chessmen were discovered in Northern Scotland in the 1800s and have been fascinating people since. They were most likely crafted between 1100-1200 out of walrus tusk ivory but where, by whom, and for whom remain largely a mystery. Brown obviously likes the Iceland theory and the possibility that they were crafted by Icelander Margret the Adroit who is known to have made a beautiful ivory bishop's crozier during the time period the chessman were crafted.

Since there really isn't a ton to say about the chessmen themselves, Brown supplements this mystery by using each chesspiece (rook/berserk, bishops, kings, queens, and knights) to talk about the history, politics, and culture of the time. She uses them as a jumping off point to talk about Scandinavian history between 800-1300 (focusing mainly on 1000-1200). There are lots of interesting stories and tidbits of history and culture.

Overall I enjoyed this, but I thought the construction was a bit loose. She sort of lost her thesis and often didn't connect her stories very well to the chessmen. This meant that even though I was enjoying the things she was telling me, part of me was bothered that I couldn't see the over-arching point. As a result, this receives a middling grade from me. ( )
1 vote japaul22 | Mar 22, 2017 |
Fascinating story and I saw some of the pieces in a Canberra exhibition - still attributed to being from Norway
Some of the writing was rather dense with too much historical detail but skimming through the sections gave the gist.
Good to know archaeologists are still working on these dilemmas - the case for the Icelandic origin made here is strong. ( )
  siri51 | Jan 16, 2017 |
Really enjoyed this look at the Lewis Chessmen and their cultural context. There's a bit of speculation and a small amount of padding here (see the subtitle), but overall I was completely drawn into Brown's wide-ranging narrative, and even the speculation is carefully done and well explained. ( )
  JBD1 | Dec 10, 2016 |
Why do the publishers of popular history works so often insist on giving them titles which set up grand claims that the book can't possibly answer, and which often don't really convey what the text is about? This is one of the main flaws with Ivory Vikings: The Mystery of the Most Famous Chessmen in the World and the Woman Who Made Them. Nancy Marie Brown does suggest that a woman called Margret the Adroit, mentioned briefly in a medieval Icelandic text largely unknown even to most medievalists, may have been the craftsperson responsible for some or all of the pieces, but she doesn't come close to as specific a claim as the title makes.

In fact, given the paucity of the source material, Brown spends most of the book looking at the intercultural connections of northwestern Europe in the twelfth century, when the chess pieces were likely created, and the tangled (nationalist and often elitist) historiography surrounding their discovery in (perhaps) the early nineteenth century.

Brown writes well, fluidly and engagingly, and her enthusiasm about her source material is clear. Ivory Vikings was a pleasure to read. That said, there are points where it felt like she was padding a bit in order to reach the page length her publishers required of her. Knowing something of the genealogical snarls that accompanied the transfer of royal power in this period was necessary for Brown's argument, but some of it was superfluous (even if it did introduce me to characters like King Magnus Bare-Legs).

(Advancing a theory of origin for the Lewis Chessmen is outside of my wheelhouse, though I wouldn't be at all surprised to find that a female artist contributed to their manufacture. I will say, however, that the desire to find a single maker is a distinctly post-Enlightenment one and doesn't really fit with how medieval artistic workshops operated or how medieval people thought of ownership/art.) ( )
1 vote siriaeve | Nov 6, 2016 |
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In the early 1800's, on a Hebridean beach in Scotland, the sea exposed an ancient treasure cache: 93 chessmen carved from walrus ivory. Norse netsuke, each face individual, each full of quirks, the Lewis Chessmen are probably the most famous chess pieces in the world. Who carved them? Where? Brown explores these mysteries by connecting medieval Icelandic sagas with modern archaeology, art history, forensics, and the history of board games.… (more)

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