This rough Viking chess set is full of stereotypes. We are still making new discoveries about who the Vikings were, what they did and why they came to our country, so we know that this stereotype image is not correct.

The Vikings have previously been the subject of an article on this website , because the Chessmen Museum owns a replica of the Lewis chess set. This game probably belonged to a Norwegian citizen who left it on the Scottish island of Lewis, where it was excavated around 1830. The design of this game from the 12th century is special: the chess pieces depict fierce warriors, who bite their shield, for example. This design is the legacy of the Scandinavian Hnefatafl game. This board game fell into oblivion after the northerners got acquainted with chess and embraced the game.

Horns and animal hides

Viking King with a horned helmet and Christian King with a crown. Rademaker Collectiom

In addition to the Lewis replica, the museum has also been displaying a Viking-themed chess set for several years now. This game is part of the Rademaker Collection, and represents pagan Vikings facing Christian knights. The design of this game is quite stereotypical, as proven by the horned helmets and the Vikings clad in animal skins. This image is not based on reality though, it was made up in the nineteenth century. It seemed the appropriate clothing for the northern heathens who were known as savage barbarians, as opposed to the Christian, civilised kings of the Franks and the English.

So, in the Viking chess game there are Christian knights on one side, and pagan Vikings on the other. The big question is, who are the Vikings in this case? They could be Norwegians or Danes, but they may as well be Frisians. Frisians?? Yes, and here is why: historians continue to carry out research on the Vikings, so we have to keep adjusting our view of these northerners. We have recently learned that the word ´Viking´ refers to a way of life, namely that of a looter or pirate, and not an ethnic group. They were not only Scandinavians, but also Frisians, for example, who travelled along with the pillaging warriors. They were not Vikings per se but rather carried out Viking acts. In the summer months, these same people could perfectly well be working their fields or trading goods.

Christian sources

In the Netherlands we have a history of being troubled by raids from the north, especially in the ninth century. We should not forget, however, that the Scandinavians did not write to communicate and passed down their history orally. The written history of this period was entirely in the hands of Christian monks, who were often the victims of the looters. The treasures in the church buildings were a sought-after loot for Vikings. In addition, the Scandinavians, who believed in gods such as Thor and Odin, did not want to have anything to do with the new Christian religion that was expanding to the north. For this reason, destroying churches and murdering missionaries also carried a political charge.

Magna Frisia and the Frankish Empire in the 8th century -fr.svg CC BY-SA 3.0)

It was recently discovered that the advancement of the Christian Franks was the main reason for Danish kings to attack our country. In 695, the Franks had conquered Dorestad, the most important northern trading city (near present Wijk bij Duurstede, a city in the central Netherlands), bringing their influence too close for comfort for the Danes. Up until that time, the Danes had maintained friendly trade contacts with the Netherlands, which then largely belonged to the great Frisian Empire, or Magna Frisia. Its inhabitants, the Frisians, were part of the North Sea culture, just like the Scandinavians. They believed in the same pagan gods, wore the same type of clothing, and spoke closely related languages, unlike the Christian Roman Franks.

The arrival of the Franks brought with it a train of ambitious missionaries. Not only did they proclaim the word of God, they also had wooden churches built throughout Frisia, which were often destroyed during raids. After the quiet tenth century, a final wave of Viking violence swept over Frisia between 990 and 1010, when several Frisian churches were raided. This time around, the churches recovered quickly, unlike in the ninth century. A big difference was that in the meantime, all Frisians had become members of a Catholic parish. Church buildings were no longer tiny Christian islands in a pagan landscape. Christianisation had been accomplished in our country, next in line were the Scandinavians.

By Marjolein Overmeer