The subtitle reads: "The Mystery of the Most Famous Chessmen in the World and the Woman Who Made Them."
Some reviewers objected: "Though more full of conjecture than the assertive subtitle suggests, Brown's account is nonetheless fascinating," said Publisher's Weekly.
"OK," said a reviewer for a medieval studies blog, "that title is quite attention grabbing: women as medieval sculptors and artisans? Not sure how that will be discernible in the art but I have not read the book yet so..."
In the text of the book, I do carefully re-insert all the "may haves" and "maybes." "Did Margret the Adroit carve the Lewis chessmen under a commission from Bishop Pall?" I ask in the introduction. "Unless the Skalholt dig is reopened, and proof of an ivory workshop is found, we cannot say yes or no. But 'the limited evidence' places Iceland on equal footing with Trondheim as the site of their creation."
I also rail against the book editors and graphic designers who take out all the qualifiers when asserting that the Lewis chessmen were made, instead, in Trondheim, Norway. Yes, I did it too; guilty as charged. Reader, beware: titles exaggerate. Marketing is not scholarship.
We cannot say if Margret the Adroit really carved the Lewis chessmen or not. Medieval artists did not sign their work. Gender is not, as that reviewer noted, "discernible in the art."
And yet, should we so matter-of-factly dismiss, as that reviewer seems to do, the idea that Margret was capable of it? "Women as medieval sculptors and artisans?" Really? Pshaw!
The Saga of Bishop Pall presents ample evidence that Margret the Adroit was a true "medieval sculptor," working on an equal footing with her male colleagues Amundi the Smith, Atli the Scribe, and Thorstein the Shrine-Smith at the cathedral of Skalholt in Iceland in the late 1100s and early 1200s. This contemporary saga, written within a generation of the bishop's death, has never been translated from Old Norse, however, so you can't expect every medieval scholar to be familiar with it.
So let's look for women artists in a more mainstream place: medieval Spain.
In 2008, a pair of researchers from Duoda, the Women's Research Center of the University of Barcelona, M.-Elisa Varela Rodríguez and Teresa Vinyoles Vidal, published the essay “Scattering Light and Colours: The Traces of Some Medieval Women Artists” in a series called The Difference of Being Woman: Research and Teaching of History. The essay, which includes the images reproduced below, can be downloaded here: http://www.ub.edu/duoda/diferencia/html/en/secundario13.html
In March 2014 it was circulated by the website Medievalists.net, which is where I learned of it. That link is: http://www.medievalists.net/2014/03/08/scattering-light-colours-traces-medieval-women-artists/
Rodriguez and Vidal write of women artists who lived and worked near Barcelona between the 10th and the 14th centuries--and who actually signed their work. "Some artists of embroidery wanted to leave their name for history," the researchers note.
A third medieval Spanish woman artist painted the 115 miniatures in the Beato de Girona, "one of the richest manuscripts pictorially within the tradition of commentary on the Apocalypse." It is dated to 975. An inscription in the manuscript, as Rodriguez and Vidal interpret it, "clearly declares the authorship of the work to be of a woman with the name of En who is a painter, is fully aware of her task, and is also aware of its importance. … we interpret the text Dei aiutrix, helper of God, in that sense that through her the divine is transmitted to us … And she does it as a woman, which is why the illustrations of the Beato de Girona are different to that of other Beatos attributed to men painters. The Beato de Girona is the richest of miniatures, it is the richest in the palette of colours that it uses, and it is also unique in the interpretation that the painter makes of some scenes or passages."
"It should also be pointed out that," conclude Rodriguez and Vidal, "when so few names of women artists appear to us, it must be deduced that there were many more that were anonymous, and also others that history may still discover."
One of those women artists whom I hope other medievalists will soon discover, through my book Ivory Vikings, is the 12th-century ivory carver from Iceland, Margret the Adroit.
http://nancymariebrown.com, or check out these reviews:
"Briefly Noted," The New Yorker (November 2): http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/11/02/briefly-noted-the-blue-guitar (scroll down)
"Bones of Contention," The Economist (August 29): http://www.economist.com/news/books-and-arts/21662487-bones-contention
"Review: Ivory Vikings," Minneapolis Star Tribune (August 29): http://www.startribune.com/review-ivory-vikings-by-nancy-marie-brown-the-mystery-of-the-lewis-chessmen/323230441/