Call for papers: Walruses, Whales and Narwhals Maritime Ivories in Western Europe, 900-1500 (Kalamazoo 2017)

Lilleberge_Plaque_British-museum

Viking whalebone plaque from Lilleberge in Norway, 9th Century AD (British Museum)

In the history of carved ivories, maritime mammals have often been eclipsed by the elephant, considered as a nobler ivory to which walrus or whale ivory would only be a poor man’s substitute. But this historiographical view is not without its shortcomings, as not only did walrus hunting play a significant role in the first European explorations toward the west, but the trade for those ivories went as far as the Islamic world and even the Far East. This session at the 52nd International Congress on Medieval Studies, sponsored by the National Museum of Scotland, aims to address the variety of questions posed by the maritime ivories: how the raw material was collected, how it was traded, the workshops that carved them and their specific symbolic value in medieval treasuries

Date and place

Session sponsored by the National Museum of Scotland

International Congress on Medieval Studies
May 11-14, 2017
Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, Michigan

Argument

In the history of medieval ivory carving, the maritime mammals are often eclipsed by the elephant.  Walrus tusks and whale bones are usually just seen as a poor substitute to the nobler African or Indian product, mostly used when trade disruptions created shortfalls.

But this historiographical view is not without shortcomings. Walrus hunting played a significant role in the first European explorations towards the west, to Iceland and Greenland. It also led to one of the first documented cases of overhunting with the disappearance of walruses from Iceland. And the trade went far. Just as the Islamic world played a role in providing Europe with elephant tusks, it coveted narwhal teeth and walrus tusks, which, much like the latter in the West, were used as an indicator of poison and possible antidote.

In Western Europe, as walrus ivory was not carved in the harvesting territories, trade was widespread. With evidence of active workshops as far south as Canterbury, and possibly even France (with a few scattered pieces attributed to artists of the Reims area), wide reaching trade routes were created, sometimes going both ways. This is demonstrated by the walrus ivory crozier found in the tomb of a 13th century bishop of Garðar (Greenland). On the contrary, it would seem that whale bone carving, found mainly in North-West Spain and England, was intimately linked with the main fishing zones; the Channel and the Bay of Biscay (where most of the whalers originated). As for the narwhal, although we know how coveted its tooth was, we are far less knowledgeable as to how it was collected. This is due to the animal habitat being far away from the zones used by medieval Basque whalers and remote even for the less expert Scandinavian ones.

As far as production is concerned, the maritime ivories are not limited only to the more prevalent chess pieces (sometimes mundane, sometimes of exceptional quality). Caskets (some of exceptional quality), reliquaries and liturgical instruments were also carved and circulated throughout Europe.

This session aims to gather papers addressing the variety of questions posed by the maritime ivories: how the raw material was collected, how it was traded, the workshops that carved them and their specific symbolic value in medieval treasuries.

Submission guidelines

To propose a paper, please send a 300 word abstract, C.V., and completed Congress Participant Information Form (available here) to Xavier Dectot, Keeper of Art and Design, National Museums Scotland (x.dectot@nms.ac.uk).

Deadline : September 15, 2017

The selection will be done by Xavier Dectot


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