Maggie Kneen - or, as the Vikings would have known her, Margaret of the Clan of the Wolf - talks to me about her medieval artwork and her DNA.
And, really! I know that you’re aware of my rather delicate, monkish constitution, but you simply must resist the notion that I’m going to run from this Viking squealing like a piglet.
No, beloved. I want you to follow my example of godly forbearance and forgiveness and welcome my Viking guest.
OK, this one isn’t your average, brutal, axe-wielding slayer of monks. No, indeed. In fact, Maggie Kneen is, it would appear, a very friendly Viking.
What’s more, she’s a brilliant artist, having both written and illustrated children’s literature and, more recently, turned her rather gifted hand to medieval architectural drawings. Now what could be less Viking than that?
MK: My work is quite quirky and stylized, ideally suited for children’s books.
I was encouraged to draw and paint from a young age, but the first important influence was actually my friend Nicky who, when we met at the age of eleven, had already learnt to draw.
We designed shoes and clothes, drew horses and people. She recently reminded me that when we used to do sleep-overs, we would sit for hours copying models from clothes catalogues!
ASM: [audible sigh of relief] That’s good to hear. I’m all for shoes, clothes and horses rather than rape and pillage. But I hear too that you have a very strong interest in the medieval period. How does the medieval world intersect with your artwork?
MK: I do have a strong pull to the medieval period and its culture, as you say, so whenever I’ve had the opportunity, I’ve studied the art, costume, architecture and thinking of that period.
For instance, as long ago as my A-level dissertation, I studied how the art and symbols of pre-Christian European cultures – the Anglo-Saxons, the Vikings, the Celts – were changed and adopted by Christianity, from the sixth century onwards.
And my BA art history dissertation was called ‘The Beast from the Dark’. You can guess that this was about the stylized animal art that weaves through the art of these same peoples.
Even after gaining a Masters degree in graphic design at the Central School in London in 1980, and fully ready to earn a living as an illustrator, this passion for early medieval culture dared me to apply to University College London, to study medieval art and archaeology with James Graham-Campbell.
I did this from 1981 until 1987, at which point student finances made me swap my studies for the world of work, and I took up illustrating as a full-time profession the very next day, by visiting artists’ agents in London, one of whom gave me a job on the spot.
ASM: I’ve read that quite early on in your career you did a commission for ‘Old English Tarot’ cards. How did you come up with the design for these? [See the image at the top.]
MK: My first ever paid illustration job had been to design a pack of Jungian-symbol cards, called Psycards, for a man called Nick Hobson, in 1981. These were not actually the Tarot cards, but Nick then marketed the pack through US Games Inc., and one day, after I had left London, I received a phone call from Stuart Kaplan, the Director of US Games, who commissioned me directly to create a real Tarot pack.
I took the Tarot job and once again used the opportunity to base my designs on something which I had fallen in love with, which was the Luttrell Psalter. This thirteenth-century manuscript proved to be a rich mine of visual information for scenes of daily life, including implements from the soup-bowl to the sword, which were of inestimable value as reference material for my Old English Tarot.
ASM: I hear you’re now doing some research on the Bayeux Tapestry. Can you tell us more?
MK: Well, I first started research on the Bayeux Tapestry for my second Masters degree, when I signed up for Gale Owen-Crocker’s course, and I still find that the Tapestry is generously yielding up information that is not only enlightening on the fundamentals of eleventh-century design, but sometimes on the very history of the Norman invasion itself.
I’m now working on a book about the design of the Tapestry with Gale, as well as periodically giving talks at a number of universities on this subject.
ASM: Now, your Viking credentials! I must confess that when I previously described you to my readers as a real Viking that my monk’s tongue was planted rather firmly in my Anglo-Saxon cheek. But, Maggie, is there any basis for describing you as a Viking?
MK: Well, my grandpa told me, when I was still in junior school, that he had visited the Picton Library in Liverpool to do some research on our family surname, Kneen. What he found, he told me, was that our name came from the Vikings who had landed on the Isle of Man, where his and my dad’s family came from, and it meant ‘Clan of the Wolf’.
I eagerly latched onto this identity – whether it was truth or myth, it had come from the prestigious Picton Library – and I wanted to believe it with all my heart. So much so that I still had an unconscious hold on the idea in 2009 when I heard on morning TV about a research programme, led by the University of Nottingham, to ascertain the percentage of Viking ancestry present in the DNA of men from the north west of England, where there had been a heavy Scandinavian influx.
I contacted Professor Steve Harding who was running the programme at Nottingham – it was important, in my mind, for me to know about my family’s ancestry – and he sent me a DNA-testing kit for my dad to harvest some cells from the inside of his cheek on a swab, and post this back to them in its tube.
They compared his DNA material with databases of Y-chromosomes to get an idea of where it might have originated – in other words, where my dad’s paternal ancestry lies.
When the results came through some weeks later, the DNA of dad’s Y-chromosome proved to have been from, in a worldwide database known as YHRD, haplogroup I2b1. And though most numerously matching the haplotype present a thousand years or forty generations ago in men from Bratislava, Slovakia, the identical DNA was also found in groups of men from central Norway, eastern Norway, Denmark, and also Cologne and Freiburg in Germany.
ASM: That’s fascinating. I read, though, in the Guardian newspaper, in an article by a professor of evolutionary genetics, that claims by ‘the consumer ancestry industry’ are gross exaggerations. Now I know the research project at Nottingham University isn’t part of that industry, but should we really be thinking of twenty-first century Vikings?
MK: Does this mean that I am a real Viking, you mean? Well, I would have in the past said yes, most wholeheartedly. But I think I’ve had to revisit the evidence with a clearer vision.
So what does it actually mean? Well, looking at all of our ancestors, for each generation that we go back, the number of people doubles. So you have two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, etc. Ten generations back there are 1,024 people from whom you are descended. If you go back twenty generations this amounts to 1,048,576 people, and so on.
The Nottingham team knew which haplogroup they were looking for in the Y-chromosome, in my case in relation to finding Viking ancestry in my father forty generations back; and they found what they were looking for, but only in relation to one man of the many thousands of male ancestors from whom the twenty-first-century Kneens descend.
In this respect, I think it may be a coincidence that we happen even to have kept this surname, even though it can be traced back to medieval times in the Isle of Man and Ireland. So the Nottingham team have both proved the fact and yet simultaneously exploded the myth in one single experiment. In one respect I find that disillusioning in the extreme; it makes one wonder if ancestry is of any importance at all.
ASM: You're a fraudulent Viking, then? I'm quite shocked!
MK: Well, I am descended from a Norwegian Viking whose family definitely had links in Denmark and Germany before some of them set sail for Ireland and the Isle of Man; and we, the Kneens, have retained the genetic link and a Viking name to prove it.
But as this particular Viking was only one of many thousands of ancestors that we had at that moment in time, I need to think more about how such seemingly infinite matrices of relatives actually work, both backwards and forwards.
Does it really matter from whom one is descended? Or, more to the point, who – if indeed anyone – is descended from you?
As the Kneen Viking link was so important to my early sense of personal identity, and equally to my later love of history and archaeology, I went through a difficult time when I realized I had missed the possibility of passing on this 'precious' thousand-year-old connection, because I was getting too old to have children. The
ASM: So how do you feel about that now?
MK: Well, the flipside to this revelation would be that we are in fact all one and the same, all equal, and all equally amazing. So I take from this whole experiment the knowledge that what matters most is not our physicality and our connectedness to other’s gene pools, so much as our connectedness to the collective human soul, and the love and respect with which we treat one another.
Well, I never, beloved. A Viking philosopher! I think Maggie Kneen is very honest about how tempting it is to fantasize about our ancestry. This is, of course, something the Anglo-Saxon Monk would never do!
And you know, all things considered – the continuation of the name Kneen, Clan of the Wolf, and the positive genetic link – still makes me feel I’ve been in the presence of a real, pumping Viking heart.
Put it this way, I didn’t dare turn my back to her once during the interview!
NEWS: Maggie is soon to publish some new medieval architectural drawings, and she will be giving us a sneak preview here on The Anglo-Saxon Monk. How about that! In the meantime, check out Maggie's website by clicking on the button below.