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Iceland Explained - Icelandic Sagas

The Story of Mediaeval Icelandic Manuscripts

One of the most unique aspects of Iceland‘s history is that there is a written account of its beginning. Though written down centuries later, Landnámabók, or The Book of Settlements, explains how settlers immigrated to Iceland from Norway and the British Isles in the ninth century. This story of Iceland‘s beginnings, as well as the Icelandic sagas, are preserved in manuscripts from the Middle Ages and are arguably Iceland‘s most important cultural treasure. But the story of these manuscripts is not as straightforward as you‘d think. 

Mediaeval Manuscripts 

After Icelanders converted to Christianity around the year 1000, they adopted different aspects of European Christian culture, including the Latin alphabet. Beginning in the twelfth century, Icelandic scribes – often clergymen – began to write things down. Some of the earliest manuscripts are homilies and sermons in Latin. But before long, they were writing stories in their Old Norse vernacular – stories that would become known as Icelandic sagas. 

The earliest manuscripts are made from vellum, which is actually animal skin. Icelanders normally used calfskin for their material. After removing the hair, an animal’s skin was stretched out in a large frame to dry out. This would create a flat leaf. After drying, the skin was folded and cut to size, depending on the size of the manuscript it would make. The scribe would then trace an outline of the columns and lines they would use to write. Using different berries and other dyes, the scribe would dip their quill (typically from a large bird) in the ink and begin to write. 

This process was time-consuming, and writing was difficult. It could take years to complete a manuscript. Imagine painstakingly writing in the dark of the Icelandic winter with the pressure to use up the space appropriately because killing another calf for its skin would be expensive! Indeed, the scribes would use a lot of abbreviations to preserve as much of the vellum as possible!

Scattered to the Wind

Evidence suggests that many mediaeval manuscripts were produced at centres of power in Iceland, such as Reykholt or Oddi. These places were home to powerful families, centres of learning, and important churches. But over time, more and more Icelanders developed the ability to read and write. By the eighteenth century, farmers all over Iceland were not only collecting manuscripts but also creating them. 

The mediaeval manuscripts sometimes stayed within families and were passed down through the generations. Others were bought and sold, sometimes going to Norway or other foreign destinations and then coming back. Still, others were simply lost to time and were stored away in basements and attics on a farm somewhere in Iceland. 

The Reformation also caused some real havoc to these priceless manuscripts. As a lot of the early literature was produced by and for the Church, post-Reformation Icelanders treated them with disdain. Some of the vellum was repurposed, the ink scratched off and used for different topics. Some of the manuscripts were dismembered and random leaves were found in different places around the country. 

Árni Magnússon

In the late 1600s, an Icelandic man named Árni Magnússon moved to Copenhagen to study theology. While at the university, Árni became an assistant to the antiquarian Thomas Bartholin. By 1697, he was working in the Royal Archives and a few years later, was teaching at the university. 

At the behest of Bartholin, whenever Árni returned to Iceland, he began gathering up and collecting as many manuscripts as he could get his hands on. Árni would bring these manuscripts back to Copenhagen to keep in a library. In 1702, he was appointed by King Frederick IV of Denmark to survey the conditions of Iceland, which was a ten-year process. During this time, Árni travelled all over Iceland, checking if conditions were right for sulphur mining, assessing the fisheries, and investigating corruption in Iceland‘s judicial system. 

However, Árni was still adamant about collecting manuscripts. This time, he had the power of the king on his side. Árni went to farmhouses all over Iceland to collect mediaeval manuscripts in the name of the king. If he could not convince the owners to part ways with their manuscripts, Árni would copy them down. 

The Collection

Árni brought a massive collection to Denmark. He was interested not only in the oldest manuscripts but also in fragments, paper manuscripts, and anything he could get his hands on. He also took some liberties with the manuscripts themselves. Sometimes, he would provide them with a new cover to protect the vellum pages. In other cases, he would take a manuscript apart and put sagas in a new or different manuscript. 

It became apparent that Árni‘s collection was the biggest of its kind. However, a fire broke out in October 1728, which would destroy nearly 30% of the city. Árni was warned about the fire but did not react in time to save everything. With the help of some friends, he moved what was left, but many precious manuscripts and documents were lost. Luckily, Árni and those working with him had copied down much of the contents. There are some sagas and other mediaeval literature that survive today only because of these efforts.

Upon Árni‘s death, just two years later, the remainder of the collection was left to the University of Copenhagen.

The Move

The fact that Iceland‘s most valuable cultural artefacts resided outside of Iceland bothered many who resided on the island. However, as Iceland was under Danish control, this was to be expected. The century following Árni‘s death saw an uptick in Icelandic nationalism and a push for Icelandic independence. The sagas and manuscripts that had been produced in Iceland took centre stage in this movement. Many argued that these mediaeval writings proved Iceland‘s cultural uniqueness and worth, and they were presented as arguments for Iceland‘s independence from Denmark.

Small concessions were made during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. During the Second World War, Iceland joined the many nations that declared independence from their former colonisers. Iceland severed all ties with Denmark officially in 1944. 

Iceland almost immediately asked for their manuscripts to be returned. But there was a glaring issue from the Danish side. Iceland had no place to keep and care for these vulnerable treasures. Negotiations began between the two countries. Denmark was also reluctant to hand everything over. After all, Árni‘s collection had been mixed in with other manuscripts, including some from Denmark, Norway and elsewhere. Only those that pertained to Iceland were considered for travelling to the island.

It took nearly 30 years before an agreement was made, during which time Iceland had built a satisfactory facility. On April 21, 1971, a steamboat arrived in the harbour of Reykjavík carrying two of the most important manuscripts: The Codex Regius, which contained the Poetic Edda, poetry that details Norse mythology, and Flateyjarbók, the largest Icelandic manuscript. A huge crowd of Icelanders gathered at the docks to cheer and welcome home these long-lost treasures. 

Negotiations continued, and, over the following twenty years, more and more manuscripts made their way into Iceland‘s growing library of manuscripts.

The Hole

The manuscript collection eventually found a home on the University of Iceland campus in the Árni Magnússon Institute housed in the Árnagarður building. In 2005, the Icelandic government agreed to finance the construction of a new state-of-the-art building to house the manuscripts. The project, however, was met with several delays. The 2008 financial crisis was a huge setback. 

The project finally resumed in 2013 when construction officially began. However, the workers got as far as digging a massive pit in the ground when there was a change in government and arguments arose over the cost. The hole in the ground would remain there, nearly unchanged (except occasionally filling up with rain water) for six years. Finally, an agreement was reached between the government and a construction company in 2019, and the hole began to be transformed into an actual building. 

The House of Icelandic Studies is slated to open in the fall of 2023. Before that happens, the treasured mediaeval manuscripts will move once more. This time, they will not board a steamship and cross the choppy waves of the North Atlantic but simply cross the street to their new home.

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