Manuscript Resources in Iceland

Margrét Eggertsdóttir

The most important manuscript and archival institutes in Iceland are The Árni Magnússon Institute, The National Library and The National Archive, all of which are in Reykjavík. In general, the differences between their role and function are that the most important medieval manuscripts are preserved in The Árni Magnússon Institute; the largest collection of manuscripts from the early modern period is in The National Library; and the most important archival resources are in The National Archive. In this paper I will briefly cover the history of these institutions, mention the most notable resources they preserve and discuss their importance for research on literature and history of Iceland and Scandinavia. I will also mention some scholarly productions that are based on and have made use of these sources, and finally I would like to draw some attention to the many unresearched manuscripts in Iceland that could open up new interesting fields of investigation, among other things because they could possibly change traditional views of the literary and cultural history of Iceland.

The Árni Magnússon Institute

The Árni Magnússon Institute in Iceland was established in 1972 by legislation in the Alþingi, the Icelandic Parliament. It took over the role of the former Manuscript Institute, which had been in operation since 1962. The Árni Magnússon Institute, which is part of the University of Iceland, has custody of the Icelandic manuscripts, both medieval and modern, which were returned to Iceland from the Arnamagnæan Institute and the Royal Library in Copenhagen in accordance with the 1961 act passed in the Danish Parliament.

The Árni Magnússon institute in Iceland has two principal roles:

(i) to conduct research relating to the manuscripts in its care as well as in other aspects of Icelandic culture and folklore, and
(ii) to publish comprehensive critical editions of the manuscripts.

While these editions normally consist of printed transcriptions of the main texts, the Institute also publishes facsimile editions of certain manuscripts. All such publications represent basic documents for further research on these texts, and are thus indispensable for scholars involved in the study of Icelandic or Old Norse language and literature.
The Institute publishes in its monograph series (the Rit series) doctoral theses, scholarly monographs, and articles on various aspects of Icelandic language, literature and culture. While longer theses and studies appear as individual volumes in the series, shorter essays are collected in special volumes and appear under the title Gripla. The languages of these publications are Icelandic, the Scandinavian languages, English, German and French.
The Árni Magnússon Institute also serves as a folklore institute. The collection includes some 2000 hours of recorded material, including folklore items that have been collected both in Iceland and among the Icelandic population in Canada. The material includes rímur, folk stories and other related items. The collection is now being catalogued onto a special database, where it will be possible to look up items by subject, area and performer.

The History of the Institute

Árni Magnússon (1663-1730) was an Icelander. He was professor at the University of Copenhagen, which at that time was the university of Denmark, Norway and Iceland. Throughout his life he was a passionate student of Icelandic history, and as a collector of manuscripts he was unique in his time. His collection of manuscripts was by far the largest collection of medieval Icelandic manuscripts then in existence. It eventually became the property of the Arnamagnæan Foundation, which was associated with the University of Copenhagen.
The gradual transfer of Árni Magnússon's manuscript collection from Denmark to Iceland, which began in 1971, was concluded in June 1997. That part of the Arnamagnæan collection which is considered to be part of Iceland's cultural heritage in accordance with the Danish legislation passed in 1961 is housed in the Árni Magnússon Institute in Iceland, while the other part of the collection remains in the custody of Det Arnamagnæanske Institut in Copenhagen.
The Árni Magnússon Institute in Reykjavík and The Arnamagnæan Institute in Copenhagen are now working on a very interesting project, which I can only touch on briefly. (We would need a whole session to describe it properly). The aim of the project is to have digital images of all the manuscripts in the collection accessible on the web, along with an electronic catalogue. A catalogue of this type will enable scholars to search not only for particular titles - all the manuscripts of a given saga, for example - but also for things like date and place of writing and so on. The project is called the Arnamagnæan Digitisation Project. By using digital technology it will thus be possible to link the divided manuscript collection in Reykjavík and Copenhagen, thus making the whole collection available to scholars all over the world.

Medieval Manuscripts in The Árni Magnússon Institute

The medieval manuscripts in the Árni Magnússon Institute in Reykjavík contain all genres of literature that existed in medieval Iceland. One can mention for example the oldest Icelandic law code (Grágás), preserved in two vellum manuscripts written shortly after 1250; manuscripts written for the church, containing translations from the Bible (Stjórn); the Icelandic family sagas; contemporary sagas, i. e. Sturlunga and the Bishops' sagas; sagas of ancient times (fornaldarsögur); and sagas of chivalry (riddarasögur). Several manuscripts contain poetry. As examples of religious poetry there are poems about Virgin Mary and the saints, and as an example of secular poetry there is the Icelandic genre rímur, long narrative poems in traditional metres. Apart from that the Institute preserves charters and documents of many kinds concerned with legal cases and the purchase and sale of property.
The oldest extant fragments of Icelandic manuscripts were written in about the year 1200, or shortly before. Their texts are about Christian doctrine and secular laws. Laws were first written down in about 1120, and at about the same time, Ari the Learned wrote his Book of the Icelanders (Íslendingabók), describing the country's governmental structure and history from the settlement to his own day. It is likely that the first version of the Book of Settlements (Landnámabók) was compiled round about the same date.
One of the two most famous manuscripts of the Institute is the Codex Regius of the Poetic Edda. It is the oldest and most important collection of Eddic poems and the most famous of all Icelandic manuscripts. The poems it contains fall into two main groups: those about the pagan gods, which are placed first, and those about the heroes of Germanic legend. The manuscript was written in the late 13th century by an unknown scribe. In a book based on his doctoral thesis which was published in 1995 The Origins of Drama in Scandinavia Terry Gunnell has pointed out that markings in the margins of this manuscript indicate that some of the poems were written using the same methods as medieval texts that were intended for dramatic presentation.
The other most famous manuscript of the institute is Flateyjarbók, containing sagas of Norwegian kings. It is the largest of all Icelandic vellum manuscripts, consisting of 202 leaves written in 1387-94 (and another 23 that were added in the late 15th century). Because so many other early manuscripts were used as sources for Flateyjarbók, it preserves a great deal of important material which does not exist in other copies and is therefore one of the most important Icelandic manuscripts. A study recently made on Flateyjarbók was published in 1991, a doctoral thesis by the German professor Stefanie Würth: Elemente des Erzählens. Die Þættir der Flateyjarbók.
The Skarðsbók manuscript of the law code Jónsbók and the Skarðsbók manuscripts of the Lives of the Apostles are examples of large vellum codices from the 14th century, which have been lavishly illuminated. Manuscripts containing religious material and copies of the law code, tended to be illuminated but most other manuscripts, such as most of the saga manuscripts, are without any illumination. Until the late 16th century, most Icelandic manuscripts were written on vellum, that is to say calfskin which was specially prepared for writing on.
As very few Catholic Latin texts connected with saints have survived in Icelandic manuscripts the few vellum leaves that have been preserved are particularly valuable. Latin religious writings lost their place in religious observance in Iceland when Lutheranism was introduced in the middle of the 16th century, and many of them were lost. The few isolated fragments that have survived tend to have done so because the vellum was used to cover or repair other books. The Life of St Þorlákur, for example, exists in three Icelandic medieval versions of varying antiquity: all are derived from the same original and are preserved in about 17 manuscripts or manuscript fragments written between c. 1200 and 1700. Of special interest is the Rhymed Office of the Saint Þorlákur (Þorlákstíðir), which was sung on his feast days in the traditional canonical service hours. The Office of St Þorlákur is preserved on 12 leaves which ended up being distributed between 25 leaves of another manuscript (from the early 14th century) containing the Psalms of David and other material. Árni Magnússon probably acquired all this material from the Episcopal See of Skálholt, but it was subsequently separated, most of the leaves remaining in the Arnamagnean Institute in Copenhagen while those containing Þorlákstíðir were sent back to Iceland in November 1996.

Seventeenth Century Manuscripts

With the rise of the Renaissance in the 16th century, scholars in Scandinavia regained their interest in Old Icelandic Literature, and this interest grew in the 17th century when the Icelandic scholar Arngrímur the Learned (d. 1648) made some of the subject matter accessible to the scholarly world through his Latin writings. King Frederik III of Denmark sent envoys to Iceland to collect manuscripts, and Swedish antiquarians did the same. Bishop Brynjólfur Sveinsson of Skálholt (d. 1675) sent the king many of the most important medieval Icelandic manuscripts. Icelandic scholarly activity was also being stimulated: Bishop Brynjólfur, Bishop Þorlákur Skúlason of Hólar (d. 1656) and others had paper copies made of many vellum manuscripts, some of which were subsequently lost. These paper copies from the 17th century have preserved many important works from oblivion. Good examples of such are Íslendingabók and the Sturlubók version of Landnámabók. These copies also made saga literature available to far more people; most of these works were not printed until the 18th century or later.
One of the most important scribes who worked for Bishop Brynjólfur Sveinsson was the priest Jón Erlendsson in Villingaholt (d. 1672) who copied a large number of vellum manuscripts. He made two copies of Íslendingabók (The Book of Icelanders) (AM 113 a fol. og AM 113 b fol.), the latter one because the bishop insisted on a more thorough and authentic orthographical version. The orthography of Jón's copy indicates that the orginal vellum manuscript derived from around 1200, although it can not have been author's own original manuscript. The original of the copy got lost some decades later and when Árni Magnússon was looking for it in the early 18th century he couldn't find a scrap of it anywhere. Most of the manuscripts Jón Erlendsson wrote (around 60) are in The Arnamagnæan Collection, but some of them are in the National Library in Reykjavík and in The Royal Library in Copenhagen. Jón mainly wrote or copied sagas and historical material. Most of his copies are in folio in large ("fraktur") writing, which shows that he worked for high officials in Iceland. Peter Springborg has pointed out that the manuscripts Jón Erlendsson wrote created a kind of a school in writing in the south of Iceland. Springborg has shown that the great activity in writing and copying manuscripts in seventeenth century Iceland involved all the most important genres of Icelandic literature and was spread over the whole country. The manuscripts of the seventeenth century are indeed a very interesting field of research and in fact make up a large part of the manuscripts in the Arnamagnæan Collection.
It is worth mentioning, that anyone interested in the transmission and distribution of the Icelandic family sagas, and especially anyone who wants to make a critical edition of some of these sagas, will find that these texts are not only preserved in manuscripts of the Árni Magnússon Institute in Reykjavík; the National Library may also contain important manuscripts, which can be of critical value even if they are younger than the medieval sources, because seventeenth-century copies might possibly have a more original text than the medieval source has. A study confirming the importance of those younger saga manuscripts has been made by the Swedish scholar, Sture Hast, who has examined the paper manuscripts of Harðar saga (Bibliotheca arnamagnæana 1960).

Landsbókasafn-Háskólabókasafn, Þjóðdeild, Handritadeild

The National and University Library of Iceland is a research library which serves as both the national library and the library for the University of Iceland. The library functions include, amongst other things, collecting and preserving all materials published in Icelandic and serving the needs of teaching and research activities at the University of Iceland.
The manuscript department of The National Library contains a great number of manuscripts. 14000 of them have been described in printed catalogues. The oldest manuscripts are vellum fragments from the twelfth century but the main part is from the later seventeenth century and up to the present. The manuscript department concentrates on the collection and preservation of non-public material, that is material on which there is no legal obligation to return. Among this material are manuscripts written by (modern) novelists and poets, scholarly studies, correspondence (letter collections) from individuals and associations, diaries and all kinds of private documents.
Diaries are one kind of resource preserved in the manuscript department of the library that Icelandic scholars, mainly historians, recently started paying more attention to, influenced by new directions in the study of History, where the individual and the individual's attitude to society has been brought into focus. It is thus interesting to compare the view of the individual with scholarly representation concerning the same period. In that way, one can test the reliability of sources like diaries and ask what influence such documents might have on our knowledge and understanding of individuals and societies in earlier times. The manuscript department of the National Library contains around 100 diaries. Until recently they have rarely been the subject for any research but in 1993 a doctoral thesis was published by a young Icelandic scholar, who took his degree at the Carnegie Mellon University: Sigurður Gylfi Magnússon. The title of his work is: The Continuity of Everyday Life: Popular Culture in Iceland 1850-1940.
In 1981 Astrid Ogilvie finished her doctoral thesis at the University of East Anglia entitled: "Climate and Society in Iceland from the Medieval Period to the Late Eighteenth Century." For her investigation Ogilvie made use of a vast number of Icelandic resources, both manuscript sources and published works, including letters from the eighteenth century, preserved at the National Archives, medieval sources like The Book of Settlements, The Book of Icelanders, The Bishops' sagas and Sturlunga, numerous annals, and last but not least Jón Jónssons's Weather Diary which is preserved in two manuscripts at The National Library in Reykjavík. Ogilvie's study is very interesting, not least in connection with the recent discussion about the voyages made by Nordic people to the east coast of North America.
The main sources for these voyages are preserved in the Árni Magnússon Institute in Reykjavík. These sources are Eiríks saga, the Saga of Erik the red, preserved in two medieval vellum manuscripts, one called Skálholtsbók (AM 557 4to, written in about 1420 in the north of Iceland) and the other Hauksbók (AM 544 4to written about 1300). Both were copied from 13th century manuscripts which are now lost. Another source on these voyages is Grænlendinga saga, the Saga of the Greenlanders, which is preserved in only one medieval manuscript, Flateyjarbók, which already has been mentioned. The accounts of these voyages in Eiríks saga and Grænlendinga saga do not concur with each other, but they preserve a lot of common material, and it is believed that both were based on orally preserved accounts, without either text drawing on the other.
Some few years ago the National Library commenced a new project, consisting of the digital registration/cataloguing of all the manuscripts in the department. This project is being carried out with financial support from the Mellon Foundation. One should also mention that musicologists are now preparing and working on the registration of manuscripts containing notes or other musical information.
Another project that unfortunately has not started yet but will be of great importance to scholars working on Icelandic literary history is the registration of all poetry preserved in the library's manuscripts. From the Reformation in Iceland in 1550 until the middle of the 18th century hardly anything was printed in the country except religious works since the Church owned and governed production of books. The tradition of writing manuscripts by hand had been for centuries a dominant feature of Icelandic culture, where much more material was preserved in manuscripts than in printed books. This means, that many literary genres only exist in manuscripts. For those interested in the literary history of Iceland, manuscripts are thus a very exciting and to a large extent unexplored field. Recently much interesting research has been carried out, in which light has been shed on genres that have been ignored or overlooked by modern scholars who have often tended to focus mainly on printed material.
I would like to mention as an example a book by the German professor, Hubert Seelow, who wrote about Icelandic translations of German and Danish "Volksbücher", i.e. popular stories, which were copied in Iceland in the ages after the Reformation and were mainly passed around in manuscripts. The title of his work is Die isländischen Übersetzungen der deutschen Volksbücher. These stories also provided material for the Icelandic genre of rímur or ballads, in that Icelandic poets composed rímur based on these stories. In his study Seelow makes use of over 200 manuscripts from the National Library in Reykjavík, over 40 manuscripts from The Arnamagnæan Collection (in Reykjavík and Copenhagen) and around 50 manuscripts from other libraries, mainly the royal libraries in Copenhagen and Stockholm.
Another recent study worth on mention is that carried out by Matthew Driscoll in The Unwashed Children of Eve. The production, Dissemination and Reception of Popular Literature in Post-Reformation Iceland. Driscoll had originally intended to investigate saga-production in Iceland during the period 1600-1900 but soon found out that it would be far too voluminous a project, so he limited his work to the ten sagas attributed to the Reverend Jón Hjaltalín. In his book Driscoll not only reveals the existence of romances as a very popular genre in post-reformation Iceland, but also gives arguments stressing "that saga-production in Iceland had been every bit as great in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as it had been in the thirteenth"; in other words he claims that the Icelandic native saga tradition did not decline in the fourteenth century, as scholars have maintained, but extended over "perhaps a thousand years, from the pre-literary period to the post-romantics". In his study Driscoll made use of around 200 manuscripts from The National Library in Reykjavík, 11 manuscripts from The Arnamagnæan Collection, several documents from the National Archive in Reykjavík and several manuscripts from other libraries, among them being the royal libraries in Copenhagen and Stockholm.
It is obvious that it not only matters what kind of research material is preserved in libraries; the interest, attitude and intention of the researcher is of no less importance. That means that new directions in manuscript studies, such as the so-called new philology or social textuality are opening up a new interest in old manuscripts based on other terms than before. From this point of view it is not only of interest to find the oldest and most authentic text resource but also to examine the manuscript in its cultural historical context, to look at its material and how it has been compiled, for whom the manuscripts were written and what role the text played in society.

Charters and Apographa

The Jónsbók law code of 1281 required all purchases over a certain value to be agreed in writing and sealed by witnesses. Thousands of such contracts exist, some in originals, others in copies. Most of them are conveyance contracts and deeds; others include statements about property boundaries, receipts, marriage settlements, wills and so on. Árni Magnússon collected by far the greatest part of these documents from the early period. Part of the collection of documents he borrowed from the Icelandic bishops' and governors' archives were returned to the National Archives in 1928. The remainder are all in the Árni Magnússon Institute in Reykjavík: a total of 1345 original documents, more than 6000 copies, which Árni Magnússon had made with a very high degree of accuracy, and also a large number of copies in the correspondence books of Bishop Brynjólfur Sveinsson and other individuals. Practically all the documents dating from before 1570 have been published in the collection Diplomatarium Islandicum, but many of the more recent documents have still not been printed. They contain an invaluable fund of information on personal history, property ownership, placenames and other matters.

Þjóðskjalasafn Íslands - The National Archive in Iceland

The National Archive in Iceland preserves orginal documents, previously referred to as manuscripts, which have been produced by the public administration in the country. It is the state archive, which means that all the state institutions, firms and associations that obtain subsidies from the state are obliged to deliver all their documents to the archive once they reach the age of 30 years. C. 1000 institutions currently deliver their documents to the archive. Local communities are obliged to keep their documents and deliver them for preservation in the national archives in the same way, unless they have their own regional archive, that have taken on this role.
A key role of the archive is to ensure the safety of the citizens by systematically preserving documents that concern the rights of the state, local communities and the individual. Most of these documents have important legal value, in addition to being important historical resources. Icelandic society has changed radically in this century, which makes it clear how necessary it is to take a good care of twentieth century documents.
The archive is simultaneously a research institute for Icelandic history and archival studies that is responsible for the collection of sources about the history of the nation both inside and outside the country. The research projects undertaken by the institute are mainly historical or related to history, and consequently mainly concern the history of administration, and some special archival projects. Their other role is to assist scholars and others that ask for assistance.
The institution of the National Archive is ascribed to the year 1882 when it was first stated to be necessary to keep all the official documents of the country in one place. The official documents were spread all over the country and a request was made that they be sent to the new archive, along with documents from the manuscript department of the National Library. It was also seen as being of interest to ensure the return to Iceland the innumerable sources concerning the history of the country that were then preserved in Denmark, in the Arnamagnæan Institute in Copenhagen for example. In 1928 a contract was made between Iceland and Denmark about the delivery to Iceland of documents especially concerning the nation. In that year the Icelanders received 830 documents in the form of books and packages from the State Archive of Denmark including material from the sixteenth century up until the middle of the nineteenth century. The supreme court of Denmark then delivered to Iceland those court documents relating to Icelandic court cases up until the year 1921; a total of 26 parcels. From the Royal Library, the Icelanders got a great number of parliamentary documents (Alþingisbækur), a total of around 20 volumes. Finally, around 700 charters were delivered by the Arnamagnæan Institute, along with three vellum manuscripts from the episcopal see of Hólar. The largest part of these documents concerns directly or indirectly the supreme government of the country from the middle of the sixteenth century until the middle of the nineteenth century. A small part of the collection is older, some of the documents deriving back to 1420.
Árni Magnússon collected by far the greatest part of these documents from the early period. As was said before, part of the documents he borrowed from the Icelandic bishops' and governors' archives were returned to the National Archive in 1928. The remainder, a total of 1345 original documents and 5942 copies which Árni had made along with other copies, have now been returned to the Árni Magnússon Institute in Reykjavík.

The National Archive preserves:

Archive material concerning the Administration of Icelandic Matters in Copenhagen (Skjalasöfn frá æðstu stjórn Íslandsmála í Kaupmannahöfn)
Documents concerning the executive government and the legislative authority in Iceland (Skjalasöfn framkvæmdarvalds og löggjafarvalds á Íslandi)
Documents relating to the King of Denmark's representatives in Iceland (Skjalasöfn æðstu umboðsmanna konungs á Íslandi)
Archives concerning judiciary government (Skjalasöfn dómsvaldsins)
Archives concerning communities and conciliatory connitlees (Skjalasöfn sveitarfélaga og sáttanefnda)
Land ownership records and census figures (Jarðaskjöl og aðalmanntöl)
The Church Archives (Skjalasöfn kirkjunnar)
Archives concerning the educational and health system (Skjalasöfn fræðslumála og heilbrigðismála)
Documents relating to the history of employment (Atvinnusöguleg gögn)

Research Resources in Iceland:

The National Archives (Þjóðskjalasafn Íslands)

Björn Lárusson. 1967. The Old Icelandic Land Registers. Lund.
Diplomatarium Islandicum. Íslenskt fornbréfasafn I-XVI. Copenhagen and Reykjavík.
Jørgensen, Harald. 1968. Nordiske arkiver. København.
Sigfús Haukur Andrésson. 1982. Þjóðskjalasafn Íslands. Ágrip af sögu þess og yfirlit um heimildasöfn þar. Reykjavík.

The National and University Library of Iceland (Landsbókasafn Íslands - Háskólabókasafn)

National and University Library of Iceland, Arngrímsgata 3, IS-107 Reykjavík

Telephone: (354) 525 5600
Telefax: (354) 525 5615
E-mail (Information Services):
E-mail (Inter Library Loans):

Grímur M. Helgason og Ögmundur Helgason. 1996. Skrá um handritasöfn Landsbókasafnsins. 4. aukabindi. Reykjavík.
Grímur M. Helgason og Lárus H. Blöndal. 1970. Skrá um handritasöfn Landsbókasafnsins. 3. aukabindi. Reykjavík.
Lárus H. Blöndal. 1959. Skrá um handritasöfn Landsbókasafnsins. 2. aukabindi. Reykjavík.
Páll Eggert Ólason. 1918-1937. Skrá um handritasöfn Landsbókasafnsins I-III. Reykjavík.
Páll Eggert Ólason. 1947. Skrá um handritasöfn Landsbókasafnsins. 1. aukabindi. Reykjavík.

The Arni Magnusson Institute (Stofnun Árna Magnússonar)

Stofnun Árna Magnússonar
Árnagarði - Suðurgötu, ÍS-101 Reykjavík
Phone: +354 525 4010
fax: +354 525 4035

Ordbog over det norrøne prosaprog. A Dictionary of Old Norse Prose. Registre. Indices. 1989. Published by The Arnamagnæan Commission. Copenhagen.
Icelandic Sagas, Eddas and Art. Treasures Illustrating the Greatest Mediaeval Literary Heritage of Northern Europe. 1982. Pierpont Morgan Library, New York.
Jónas Kristjánsson. 1989. Iceland and its Manuscripts. Reykjavík.
Jónas Kristjánsson. 1992. Eddas and Sagas. Iceland's medieval literature. Translated by Peter Foote. Reykjavík.
Jónas Kristjánsson. 1996. Icelandic manuscripts. Sagas, History and Art. Translated by Jeffrey Cosser. Reykjavík.
[Kålund, Kristian.] 1889-1894. Katalog over den Arnamagnæanske håndskriftsamling udgivet af Kommissionen for det Arnamagnæanske legat. København.

The National Museum of Iceland

Archives in Iceland