Íslendingabækur – The Books Of The Icelanders
by Vésteinn Ólason
Richard and Margaret Beck Trust Lecture
University of Victoria - 20 March 2003
In the company of people who are united among other things in their interest in books and the information and wisdom books contain, it is tempting for an Icelander to talk about some important books written and produced in his country. Literary culture has had great importance for the history of the Icelandic people, more than most. One can learn a lot about the fate of the Icelanders in books, and the history of Icelandic books has often been interesting. The history of the Icelanders and that of their literature is intertwined, and I should like to dwell on some important points in this history.
Although history may appear to us as a series of important and less important events, what is really interesting about it is the connection between the events. One event not only leads to other events but also lives on in memory, changes and acquires new significance with every new event that is connected to it. Even what we have forgotten continues to affect our lives. This is especially true about the history of literature. The books of one period live on through other periods and may change the lives of people and also change their own meaning as time passes.
It is hard to say when the story of Icelandic literature began, if by literature we mean poetry, verbal art of any kind. The roots lie with the ancestors of the settlers of Iceland and their relatives scattered around Northern Europe. When by literature we mean the written word, it has roots in the literatures of other people, going back to the Jews and the Greeks. It is easier to define the beginning of the story of the book in Iceland. Something very important happened in in the twelfth century: the Icelanders began to fix onto vellum, the skin of calfs, their memories, their image of themselves and their past. With the Book of the Icelanders, Íslendingabók, Ari fróði Þorgilsson (1068 -1148) gave them their first history in their own language in the early twelfth century. He and his contemporaries and successors continued the recording of the past, the origin of the people of Iceland.
Schedæ Ara prests fróða, or Libellus Islandorum, Íslendingabók, the Book of the Icelanders. It is a remarkable coincidence that the first extant coherent work that was written in Iceland in the Icelandic language should be about the history of Iceland. And it is almost a miracle that today we still have access to this work in a wording very close to the original text. It is not a long work, between ten and twenty pages in a printed edition. However, the book contains a very succinct overview of the history of the settlement of Iceland, of the forming of the alþingi, the parliament, of the discovery and settlement of Greenland (with a brief mention of Vinland in passing), and a more broadly painted picture of the events leading to the acceptance of Christianity. The most dramatic episode is a scene at the alþingi in the year 1000, where the constitution had broken down and a fight was about to begin between the heathens and the Christians. The conflict was solved in a very original way: The decision was left to one man, the leader of the heathens, who recommended conversion to Christianity, which then was accepted on certain conditions. There is also an account of the first bishops, and some genealogical information. It is all written in a clear but somewhat clumsy prose with visible signs of Latin influence. I shall not dwell on the content of the book, which is rather well known, but instead describe why we have the text in a good condition today and know so much about it. First of all Ari wrote a prologue to the work where he identifies himself and mentions the bishops who commissioned him to do the work and who else advised him. This makes it possible to date the work exactly between 1122 and 1133. It is quite exceptional that we can date a medieval Icelandic work with such precision. In the prologue, and in the course of his narrative, Ari mentions some of the people who informed him about the events. Among them was a man born before the year one thousand.
Ari was of a family in Breiðafjörður, rich in historical traditions, active in the forming of the Icelandic constitution and well informed about the Greenland settlement. He was brought up and educated by the very influential family at Haukadalur in the south; the first bishops of Skálholt belonged to this family, and Ari worked closely with them and Iceland's first known writer Sæmundr the Learned at Oddi. All this means that he was exceptionally well informed, and there is no reason to doubt his memory, his honesty or his intelligence. The book is a testimony to his qualities. Obviously, such a document is a selection of facts and does not tell the whole story; it selects its facts and presents its history from a certain point of view, that of the church and the ruling class, but there is no reason to suppose that it brings any untruth. By thus focussing on the past, by selecting the most important facts of the Icelandic past and connecting them in a linear presentation, Ari gave the Icelanders a history and an identity which they cannot have been so well aware of before his time. I imagine that Ari's history must have been read out loud at the Althing for all the most important people in the country. If it had been written only for the bishops and other clerics it would have been written in Latin. The reason for writing it in the vernacular must have been that it was aimed at a lay audience.
This new history must have raised the question, when it was retold back at the farmsteads around the country, and people must have realized that they also knew a whole lot about the history of their farm or their area. So the idea of the The Book of Settlements was born, the idea to make a record of the first settlers, their forefathers and the places they came from, the area they settled and of their descendants. Ari was involved in this project from the very beginning, It developed through a long time, all the early versions are lost, and the extant versions were composed in the thirteenth century and later. These two books were the beginning of a literary development that led to the writing of the famous sagas of Icelanders or family sagas, works that are very different from the dry historical records of Ari. Without doubt the process was more complicated than that, but Ari's initial effort must have been decisive for the future of Icelandic literature. He is mentioned with great respect by later historians such as Snorri Sturluson.
Although we know that a substantial amount of literature was written in Iceland in the twelfth century most of it is only preserved in fragments or in rewritten and refashioned versions of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. It is therefore exceptional that we have Ari's work in such a good shape textually. How could this happen?
In the year 1651 the Rev. Jón Erlendsson (+1672), pastor of the south Icelandic parish of Villingaholt, sat with a large pile of white paper in front of him and copied Íslendingabók from a very old and fragile vellum manuscript. Sent to him by Bishop Brynjólfur Sveinsson of Skálholt, this old manuscript probably dated from around 1200. Jón Erlendsson was one of the best scribes of his time, and he wrote large letters with good space between the lines and wide margins. In accordance with the bishop's command he tried to follow his exemplar accurately and without changing the orthography. Despite this, the bishop was not satisfied with the outcome and asked him to copy the text again. We still have the two copies, but we have no idea what became of the old vellum. The manuscript collector Árni Magnússon tried to trace it half a century later but without results. Probably it was too fragile to survive. But thanks to the care with which it was copied scholars have been able to date it to around 1200. Jón Erlendsson's copies came into the possession of Árni Magnússon around 1700, he brought them to Denmark, where they were kept in his collection, and they were delivered to Stofnun Árna Magnússonar in Iceland 1974. When Íslendingabók was discovered by learned Icelanders in the 17 th century, they realized its importance, and it was printed in Skálholt in 1688.
It was one of the very first historical works to be printed in Iceland, and not by accident, in the same place where the plans for this book were originally made some 560 years earlier. Who knows? perhaps the book was also written in Skálholt.
I already mentioned the possibility that Ari fróði Þorgilsson, the author of Íslendingabók, was author of or involved in the writing of the first version of Landnámabók, the Book of Settlements. This unique work that mentions 430 settlers and gives the names of 3500 people and 1500 farmsteads, was also printed in Skálholt 1688. As it happens we can also thank the Rev. Jón Erlendsson for important copies of two of the most important versions of this work, since lost, although there also exists a medieval copy of another version and a fragment of the third. Here you can view the Skálholt edition, with the title Sagan Landnama um fyrstu bygging Islands af Nordmönnum.
Both Landnámabók and Íslendingabók were printed many times after the Skálholt edition. An English translation of The Book of Settlements, Landnámabók, done by Hermann Pálsson and Paul Edwards, was published in Winnipeg in 1972. An English translation of Íslendingabók by Halldór Hermannsson was published by Cornell University Press in the Islandica series in 1930.
I should like to tell you something about a book that contained one of the medieval versions of Landnámabók, and still contains parts of it. It is a manuscript called Hauksbók. It is named after its first owner who also wrote most of it. It is not only a remarkable book, but it also has a very strange history. Haukr Erlendsson, d. 1334, was of an influential Icelandic family. We do not know his year of birth but in 1294 he was a lögmaðr, the king's official representative in judicial affairs in the north and south of Iceland, and around 1300 he moved to Norway where he also was lawman (one of twelve in the whole country) until his death.
Hauksbók is a unique testimony of the interests of one man, a picture of his mental universe, as it were. It does not concentrate on any one kind of subject but is a sort of anthology or library of this educated layman. The matter can be divided into a few groups: A. Matter that concerns Icelandic history: Landnámabók (Book of Settlements), Haukr has made his own version by conflating other versions and adding information about his own forefathers; Kristni saga (the saga of Christianization), Fósbræðra saga, one of the family sagas and Eiríks saga rauða (The saga of Eirík the Red) Haukr was the descentant of Snorri Karslefnisson, the boy who was born in North America during one of the exploratory voyages, as he points out at the end of the saga. Hauksbók is one of only two manuscripts that preserve Eiríks saga. There are also short sagas with Norwegian matter, a saga about legendary kings of antiquity, Heiðreks saga, and two translated works, one is Trójumanna saga, a translation of a medieval work about the Trojan wars (Ilias Latina), the other is Breta sögur, a translation of Geofrrey of Monmouth's Historia regum Britanniae. The second category of material is very different. There we find an Icelandic translation of a widely known textbook about theology, the Elucidarius by Honorius Agustodunensis.
Also there is an Heimslýsing (description of the world), based on Isidor of Sevilla's Origines or Etymologies, a standard encyclopedic work in the Middle Ages, and on another work by Honorius, De imagine mundi, along with diverse other short works on theology and philosophy, one of the most famous being Soliloquium de arrha animae by the twelfth century scholar Hugo of St. Victor, called here Viðræða líkama og sálar, a dialogue between body and soul. The third category is medieval encyclopedic matter, pieces about natural stones, the reckoning of time and mathematics. Last but not least I should like to mention a version of the eddic poem Völuspá (The Sibyl's prophecy) independent of the main version in Codex regius, and therefore an extremely important text.
Hauksbók is unique because it gives us this insight into the interests of a layman who must have been very well educated and who shows interest in both Icelandic matters, secular history as well as church history, and common European learning of all kinds. Hauksbók is also the oldest Icelandic manuscript whose scribe we know with certainty. When we compare the texts in the book with parallel texts we can see that although not an author himself Haukr was no passive copyist. He frequently adds some matter to his text, for instance genealogies connected with his own, and he often abbreviates his sources; his Landnáma is an edited compilation of all versions available to him. The book itself also has a dramatic history.
Substantial parts of Hauksbók were written by Haukr himself in the period 1302-1310, much of it during a stay in Iceland 1306-8, while some of the learned pieces, such as Elucidarius, were written by an unknown Norwegian at a somewhat later date. Although Haukr no doubt kept his book while he lived, his widow must have taken it along to Iceland where she spent the rest of her life and where Hauksbók was kept until the days of Árni Magnússon. We hear nothing of it until after 1600. Then the manuscript had been split up, probably because of the great interest in Landnámabók which people wanted to copy. In the 1660s Bishop Brynjólfur Sveinsson, the same who discovered both Flateyjarbók and the Codex regius of the eddic poems, had the book on loan and gave the part with Landnámabók and Kristnisaga to the aforementioned pastor Jon Erlendsson to copy. The copies are important because a large part of the text of Hauksbók itself later was lost. The bishop sent Landnámabók and Kristnisaga back to the owner but kept the rest of the book himself. What he kept came into the possession of Árni Magnússon, but the part containing Landnámabók and Kristnisaga, which originally consisted of 45 leaves was partly lost, and Árni only succeeded in recovering 18 of these. Although it was known that these parts of Hauksbók belonged to one codex, they were split up under three separate shelfmarks in Árni's collection after his death: AM 371, 544, and 675 4to. When the Arnamagnæan collection was divided between Iceland and Denmark, only AM 371, the leaves left from Landnámabók and Kristnisaga were handed over to Iceland, while the rest is still kept in Copenhagen.
I have dwelt on Ari's Íslendingabók and Hauksbók as examples of how strange the story of books can be and how long lasting their importance and influence. And yet it is only thanks to a series of accidents that they were preserved. These works from the very beginning of the history of Icelandic literature are still important for the sense of identity of us Icelanders, and they are in themselves remarkable examples of European medieval literature.
Tales about the discovery of North America and how the Icelanders and Greenlanders explored these lands and made unsuccesful attemtps to settle them are not only preserved in Eirik the Red's Saga but also in The Saga of the Greenlanders. It has been preserved for us just as accidentally, or should I say miraculously, as Íslendingabók, as a tiny part of the largest manuscript we know to have been produced in Iceland, Flateyjarbók.
Early in the year 1387 a wealthy farmer in Húnavatnssýsla in the north of Iceland, one Jón Hákonarson in Víðidalstunga, put the priest Jón Þórðarson to work at writing for him a large story book with sagas of Norwegian kings as its main content. The book is in large format, clearly and professionally written with wide margins and beautiful initials. A year later, when more than half of the book had been written, Jón Þórðarson's work was taken over by another priest, Magnús Þórhallsson, who made all the illuminations and finished the book in 1394. Both priests were excellent scribes, and Magnús also was an extremely fine artist. The size of the book was such that for every two folios, or four pages, an entire calf-hide was needed. Jón Hákonarson had to gather the hides of one hundred calfs and one more for his book before it was finished. A century later it was owned by a Þorleifr Björnsson of Reykjahólar, on the northerrn coast of Breiðafjörður, one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in the country, and there 46 pages were added with the sagas of some kings the owner felt to be lacking. With this addition the book was 225 folios or 450 pages. Every single folio has been preserved. Very few medieval Icelandic books have lasted so well. It is the largest and finest of all extant medieval Icelandic manuscripts. After Þorleifr Björnsson's death the book was for generations a highly valued possession of his descendants, farmers first at Reykjahólar and then for three gernerations in Flatey in Breiðafjörður. Therefore it is called Flateyjarbók, Book of Flatey (Flat Island). It was in Flatey that Brynjólfur, bishop of Skálholt, obtained the book.
An Icelandic historian in the eigtheenth century describes the events that brought Flateyjarbók from Flatey to Copenhagen:
Jon, the farmer of Flatey ... had a large and thick pergament codex with old monk writing containing the sagas of the kings of Norway and much else, and therefore it was generally called the Book of Flatey. Bishop Brynjólfur wanted to buy it from him, first for money then for a farm worth five hundred, but did not get it. Yet, when Jon accompanied him to the boat that was to take him from the island, he gave him the book, and it is thouhgt that the bishop remunerated him fully. The Bishop Brynjólfur sent it as a gift to his Majesty.
The year when the bishop acquired the book was 1647. Realizing that it was a priceless treasure, he sent it as a gift to the King of Denmark, Frederik III in 1656. For more than three centuries it was one of the most valuable treasures in the Royal Library. It was brought back to Reykjavík on the 21 st of April 1971 accompanied by the Codex Regius of the eddic poems, a no less or possibly more important book which I am not going to talk about here.
Let us move back to Víðidalstunga in the years around 1390. The two priests copied the longest versions there existed of the sagas of two Norwegian kings named Ólafur. Ólafur Tryggvason the great viking and missionary, who ruled only five years but according to Icelandic and Norwegian sources in these years converted five, or six, countries to Christianity, and his cousin, the saintly King Ólafur Haraldsson, who ruled for fifteen years and was killed at Stiklastaðir in the year 1030. To these saga versions they added much material from other sources. Then they copied the sagas of two great kings of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries: King Sverrir and King Hákon the Old, the man who managed to make the Icelanders the subjects of the Norwegian king in 1262. All these sagas about Norwegian kings were composed by Icelandic writers long before the book was written.
When Flateyjarbók was compiled, two and a half centuries after Ari wrote his Íslendingabók, literary taste had been revolutionized. Ari was extremely brief, mentioned only the most significant events of history and allowed himself neither empty rhetoric nor any straying away from the mainstream of his narative. The writers of Flateyjarbók, on the other hand, or its editor, always chose the longest version they could find of any story, and if they found anything only vaguely connected to the sagas of their kings they added it. Their method of composition was one of expansion, as was the practice of their contemporaries on the European continent. It is one of the fortunate accidents of our literary history that the creators of Flateyjarbók had access to a great number of texts since lost or only preserved in different versions. One of these texts was a brief narrative about the Vinland voyages, told in a manner much like Ari's, although with a somewhat different attitude to what was worth telling a story about. It is Grænlendinga saga or The Greenlanders Saga.
It is only 14 pages in a modern edition of Flateyjarbók, that in all is more than 2000 pages. The copyists seem to have written it down much as they found it, and they did not change anything to connect it with the Saga of Ólaf Tryggvason where they inserted it in two parts. It is introduced by Here begins The tale of the Greenlanders, and then begins rather abruptly by introducing the forefathers of Bjarni Herjólfsson, who lost his way when he was going to Greenland and found America. The saga itself shows no interest in King Ólafur Tryggvason nor in the story about Christianization. Its only interest is the Vinland voyages. Indications, which I cannot go through here, point at the time around or soon after 1200 as a likely date of composition for Grænlendinga saga, but we have no idea who originally wrote it or for whom, or how it was preserved until Jón Þórðarson copied it into Flateyjarbók. Neither have we any idea what became of the exemplar text afterwards. We can speculate why this narrative was included in Flateyjarbók and inserted in Ólafs saga Tryggvasonar. Most likely it was because the author or editor of the book wanted a map, as it were, of the world to be a part of his book, and so he wanted to tell the story of the most distant lands in the west that were known to him, lands that had been explored by Icelanders and their cousins living in Greenland. As a matter of fact Flateyjarbók begins with a short religious tale of a man, a fictional character, who travelled from Trondheim in Norway (the seat of Ólafur Tryggvason) as far east as he could come, to a place east of India, called Paradisum. Thus Flateyjarbók contained all the world, but especially the Northern world, not only about the kings of Norway but events in places like the Faroe Islands and the Orkney Islands, as well as many tales about the adventures of Icelanders abroad. Many of these texts would be lost to us now if they had not been included in Flateyjarbók. We would have Eirík the Red's Saga, but The Greenlander's Saga is an invaluable independent source about these events. Because of it we have two different stories to compare, and its rather primitive way of presenting its material makes it at least as interesting as The Saga of Eirík the Red.
Although Flateyjarbók was better preserved and more highly valued than any other Icelandic manuscript, we can count us lucky that it did not perish as many other medieval Icelandic manuscripts. The grandeur of the book as well as its content are a strong indication that it was intended to be a gift to a foreign dignitary. When the writing was begun there was a young king in Norway, Ólafur Hákonarson. He was therefore a namesake the two main heroes of Flateyjarbók. The young king Ólafr Hákonarson died 1387, and with him the old Norwegian dynasty. His mother, Margaret queen of Denmark inherited the throne. Perhaps Jón Hákonarson intended the book as a gift for the king, but did not see the point in sending it to Denmark. Anyway it stayed in Iceland. But very soon after Flateyjarbók had reached full size, new materials and new technology changed book production radically.
The first printing press was brought to Iceland in the 1530's, and the bishops of Hólar began to publish printed books. At the same time paper began to replace vellum, although the Icelanders continued for one hundred years to write on vellum while paper gradually became more accessible. It took some time before publication of printed books in Iceland got going. The turbulence of the Reformation disturbed the progress. But when the new system had stabilized itself things started to happen.
Around 1600 there were two men who played a very important role in the story of the book and the history of Iceland. The first was bishop Guðbrandur Þorláksson, who was bishop in Skálholt for fifty-six years, from 1571 to his death in 1627, and during his time in office published 100 titles, the law book Jónsbók in the 1570s, a translation of the Bible in 1584, a hymn book in 1589, a Graduale a few years later in addition to many other, mostly religious, works.
Bishop Guðbrandur had an immense influence on the spiritual life of the country. One of his collaborators was Arngrímur Jónsson the Learned, a scholar and clergyman who wrote works in Latin to inform the learned world about Iceland and its literature.
His first publication was Brevis commentarius de Islandia, a polemic work published in Copenhagen 1593. Later he published a more general survey of Iceland and its history, Crymogæa (Hamburg 1610). A book about Greenland and Vinland was published in Skálholt 1688, forty years after his death.
Arngrímur was the first of the many humanist scholars who introduced the world of Icelandic manuscripts to the Scandinavian historians and learned men all over Europe. This led to an interest in the collection of manuscripts by the Danish and Swedish kings, and by people of some means and learning.
The foremost of these was Árni Magnússon, an Icelander who went to the University of Copenhagen and later became the king's archivist and professor at the university. It is to him we owe the preservation of a great number of priceless Icelandic manuscripts, which he collected and after his death left to the University of Copenhagen, and he made important advances in the critical assessment of this material. In Iceland he is better known to most people today indirectly than through his own works, because of his fictionalized portrait in the novel Íslandsklukkan (Bell of Iceland) by Halldór Laxness, where the Latinized name of his parallel is Arnas Arnæus.
I should like to end these fragmentary thoughts and tales about the Books of the Icelanders with a short tale that stretches from before the settlement of Iceland to our time. One of the major Icelandic works in the Middle Ages was the Snorra Edda, a treatise on pagan mythology and traditional poetic language composed by the Icelandic chieftain and historian Snorri Sturluson (1179-1241). It contains traditions that can be compared with mythological remnants from Britain and the European continent as well as picture stones and wood carvings from Scandinavia, some of them from before the viking age. The work is preserved in three medieval versions and a few fragments from the same age. Edda was important for Icelandic poets through the centuries as a manual for verse-making. There they could learn how to find poetic words and coin metaphorical phrases for their long epic poems, the rímur. Therefore there are many copies from the post-Reformation period. Humanist scholars realized the importance of the work, and it was published in Copenhagen 1665 as Edda Islandorum.
Mynd af titilsíðu
Today scholars from North-America, Britain, Scandinavia, Germany, France, Italy, Russia and Australia, apart from Iceland, are engaged in the study of this work. But poor Icelanders without any formal education have also appreciated its content.
In the 1760's a farmer named Jakob Sigurðsson, who lived in Vopnafjörður in East Iceland (a region from which many people emigrated to Canada), made a copy of Snorra Edda. He was a self-taught artist, and he made some very amusing illustrations for his copy of Snorra Edda – 1. mynd. About one hundred years later, Jakob's manuscript was in the possession of a poor widow in Þingeyjarsýsla. She emigrated to Canada with her children and her few possessions. She did not leave her Snorra Edda behind. No doubt she felt that it would be an important book for the education of her children. The book was in the possession of her family until the year 2000 when it was bought from the family and donated to the Árni Magnússon Insitute in Iceland by a great friend of ours. We value it highly, and in memory of the family who took such care of it here in this country we call it Melsteds-Edda after their family name.
I think it is appropriate to end my story here, among the Icelandic emigrants to Canada who took their books with them, handwritten and printed, and whose descendants have continued to cherish old books and create new ones. The people of Iceland were among the poorest in Europe into the beginning of the 20 th century, and the first generations of Icelandic immigrants to North America did not have an easy life either. But people who understand the value of books and poetry are never really poor. One can read about such people in the books of Halldór Laxness, both in his Bell of Iceland, where he writes about the great manuscript collector Arnæus and in the Light of the World, about the destitute poet Ólafur Kárason. These books have earned their place beside the medieval classics I have spoken about. The descendants of the people who brought their printed books and manuscripts from Iceland to North America have also continued to love books and create new ones. I could mention a number of names of good authors of Icelandic descent, both from Canada and the United States, but these are authors you now better than me, so I shall end my talk here.