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3 posts categorized "Iceland"

01 June 2018

Silver Darlings, Icelandic Gold: Herring in the Northern Imagination

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It’s been food season for the last 2 months at the British Library and sweeping through the Nordic collections with a gastronomic lens, there is of course only one thing on the menu: herring. The herring has formed the backbone of societies over the ages and, as Jonathan Meades says in his jaunt across the Baltic coast of continental Europe, Magnetic North, the herring’s own backbone has formed an even more literal foundation:

When excavations are made in Flanders for roads and railways, the bones of men slaughtered in the First World War constitute the first stratum that the diggers encounter. Further down are multitudinous herring skeletons. The people of Arras ate between two and three million herrings per year. That’s two to three hundred per every person.

From the material ubiquity of herring springs the idea or symbol of herring; it is not only the most important driver of socio-historical and political in the story of Northern Europe but it also stands for the cultural identity of the North.

Clupea Harengus - Skandinaviens Fiskar
The Herring — Clupea Harengus — in Bengt Fredrik Fries et al. A History of Scandinavian Fishes vol. 2 (Stockholm, 1895), J/7290.k.29
.

Herring has really always been fished, well, ‘since the Mesolithic era but commercial fisheries for these species developed only in the Middle Ages’ (Holm, p. 19). Its abundance in the marine area stretching from the Baltic across the North Sea and to the Atlantic around Iceland made it a vital commodity traded and controlled by various powers across the centuries. Abundance may be an understatement if we take Saxo Grammaticus’s words at face value in the Gesta Danorum, first written around 1204. Writing of the sound between Zealand and Scania, he notes: ‘the whole sound contains such plentiful shoals that sometimes boats striking them have difficulty in rowing clear and no fishing-gear but the hands is needed to take them.’ In fact, one possible etymological root for the word herring is from the Germanic Heer (army, troops) but the etymology of the common name for Clupea harengus is full of red herr… I won’t go there.

Olaus Magnus 152.e.9.
Herring-fishing in Scania, woodcut from Olaus Magnus, Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus, (Rome, 1555) 152.e.9.

It goes without saying then that with such a central presence in Northern life the herring is equally abundant in the Northern literary and artistic imagination. A scan of the British Library catalogue reveals a huge number of historical surveys, reports on methods of preservation, regional studies of the impact of fishing, but also such oddities (or not) as an announcement in 1785 by the Swedish Academy pertaining to, in the gloss provided by the BL’s Scandinavian Short-Title Catalogue of works published before 1801, ‘roof slates and herring fisheries’ (British Library, Ac.1070/20), or even the very recent (anti-)comic book by Antti and Esa Hakala, Sven’s Herring, or their graphic novel Lord of Herrings (2017).

Hakala combined
Exhaustive and exhausting jokes about herring in Anti and Esa Hakala, Sven’s Herring ([Great Britain], 2014) YKL.2016.b.5527

Douglas S. Murray’s comprehensive Herring Tales: how the silver darlings shaped human taste and history (London, 2015; DRT ELD.DS.80434) points us in the direction of a museum on the topic, “one of the finest of its kind”, namely the Herring Era Museum in Siglufjörður on the Northern coast of Iceland, once the bustling centre of herring fishing and processing in the country, the ‘Atlantic Klondike’ of the early 20th century. Murray sees in this unique museum a reminder of “the fact that without herring, Iceland – like so many other places on the edge of Norway, Scotland and elsewhere – would not have possessed a modern society.” The museum itself is fully aware of the historical, literary, artistic, film and musical impact of herring, listing numerous sources that show the expanse of work that sparkles herring-silver.

Gunnlaugur Blöndal - The Herring Worker
The lyrical beauty of ‘Icelandic gold’ in paintings by Gunnlaugur Blöndal. Above: ‘The Herring Worker’ (1934); below: ‘Herring Packers’ (1935-1940), reproduced in Gunnlaugur Blöndal (Reykjavik, 1963), Cup.20.w.13

Gunnlaugur Blöndal - Herring Packers

A three-volume history of herring in Iceland, Silfur hafsins: gull ĺslands: síldarsaga ĺslendiga (‘Silver of the sea: Iceland’s gold: the history of herring in Iceland’; Reykjavik, 2007; YF.2014.b.1514) has appeared in the last decade, adorned with epigraphs by the great Nobel Prize winner and herring champion Halldór Laxness. All three epigraphs are from Laxness’s 1972 Guðsgjafaþula (Reykjavik, 1972; X.989/30910.), which loosely translates as ‘The Song of God’s Gifts’—the book has not been translated into English. “God’s gifts” is another euphemism for the now not-so-humble herring and Laxness does not shy away from elevating them to an object of the aesthetic sublime:

‘Norðurlandssíldin er aðalborin skepna bæði að fegurð og vitsmunum, kanski það dásamlegasta sem guð hefur skapað.’
[The Scandinavian herring is a creature noble-born to beauty and wisdom, perhaps the most wonderful thing God has created]

And,

‘… þá munu margir men tala að þessi fagri fiskur hafi verið sannkölluð dýrðargjöf, já ein sú mesta sem himnafaðirinn hefur gefið þessari þjóð.’
[… then many will say that this beautiful fish has been the true glory, yes, one of the greatest things the Heavenly Father has given this nation.]

Guðsgjafaþula, about the fate of a fishing community who have entrusted their lot to a brilliant herring speculator, took as its source material the first history of herring in Iceland written by Matthías Þórdarson from Móar in 1934. The latter was the great-grandfather of contemporary Icelandic great, Sjón, who in turn used his ancestor as a model for the protagonist of the novel Argóarflísin (‘The Whispering Muse’; Reykjavik, 2005;YF.2007.a.24658). In Sjón’s novel we are introduced to Valdimar Haraldsson, who in 1933 published Memoirs of a Herring Inspector, immediately evoking Laxness and Þórdarson before him. One of Haraldsson’s early articles from his journal Fisk og Kultur, to which he refers at length at the beginning, espouses the link between fish consumption and Nordic racial superiority:

It is our belief that the Nordic race, which has fished off the maritime coast for countless generations and thus enjoyed a staple diet of seafood, owes its physical and intellectual prowess above all to this type of nutrition, and that the Nordic race is for this reason superior in vigour and attainments to other races that have not enjoyed such ease of access to the riches of the ocean.

The triumphal racialist rhetoric is antiquated and self-undermining in the context of the novel but the year of publication of Haraldsson’s memoirs is not lost on the reader. God’s gifts make for a chosen people it seems. At the same time, the maritime Nordic people is deliberately drawn in stark contrast to the ‘blood and soil’ rhetoric of continental fascism. Sjón’s novel is not the only place where fish and racial politics are brought into conversation. For the other notable example, we need to travel back to the Baltic and the shores of Danzig as imagined and lived by Günter Grass. But that is for another post…

Pardaad Chamsaz, Curator, Germanic Collections

References and further reading:

Saxo Grammaticus, The History of the Danes (vol. 1) [translated from the Latin by Peter Fisher] (Cambridge; New Jersey, 1979) X.800/28439

 Halldór Laxness, Brekkukotsannáll (Reykavik, 1957/1973) X.909/37610. (English translation by Magnus Magnusson, The Fish can Sing (London, 2000) H.2000/2872)

Sjón, The Whispering Muse [translated by Victoria Cribb] (London, 2012) H.2013/.5955

James H. Barrett and David C. Orton (eds.), Cod and Herring: The archaeology and history of medieval seas fishing (Oxford; Philadelphia, 2016), YC.2017.b.2914; especially the essay by Paul Holm, ‘Commercial Sea Fisheries in the Baltic Region c. AD 1000-1600’ 

 

30 April 2018

Why did Joseph Banks go to Iceland in 1772?

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In 1772 Joseph Banks, a wealthy 29-year-old landowner and one of the early naturalist explorers, led the first British scientific expedition to Iceland, then a dependency of the kingdom of Denmark-Norway. Banks had been on the celebrated Endeavour expedition with Captain Cook  in 1768-71, one of the most important voyages of discovery ever made. A member of the Royal Society since 1764, he was accepted for Cook’s voyage as a supernumerary in natural history, after he offered to pay not only for himself but a party of eight including artists and scientists. His participation on the Endeavour elevated Banks to ‘a figure of international scientific significance’ (Gascoigne, p. 692).

JosephBanks1773_Reynolds

Portrait of Joseph Banks by Joshua Reynolds (1773).  Image From Wikimedia Commons. The original portrait is currently on display in our exhibition ‘James Cook: the Voyages’, which runs until 28 August.

Due to the success of the Endeavour voyage another expedition to the South Pacific was planned for 1772. The prime aim of the second Cook voyage on the Resolution was to search for the existence of an Antarctic continent, the mythical Terra Australis. Banks, convinced that a ‘Southern’ continent existed, was overjoyed when Lord Sandwich, the First Lord of the Admiralty, invited him to be the scientific leader of the expedition.

Throughout the winter of 1771-72, Banks was busy assembling a party of scientists, artists, secretaries and servants, including a French chef, as well as vast equipment for collecting specimens, again at his own expense. All was progressing well until Banks saw the shipboard facilities for himself and his party. He became famously displeased. The vessel, he thought, was simply not large enough to accommodate his entourage and after a heated exchange with the Navy Board he abandoned the Resolution expedition in a fit of pique, thus earning himself negative epithets both from contemporaries and his later biographers.

To the disappointed Banks, it was, however, of prime necessity to engage his men in a new project. By early June he had settled on his new destination. Instead of searching for a massive continent south of Australia, he decided to head north, his choice falling on Iceland. The question begging to be answered is: why Iceland?

Clevely View of a mountainJohn Cleveley the younger, ‘View of a mountain, near Hekla with a view of a travelling caravan’, Add MS. 15511, f.48.  

Scholars have advanced various theories, but in his Iceland journal Banks adequately explained the reasons for his decision. As the sailing season was much advanced he:

saw no place at all within the Compass of my time so likely to furnish me with an opportunity as Iceland, a countrey which...has been visited but seldom … The whole face of the countrey new to the Botanist & Zoologist as well as the many Volcanoes with which it is said to abound made it very desirable to Explore... (Banks’s Journal, p. 47).

And from the documentary evidence it seems clear that seeing ‘burning mountains’, as volcanoes were called at the time, had become the major aim of the voyage. There was a growing interest in volcanology and in his passport, quickly issued at the beginning of July by the Danish envoy in London, the main purpose of Banks’s visit was recorded as observing Mount Hekla, the most famous of the Icelandic volcanoes. The ascent of Hekla was the highlight of the expedition, the measurements of the spouting hot springs described by Banks as ‘volcanoes of water’ (the word geyser was coined later, Geysir being the proper name of the most magnificent of the Icelandic hot springs), coming a close second. On their return The Scots Magazine reported in November 1772 that they had ‘applied themselves in a particular manner to the study of volcanoes’.

Clevely Crater of GeyserAbove: John Cleveley the younger, ‘View of the crater of geyser, immediately after an eruption when empty’, Add MS. 15511, f.37; Below: John Cleveley the younger, ‘View of the eruption of geiser’, Add MS. 15511, f.43. Both drawings are also on display in the James Cook exhbition.

Clevely Geyser erupting

Banks prepared his voyage as best he could within the limited period of time he had. Understandably he found no-one in London who had been to Iceland but Claus Heide, a Dane resident in London, gave him information ‘Chiefly out of books’ (BL Add MS 8094, ff. 29-30). The King of Denmark was notified of their wish to visit Iceland and was only too happy to sanction the ‘celebrated English Lords’ journey.

Among the members of the expedition were three artists: John Cleveley Jr, James Miller and his brother John Frederick Miller, and their magnificent drawings and watercolours are invaluable sources. These illustrations, over 70 of them, are now in the British Library and in steady use (Add MS 15511-15512).

Clevely Skaholt ChurchJohn Cleveley the younger, View of the Cathedral Church of Skálholt, southern Iceland; with houses, and villagers tending cattle in the foreground, Add MS. 15511, f.17

Banks also collected Icelandic manuscripts and books – something he had prepared before his departure as he wrote to Bodley’s Librarian, the Reverend John Price, that he was about to sail to Iceland and while there would endeavour to procure Icelandic manuscripts. Today over 120 books and 30 manuscripts are in the British Library, including copies of the first Icelandic version of the Bible from 1584, Snorri Sturluson’s Edda and the most famous saga, Njal’s Saga (Add MS. 45712, 4857-96). Men were sent to the only printing press in Iceland, at Hólar, to buy copies of the books printed there. In the years following his visit the district governor Ólafur Stephensen, now a friend, continued to collect and consequently ‘charged our best copyists to transcribe the antiquities and sagas’ (24 June 1773, Sir Joseph Banks, Iceland and the North Atlantic 1772-1820, p. 183)

Banks’s chartered ship, the Sir Lawrence, a brig of 190 tons, with a crew of 12, eventually left Gravesend on 12 July 1772, ironically the same day as Cook started on his second voyage. He arrived in Iceland at the end of August and after an eventful stay of six weeks they left in early October, loaded down with, among other objects, specimens of lava, Icelandic manuscripts and two Icelandic dogs, aptly named Hekla and Geysir.

As a consequence of the Iceland expedition, Banks became the acknowledged British expert on Iceland and a faithful friend of the Icelanders. Three decades later during the Napoleonic Wars, Banks assumed a crucial political role as self-appointed protector of Iceland, smoothing the way for their trade during the conflict and repeatedly urging the British government to annex the island for the benefit of the inhabitants. He became the architect of Britain’s political and commercial policy towards the Atlantic dependencies of the Danish realm.

Anna Agnarsdóttir, Emeritus Professor, University of Iceland

Further reading:

Anna Agnarsdóttir (ed.), Sir Joseph Banks, Iceland and the North Atlantic 1772-1820. Journals, Letters and Documents, (London, 2016), YC.2016.b.2118.

Id., ‘After the Endeavour: What next for Joseph Banks?’, in Endeavouring Banks: Exploring collections from the Endeavour Voyage 1768-1771 (London, 2016), LC.31.b.1774

Harold B. Carter, Sir Joseph Banks 1743-1820 (London, 1988), YK.1988.b.2415

Neil Chambers (ed.), The Letters of Sir Joseph Banks. A Selection 1768–1820 (London, 2000) m01/13368

John Gascoigne, ‘Banks, Sir Joseph, baronet (1743-1820)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, vol. 3 (Oxford, 2004).

Halldór Hermannsson, ‘Sir Joseph Banks and Iceland’, Islandica, vol. 18 (1928) Ac.2692.g/6.

Uno von Troil, Letters on Iceland (Dublin, 1780) 10280.eee.14.

30 November 2017

‘The Gospels are as good in Danish or German as in Latin…’: the earliest Nordic vernacular Bibles

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Many factors contributed to the spread of the Reformation in the Nordic region from the 16th century onwards. The developing ‘national’ monarchies, with ever more centralized rule, gradually saw the Catholic Church as the main obstacle to the consolidation of wealth and power. This disillusionment with the Catholic Church was also of course a result of the dissemination of new Lutheran teachings, by German preachers who had moved north, by Scandinavian preachers who had been taught in Lutheran contexts, or often by Hansa merchants spreading the faith.

In the process of reforming the North, as elsewhere, vernacular translations of scripture were significant. As Bent Noack writes, ‘it is not sufficiently emphasized that the printing of vernacular texts long preceded the Reformation in many countries’ (The Cambridge History of the Bible, p. 423): there are mediaeval Danish and Swedish biblical manuscripts based on the Vulgate and, as early as 1514, Christiern Pedersen (c.1480-1554) had translated parts of the New Testament. In a preface to his 1515 translated Book of Homilies, Pedersen makes plain the richness of vernacular translations: ‘Nobody ought to think that the Gospels are more sacred in one tongue than in another: they are as good in Danish or in German as they are in Latin, if only they are rightly interpreted’. Soon after Luther’s 1522 translation of the New Testament there followed Danish (1524) and Swedish (1526) versions. So, Noack writes, these New Testaments ‘were called forth by the Reformation in Germany and served to prepare the soil for it in Scandinavia’, showing how vernacular translations preceded and then pushed forward the Reformation in the North, which was only made official by the establishment of a Lutheran State Church from 1536 (in Denmark and Sweden).

With state-sponsored Lutheranism came the means for producing complete Bible translations. The British Library holds examples of most of the earliest printed Bibles from the Nordic region. The earliest complete one was produced in Sweden. The ‘Gustav Vasa Bible’ (1541), named after the king who commissioned it, was translated by the brothers Laurentius and Olaus Petri and was heavily based on Luther’s translations. The German influence spread to the book’s production, style and typography, as the printer Georg Richolff of Lübeck was invited to Uppsala to print it. Richolff brought with him new type material and a range of woodblocks, including some by Lucas Cranach. In the image below, we see an elaborate architectural title frame for the New Testament and the German Fraktur type used for the title itself.

Swedish Bible title page
Title-page for the New Testament from Biblia, thet är, All then Helgha Scrifft, på Swensko (Uppsala, 1541) 1109.kk.5, the ‘Gustav Vasa Bible’

The British Library has another copy of this 1541 New Testament (1.b.3.), bound separately, which contains copious  manuscript annotations, some dated 1639, about which we know very little (below).

Swedish Bible annotated Epistles

What scholars consistently emphasise with this, and every other, early vernacular Bible is how the language and style of the translation influenced the standard modern languages and, in the case of Swedish, ‘the orthography and use of accents made its difference from Danish more distinctive’ (A History of the Book in 100 Books, p. 125). The first complete Danish Bible, known as the ‘Christian III Bible’, after the King of Denmark-Norway, was printed in 1550. The publisher of the Low German Luther edition, Ludwig Dietz, printed it in Copenhagen and the translation is generally ascribed to Christiern Pedersen, though it remains uncertain.  

Danish Bible title page

Danish Bible Christian III portrait

Danish Bible armourial bearings

Top to bottom: title page, King Christian III’s portrait and armorial bearings, from the ‘Christian III Bible’, Biblia, Det er den gantske Hellige Scrifft, vdsæt paa Danske (Copenhagen, 1550) 2.e.11

In Iceland, under the rule of Denmark at the time, book production begun with a press established by the last Roman Catholic bishop, Jón Arason, at Hólar. Noack describes the Reformation Bible as ‘its most outstanding specimen’ (Cambridge History, p. 140). It is known as the Guðbrandsbiblía (Gudbrand’s Bible), after Guðbrandur Þorláksson, the Bishop of Hólar at the time of its publication in 1584, who executed the translation and designed and engraved most of the woodcuts. A laborious project, it took 2 years to print 500 copies. Our copy is one of the 121 printed books donated to the British Museum by Joseph Banks in 1773, following an exploratory trip to south-eastern Iceland in the previous September.

Icelandic Bible title page
Titlepage (above) and note of  presentation by Joseph Banks (below) from the ‘Guðbrandsbiblía’, Biblia, þad er, Øll Heilög Ritning, vtlögd a Norrænu (Hólar, 1584), 692.i.1

Icelandic Bible presentation note Joseph Banks

Like the Swedish and Danish translations before it, the Icelandic Bible is said to have contributed enormously to the development of the modern standard language. Yet, even more emphatic is the influence of the vernacular Bible translation on the Finnish language, as it represents the first ever appearance of the language in print. Mikael Agricola (c.1510-1557) began translating Scripture following a period of study in Wittenberg and we hold a 1931 facsimile edition of his 1548 New Testament (Se Wsi Testamenti, Helsinki, 1931; 3706.cc.10). The first complete Finnish Bible dates back to 1642 and was printed in Stockholm in an edition of 1200 copies. The task of the printer, Henrik Keyser, was made more difficult by the fact that none of the compositors knew any Finnish! The BL also holds the first Finnish Bible printed in Finland itself (Turku, 1685, BL 219.h.13).

Finnish Bible Genesis
Genesis, chapter 1 (above) and an illustration of David and Goliath (below) from the first complete Bible in Finnish, Biblia, se on: Coco Pyhä Ramattu, Suomexi (Stockholm, 1642), C.108.aaa.12

Finnish Bible David and Goliath

The first New Testaments in the Greenlandic Inuit language, Testamente Nutak, (Copenhagen, 1766; 217.e.23) and in Saami , Ådde Testament, (Stockholm, 1755; 3040.a.29) can also be found in our collections.

To bring this brief survey of the earliest vernacular Bibles to a close, then, we should emphasize that these Bibles are not only the literary foundations of the Reformation but also the foundations of standard modern languages in the Nordic region. Thanks in part to the (mostly) consistent presence of a Lutheran State Church over the last four centuries, in the words of T.K. Derry, ‘the view of religion which was shaped in Germany still receives an ampler recognition in Scandinavia than in its homeland’ (A History of Scandinavia, p. 95).

Pardaad Chamsaz, Curator Germanic Collections

References/Further Reading

T.K. Derry, A History of Scandinavia (London, 1979), X.800/29298

S.L. Greenslade (ed.), The Cambridge History of the Bible. The West from the Reformation to the Present Day (Cambridge, 1963/1987), YC.1988.a.9888

James L. Larson, Reforming the North: the Kingdoms and Churches of Scandinavia, 1520-1545 (Cambridge, 2010), YC.2011.a.5047

Ole Peter Grell (ed.), The Scandinavian Reformation: from evangelical movement to institutionalisation of reform (Cambridge, 1995), YC.1995.b.214

Charlotte Appel & Morten Fink-Jensen (eds.), Religious Reading in the Lutheran North: Studies in Early Modern Scandinavian Book Culture (Cambridge, 2011), YC.2011.a.14186

Roderick Cave & Sara Ayad, A History of the Book in 100 Books (London, 2014),  YC.2016.b.1783