17 June 2022
Icelandic manuscripts in the British Library
As the National and University Library of Iceland commemorate the 250th anniversary of Joseph Banks’s expedition to Iceland with an exhibition, we are publishing a series of blogs on all things Icelandic in the British Library collections. We will be covering the stories behind the arrival of our earliest Icelandic manuscripts; travel literature in the wake of Banks; some of the key figures in the movement of Icelandic material culture and ideas; as well as our latest acquisitions.
For those who want to know more about Joseph Banks’s expedition to Iceland, check out our guest blog from 2017 by the foremost expert, Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Iceland, Anna Agnarsdóttir.
We begin our series on Icelandic National Day (Þjóðhátíðardagurinn) with a blog on Icelandic manuscripts at the BL.
The significance of the Icelandic manuscripts in the British Library is not to be exaggerated, especially in comparison to those held in Iceland and Denmark. The majority date to the 17th and 18th centuries and are copies of manuscripts held elsewhere. That said, the variation between manuscripts, the unique codicology of different versions of the same text, their production contexts and provenance, their later use and transmission, given the instability of originally orally circulated histories and sagas amongst other works, all contribute to a historic interest in all Old Icelandic manuscripts, the BL’s included.
The stories behind the BL manuscripts are woven into the story of a burgeoning scholarly and general interest in the far North from the mid-18th century, its literature, geographical uniqueness, and its potential insight into a British cultural identity locating its origins further and further North. The British Museum opened in 1759 soon after Paul-Henri Mallet’s Introduction à l’histoire de dannemarc appeared, the first comprehensive work to deal with Norse mythology in a widely-read language, translated in a heavily edited form by Thomas Percy in 1770 as Northern Antiquities. This was the period of James McPherson’s Ossian, when the folktales of Britain’s nations and islands were rediscovered, a period that would form the backdrop to Romanticism and its notion of the Sublime based on unspoilt and awe-inspiring nature. Indeed, the true far North, whether identified as the Arctic, “Lapland” (modern day Sápmi), or Iceland, was held up as exemplary of untouched and therefore “primitive” nature. A glimpse into these preserved ancient worlds would bring antiquarians, travellers, and writers closer to the original state of nature, the essence of a national identity.
John 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
It is therefore no surprise that Iceland appealed to Joseph Banks in 1772, when a replacement expedition had to be rapidly arranged following his exit from Cook’s Resolution. Banks was familiar with scholarly interest in ancient Northern European customs, as well as with the treasures for the geographer and natural scientist: “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, in Agnarsdóttir, p. 47). He brought back around 40 manuscripts and 121 printed books, such was the significance of the Icelandic language as another preserved connection to prehistoric cultures, given its proximity to Old Norse. Banks donated most of these items to the British Museum shortly after his return with a few more presented over the following decade (Add MSS 4857-4900). These have been catalogued in detail with folio-level descriptions for each item, which are available in the finding aid.
Icelandic gradual, Sloane 503
While Banks’s donation was the largest set of Icelandic manuscripts to have entered the British Museum Library at the time, they were not the first. The Sloane collection, one of the Museum’s foundation collections, contained an Icelandic gradual, a beautiful choral service book from around 1600. The collection also contains a curious autograph draft of a letter about Iceland, which the polymath Sir Thomas Browne eventually communicated to the Royal Society, bound together with letters on the subject of Iceland from his friend, the Reverend Theodor Jonas of Hitterdal (Sloane 1911-13).
The Banks manuscripts are a mix of religious texts, legal texts, annals, short dictionaries and lexica, and collections of all manner of Sagas. Of course, in this period Sagas were beginning to capture the imagination in Britain thanks to Mallet and Percy, and the first English Saga translations – more often free translations based on an intermediary language – would soon abound.
As Margaret Clunies Ross tells us, mediaeval Icelandic texts became accessible only through the assistance of Icelanders, who aided scholars across Scandinavia to gain a grasp of their rich heritage. One Icelandic antiquarian would influence the Anglophone reception of mediaeval Icelandic literature more than others. Grímur Jónsson Thorkelin came to Britain in 1786 on an official commission to find historic material related to Denmark and ended up staying for almost five years. He would be best known for his influential Latin Beowulf translation, and, as far as the BL is concerned, for “the sale to George III in 1788 of over seven hundred Scandinavian works from his own collection” (Hogg). However, it was his presence in Britain and his interactions with British scholars here and in Copenhagen, which shaped the transmission of Saga and Edda literature.
Title Page of Add MS 4857, f.1
Thorkelin brought with him several transcriptions of important manuscripts from the Arnamagnæan collections in Copenhagen, to be shared with, if not donated to, institutions and antiquarians engaged in Old Norse and Icelandic literature. The British Museum received his transcriptions related to the history of Britain, Iceland and Norway (Add MSS 5311-18), but others would also find their way there. The acquisition of the Stowe Collection in 1883 brought with it three Icelandic manuscripts once owned by Thomas Astle, an acquaintance of Thorkelin and author of The Origins and Progress of Writing (1784), a book on palaeography that had already made use of some of the Banks Icelandic manuscripts. The Icelandic Stowe manuscripts (Stowe MS 6, 979 and 980) have been the subject of a recent article by Bjarni Ásgeirsson, who discovered that the 14th-century parchment bifolium included at the back of Stowe MS 980 was once part of a manuscript held in Copenhagen, known as the Reynistaðarbók. Ásgeirsson suggests convincingly that Thorkelin was responsible for its removal, given that it relates to the lives of several Archbishops of Canterbury and would have been of interest to his English audience. Thorkelin’s brazen intervention in the manuscript no doubt hampered the understanding of “the culture of scribes who produced the codex” (Ásgeirsson).
Thorkelin’s time in England coincided with the groundbreaking publication (in which he was also involved) of volume one of the most comprehensive critical edition of Poetic Edda, Edda Sæmundar hinns Fróda, giving those with Latin access to the most important source on Norse mythology. This set off vernacular translations across Europe and Clunies Ross points to William Herbert’s Select Icelandic Poetry as the early highpoint.
Opening of Göngu-Hrólfs saga in Add MS 4857, f.2r
As mediaeval Icelandic literature grew in popularity amongst scholars, antiquarians and the reading public alike, its early manuscript witnesses would often turn up in major British private collections, as we have seen with Stowe 980. Thorkelin’s influence is threaded throughout this history and his name is inscribed in the important Codex Scardensis, one of the largest extant 14th-century manuscripts, which contains the Icelandic Sagas telling the lives of the apostles. The ownership history becomes murky between the 450 years it spent at the church in Skarð in western Iceland, near where it was produced, and its re-emergence at a sale in England in 1836. In that time, it had managed to acquire an inscription explaining its contents as verified by a certain Grímur Thorkelin. Former BL colleague Pamela Porter suggests the inscription was made by the next most significant Icelandic figure shadowing the BL collections, the lawyer and scholar, Finnur Magnússon.
Magnússon, according to Porter, was in the business of selling manuscripts to British collectors and institutions at inflated prices as a “profit-making enterprise”. The BL’s largest set of Icelandic manuscripts, some 437 items, were indeed acquired from Magnússon in 1837 (Add MSS 11061-11251), described by the Assistant Keeper of Manuscripts, Sir Frederic Madden as in “the greater part […] sad trash, and scarcely worth binding”. Indeed, the significance of this set is minimal if we look at their use in current studies and how they figure in online indexes. However, understanding the contexts and material detail of these albeit later transcriptions will no doubt offer insights into how Sagas, for example, were understood and classified. Kapitan points to “the shortcomings of the existing digital descriptions of Add. MS 11109 [including] the erroneous identification of texts, and the incorrect dating of the volume”. Without comprehensive cataloguing of this material, the argument goes, inadequate descriptions will always limit the effectiveness of large-scale data analysis of multiple manuscript corpora, which might otherwise uncover new connections and insights for scholars. In other words, we might not yet know how significant Magnússon’s donation could be for scholarship today. As Clunies Ross says of the BL’s Banks donation, “relative importance cannot be measured only in terms of the antiquity or uniqueness of the mss, but must take into account the use to which such manuscripts could be put and their impact upon scholars”.
Magnússon’s negotiations with the British Museum were drawn out, Madden being unconvinced by the high price tag. While Magnússon offered comprehensive preliminary remarks to his collection defending the estimated value (Add MS 29537), the Museum learned of two altogether finer and more important Icelandic manuscripts up for sale: copies of Sæmundar Edda and Snorri Edda once owned by the antiquarian Adam Clarke. “Both were paper copies, clean, sound and elegantly written, and bore matching, handsome gold-tooled bindings” (Porter) and can now be found at Egerton 642 and 643.
Initial details in Add MS 4857, f.15 and f.81
And what of the reference to Thorkelin in the Codex Scardensis? Well, we do not know for sure that Magnússon wrote the inscription but Porter’s suggestion does make for a neat link between the figures so crucial to the BL’s Icelandic manuscripts, and shows how the BL collections resonate in the wider landscape. In fact, the story of Codex Scardensis’s return to Iceland does have another BL connection in that the highly prized manuscript, when eventually up for sale at auction in 1965 after decades of private ownership in the UK, was sold to Torgrim Hannås, acting on behalf of a consortium of Icelandic banks, and so it returned to Iceland. Hannås, a Norwegian-born antiquarian bookseller, would go on to donate his collection of over 700 Scandinavian books comprising dictionaries, grammars, phrasebooks and the like, to the BL in 1984.
The story of mediaeval Icelandic manuscripts in the BL more or less stops there, in the first half of the 19th century, but we hold a number of items that tell a more modern story of Iceland through the eyes of those inspired by those very Sagas, perhaps the most intriguing being William Morris’s diaries (Add MS 45319 A-C). Another curiosity is a set of accounts of the “revolution” in Iceland in 1809, written by its main protagonist, Jørgen Jørgensen (Egerton 2066-2070). We hope to publish further blogs on those collections as part of this series.
Last page of Add MS 4857, from Aefintýr af einum Meystara, a narrative of the career of a Master Paul at Paris
Further information on Icelandic manuscripts in the BL and beyond can be found on a number of indispensable websites indexing, describing or digitising Old Icelandic literary sources. Long-running negotiations between Iceland and Denmark over the 1960s and 70s settled the return of a substantial portion of the unparalleled collection of Icelandic manuscripts compiled by Árni Magnússon. The two eponymous collections in Copenhagen and Reykjavík hold the key material for the period, all of it catalogued and much of it digitised on the electronic catalogue handrit.org. Other important sources of information include:
Dictionary of Old Norse Prose – a dictionary that also indexes manuscript witnesses to Old Norse Prose under the holding institution’s shelfmark
The Skaldic Project – an index concentrating on mediaeval Norse-Icelandic skaldic poetry, including an index of around 10,000 kennings listed by English referent
The Icelandic Scribes Project presents detailed information on the scribal networks around the manuscripts produced under the patronage of Magnús Jónsson í Vigur (1637-1702), some of which have ended up in the Banks collection.
There is no complete catalogue of mediaeval Icelandic manuscripts in the British Library as yet, however Jón Helgason, former head of the Danish Árni Magnússon Institute, produced a manuscript catalogue available in the Copenhagen and Reykjavik institutes. Work is currently under way in Copenhagen on a published version, Catalogue of the Icelandic Manuscripts in the British Library. Until its publication, we are reliant on earlier texts that focus on particular aspects of the collection, or on online indexes, which are also not comprehensive when it comes to BL material. This new spreadsheet collates current catalogue information on all known Icelandic manuscripts and those related to Iceland, and we would appreciate any recommendations for additions from the community.
Pardaad Chamsaz, Curator Germanic Collections
Paul-Henri Mallet, Introduction a l'histoire de Dannemarc, ou l'on traite de la religion, des loix, des mœurs & des usages des anciens danois.(Copenhagen, 1755-56) 153.c.3.. English translation by Thomas Percy, Northern antiquities: or, a description of the manners, customs, religion and laws of the ancient Danes, and other northern nations … With additional notes by the English translator, and Goranson's Latin version of the Edda. ...(London, 1770) 989.c.16-17..
Edda Sæmundar hinns Fróda (Copenhagen, 1787-1828) 85.g.5-7
William Herbert, Select Icelandic Poetry (London, 1804-1806) 11565.c.58.(1.)
Anna Agnarsdóttir (ed.), Sir Joseph Banks, Iceland and the North Atlantic 1772-1820. Journals, Letters and Documents (London, 2016), YC.2016.b.2118.
Bjarni Gunnar Asgeirsson, ‘Anecdotes of several Archbishops of Canterbury: A Lost Bifolium from Reynistaðarbók discovered in the BL’, Gripla 32 (2021),
John Bonehill, ‘“New Scenes drawn by the pencil of Truth”: Joseph Banks’ northern voyage’, Journal of Historical Geography 43 (2014), 9-27. P.801/3025
Margaret Clunies Ross, The Norse Muse in Britain 1750-1820 (Trieste, 1998), Document Supply 4300.868500
Katarzyna Anna Kapitan, ‘Perspectives on Digital Catalogs and Textual Networks of Old Norse Literature’, Manuscript Studies: A Journal of the Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies, Volume 6, Number 1, Spring 2021, pp. 74-97
Pam Porter, ‘Preserving the Past: England, Iceland and the movement of manuscripts’, Care and Conservation of Manuscripts 8, (Copenhagen, 2005), 173-190
Pam Porter, ‘England and Iceland: more movement of manuscripts’, Care and Conservation of Conservation of Manuscripts 9, (Copenhagen, 2006), 20-34
Jón Þorkelsson, ‘Islandske håndskrifter i England og Skotland,’ Arkiv för nordisk filologi 8 (1892), 199–237