23 September 2022
‘As if some long-since inhabited country had been fished up out of the bottom of the sea’: Travel Literature on Iceland
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.
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, who also curated the current exhibition.
In the second blog of this series, we look at writing from the past 250 years of British travel to Iceland.
Ever since Joseph Banks paved the way and established friendly relations between Britain and Iceland in 1772, a steady stream of travellers have been inspired to venture to Europe’s far North-West. Natural scientists, geologists, saga enthusiasts, explorers and anyone with enough money and ‘spirit of adventure’ saw the appeal of the always seemingly mysterious country, producing along the way a raft of accounts, published journals, translations, maps and drawings.
John Cleveley Jr., Cathedral at Skálholt, Add MS 15511, f. 29r
For those interested in getting to grips with the full range of writings over the last two-and-a-half centuries, look no further than Haraldur Sigurðsson’s bibliography Writings of Foreigners Relating to the Nature and People of Iceland. If something a little less bibliographic is required, you could do worse than consult the list of references at the end of ‘Sheaves of Sagaland’, chapter 6 of W. H. Auden and Louis MacNeice’s Letters from Iceland, an alternative take on the travel account formed of irreverent poems, anecdotal advice, letters and other short pieces. The chapter in question compiles quotations from those that went before them, which might give more of an insight into the attitudes of the average Victorian traveller, than of Icelandic life itself. Deliberately out of context, and compiled supposedly for the benefit of John Betjeman, they speak to every aspect of Icelandic life:
‘Concerning their food
“It cannot afford any great pleasure to examine the manner in which the Icelanders prepare their food.” (Von Troil)
Concerning their habits
“If I attempted to describe their nauseous habits, I might fill volumes.” (Pfeiffer)
Concerning their dress
“The dress of a woman is not calculated to show the person to advantage” (Mackenzie)’
George Stuart Mackenzie, Great Jet of Steam, on the Sulphur Mountains, from Travels in the Island of Iceland, during the summer of the year 1810 (Edinburgh: 1811) 983.e.23
More recently, H. Arnold Barton’s Northern Arcadia gives a fantastic overview of the first wave of travel from Banks to the missionary Ebenezer Henderson’s trip in 1814-15. And, for a more visual introduction to the topic, the University of Nottingham’s online exhibition, ‘Ice, Fire and Northern Myths’, takes us through the richly illustrated material contained in their comprehensive Icelandic special collections. And, with the current exhibition in Iceland, it’s safe to say interest in the history of travel writing on the region has not waned.
Ebenezer Henderson, The Geysers, as seen on July 30th 1814, from Iceland; or the journal of a residence in that Island during the years 1814 and 1815 (Edinburgh, 1818) 979.i.3
The British Library is uniquely placed to navigate the copious literature that emerged from such journeys. Not only can we find the vast majority of accounts published before 1882 digitised courtesy of Google Books, but the Library also holds the four volumes of original drawings from the Banks expedition to the Hebrides, Orkney and Iceland by the artists John Cleveley Jr., James Miller and his brother John Frederick Miller (all drawings available online: vol.1, vol. 2, vol. 3, vol. 4), as well as William Morris’s travel diaries from his two trips in 1871 and 1873 (digitised here).
John Barrow Jr., Basaltic cave at Stappen, from A Visit to Iceland, by way of Tronyem, in the “Flower of Yarrow” Yacht, in the Summer of 1834 (London, 1835) 791.e.3
Why Iceland loomed ever larger in the imagination of travellers has to do with a blend of scientific interest in the Age of Exploration in the ‘land of ice and fire’ and the search for cultural and racial self-understanding, which saw Englishness increasingly linked to an Anglo-Saxon heritage, its purest vestige supposedly residing in Iceland (Kassis). That association with ‘Viking’ culture grew through the Victorian era with the interest in sagas, which could be flexibly interpreted for any cause, from the imperial to the social democratic. That Icelanders were in some way exemplary did not preclude visitors from understanding that singularity as ‘primitive simplicity’, as Uno von Troil’s reflections have it. Given that some 19th-century journeys went via the Sápmi as well, like John Barrow Jr’s A Visit to Iceland by Way of Tronyem, accounts often give the unpleasant impression that travelling North equalled a trip back in time and ‘backwards’ in the ‘civilisation’ process.
W. G. Collingwood, Descent of Arnardals-Skarth, from W. G. Collingwood and Jón Stefánsson, A Pilgrimage to the Saga-Steads of Iceland (Ulverston, 1899) 10281.i.11
In Banks’s wake and lifetime, several journeys were made, often with Banks facilitating, all with a published output, which is more than can be said for the Banks expedition itself. The Swede von Troil’s Letters on Iceland was the only text that came from that, which did however set the standard for future writing, itself including a bibliography of 120 texts on Iceland to date. John Thomas Stanley’s expedition is captured in the diaries kept by the wealthy Englishman and his companions, James Wright, Isaac Benners and John Baine, eventually published only 50 years ago. Following Stanley, came William Jackson Hooker, the first director of Kew Gardens, whose Journal of a tour in Iceland in the Summer of 1809 contains some of the illustrations from the Banks voyage engraved for the first time.
W. G. Collingwood, Gill at Gilsbakki
Encouraged by Banks to go and collect specimens, Hooker’s specimens and notes were destroyed on his way back, leaving him to rely on memory and samples collected by the Stanley party for his 600-page journal. The mineralogist George Mackenzie followed in the company of Richard Bright and Henry Holland, whose diaries have also been published. The last of this first wave of travellers was Ebenezer Henderson, who spent by far the longest on the island, there as a representative of the British and Foreign Bible Service. Barton calls his account ‘the fullest and most sympathetic’ of the early texts, no doubt in part due to his great knowledge of Scandinavia and his proficiency in multiple languages.
Ethel Brilliana, First view of Iceland, from A Girl’s Ride in Iceland (London, 1894) 10281.c.6.
John Barrow Jr, later known for his heroic efforts in coordinating the search expeditions in vain for John Franklin’s 1845 expedition to the Northwest Passage, was the next traveller to Iceland, noting that ‘twenty years have expired since a fresh word has been uttered respecting Iceland’. And while several journeys were made by others through the 1840s and early 1850s, including notably by Ida Laura Pfeiffer, it was not until 1856 and the introduction of scheduled steamship sailings to and from Iceland that travel became regular and affordable, and with that came a flurry of travel journals. Frederick Dufferin’s Letters from High Latitudes was hugely popular, inaugurating a new register for travel writing, less forensic and more comic, perhaps the ease of travel reducing the pressure to note every encounter in meticulous detail.
Samuel Edmund Waller, Hlidarende, from Six Weeks in the Saddle: A Painter’s Journal in Iceland (London, 1874) 10281.bb.42
So, for Dufferin, the Faxaflói bay, where Reykjavík lies, is magnificent while also ‘mouldy green, as if some long-since inhabited country had been fished up out of the bottom of the sea.’ For Frederick Metcalfe four years later, ‘the prospect was […] by no means cheering’: ‘as if to mock the foreigner for his infatuation, his way is beset, not only by dangerous rivers, appalling lava streams, hidden pits of fire, and chasms of ice, but his imagination is tortured by chimeras dire, phantom gorillas, or by whatever name he may please to call the shapes in stone and slag, that grin and frown on his solitary journey.’ Anthony Trollope’s also very popular account is perhaps so light on meaningful engagement with local culture that it becomes ‘mainly a reproduction of Englishness in the peripheral world rather than a study of Icelandic physiognomy’ (Kassis).
Sabine Baring-Gould, Öxnadals-Heithi, from Iceland: Its Scenes and Sagas (London, 1863) W48/4817
Iceland’s epic beauty was ripe for drawing and painting, and most travellers in this period seem to be accomplished artists, so these books were also a platform for their pictures. The Banks expedition’s artistic output is important for its documentary and almost genre quality but later visitors perhaps allowed themselves to heighten the drama of landscapes, often inflected by a knowledge of the sagas that unfolded there. Sabine Baring-Gould’s Iceland: its Scenes and Sagas is notable for its fine watercolours. Henderson’s geysers and jets shoot out like shafts of light to the heavens.
Ethel Brillliana, Cod-Fish drying
W. G. Collingwood and Jón Stefánsson published an epic picture book with coloured plates depicting the scenes of the sagas, while Ethel Brilliana Tweedie’s emotive sketches, often ‘from pony’s back’, give over something of the ephemerality of the traveller’s experience. What the use of illustration has in common, beyond their obvious appeal to the reader, is its necessity in helping to describe the indescribable, encapsulated in Simon Armitage’s final poem, ‘Listen Here’, in his and Glyn Maxwell’s homage to Auden and MacNeice, Moon Country:
It will not be had,
or fixed. Made of finer stuff,
to find it is to let it come to mind, then bluff,
or lie, or think, or wish.
Now hear this.
George Stuart Mackenzie, New geysers
Another way of thinking about the inability to put Iceland into words, or, in Baring-Gould’s phrase, the ‘fail[ure] in rendering the wild beauty of colouring’, is that Iceland exceeds expectations and exceeds the journal format. This is common to many accounts all the way up to Damon Albarn’s latest solo album, The Nearer the Fountain, More Pure the Stream Flows, which began life as an ‘orchestral interpretation of the view outside of his [Reykjavik] living room window’ before ending up abstracted, ‘a stream-of-consciousness meditation on earth’s natural forces’. And, similarly, even while William Morris’s journals are precise, anecdotal day-to-day accounts, for Lavinia Greenlaw, ‘it is a document of a journey that becomes a description of all journeys’. Greenlaw is able to use passages from the celebrated journal as jumping off points for her own poetic reflections on travel, strangeness, the nature of experience.
W. G. Collingwood, Melstad and Reykir
William Morris’s Iceland journals have a strong claim to be the best of the genre and ‘amongst the best prose Morris ever wrote’ (McCarthy). Written for his confidante, Georgiana Burne-Jones, he worked up his manuscript into a fair copy but the journals weren’t published in his lifetime at his request. Amongst Morris’s travel companions was Eiríkr Magnússon, a theologian and linguist who got to know Morris in London, before becoming a close friend and collaborator on saga translations and on the edited volume of the journals. Morris was without doubt the most important Icelandophile of his day, translating numerous sagas, further introducing audiences to their themes through his own poetry, and creating epic works, such as Sigurd the Volsung, so steeped in saga influence, they would go onto inspire the next century’s fantasy genre.
John Cleveley Jr., Eruption of a geyser at Geysir, Add MS 15511, f. 43r
Arriving at the already much-visited Geysir, Morris, the purist and knowledgeable Iceland scholar, ‘bewailed it for the possible Englishman whom I thought we should find there’. Clearly not in the best mood, he continues:
the evening is wretched and rainy now; a south wind is drifting the stinking steam of the southward-lying hot springs full in our faces: the turf is the only bit of camping-ground we have had yet, all bestrewn with feathers and wings of birds, polished mutton-bones, and above all pieces of paper: […] understand I was quite ready to break my neck in my quality of pilgrim to the holy places of Iceland: to be drowned in Markfleet, or squelched in climbing up Drangey seemed to come quite in the day’s work; but to wake up boiled while one was acting the part of accomplice to Mangnall’s Questions was too disgusting.
Allergies to tourists aside, Morris was enamoured by the place and the people, who never fail to be depicted as exceptionally hospitable, which is also the case in the accounts across the centuries. As the last entry in his 1871 journal says, Iceland ‘is a marvellous, beautiful and solemn place, and where I had been in fact very happy’.
The references below include the most notable (mainly) English-language travel books and manuscripts on Iceland in the Library’s collections with a link to a digital copy where available.
Pardaad Chamsaz, Curator Germanic Collections
‘Drawings illustrative of Sir Joseph Banks's voyage to the Hebrides, Orkneys, and Iceland in 1772’, Add MS 15509-12
Uno von Troil, Letters on Iceland (London, 1780) 152.c.44
William Jackson Hooker, Journal of a tour in Iceland in the summer of 1809 (Yarmouth, 1811) 791.e.2, digital copy
William Morris, ‘Diaries (in the form of octavo ruled note-books and all written in pencil) kept by Morris on his two visits to Iceland in the summers of 1871 and 1873’, Add MS 45319 A-C, digital copy
George Stuart Mackenzie, Travels in the Island of Iceland, during the summer of the year 1810 (Edinburgh: 1811) 983.e.23, digital copy
Ebenezer Henderson, Iceland; or the journal of a residence in that Island during the years 1814 and 1815 (Edinburgh, 1818) 979.i.3, digital copy
John Barrow Junior, A Visit to Iceland, by way of Tronyem, in the “Flower of Yarrow” Yacht, in the Summer of 1834 (London, 1835) 791.e.3, digital copy
Ida Laura Pfeiffer, Journey to Iceland: and travels to Sweden and Norway … From the German by C. F. Cooper (London, 1852) 10280.d.32, digital copy
Frederick Dufferin, Letters from High Latitudes; being some account of a voyage in the schooner yacht “Foam” ... to Iceland, Jan Mayen, & Spitzbergen, in 1856 (London, 1857) 10281.c.28, digital copy
Frederick Metcalfe, The Oxonian in Iceland: or, notes of travel in that island in the summer of 1860, with glances at Icelandic Folk-lore and Sagas (London, 1861) 10281.b.22, digital copy
Sabine Baring-Gould, Iceland: Its Scenes and Sagas (London, 1863) W48/4817, digital copy
Samuel Edmund Waller, Six Weeks in the Saddle: A Painter’s Journal in Iceland (London, 1874) 10281.bb.42
William Lord Watts, Snioland: or, Iceland, its jökulls and fjälls (London, 1875) 10281.aaa.22
Richard Francis Burton, Ultima Thule; or, a Summer in Iceland (London, 1875) 2364.f.1.
Anthony Trollope, How the “Mastiffs” went to Iceland (London, 1878) C.124.g.1
Elizabeth Oswald, By Fell and Fjord; or, scenes and studies in Iceland (Edinburgh, 1882) 10281.bbb.4, digital copy
John Coles, Summer Travelling in Iceland; being the narrative of two journeys across the island (London, 1882) 10280.g.4., digital copy
William George Lock, Guide to Iceland, a handbook for travellers and sportsmen (Charlton, 1882) 10280.bb.22., digital copy
Ethel Brilliana, A Girl’s Ride in Iceland (London, 1894) 10281.c.6., digital copy
W. G. Collingwood and Jón Stefánsson, A Pilgrimage to the Saga-Steads of Iceland (Ulverston, 1899) 10281.i.11
Mrs Disney Leith, Iceland (Peeps at Many Lands) (London, 1908) W10/1133
W. H. Auden and Louis MacNeice, Letters from Iceland (London, 1937) W4/2845
William Morris, Icelandic Journals (Fontwell, 1969) 72/5914
The journals of the Stanley Expedition to the Faroe Islands and Iceland in 1789 (Tórshavn, 1970) 84/02018 – 84/02019
Henry Holland, The Iceland Journal of Henry Holland, 1810 (Works issued by the Hakluyt Society. Second series; no.168) (London, 1987) Ac. 6172/188
Haraldur Sigurðsson, Ísland í skrifum erlendra manna um þjóðlíf og náttúru landsins : ritaskrá = Writings of foreigners relating to the nature and people of Iceland: a bibliography (Reykjavik, 1991) YA.1995.b.8642
Fiona McCarthy, William Morris: A Life for our Time (London, 1994) YC.1995.b.276
Simon Armitage and Glyn Maxwell, Moon country: further reports from Iceland (London, 1996) YK.1996.a.22671
H. Arnold Barton, Northern Arcadia: Foreign Travelers in Scandinavia, 1765-1815 (Carbondale, 1998) 99/20599
Andrew Wawn, The Vikings and the Victorians: inventing the old north in nineteenth-century Britain (Cambridge: 2000) YC.2000.a.6087
Dimitros Kassis, Icelandic Utopia in Victorian Travel Literature (Newcastle upon Tyne, 2016) ELD.DS.93013
Lavinia Greenlaw, Questions of travel: William Morris in Iceland (London, 2016) ELD.DS.203595
Martin Stott, Iceland Journals Introduction (2020), on William Morris Archive website
17 June 2022
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 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
13 September 2019
Sometimes an opportunity to net a big fish that is irresistible comes along. Last year a title appeared in a dealer’s catalogue that was similar to a title destroyed in the bombing of the British Museum in September 1940. Being able to replace a destroyed copy does not happen often, and I was able to acquire it with the help of funds from the British Library Members.
The book in question is a work on whaling:
Nieuwe beschryving der walvisvangst en haringvisschery.: met veele byzonderheden daar toe betreklyk. (Amsterdam, 1792). RB.23.b.7844.
The book is interesting in quite a few ways. We do not know who the author of this whaling manual is. Joop Schokkenbroek, an expert on Dutch whaling history, believes the author was a whaler himself, who wrote from experience.
The names on the title page refer to the artists who made the engravings: Dirk, or Diederik de Jong, Hendrik Kobell and Matthias de Sallieth.
Of Dirk de Jong we know very little. No date or place of birth is known. All that is certain is that he worked in Rotterdam from 1779-1805. He was an illustrator and engraver, especially of maps. However, none of the maps in the book carry his name, or any name for that matter, so I cannot say whether de Jong made them.
Engraving from the book depicting Spitsbergen, not Greenland. RB.23.b.7844
Hendrik Kobell lived from 1751 to 1779 and worked in London, Paris and Rotterdam. He came from a family of artists and draughtsmen. While some of his relatives specialised in drawing cattle, Hendrik preferred ships, seascapes and sea battles.
The third artist who contributed to the book is Matthias Sallieth (1749-1791). Originally from Prague he settled in the Netherlands in 1778. He copied Dutch artists from the past, such as Willem van de Velde the famous painter who witnessed sea battles first hand and then painted them.
Many of the engravings in the book bear both names: Kobell and Sallieth, indicating a close working relationship. From the names and dates on the engravings it seems likely that Sallieth was the artist and Kobell the engraver.
Engraving by Kobell (engraver) and Sallieth (artist) of a whaling scene. RB.23.b.7844
Sallieth did a nice little sketch of the heads of the four Dutch naval commanders who were involved in the Battle of Medway, in 1667, taken from earlier works. One of them is Michiel Adriaansz de Ruyter (1607-1676), who as a young sailor in 1633 served as pilot on board whaling ship De Groene Leeuw (The Green Lion) , hunting whales near Spitsbergen. He wrote an account of this expedition, a summary of which was re-issued in a collection of six other journals on whaling voyages.
Title page of the summary of the journal by Michiel A. de Ruyter of his expedition to the Isle of Jan Mayen. In: L’ Honoré Naber, Walvischvaarten, overwinteringen en jachtbedrijven in het Hooge Noorden 1633 – 1635 (Utrecht, 1930) Ac.9017.b/8.
De Jong’s work saw two print runs in quick succession, one in 1791 and one in 1792. This copy is from the second issue. The destroyed copy was from 1791, so it is not an exact match, though close enough. The book consists of four parts: the first is about the history of whaling and the manner in which the whales, walruses and seals are caught, and it gives a description of the various species of these animals.
Engraving of a Sperm Whale. In: Nieuwe beschryving der walvisvangst en haringvisschery (Amsterdam, 1792). RB.23.b.7844
The Library holds many more whaling journals, dating as far back as the early 17th Century, describing expeditions to the Arctic and Antarctic, from the late 16th Century onwards. Adventures and hardships endured by the whalers were very popular with readers back home. Our collections provide ample material for another blog.
De Jong’s book stands out for its attention to the wider context in which whaling took place. Apart from the practical aspects of whaling and herring fishing, it describes not only the seas where fishing occurred, but also the surrounding lands, the people that lived there and the flora and fauna.
Engraving of a Brent Goose and a Puffin. RB.23.b.7844
Engraving of Icelandic woman. RB.23.b.7844
The last chapter discusses the herring fishery, which includes a foldout engraving of the lifting of nets by Kobell and Sallieth. Why is herring fishing included here? I’m not sure. Herring fishing was certainly a major trade for the Netherlands; called the Big Trade.
Engraving of herring fisheries by Sallieth (artist) and Kobell (engraver). RB.23.b.7844
By the year 1800 whaling had declined, due to wars and competition. King William I tried to revive the industry with large subsidies. I wonder whether the King had read De Jong’s book. Schokkenbroek wrote a review of the facsimile edition published in 1992. In it he wonders whether the author’s intention had been to revive interest in the whaling industry once more. On the last page he refers to the glorious history of Dutch whaling “that from the oldest times onwards was held for a goldmine to this Commonwealth, will continue to flourish, and deposits its treasures in the lap of the Netherland’s inhabitants.”
It wasn’t to be. In the early 19th Century the industry collapsed once more. It was only after the Second World War that private companies decided to go out whaling again. There was a lack of foreign currency as well as margarine, so the best way for the Dutch was to get their own oil to make margarine. With help from the Dutch government the ship Willem Barents II completed eighteen expeditions to the Southern hemisphere. When this financial support was stopped whaling became unsustainable. In May 1964 the Willem Barents II returned to port with the very last oil.
Marja Kingma, Curator Germanic Collections (speciality Dutch languages)
01 June 2018
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.
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.
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).
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.
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
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]
‘… 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
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).
Portrait of Joseph Banks by Joshua Reynolds (1773). Image From Wikimedia Commons.
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?
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’.
Above: 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.
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).
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
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
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.
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).
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.
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.
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).
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
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
European studies blog recent posts
- ‘As if some long-since inhabited country had been fished up out of the bottom of the sea’: Travel Literature on Iceland
- Icelandic manuscripts in the British Library
- How to Catch a Whale? (And Some Herring, Too)
- Silver Darlings, Icelandic Gold: Herring in the Northern Imagination
- Why did Joseph Banks go to Iceland in 1772?
- ‘The Gospels are as good in Danish or German as in Latin…’: the earliest Nordic vernacular Bibles