Collecting Icelandic sources in Denmark

Many Danish scholars were inspired by the possibilities that the Icelandic tradition – brought to their attention by Arngrímur Jónsson – opened for Danish historiography.  This kick-started the interest in collecting Icelandic sources in Denmark. Ole Worm (1588–1654), polyhistor and personal physician of King Christian IV, and Stephan Hansen Stephanius (1599–1650), royal historiographer and professor at Sorø Academy, were among the scholars who corresponded with Arngrímur Jónsson in the hope of gaining access to Icelandic sources that they wanted to use in their research. On the other hand, learned Icelanders such as Bishop Brynjólfur Sveinsson (1605–1675) were interested in disseminating knowledge of Old Norse-Icelandic literature in Denmark, and because of this donated priceless medieval volumes to the Danish Royal Library.

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A medieval manuscript of Snorra Edda known as the Codex Wormianus (AM 242 fol.), previously owned by Ole Worm, who received this manuscript from Arngrímur Jónsson. The manuscript is currently held at the Arnamagnæan Institute in Copenhagen. 


Dedication from Arngrímur Jónsson to Ole Worm preserved on the first leaf of the Codex Wormianus. 

Ole Worm & the Codex Wormianus

One of the medieval Icelandic manuscripts that reached Denmark on the early stage of antiquarian interest in Icelandic sources is the Codex Wormianus, a volume which owes its name to its previous and famous owner Ole Worm (1588–1654). 

Ole Worm received this magnificent manuscript in 1628 from none other than Arngrímur Jónsson, as the note on the first leaf of this manuscript indicates in Latin: "Olai Wormii – dono Arngrimi Jonæ Islandi." 

The Danish manuscript scholar Peter Springborg described the gift of this manuscript from Arngrímur Jónsson to Ole Worm in the following way:

"Her mødes den islandske og den danske renæssance – nærmest emblematisk for dansk-islandsk forskningssamarbejde gennem tiden" ('Here the Icelandic and Danish renaissance meet  – almost emblematic for the Danish-Icelandic research collaboration throughout time,' read more in Danish here).

The Codex Wormianus is a fourteenth century parchment manuscript that preserves Snorra Edda ('Snorri's Edda' otherwise known as the Prose Edda), one of the most important sources for Old Norse mythology, compiled in the early thirteenth century. It also preserves four grammatical treatises on Icelandic language and some Eddic poems (see the manuscript here). Today the manuscript is part of the Arnamagnæan Collection in Copenhagen, where it has been since 1706, when Árni Magnússon, the famous Icelandic collector of manuscripts, received it from Christen Worm, a grandson of Ole Worm.

Did you know that the bright shade of this manuscript might be a result of washing it in urine? Icelandic parchment manuscripts generally tend to be very dark, but the Codex Wormianus is an exception to this rule. The manuscript’s previous owner, Ole Worm, is known for advising his contemporaries that washing Icelandic manuscripts in old urine makes them more legible. 


Codex Upsaliensis of Snorra Edda, previously owned by Danish historian Stephan Hansen Stephanius. Currently held at Uppsala University Library in Sweden.

Stephanius & the Codex Upsaliensis

Another Icelandic manuscript preserving Snorra Edda ended up in Denmark in 1639, when bishop of Skálholt Brynjólfur Sveinsson gave an early fourteenth-century codex to his Danish acquaintance Stephan Hansen Stephanius (1599–1650). This is the manuscript known today as the Codex Upsaliensis, the earliest known manuscript of Snorra Edda. 

The attribution of the Prose Edda to Snorri Sturluson is indebted to the prologue that appears exclusively in the Codex Upsaliensis and which starts as follows:

"Bók þessi heitir Edda. Hana hefir saman setta Snorri Sturluson eptir þeim hætti sem hér er skipat" ('This book is called Edda. Snorri Sturluson has compiled it in the manner in which it is arranged here,' read more here).

This manuscript owes its name to the location where it has been hosted for the past centuries: Uppsala (Sweden) where it is held at the University Library as DG 11 (see the manuscript here). The manuscript was purchased by Magnus Gabriel De la Gardie (1622–1686), Swedish aristocrat and statesman, from the widow of Stephanius in 1652. De la Gardie donated the Codex Upsaliensis to the University Library in 1669.  


A medieval manuscript of kings' sagas sent to Denmark in 1656. Codex Flateyensis, GKS 1005 fol., held at the Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies in Reykjavik. 


An illuminated leaf from a medieval manuscript of kings' sagas. Codex Flateyensis, GKS 1005 fol., held at the Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies in Reykjavik. 

Frederick III & the Codex Flateyensis 

The same Brynjólfur Sveinsson who sent Stephanius the manuscript of Snorra Edda sent another three medieval Icelandic manuscripts to King Frederick III in 1656. Among them there was the precious Codex Flateyensis (Ice. Flateyjarbók, Dan. Flatøbogen), a late fourteenth-century parchment manuscript of kings' sagas consisting of over two hundred leaves (400 pages) measuring the impressive size of c. 420 mm x 290 mm (see the manuscript here). The manuscript takes its name from the location when it was held before it left Iceland, the island named Flatey on the northwest coast of Iceland.

Bishop Brynjólfur Sveinsson sent the manuscript to Denmark with hope that its Old Norse-Icelandic sagas would be translated, edited, and printed, and thereby disseminated widely across Europe. While the Danish translation of the volume was completed only a few years later, it was never published and remained in manuscript form in the royal library. The edition of its Old Norse-Icelandic text did not appear until the nineteenth century. 

The Codex Flateyensis, together with the Codex Regius of the Poetic Edda, was the first manuscript returned to Iceland in 1971, and both manuscripts are today considered Icelandic national treasures.