Rediscovering Icelandic sources in Denmark

Saxo’s chronicle remained the main source of information concerning Denmark's legendary past well into the eighteenth century. At the turn of the seventeenth century, however, a new category of sources (re)appeared on the scholarly radar of mainland Scandinavian historians: Old Norse-Icelandic literature, as preserved in Icelandic manuscripts.

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Portrait of Arngrímur Jónsson, held at the National Museum of Iceland.

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Title page of the Brevis commentarius de Islandia, held at the National Library of Iceland.

Arngrímur Jónsson 

The rediscovery of Old Norse-Icelandic literature in Denmark can be associated with the activity of Arngrímur Jónsson (1568–1648), Icelandic theologian and historian. Arngrímur, who studied at the University of Copenhagen until 1589, visited Copenhagen again in 1592–1593 in order to publish his Brevis commentarius de Islandia his defence of Iceland written in response to negative foreign representations of the country.

During his stay in Copenhagen Arngrímur expanded his scholarly network with many influential Danes, among them the chancellor Arild Huitfeldt (1546–1609) and Niels Krag (1550–1602), who only few years later became the royal historiographer tasked with writing a history of Denmark in Latin. 

Shortly after that, on the 17th of April 1596, the first known official letter concerning the collection of materials in Iceland was issued by King Christian IV (1577–1648). In this letter, the king encourages Icelanders to make available to Arngrímur Jónsson various materials that may be relevant for Niels Krag’s work as the royal historiographer. It is known that already in 1597 Arngrímur sent Krag some Icelandic materials on the history of Denmark and Norway, i.e. the Supplementum Historiae Norvegicae, but they remained in manuscript form with limited accessibility.

Danish interest

Under the influence of Arngrímur Jónsson many Danish scholars became increasingly interested in Icelandic literary tradition. Among them there were men such as Ole Worm (1588–1654), Danish polyhistor and personal physician of King Christian IV, and Stephan Hansen Stephanius (1599–1650), Danish historian, royal historiographer, and professor at Sorø Academy. Both men corresponded with Arngrímur Jónsson in the hope of gaining access to Icelandic sources. Needless to say, they both succeeded, as the next page of this exhibit demonstrates.

Remembering Arngrímur Jónsson

Arngrímur Jónsson's pioneering contribution to the dissemination of knowledge about Iceland in Continental Europe earned him the nickname lærði ('the learned') and the accolade of "Iceland’s foremost humanist". The importance of Arngrímur's work to Icelandic society has been honoured by placing his portrait on the ten krónur banknote, introduced in 1981 and discontinued already in 1984, when it was replaced by a coin depicting fish (read more in Icelandic here and here). 

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Arngrímur Jónsson on the Icelandic 10 krónur banknote (private collection).

Rediscovering Icelandic sources in Denmark