Searching for sources

The rise of historical and antiquarian interest in Old Norse-Icelandic literature in Scandinavia is closely associated with the political struggles between the kingdom of Denmark–Norway and the kingdom of Sweden. Both kingdoms were trying to prove their supremacy not only by demonstrating their military power, but also by demonstrating the ancient origins of their dynasties. Here the Icelandic sources could serve as promising ammunition for ideological battles. 

While the Swedes were ahead of the Danes when it came to publications of Old Norse-Icelandic texts, after the end of the Scanian War in 1679, both countries mobilised resources for obtaining Icelandic manuscripts. In 1682 two Icelanders were sent on missions to Iceland: Jón Eggertsson (1643–1689) on behalf of the Swedes and Hannes Þorleifsson (c. 1640/1645–1682) on behalf of the Danes. Both men were tasked with obtaining as many ancient Icelandic manuscripts as possible and bringing them to their employers in Sweden and Denmark.


Title page of the Antiquitatum danicarum by Thomas Bartholin, published in Copenhagen in 1689. Digitised by Google Books.

Monopolising Icelandic antiquities in Denmark

After Hannes Þorleifsson's death, King Christian V appointed Thomas Bartholin (1659–1690) as the royal antiquarian. His letter of appointment from 1683 makes explicit that the Icelandic sources would play a significant role in his scholarly enterprise, as he was given the task to "complete and make ready for print the oldest, most useful, and rarest writings, concerning the Danish and Icelandic sagas and monuments, with proper translation and interpretation." He was also supposed to complete "the work, which he has started about all the old customs and habits, as well as laws and manners of the Danes."

Bartholin partially fulfilled this assignment with his Antiquitatum danicarum de causis contemptæ a Danis adhuc gentilibus mortis libri tres ('Three books of the Danish antiquities concerning the causes why the heathen Danes contempt death'), which was published in Copenhagen in 1689, just one year before Bartholin's death. The volume is full of references to and citations from various Icelandic texts that had never been used in scholarship before. 

It was at Bartholin's request that King Christian V issued a royal decree in 1685 that banned the sale of Icelandic manuscripts abroad. This was a clear response to the activities of people such as Jón Eggertsson, who collected manuscripts in Iceland for the Swedes.

The official letter from the 4th of April 1685 orders the sheriff of Iceland, Christofer Heidemann, to assist Thomas Bartholin in collecting Icelandic manuscripts, and concludes: lade forbyde og flittig tilsee, at aldelis ingen skrefne Historier eller andre deslige Tractater om Landet vorder derfra til Fremmede forhandlede eller udförte.

...You shall forbid and diligently control that no written histories or other similar treatises about the country will be sold or sent to the foreigners.



Portrait of Árni Magnússon, held at the National Museum of Iceland.

Árni Magnússon

The very same year in which Bartholin received his appointments as royal antiquarian, he met an Icelander, Árni Magnússon, recently enrolled at the University of Copenhagen, whom he hired as his assistant to translate Old Norse-Icelandic texts. Without Árni's contribution, it is most likely that Bartholin would never have completed his Antiquitatum danicarum, as Árni Magnússon's work for Bartholin involved transcribing and translating various sagas that later appeared in the published work.

After Bartholin's death, with support from various influential friends, Árni Magnússon became professor of Danish antiquities at the University of Copenhagen. Thanks to his devotion to the preservation of Icelandic cultural heritage, Árni Magnússon established the largest collection of Icelandic manuscripts in the world. Today, his collection consists of over 3000 manuscripts and is held at two sister institutes in Iceland and Denmark, the Árni Magnússon Institute in Reykjavik and the Arnamagnæan Institute in Copenhagen. Since 2009, the collection has been included in the Memory of the World Register.

Árni Magnússon’s devotion to collecting Icelandic manuscripts shines through his notes and letters. As he wrote in 1694 in a letter to Björn Þorleifsson, bishop of Hólar: pergaments bækur þráe, iafnvel þott þad ei være nema eitt half blad, eda ríngasta rifrillde, þegar þad ickun være a pergament, og iafnvel Þo eg 100 exemplaria af þvi sama hefde.

...I desire parchment books, even if it is only half a leaf or the tiniest fragment, as long as it is on parchment and even if I already had a hundred copies of the same.

His invaluable contribution to the preservation of Icelandic cultural heritage has earned him a place on the Icelandic 100 krónur banknote introduced in 1981. The back of the banknote is decorated with, among other things, a leaf from a fourteenth-century manuscript that Árni Magnússon obtained for his collection in 1699.   


Árni Magnússon on the Icelandic 100 krónur banknote (private collection).


Back of the 100 krónur banknote that uses a leaf from the medieval manuscript AM 227 fol. (folio 23v) as a background image (private collection).

Torfæus in need of sagas

While Thomas Bartholin served as royal antiquarian in Denmark, Thormodus Torfæus made his living as royal historiographer of Norway, which at that time was still part of the Danish kingdom. Even though Torfæus borrowed some manuscripts from the royal library and took them to Norway, he had to rely on his scholarly network to obtain access to various Old Norse-Icelandic texts. He corresponded extensively not only with his younger colleague in Copenhagen, Árni Magnússon, but also with his friends and acquaintances in Iceland. 

Below we present a letter in which Torfæus asks Torfi Jónsson for copies of some sagas, which he needs to conduct his research into Danish genealogies. Among them Torfæus mentions the saga of Harald Hildetönn, the saga of Amlóði, and the saga of Hrómundur Greipsson (Ice. Hrómundar saga Greipssonar). Torfæus states further down on the same page of this letter that he has never seen Hrómundar saga, but he still considered it potentially relevant for his research. It is possible that such an antiquarian request, as the one Torfæus addressed to Torfi Jónsson, gave an impulse for writing of Hrómundar saga as we know it today.

Letter from Torfæus to Torfi Jónsson in which he asks for various Old Norse-Icelandic sagas (hover the cursor over the image to find the relevant passages). Manuscript held at the Arnamagnæan Institute in Copenhagen.