Árni Magnússon (1663-1730) was a remarkable collector and investigator of medieval manuscripts. As the son of an Icelandic priest his early career path was typical: he moved to Copenhagen to study theology, surely with the intention of returning to Iceland to join its Lutheran clergy. Instead, his historical and literary interests quickly pulled him in a different direction. He was fascinated by manuscript work (very few Icelandic texts existed in print in his days); he gained a position first as assistant to the historian Professor Thomas Bartholin and from 1701 as professor himself. Árni had collected and copied old manuscripts even as a teenager, and he inherited more manuscripts from his family, laying early the foundations for the collection that has maintained the fame of his name. His position in Denmark made it possible for him to add to his collection, especially after 1702, when he was appointed to a royal commission sent to Iceland to investigate conditions in this then-Danish colony. He spent ten years in his native country, drawing up the world’s earliest complete population census of an entire nation, but also intensifying his collecting. The Nobel laureate Halldór Laxness portrayed his activities amusingly in his remarkable novel Iceland’s Bell (1943), where “Arnas Arnæus” is depicted visiting a poor farmhouse to rummage around in the dirty straw of an old woman’s bed, only to emerge triumphant with a parchment leaf missing from an important medieval codex. The real Arnas Magnæus (as Árni Latinized his name) did indeed put great effort into finding not only complete codices, but also manuscript fragments which he proceeded to piece together. For example, over a period of thirty years, Árni was able to acquire thirty large parchment leaves (out of originally perhaps 180) in at least ten separate lots of the important Reykjafjarðarbók (c. 1400), a copy that some editors consider the best text of the Sturlunga Saga. The book was whole when Árni Guðmundssón in Bildudalur had borrowed it from a friend in 1676, but he took it apart, and most of the preserved leaves were used to bind modern books. One fragment was cut out to serve as pattern for the front of a shirt.  Medieval parchment manuscripts were sometimes treated in such disrespectful ways in the early modern period when owners often appreciated the strength of the parchment more than the text, which was difficult to read for them and in any case more easily accessible in modern printed and manuscript editions. Árni worked hard to trace the different fragments to reunite them.
Árni put together an enormous collection of literary and historical manuscripts from Iceland, mostly in Old Norse and Icelandic, but also manuscripts in Latin. Today, his collection makes up about three quarters of extant medieval manuscripts in Icelandic. He also collected charters and other documents. The entire collection resided in his Copenhagen home when a great fire devastated the Danish capital in 1728, decimating the royal and university libraries. Árni’s students loyally helped to rescue most of his collection and, after his death, it became part of the University library. In the early twentieth century, Danish authorities sent some manuscripts back to Iceland that Árni had only borrowed but never returned. In 1972 began a larger repatriation of manuscripts to Reykjavik, where they are cared for in the Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies in Reykjavik. About half of the collection remains in The Arnamagnæan Collection in Copenhagen. Both locations are important and very active research institutions, albeit sadly underfunded. Árni Magnússon’s manuscripts remain the backbone for any study of the Scandinavian, especially Icelandic, medieval and early modern history and literature. Today there are remarkably vigorous research fields that would certainly not have existed in anything like their present shape had Árni not rescued the textual heritage of Iceland. UNESCO was well advised to put his manuscripts on its Memory of the World Register.
Árni has now received a second monument in the form of a carefully crafted biography by the Icelandic historian Már Jónsson, who has published a longer biography in Icelandic: Már Jónsson, Árni Magnússon: ævisaga (Reykjavik, 1998). The new book, presented in the author’s own fluent English, is mainly based on the earlier work but also reflects some new research, especially for the last years of Árni’s life. Már’s biography focuses, unsurprisingly, on Árni’s scholarly work, and in particular his almost obsessive accumulation of old manuscripts. As Már writes, “a nascent fascination became an infatuation of almost obsessive proportions” (21). Árni had no other interests. He was married only late in life, to a widow nineteen years his senior whom he barely saw during their first year of marriage–she remained in Copenhagen while he was surveying Iceland–but she brought wealth into his house, and thus the wherewithal to purchase more manuscripts. His early years were filled with maneuvers to acquire, first, an unpaid professorship and, then, a salary; all very typical of early modern civil servants.
In addition to collecting, Árni was devoted to researching Scandinavian history and literature. He pursued several projects, but published very little, and his publications are a poor reflection of his interests in their thematic focus. To get a chair at Copenhagen University, he had to have a printed publication, so he took the opportunity when visiting Leipzig in 1695 to print his edition of a medieval Danish annalistic work, Incerti Auctoris Chronica Danorum & præcipue Sialandiæ. This was a text he was able to publish quickly and relatively inexpensively, but it was far from his central research interests. Árni had problems finishing what he started, and his major scholarly work, an edition and translation with a very substantial commentary in Latin of Ári Þorgilsson’s Íslendingabók still remains unpublished in the vaults of the Reykjavik institute. The commentary is full of valuable observations from many texts that were at the time still almost completely unknown outside Iceland. Árni announced in 1690 that his edition was to be published the coming winter, but it never came out. Jónsson speculates that he became bogged down with difficulties to produce a truly reliable text with the imperfect textual witnesses available to him and with untraceable chronological problems, which in fact continue to bedevil modern scholars. Had Árni published his edition, European scholars would suddenly know a great deal more than they previously did about medieval Iceland.
Árni’s life focused on manuscripts, so it is not surprising that Már Jónsson’s biography does too. Helpful are frequently recurring boxes with lists of manuscripts or fragments (including shelf-marks, contents, and date) that Árni acquired at specific occasions. Már’s prose sometimes resembles a list of acquisitions, as a sequence of sentence beginnings on pp. 184-5 illustrates: “In 1722, Árni’s friend Johann Brøgger in Bergen sent…Four years later Árni bought…As before, most of the manuscripts came from Iceland, where Árni’s contacts did their best to help. In the autumn of 1721, his nephew the Reverend Snorri sent…That same year Páll Vídalin sent…In 1721 Ormur Daðason…provided…Three years later he sent…In 1720 Ormur sent…” Each sentence goes on to list the manuscripts and fragments that changed hands, usually complete with call numbers. To the author, each piece of information is valuable and must be preserved, something I feel Árni would applaud, although a modern reader might allow himself to skim quickly to get to the more rewarding passages. Of these latter, however, there are many in this welcome book which must be required reading for anyone working on Icelandic history, literature, or manuscripts.
1. Guðrun Ása Grímsdóttir, “Reykjafjarðarbók,” in 66 handrit úr fórum Árna Magnússonar, ed. Svanhildur Óskarsdóttir (Reykjavík, 2013), 82-5.