Driscoll, Matthew James, and Svanhildur Óskarsdóttir, eds. Manuscripts from the Arnamagnæan Collection. Copenhagen: The Arnamagnæan Institute, Department of Nordic Research, University of Copenhagen; The Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies, Reykjavík; Museum Tusculanum Press, University of Copenhagen, 2015. Pp. 237. $45.00. ISBN: 978-87-635-4264-7.
Reviewed by Kirsten Wolf, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Manuscripts from the Arnamagnæan Collection is a very beautifully produced book in honor of the great manuscript collector Árni Magnússon (1663-1730). The year 2013 marked the 350th anniversary of Árni Magnússon’s birth in Iceland. To commemorate his achievements and lasting fame, an international, two-day conference was hosted by the Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies in Reykjavík in October 2013. The purpose of the conference was to showcase some of the manuscripts obtained by Árni Magnússon; to bring attention to the national and international significance of his endowment, which resulted in two collections named after him (Det Arnamagnæanske Institut in Copenhagen and Stofnun Árna Magnúsonar in Reykjavík); and to stress the importance of the collection, which was confirmed in 2009, when it was inscribed on UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register. Presumably, the initiative to publish this book was taken at that conference. And presumably, at least some of the descriptions in this book of manuscripts housed in the two collections have their origins in papers presented at that conference as well.
As noted by the editors in their afterword, the book is “a collaborative effort between the Department of Nordic Research at the University of Copenhagen and the Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies in Reykjavík” (229). The intention of the book is “to give a picture of Árni Magnússon the manuscript collector and the richness and diversity of his collection” (229).
A lengthy introduction entitled “Manuscripts on the brain” by Svanhildur Óskarsdóttir gives a biography of Árni Magnússon and what eventually lead to the two manuscripts named after him. It describes the cultural environment in which he was raised; details his education in Iceland and Denmark; and tells of his various positions, assignments, and connections with Danish and Icelandic scholars. Special attention is paid to his efforts to collect manuscripts in the early eighteenth century, when he and Páll JónssonVídalín spent several years in Iceland making a register of all farms. Svanhilder proceeds to describe Árni’s return to Denmark in 1713 via Norway, where he acquired his friend Torfæus’s manuscript collection; Árni’s last years busily engaged in scholarly activities; and then the fire of Copenhagen in 1728, which destroyed many of Árni’s printed books, documents, and transcriptions, and which ultimately may have led to his death two years later. The last section is devoted to an account of the fate of Árni’s collection after his death: Árni donated the collection to the University of Copenhagen, and in his will he made provisions for money from his and his wife’s estate to fund the publication of editions. In time, this collection became The Arnamagnaean Collection. Following lengthy negotiations between Denmark and Iceland, a number of manuscripts were returned to Iceland in the last quarter of the twentieth century, where they now have their home. The happy ending to the story is that “Árni Magnússon’s manuscript collection belongs neither to the Icelandic nor the Danish state. The institute established in 1760 thanks to Árni and Mette’s legacy was a non-profit organisation of sorts, and the manuscripts were its property…Both countries have assigned the task of housing the manuscripts to their universities…The two universities collaborate closely on a range of projects involving research and dissemination of learning” (35-36). Unfortunately, there is a major oversight in this particular part of the history of Árni’s manuscript: There is no mention whatsoever of the enormous funds and the extraordinary amount of labor that have gone into restoring the manuscripts over the last three or four decades and of the fact that an entire section of the Árni Magnusson Institute is devoted to the care and conservation of manuscripts. Suzanne Reitz and Jóhanna Ólafsdóttir, the photographers in the Arnamagnaean Institute and the Stofnun Árna Magnússonar, are given due credit for their admirable work, but nowhere in the book is mention made of Mette Jakobsen and Natasha Fazlić, whose fine work on restoring the manuscripts is evident from several of the photos in the volume. Also, the introduction contains no bibliography and no biliographica references, so it is difficult to know which sources Svanhildur relied on for her introduction. Extracts from Árni’s letters and memoranda are placed in the margins of the introduction, which is illustrated with photos of, for example, Árni’s seal; a note in Árni’s hand on a slip of paper accompanying a manuscript; an illustration of the University of Copenhagen as it looked when Árni studied there; and a photo of Reykjavík harbor, when the first two manuscripts, Flateyjarbókand Codex Regius, arrived in 1971. Side-bars present translations of Árni’s enquiries to the Reverend Ólafur Jónsson of Grunnavík on leaves from the manuscript Hauksbók, Jón Ólafsson’s description of Árni, and the division of manuscripts between Denmark and Iceland in accordance with the Manuscript Act passes by the Danish parliament.
The main portion of the book consists of photos (specimens only) and brief descriptions of sixty-six manuscripts from Árni Magnússon’s collection, one for each year of his life. In addition, there is a selection of photographs and editions of his medieval documents. Altogether thirty-five scholars contributed to the volume: Árni Heimir Ingólfsson, Simonetta Battista, Matthew Driscoll, Ellert Þór Jóhansson, Hallgrímur J. Ámundason, Silvia Hufnagel, Jóhanna Katrín Friðriksdóttir, Tereza Lansing, Annette Lassen, Jonna Louis-Jensen, Jeffrey S. Love, Guðrún Ása Grímsdóttir, Guðrún Ingólfsdóttir, Guðrún Nordal, Guðvarður Már Gunnlaugsson, Hallgrímur J. Ámundason, Anne Mette Hansen, Haraldur Bernharðsson, Emily Lethbridge, Margrét Eggertsdóttir, Britta Olrik Frederiksen, Rósa Þorsteinsdóttir, Christopher Sanders, Sigurgeir Steingrímsson, Alex Speed Kjeldsen, Peter Springborg, Svanhildur Gunnarsdóttir, Svanhildur Óskarsdóttir, Soffía Guðný Guðmundsdóttir, Sverrir Tómasson, Þorbjörg Helgadóttir, Þórður Ingi Guðjónsson, Þórunn Sigurðardóttir, Viðar Pálsson, and Ludger Zeevaert. Common to these scholars is that they are all associated in one way or another with the manuscripts in Denmark and Iceland as professors, readers, lecturers, editors, postdoctoral fellows, project managers, and independent scholars.
The Arnamagnæan manuscript collection is very diverse, and this diversity is adequately reflected by the sixty-six manuscripts treated, of which half are housed in Copenhagen and the other half in Reykjavík. Obviously, some of the very famous manuscripts are featured, including Codex Wormianus, Codex Frisianus, Möðruvallabók, Hauksbók,Staðarhólsbók, Skarðsbók, Teiknibókin (AM 673a III 4to), and AM 227 fol. Others are clearly included because of their peculiarities, such as AM 738 4to (the so-called Edda oblongata due to its unusual, oblong format), AM 28 8vo (the so-called Codex Runicus due to the fact that it is written entirely in runes), and Reykjarfjarðarbók (a fragment of which was used as a pattern for a waist coat). Also, both old and young manuscripts are included. To the former category belong, for example, AM 237a fol. (containing homilies), AM 673b 4to (the oldest preserved copy of a drápa), and AM 645 4to (one of the oldest collections of saint’s lives in Old Norse); to the latter category belong, for example, AM 462 4to (a mid-seventeenth-century copy of Egils saga) and AM 922 4to (Árni Magnússon’s transcript and Latin translation of Hrólfs saga kraka). Finally, since Árni Magnússon’s obsession with manuscripts was not limited to Icelandic manuscripts but included also manuscripts from Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and elsewhere, a number of non-Icelandic manuscripts are featured, such as AM 296 fol. from Denmark, AM 309 fol. from Norway, AM 191 fol. from Sweden, and AM 795 4to from Spain. The description of the individual manuscripts is typically fairly brief. Generally, it provides details about the appearance of the manuscript, its date, scribe (if known), provenance, history, contents, special features, and the manner (if known) in which Árni acquired it. Sadly lacking are bibliographical references as to where and from whom the contributors got the information about the various texts and manuscripts. This reviewer was quite surprised to find, for example, the write-up about AM 429 12mo virtually lifted from her 2011 edition of the codex. Similarly, there is no bibliography accompanying the introduction and the essay on “Book production in the Middle Ages” by Soffía Guðný Guðmundsdóttir and Laufey Guðnadóttir (with Anne Mette Hansen), which follows the presentation of the manuscripts. It describes the preparation of the parchment, the production of a book, the production of quills, ink, and colors, the art of writing, working conditions and methods, the illumination of manuscripts, and bookbinding. The essay is informative but not without errors. On p. 217, for example, it is stated that “[t]he green colour used for an initial in AM 343 fol. has eaten through the vellum. Mixing and preparing pigments was a tricky business, and only certain binding media could be used with green pigment, for example. The missing ‘N’ here may have been the result of using the wrong binding medium.” Green pigment is copper acetate, so-called verdigris, and the reason for the deterioration of the vellum, since the presence of copper causes cellulose degradation. The binding medium has nothing whatsoever to do with the missing capital letter. The authors of the essay would have been wise to consult with the conservation experts in the Arnamagnaean Institute. An index of the manuscripts described in the volume, a list of citations, a list of illustrations, an index of persons, an index of titles, and biographical information about the contributors round off the volume.
Much effort has gone into producing this book. The photographs are of a very high quality, and the lay-out is spectacular. With this book, the editors have surely managed “to give a picture of Árni Magnússon the manuscript collector and the richness and diversity of his collection” (cf. above). It is difficult, however, to get a sense’s of the book’s intended readership, which is not specified. The introduction, the description of the individual manuscripts, and the essay on book production in the Middle Ages are too basic to be of use for the serious scholar of Old Norse-Icelandic, who will find nothing new in this book. It may well be that the book is intended for the coffee table and more general readers, and most certainly those readers will be amazed by the treasures held in the many manuscripts collected by Árni Magnússon.