Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Saga Man: Arni Magnusson

Lovers of Icelandic sagas are celebrating these days: It's the 350th birthday of Arni Magnusson, the man who, more than anyone else, saved Iceland's medieval manuscripts.

Brought up at Snorri Sturluson’s ancestral estate of Hvamm in the west of Iceland, Arni went to Copenhagen in 1683, when he was 20 years old, and found work as a copyist and translator for Thomas Bartholin, Jr. With Arni's help, Bartholin published a 700-page history of the Danes in 1689. Drawing examples from Snorri’s Heimskringla, Egil’s Saga, and other sagas, Bartholin’s Danish Antiquities Concerning the Reasons for the Pagan Danes’ Disdain for Death made popular the Viking stereotype of the bold, blond, laugh-in-the-face-of-death hero.

Arni became a professor at the University of Copenhagen in 1701, and the next year the king sent him back to Iceland to gather statistics on his country’s land and people. His massive Land Register, compiled over ten years, describes every farm in Iceland, its size and shape, buildings, people, cows, sheep, horses, the bulk of butter and cloth it owed in tithes, the quality of its turf, peat, hay, and woodlots, its fishing and driftwood rights, and the extent of the property ruined by volcanic ash or sand or rendered useless by quagmires, bogs, erosion, or flooding.

Off the record, Arni asked every farmer about manuscripts—and poked about in every farmhouse. In his novel Iceland's Bell, Halldor Laxness imagines Arni searching every nook and cranny, even the stuffing of the mattress:

Dust and poison gushed up from the old and moldy hay within the woman’s bed as they began their search. Mixed up in the hay was all kinds of garbage, such as bottomless shoe-tatters, shoe-patches, old stocking legs, rotten rags of wadmal, pieces of cord, fibers, fragments of horseshoes, horns, bones, gills, fishtails hard as glass, broken wooden bolts and other scraps of wood, loom-weights, shells both flat and whorled, and starfish. 

There were often also scraps of parchment in hiding places like this: Arni collected every one. He found two leaves from a 13th-century manuscript with holes punched in them to make a flour sifter. He found sheets used as dress patterns, shoe soles, knee patches, and even the stiffening in a bishop’s mitre. He pieced them back into books: One 60-page manuscript came from eight different farms.

When Arni's collection was packed for shipping to Copenhagen in 1720, it filled 55 wooden chests and required 30 packhorses to carry it.

Then in 1728 Copenhagen caught fire. Half of the city was incinerated, including the university library. Arni, disbelieving that fate could be so cruel, refused to evacuate his private library until the fire reached the end of his street. He and two other Icelanders had time to rescue only the oldest books. The rest were lost, including, Arni cried, “books that will never and nowhere be found until doomsday.”

We can only guess what wonderful sagas they held.

But the rest of Arni's collection now fills two libraries named for him, the Arni Magnusson Institute in Iceland and the Arnamagnaean Institute in Copenhagen. The Icelandic one held its birthday celebration last week; Copenhagen's is coming up on Friday. (For details see I'm looking forward to tipping a glass to Arni's memory.

Join me again next Wednesday at for another adventure in Iceland or the medieval world.

1 comment:

  1. Nancy, I am convinced you are a descendant of Arni Magnusson. Perhaps not genetically, but definitely, spiritually.