Hand and Word

Photographs of Icelandic manuscripts from the Arnamagnæan Collection

Exhibition 27. oktober – 25. november 2018

The Arnamagnæan Manuscript Collection derives its name from the Icelandic scholar and antiquarian Árni Magnússon (1663-1730) – Arnas Magnæus in Latinised form – who, in addition to his duties as secretary of the Royal Archives and, from 1702, professor of Danish Antiquities at the University of Copenhagen, spent much of his life building up what is by common consent the single most important collection of early Scandinavian manuscripts in existence, around 2500 items, the earliest dating from the 12th century. The majority of these are from Árni Magnússon’s native Iceland, but the collection also contains many important Norwegian, Danish and Swedish manuscripts, along with about one hundred of continental European provenance. In addition to the manuscripts proper, the collection contains about 14000 Icelandic, Norwegian (including Faroese, Shetlandic and Orcadian) and Danish charters, both originals and first-hand copies (apographa).

Upon his death in 1730 Árni Magnússon bequeathed his collection to the University of Copenhagen. Along with this he made an endowment from his private estate from which money was to be drawn for the publication of text editions and studies pertaining to the manuscripts. A royal charter formally establishing a foundation to administer the bequest was issued in 1760, and in 1772 a permanent commission (Den Arnamagnæanske Kommission) was established as the governing body of that foundation.

The collection has been augmented over the years through individual purchases and gifts and the acquisition of a number of smaller collections, for example that of the Danish grammarian Rasmus Rask, bringing the total number of items to around 3000.

The manuscripts and documents in the collection are invaluable sources on the history and culture of medieval, renaissance and early-modern Scandinavia and, in a more general way, much of Europe. Perhaps foremost among the texts preserved in the collection are the many examples of the uniquely Icelandic narrative genre known as the saga, widely recognised as constituting one of the highpoints of world literature and still translated and read throughout the world today. The sagas treat not only of the voyages and settlements of the Viking age, but also the beliefs and practices of the northern peoples before the coming of Christianity and in the first centuries after the conversion, revealing a society in a state of transition, from heathendom to Christianity, from orality to literacy, from primitive decentralised oligarchical democracy to centralised monarchic rule.

The collection is important for another reason, too: even before its constitutional separation from Denmark in 1944 Iceland had begun petitioning for the return of the Icelandic manuscripts in Danish repositories and it was eventually agreed, in May 1965, that roughly half the items in the Arnamagnæan Collection (1666 items, in addition to all the Icelandic charters and apographa), should be transferred to the newly established manuscript institute in Iceland, along with a smaller number of manuscripts (141) from the Royal Library (Det Kongelige Bibliotek). The first two manuscripts were handed over immediately after the ratification of the treaty in 1971 and the last two in June 1997, the entire process of transfer thus taking 26 years. The manuscripts transferred to Iceland have retained their original shelfmarks, and the two institutions which jointly act as custodians of the collection, the Arnamagnæan Institute (Den Arnamagnæanske Samling) in Copenhagen and the Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies (Stofnun Árna Magnússonar í íslenskum fræðum) in Reykjavík, work closely together to ensure the long-term preservation of and access to the manuscripts in the collection. The successful – and amicable – resolution of this dispute is widely regarded as a landmark in the history of the debate concerning the return of cultural treasures.

In 2009 the Arnamagnæan Manuscript Collection was inscribed on UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register: .

This exhibition highlights some of these remarkable Icelandic manuscripts.