The Vinland Sagas and their Manuscripts

The "Saga of the Greenlanders" is only found in one manuscript but, in compensation, this is one of the most splendid of all manuscripts – Flateyjarbˇk, so-called from the island of Flatey in Brei­afj÷r­ur in western Iceland, where it was kept in 1647, when its owner after many and importunate requests, more or less willingly handed it over to Bishop Brynjˇlfur Sveinsson. He in turn presented it to the Danish king, Frederik III, in 1656 (see further below). The manuscript is very large. It consists of 225 leaves (450 pp.) whose dimensions are 42.5 x 29 cm, and it was written between 1387 and 1394. It is quite exceptional to be able to date a medieval manuscript so precisely and even to know when and by whom it was written and the name of its first owner. This was a powerful farmer called Jˇn Hßkonarson who lived in northern Iceland. Since the manuscript was written for him, it is tempting to believe that the manuscript can have been written on his farm, VÝ­idalstunga, but the work may alternatively have been done at the neighbouring monastery of Ůingeyrar. Flateyjarbˇk is written on vellum and one of its modern editors, Sigur­ur Nordal, has calculated the number of calves that would have had to be slaughtered to provide enough vellum for this gigantic manuscript. He came to the result that 113 calf-skins would have been needed for the 225 leaves — one skin would only have yielded 2 leaves. This gives some indication of the size of the manuscript. For our text, the "Saga of the Greenlanders", which only takes up just over 2 leaves, a little more than one calf-skin would have been needed. The manuscript contains mainly sagas about the Norwegian kings but in between these are inserted some independent texts which did not originally have anything to do with the kings of Norway. The "Saga of the Greenlanders" is just one of these inserted texts and it is found today not as an independent text but as a part of a saga about Olaf Tryggvason.

The fate of the manuscripts down to the present day

How is it that these manuscripts, written in an out-of-the-way place such as Iceland was at that time, have survived to the present day? What happenend to them in the five centuries and more that passed before they found their lasting resting-place on the shelves of our libraries? They have experienced voyages no less exciting than those of Bjarni and Leif and certainly no less dangerous. Many manuscripts did not survive the journies and other manuscripts containing our two texts may well also have been lost.

In the course of the 17th century the Danes and the Swedes had begun to realise the significance of the old Icelandic texts for the history of their countries and they began to show an interest in the parchment manuscripts from Iceland. One of those whose interest was aroused was the Danish king, Frederik III (1648-1670), who requested that manuscripts should be presented or sold to his library (now: The Royal Library, Copenhagen) with a view to publication of the ancient texts. One result of his request was the above-mentioned Flateyjarbˇk, one of the three splendid manuscripts presented by the Icelandic bishop Brynjˇlfur Sveinsson to the king in 1656.

In 1682 there were both Danish and Swedish delegations in Iceland to buy manuscripts. The Swedish delegation returned safe and sound across the Atlantic with a large collection of manuscripts that had been purchased very cheaply. These are now to be found in The Royal Library, Stockholm. The Danish envoys were unfortunately less successful. Their ship was wrecked with its cargo of manuscripts and there is no way of knowing how much was lost on that occasion.

Shortly after the beginning of this race between Denmark and Sweden, the Icelander ┴rni Magn˙sson (1663-1730) began to collect manuscripts and he was to become the greatest collector of all, for he had the academic and economic background for building up a collection of manuscripts and he understood how to exploit this to the uttermost. He had an important post (as professor in history at the University of Copenhagen — incidentally the first Icelander to hold this post), and this gave him influence and valuable contacts that brought him many manuscripts, sometimes in the form of gifts. He could read the manuscripts and understood fully what he was doing and, last but not least, he had married a wealthy woman and in this way consolidated his economic position with a view to building up a collection. It would seem that at one time all the Icelandic manuscripts in Denmark that did not belong to the king's library were in his possession.

The years 1702-12 were particularly fruitful for ┴rni Magn˙sson's collection. In these years he was in Iceland at the request of the Danish government on entirely different business, the registration of all the farms in Iceland and their lands with a view to taxation — as well as an investigation of whether law and order were being kept in the Danish colony. These tasks fortunately required him to travel round the country to collect information for the registration of land. This gave him a good opportunity to get an idea of what there was to be found up and down the country in farms and churches. It was at the eleventh hour that he came and rescued the manuscripts for, with the exception of a few splendid examples such as Flateyjarbˇk, manuscripts had not usually been handled as museum objects. They were used on the farms as a source of entertainment, i.e. for reading aloud from. There were some good stories in them. When a manuscript was becoming worn and nearly illegible, it would have been copied into new manuscripts and then thrown away, or else the good, solid vellum of which it was made would have been employed for other useful purposes. Some time before ┴rni Magn˙sson began his collection, the Icelanders had begun to write on paper, which was cheaper and more convenient to use than animal hide (whether of calf or sheep). We have examples of vellum manuscripts which after being discarded as books were split up and used as shoesoles, linings in book-bindings or a bishop's mitre, a pattern for a girl's blouse etc. In addition to the manuscripts that suffered a natural death, there were many that were deliberately destroyed because of their contents, for example stories of catholic saints, which were not always compatible with the new ideas that followed in the wake of the Reformation in 1540. ┴rni Magn˙sson did not merely collect blindly. He carefully examined every tiny fragment he found in order to see whether any of them derived from an identifiable manuscript. He was thus able to reassemble a manuscript of 30 surviving leaves from 8 different locations in Iceland. Our two manuscripts of the "Saga of Erik the Red" were both collected on this journey. The older of the two, Hauksbˇk (AM 544 4to), is really just one section of a larger manuscript that is now split between three numbers in The Arnamagnœan Collection, as the collection is known from a Latin version of his name, Arnas MagnŠus. The other numbers are AM 371 4to and AM 675 4to. In the three sections of the manuscript there survive 141 leaves out of an original total of approximately 210 -and fortunately our saga was written on leaves that have survived.

It was not until many years after they had been assembled that ┴rni Magnusson's harvest of manuscripts came to Denmark. Fear of piracy meant that he did not dare to take them with him in 1712. In 1720, however, a fortunate opportunity presented itself for the manuscripts to be carried on board admiral Peter Raben's frigate. This arrived safely in Copenhagen with its cargo of manuscripts and other valuable objects that ┴rni Magn˙sson had collected.

┴rni Magn˙sson lived in a professorial residence close to the University in St. KannikestrŠde. He installed his collection here and it might have been thought that the manuscripts were now beyond the reach of danger. Unfortunately, however, this was not so. On October 20th 1728 fire broke out in Copenhagen. Two-fifths of the town were reduced to ashes, including the University, the professorial residences in St. KannikestrŠde (among them ┴rni Magn˙sson’s), the Church of Our Lady, and Trinitatis Church with the books and manuscripts of the University Library. There would in fact have been time enough to evacuate the whole of ┴rni Magn˙sson’s collection, since the fire did not reach his neighbourhood until the second day, but ┴rni had not been aware of the full seriousness of the situation. It was not until the fire had reached the Church of Our Lady that two of his fellow-countrymen took the matter in their own hands and managed to evacuate much of the collection. Fortunately, they removed the most valuable objects first, namely the manuscripts, and therefore most of ┴rni 's collection of manuscripts has survived, including almost all the vellum manuscripts. His library, however, succumbed to the flames. It was such a terrible blow to ┴rni to see his lifework destroyed in a few moments that he only survived the fire for little more than a year. In January 1730 he died a broken man. Many other manuscripts that we now only know of through the medium of transcripts, went up in flames, including, as already mentioned, the collection belonging to the University Library. Fortunately, the fire did not reach the king's library so that Flateyjarbˇk and the other manuscripts here did not suffer the same, sad fate.

In 1971 the Danish and Icelandic governments ratified a treaty concerning the transfer of manuscripts to Iceland, in reality their return, in consequence of a law enacted by the Danish parliament in 1965. Flateyjarbˇk and one more of Brynjˇlfur Sveinsson's gifts to the Danish king were the first two manuscripts to cross the Atlantic — this time homeward bound — on the Danish naval frigate Vœdderen. Since then, many other manuscripts have followed them, but not with such a stately escort as Flateyjarbˇk. AM 557 4to containing "Erik's saga" was transferred in 1986, while the other "Erik's saga" manuscript, AM 544 4to, has been allowed to remain in Denmark. The manuscripts are now sent by ordinary mail — but not airmail. It is worth a moment's thought that when manuscripts are sent to Iceland, they travel by sea. Transport by air is considered to be too hazardous.[…]

Source: Eva Rode, "The Vinland Sagas and their manuscripts" in Viking Voyages to North America, Birthe L. Clausen (Denmark: Kannike Tryk A/S, 1993), 26-29.

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