Open main menu
This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.

Literature of Foreign Origin.—After the union with Norway and change of law genuine tradition died out with the great houses. The ordinary medieval literature reached Iceland through Norway, and every one began to put it into a vernacular dress, so neglecting their own classics that but for a few collectors like Lawman Hauk they would have perished entirely.

The Norwegian kings, Haakon Haakonson (c. 1225), and Haakon V. (c. 1305), employed Icelanders at their courts in translating the French romances of the Alexander, Arthur and Charlemagne cycles. Some forty or fifty of these Riddara-Sögur (Romances of Chivalry) remain. They reached Iceland and were eagerly read, many Rimur being founded on them. Norse versions of Mary of Brittany’s Lays, the stories of Brutus and of Troy, and part of the Pharsalia translated are also found. The Speculum Regale, with its interesting geographical and social information, is also Norse, written c. 1240, by a Halogalander. The computistic and arithmetical treatises of Stiorn-Odd, Biarni the Number-skilled (d. 1173), and Hauk Erlendsson the Lawman (d. 1334), and the geography of Ivar Bardsson, a Norwegian (c. 1340), are of course of foreign origin. A few tracts on geography, &c., in Hauk’s book, and a Guide to the Holy Land, by Nicholas, abbot of Thwera (d. 1158), complete the list of scientific works.

The stories which contain the last lees of the old mythology and pre-history seem to be also non-Icelandic, but amplified by Icelandic editors, who probably got the plots from the Western Islands. Völsunga Saga and Hervarar Saga contain quotations and paraphrases of lays by the Helgi poet, and Half’s, Ragnar’s and Asmund Kappabana’s Sagas all have bits of Western poetry in them. Hrolf Kraki’s Saga paraphrases part of Biarkamal; Hromund Gripsson’s gives the story of Helgi and Kara (the lost third of the Helgi trilogy); Gautrek’s Arrow Odd’s, Frithiof’s Sagas, &c., contain shreds of true tradition amidst a mass of later fictitious matter of no worth. With the Riddara-Sögur they enjoyed great popularity in the 15th century, and gave matter for many Rimur. Thidrek’s Saga, a late version of the Völsung story, is of Norse composition (c. 1230), from North German sources.

The medieval religious literature of Western Europe also influenced Iceland, and the Homilies (like the Laws) were, according to Thorodd, the earliest books written in the vernacular, antedating even Ari’s histories. The lives of the Virgin, the Apostles and the Saints fill many MSS. (edited in four large volumes by Professor Unger), and are the works of many authors, chiefly of the 13th and 14th centuries; amongst them are the lives of SS. Edward the Confessor, Oswald of Northumbria, Dunstan and Thomas of Canterbury. Of the authors we know Priest Berg Gunsteinsson (d. 1211); Kygri-Biorn, bishop-elect (d. 1237); Bishop Brand (d. 1264); Abbot Runolf (d. 1307); Bishop Lawrence’s son Arni (c. 1330); Abbot Berg (c. 1340), &c. A paraphrase of the historical books of the Bible was made by Bishop Brand (d. 1264), called Gydinga Sögur. About 1310 King Haakon V. ordered a commentary on the Bible to be made, which was completed down to Exodus xix. To this Brand’s work was afterwards affixed, and the whole is known as Stiorn. The Norse version of the famous Barlaam and Josaphat, made for Prince Haakon (c. 1240), must not be forgotten.

Post-classical Literature.—The post-classical literature falls chiefly under three heads—religious, literary and scientific. Under the first comes foremost the noble translation of the New Testament by Odd Gottskalksson, son of the bishop of Hólar. Brought up in Norway, he travelled in Denmark and Germany, and took upon him the new faith before he returned to Iceland, where he became secretary to Bishop Ogmund of Skalholt. Here he began by translating the Gospel of Matthew into his mother-tongue in secret. Having finished the remainder of the New Testament at his own house at Olves, he took it to Denmark, where it was printed at Roskild in 1540. Odd afterwards translated the Psalms, and several devotional works of the day, Corvinus’s Epistles, &c. He was made lawman of the north and west, and died from a fall in the Laxa in Kios, June 1556. Three years after his death the first press was set up in Iceland by John Matthewson, at Breidabolstad, in Hunafloe, and a Gospel and Epistle Book, according to Odd’s version, issued from it in 1562. In 1584 Bishop Gudbrand, who had brought over a splendid fount of type from Denmark in 1575 (which he completed with his own hands), printed a translation of the whole Bible at Hólar, incorporating Odd’s versions and some books (Proverbs and the Son of Sirach, 1580) translated by Bishop Gizar, but supplying most of the Old Testament himself. This fine volume was the basis of every Bible issued for Iceland till 1826, when it was replaced by a bad modern version. For beauty of language and faithful simplicity of style the finer parts of this version, especially the New Testament, have never been surpassed.

The most notable theological work Iceland ever produced is the Postill-Book of Bishop John Vidalin (1666-1720), whose bold homely style and stirring eloquence made “John’s Book,” as it is lovingly called, a favourite in every household, till in the 19th century it was replaced for the worse by the more sentimental and polished Danish tracts and sermons. Theological literature is very popular, and many works on this subject, chiefly translations, will be found in the lists of Icelandic bibliographers.

The first modern scientific work is the Iter per patriam of Eggert Olafsson and Biarni Paulsson, which gives an account of the physical peculiarities—fauna, flora, &c.—of the island as far as could be done at the date of its appearance, 1772. The island was first made known to “the world” by this book and by the sketch of Unno von Troil, a Swede, who accompanied Sir Joseph Banks to Iceland in 1772, and afterwards wrote a series of “letters” on the land and its literature, &c. This tour was the forerunner of an endless series of “travels,” of which those of Sir W. J. Hooker, Sir G. S. Mackenzie (1810), Ebenezer Henderson (1818), Joseph Paul Gaimard (1838-1843), Paijkull (1867) and, lastly, that of Sir Richard Burton, an excellent account of the land and people, crammed with information of every kind (1875), are the best.

Iceland is emphatically a land of proverbs, while of folk-tales, those other keys to the poeeople’s heart, there is plentiful store. Early work in this direction was done by Jon Gudmundsson, Olaf the Old and John Olafsson in the 17th century, who all put traditions on paper, and their labours were completed by the magnificent collection of Jon Arnason (1862-1864), who was inspired by the example of the Grimms. Many tales are but weak echoes of the sagas; many were family legends, many are old fairy tales in a garb suited to their new northern home; but, besides all these, there are a number of traditions and superstitions of indigenous origin.

The Renaissance of Iceland dates from the beginning of the 17th century, when a school of antiquaries arose. Arngrim Jonsson’s Brevis Commentarius (1593), and Crymogaea (1609), were the first-fruits of this movement, of which Bishops Odd, Thorlak and Bryniulf (worthy parallels to Parker and Laud) were the wise and earnest supporters. The first (d. 1630) collected much material for church history. The second (d. 1656) saved Sturlunga and the Bishops’ Lives, encouraged John Egilsson to write his New Hungerwaker, lives of the bishops of the Dark Ages and Reformation, and helped Biorn of Skardsa (d. 1655), a bold and patriotic antiquary (whose Annals continue Einar’s), in his researches. The last (d. 1675) collected a fine library of MSS., and employed the famous copyist John Erlendsson, to whom and the bishop’s brother, John Gizurarsson (d. 1648), we are indebted for transcripts of many lost MSS.

Torfaeus (1636-1719) and Bartholin, a Dane (d. 1690), roused the taste for northern literature in Europe, a taste which has never since flagged; and soon after them Arni Magnusson (1663-1730) transferred all that remained of vellum and good paper MSS. in Iceland to Denmark, and laid the foundations of the famous library and bequest, for which all Icelandic students are so much beholden. For over forty years Arni stuck to his task, rescuing every scrap he could lay hands on from the risks of the Icelandic climate and carelessness, and when he died only one good MSS. remained in the island. Besides his magnificent collection, there are a few MSS. of great value at