Benefits of Retrieving the Manuscripts Unclear Skip to content

Benefits of Retrieving the Manuscripts Unclear

By Frank Sands

Njáls saga manuscripts.
Photo: Njáls saga manuscripts..

It is unclear how beneficial it will be for Iceland to recover more of the Icelandic manuscripts that have been kept in Denmark since the 18th century, RÚV reports. Moving them could jeopardize important scientific work in the field of Ancient and Nordic studies, according to Dr Viðar Pálsson, associate professor of History at the University of Iceland.

The Ministers of Education of Iceland and Denmark decided yesterday to establish a consulting committee on items of common cultural values between the two Nordic countries. Lilja Alfreðsdóttir and Ane Halsboe-Jørgensen discussed Lilja’s proposal to review how the manuscripts are being shared. Lilja has repeatedly expressed interest in Iceland recovering some more of the manuscripts preserved in Denmark, where there remain about seven hundred Icelandic manuscripts.

“In the past centuries, people defined what manuscripts were considered Icelandic. Many of the manuscripts would fall into a grey area, but virtually all manuscripts that we can say are mainly Icelandic have been brought back. But there are also some manuscripts that we could describe as rather Icelandic than anything else that we may nevertheless want to recover at some point. Of course, there are manuscripts in the Danish archives containing prized Icelandic sagas, but then there were manuscripts containing more prosaic legal material, royal narrative material and so on that originate in Iceland but are not necessarily Icelandic in content,” says Dr Viðar.

Unknown consequences

According to Viðar there are general ideological and cultural arguments for calling for the recovery to Iceland of all and any manuscripts that could possibly be considered Icelandic. “First of all, there’s the new University building for Icelandic studies, which means there’s improved conditions to preserve the fragile manuscripts. Secondly, budget cuts in Copenhagen have resulted in the cancellation of teaching positions in Icelandic and the humanities in general at Danish universities, a worrying trend. Third, it has been pointed out that these developments reflect a dwindling emphasis on Nordic scholarship in Denmark. Whether these are temporary circumstances or not remains to be seen. These arguments are keeping this issue alive, but it is uncertain how bringing these manuscripts to Iceland promotes international studies of old Icelandic and old Norse scholarship, for example in Denmark. Could retrieving the manuscripts hasten the development that’s already started and that we’re trying to avoid?” Says Viðar.

The Manuscript issue is sensitive by nature

In the eighteenth century, Icelandic-born archivist Árni Magnússon donated his massive collection of Icelandic manuscripts to the University of Denmark, which was considered to be a safe choice given the rudimentary nature of scholarship and conservation of artefacts and manuscripts in particular in Iceland at the time. Negotiations between Iceland and Denmark in the 1960s resulted with the Danes handing over some of the manuscripts to Iceland, the first ones delivered at a solemn ceremony in 1971. Dr Viðar emphasized that the manuscript issue is sensitive by nature. There are, it must be realized, some possible disadvantages in getting the manuscripts to Iceland.

“From a purely academic point of view, if the manuscripts go home to Iceland, I do not know in what way, if any, it would strengthen scholarship there. They are already very accessible to scholars. They are well looked after, and the University of Copenhagen is a world-class research centre in these studies. Also, in Copenhagen, there has been a long-term scientific work in the field of Ancient Icelandic and Old Norse studies. This is a very powerful and valuable job and it is a question of whether we are jeopardizing it all by raising this issue,” Dr Viðar says.

“The manuscript issue was always inherently very sensitive. In fact, a very successful outcome was reached in that matter at the time that was amenable to all involved parties. Then, however, there is a question of whether in the long-term manuscript studies in Copenhagen is losing its heft. I don’t think we need to panic or rush to conclusions. We can only keep track of how matters develop.”

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