Four Manuscripts, Forgotten for a Century, Resurface at National Library of Iceland Skip to content
mansucript national library iceland
Photo: Landsbókasafnið – National Library of Iceland.

Four Manuscripts, Forgotten for a Century, Resurface at National Library of Iceland

Four manuscripts have recently been discovered in the National and University Library of Iceland. They are believed to have sat in the collection for a century prior to their recent re-discovery.

A benefactor to Iceland

Willard Fiske (1831-1904) was an American archivist and scholar who was notable for his expertise in Northern European languages, specifically Icelandic literature. Upon his 1904 death, he left some 32,000 volumes to Cornell University. The Fiske Icelandic Collection at Cornell is internationally one of the three largest collections of Icelandic manuscripts and literature.

In addition to his Cornell bequest, he was also a significant early patron of Iceland’s National Library. During the course of his life, he donated some 1,500 volumes to the library, in addition to 2,500 further volumes upon his death.

The four recently re-discovered manuscripts from the collection were a part of the Fiske collection, and have sat somewhere in the archives for more than a century before recently resurfacing.

Four unique discoveries

One manuscript, Lbs 5338 8vo, contains an Ottoman Turkish-Persian dictionary composed in the 16th century by the scholar Ibrahim Sahidi. The text, which served as both a poetry dictionary and textbook, is well-known to scholars and is preserved in other manuscripts throughout the world. Consisting of 28 octavo leaves, the manuscript is believed to have been written in the 17th century. The text also contains marginal commentaries on the main text. There is one more Ottoman manuscript that was rediscovered, in addition to an Armenian gospel.

These three manuscripts were written on paper, and the fourth that was found, a book of hours, was recorded on vellum.

Books of hours were Christan prayer books used widely throughout Europe in the mediaeval period. One of the most common surviving types of manuscripts, they were used to record the canonical hours of religious orders and often combined elaborate illuminated illustrations alongside the text. The manuscript that was found in the National Library, Lbs 5336 8vo (pictured above), is highly decorated, featuring intricate initial letters and several full-page illuminations. Nothing of the provenance of the manuscript prior to its acquisition by Fiske is known.

With no concrete connection to Icelandic literary history, it is also a mystery why these particular manuscripts were included in Fiske’s donations to the National Library at the time.

“Happens all around the world”

In an interview with RÚV, Halldóra Kristinsdóttir, a manuscript specialist at the National Library, stated that such occurrences aren’t unheard of.

“These are incredibly beautiful manuscripts, and much effort has been put into its creation,” she said. “It’s a big question, why they were just found. But this happens in museums all around the world, something emerges from the collections that people didn’t know existed. These manuscripts were stored among the printed books that were delivered to the library at the beginning of the 20th century and had been stored with the books that they came with, and were not transferred to the manuscript section of the library until recently when a library staff member noticed that there were manuscripts here and not just printed books in these boxes.”

“It’s very exciting for us in Iceland to find these manuscripts because there aren’t many foreign manuscripts here. For example, the liturgical book written in Latin, there is no other such complete book known to exist in Iceland,” she continued.

However, Halldóra did state that while such finds are exciting, they are relatively rare, and we should not expect similar finds in Iceland in the near future.

The manuscripts have been digitized and can be viewed at handrit.is. They will also on display in the entrance hall of the National and University Library of Iceland in the coming days.

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