Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Iceland’s Ancient Literary Legacy

 From Lit Hub:

In 1701, Copenhagen was a burgeoning city fortress of 60,000, a seaside capital enclosed by canals and high walls with just four gates. The streets were narrow and crowded, lined on each side by cramped, timber-framed buildings, though strewn among the city were architectural jewels. Copenhagen held the Renaissance-style Frederiksborg Palace, symmetrical baroque gardens, and Gothic churches. The University of Copenhagen, the second oldest institute of higher education in Scandinavia, had the Round Tower astronomical observatory where the speed of light was first quantified. The texts held in the university’s library compiled just about everything we knew about the world so far, and somewhere in the bowels of that vast monument to intellectualism was the office of Professor Arni Magnusson.

This particular morning, a letter had arrived for him. From the king.

Arni was a self-made man in Copenhagen, that city of opportunities. He had left his native Iceland at twenty to study divinity. His interest in the gospel stemmed primarily from a love of old scripts rather than religious devotion. He came late to the hobby of manuscript collection. Rival antiquarians had accumulated the largest and most valuable codices, found at churches and official establishments around Europe, and set up workshops where the copying busywork was delegated to assistants. After completing his education, Arni had the edge of knowing Old Norse, the language that had died out everywhere in Scandinavia except isolated Iceland. Denmark, Sweden, and Norway had evolved regional languages over time, influenced by their global position. The Icelandic that Arni learned growing up wasn’t the same dialect as the Icelandic spoken by Snorri Sturluson and the Saga writers, but the versions were closely related enough for the stories to still be readily understood.

Through his roommate at school, Arni was hired as an assistant to the Danish royal antiquarian to transcribe and translate thousands of pages of Icelandic material; the diligent and detailed work he accomplished in his years of apprenticeship alone would have been enough to demarcate him as a great scholar. His practice of transcribing material word for word, including abbreviations and original spellings, was above and beyond the standards of his times. (Read more.)


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