Vivat Germania latina, Vivat Latinitas teutonica!

Svavar Hrafn Svavarsson

Greatness Revived

The Latin Dissemination of the Icelandic Past



In the late 16th century, in the wake of the Reformation, the Icelandic learned establishment, led by Bishop Guðbrandur Þorláksson, found itself faced with a serious problem that manifested itself as rather inaccurate foreign accounts of Iceland and Icelanders. These accounts, offered to the international audience, infuriated the Icelanders. It was almost a commonplace, for example, according to these slanderous fictions (as they were called), that Iceland was closer to Hell than most other places on earth (and even contained an entrance to Hell), and that the Icelanders themselves were in general odd and barbaric. [1]

Their pride hurt, they ventured to answer and correct these accounts for reasons that they themselves and later generations have described as patriotic. The first such published answer, and at the same time the first published Neo-Latin historical work, was the polemical Brevis Commentarius de Islandia by pastor Arngrímur Jónsson (Copenhagen 1593). [2] Half a decade earlier, probably in the winter 1588/89, another less openly polemical account had been written, but apparently for the same reasons, called the Qualiscunque Descriptio Islandiae, perhaps by Bishop Oddur Einarsson (1559-1630). [3] These works, different as they are, attempt to describe the geography of Iceland and the nation of Icelanders in more reasonable terms, and both use, albeit hesitantly and unsystematically, Icelandic history, scattered references to the Icelandic past, as a means of explaining or establishing the cultural identity of the Icelandic nation.

The Brevis Commentarius of Arngrímur awoke the curiosity of Danish historians, who encouraged and enabled the author to pursue historical studies. They did this for their own ends, being interested in Icelandic or Old Norse source material for the early history of the Nordic nations, rather than in Icelandic history. Arngrímur took up the challenge and wrote several commentaries and translations for their use. He is nevertheless primarily remembered as the author of a history of Iceland, Crymogaea sive Rerum Islandicarum Libri III (Hamburg 1609). [4] This work defined in many ways the subsequent historical works of Icelanders, the majority of which (at least of those published) was written in Latin, culminating in the Historia Ecclesiastica Islandiae by Bishop Finnur Jónsson (Copenhagen 1772-78).

Arngrímur, at work around and after the year 1600, was faced with the task of writing for the first time the history of Iceland. In doing so he took part in establishing or codifying or, if you will, creating the cultural identity of Icelanders. What now emerged clearly, and had partially emerged in his polemical work, was that Iceland had a glorious past, a golden age, the medieval Commonwealth, which lasted from the settlement in 874, or the establishment of the Althing in 930, until its fall in 1262/64. The reader gets the impression that it is mainly if not only because of this period in its history that the Icelandic nation now has a claim to distinction. Related to this attitude is the view on the Icelandic language displayed in the works of Arngrímur. Icelandic had a strong and unbroken tradition in Iceland and had never been challenged by other languages. Arngrímur claimed that the language had remained pure and intact from the earliest times, so that he spoke the same language as did his medieval ancestors. He also preached that it should be kept as unadulterated as possible, i.e. as close as could be to the language of the Commonwealth; it was a treasure from the golden age. [5] As such it was part and parcel of the emerging cultural identity. The 17th century, consequently, saw a steadily increasing attention being paid to the Saga-literature, concerned as it was with the Commonwealth. [6]

Now a short explanatory interlude on Icelandic history is in order. In Arngrímur's time, Iceland was a Danish colony. After the fall of the Commonwealth, in 1262/64, the government of Iceland passed into the hands of the Norwegian king, and in 1380 on to the Danish throne. Thus, Iceland had been under foreign monarchic rule for centuries. It remained so until the 20th century, but voices demanding first partial and later absolute self-government, the coextension of the country's geographical and political sphere, began to be heard at least as early as 1830, with the advent of political nationalism and the added impetus of the Romantic movement, but hardly much earlier. [7] We should bear this history in mind when we consider the Neo-Latin writings of Icelandic historians. From the time of Arngrímur, then, until the end of the 18th century, Neo-Latin historians, as well as everyone else, were loyal subjects of the king. Singing the king's praises they were monarchists and royalists without all doubt and in no way partook in the political nationalism characteristic of the 19th century. But that does not mean that they were not nationalistic in another sense, namely insofar as they emphasized the distinct cultural identity of the Icelandic nation, and lauded its foundations, the golden age of the Icelandic Commonwealth. In fact, the cultural strand in the political nationalism of 19th century Iceland, and even in the national identity of Icelanders today, may very well have had its origin in the works of these authors, or is at the very least reflected in their work.

Now, turning back to Arngrímur, correcting factual errors in foreign accounts of Iceland is much easier than refuting stated and implied value judgments concerning a country's culture. In order to successfully refute these, and to establish Iceland as a country of culture, a non-barbaric country, Arngrímur sought a cultural identity in the past history of Iceland, the golden age, as I have already indicated. As Arngrímur emphasizes, the medieval Commonwealth was a free, independent and self-governing Icelandic republic. The freedom and independence which lie at the root of the golden age of Iceland and are therefore evidently factors in the emerging cultural nationalism might be thought to be somewhat awkwardly placed in the context of the colonial status of Iceland in the period of the Neo-Latin historians. Hence, it would not be surprising to find a certain tension, perhaps even evident to the historians themselves, between the identity sought in and legitimized by Iceland's medieval period of independence, and the monarchic views held by the proponents of that identity. [8] In short, if Iceland's identity is based on the reference to this free and independent medieval Commonwealth, how can one fail to regard its loss of independence and consequent colonial status under a foreign king as regrettable (whatever else one might think)? It is this tension that I want to probe, and how the writers dealt with it, accommodating their present constitutional status within their cultural nationalism. In order to do this I shall consider what five Neo-Latin historians wrote about the settlement of Iceland and the fall of the Commonwealth. For it is above all here that we can find their notion of the character of these inhabitants of the golden age.

Although the Qualiscunque Descriptio Islandiae was not published until 1928, and probably had little effect, the author's view is nevertheless a testimony to an Icelander's view towards his cultural identity at a time when Icelanders were hard pressed to put forward such an identity in the face of foreign slander. Concerning the settlement of Iceland, Oddur, if he is the author, depicts the king of Norway, Harald the Fairhair, who unified Norway as one kingdom in the middle of the 9th century, as belligerent and over-reaching in his taxations and acquisitions of property; Harald was not only a king but an oppressor (68-72). This portrayal is to be found in various medieval sagas, especially the younger ones from around 1300 and later, but also in Landnáma (The Book of Settlements), perhaps from two centuries earlier. It vied with another portrayal, meeker and more generous, associated with Snorri Sturluson. [9]

There is nevertheless a small difference between the medieval accounts and that of Oddur, a difference that later historians were to make more of. Since the Norwegians, at least those who moved away, had always been lovers of freedom, according to Oddur, they were unwilling to subject themselves to the onerous yoke of king Harald. Hence many of them left, mostly good and noble men, moving to new and presumably free pastures, among others Iceland. This country, incidentally, was vastly superior to what it was in his own time; it is described in almost utopian terms, as it already had been in medieval times (75).

The settlers, then, were lovers of freedom; that was the main reason for their departing from Norway, Oddur continues. There was enmity between Norway and Iceland, due above all to Harald's ill treatment of his subjects, kinsmen of the settlers. For generations this enmity continued, so that the Norwegian kings even contemplated invading Iceland. But due to the Icelander's prowess and martial virtues, the Norwegian kings often offered them a place at their court. Apart from this, Oddur relates, literature and learning flourished at the time of the Icelandic Commonwealth; here he refers to the saga-literature. Then he cites Saxo's praise of the literary or rather historical achievements of the Icelanders, a citation that was to become almost compulsory in accounts of Iceland. This literature was written in the Nordic Ursprache, perhaps an equal to the classical languages (97-98). This is obviously a matter of some pride.

But Oddur acknowledges that the times were brutal, and that the Icelanders had used their spectacular prowess, which is described at some length, to wage war on each other (98 ff.) for selfish reasons. The reader is left to guess that this internal warfare was the cause of the fall of the Commonwealth, for the author does not discuss this matter in any detail, but says only that the Icelanders subjected themselves to the king of Norway on certain conditions, namely that they could continue to abide by their ancient mores (204-6). At the same time he paints a dark picture of the situation in contemporary Iceland. Obviously he does not want to attack the Danish king, but he openly challenges the domestic authorities. One can even find a hint of an explanation of why the situation in Iceland is so bleak. No one cares for the common good.

In this work we find the elements that are to appear in the historical writings of Icelanders for the next two hundred years. The golden age is emerging, with its literary and martial virtues, although it is not clearly categorized as such; we see an emphasis on the purity and antiquity of the Icelandic language. And we see an emphasis on the freedom-loving Icelanders. But apart from that we may discern a view of the cause for the fall of the Commonwealth, and this cause is a character trait of Icelanders, a tragic flaw, their self-seeking and disregard of the common good, which also serves to explain the dismal state of affairs in Oddur's own time. This 'tragic' explanation, if we can call it that, will emerge again in similar ways in the historical literature of Iceland. But the freedom of the golden age stands in stark contrast to the current state of affairs. The tension between the two is left unsolved, if indeed it is evident to the author. It is however perhaps evident to Arngrímur Jónsson, although not in his Brevis Commentarius but rather his later Crymogaea.

This work, the first history of Iceland, is markedly Humanistic in most historiographical respects. [10] Concerning Iceland, Arngrímur reflects to a large extent the same views as Oddur, in a more learned way, but with his Humanistic learning he apparently attempts to settle the conflict between the present status of Iceland and its glorious independent past.

In his treatment of the settlement of Iceland, he is not surprisingly negative in his treatment of Harald the Fairhair, who, in addition to gaining monarchic power, deprived people of their possessions and rights, behaved tyrannically (17-18). But importantly, as it turned out, this was but a step in the constitutional development from oligarchy and ochlocracy to monarchy. Here Arngrímur seems to make use of the classical idea of the changes of constitutions, constitutional teleology, which he will use to explain the passing of the Commonwealth, and which he bases on his reading of Jean Bodin's Methodus. But Harald's rule had another effect, according to Arngrímur, for the best men were liable to leave Norway, and many of those went to Iceland. This part of the picture is compatible with medieval accounts; Iceland was settled not simply because Harald was a king but because he was an oppressive king, a tyrant even.

The constitution of the Icelandic Commonwealth is the subject of a lengthy discussion. Arngrímur discusses in detail whether the term res publica or civitas is proper to Iceland at that time, using Bodin as his authority, and finds that both will do equally well. Thus he places the Icelandic Commonwealth in the context of international constitutions. The settlers soon opted for an aristocratic constitution, rejecting the previous form of anarchy and ochlocracy (58-60). In all matters constitutional, they remained just; their mores, Arngrímur states, were above all modest (49), reminiscent of the Spartans; the same is true of the athletic prowess: Spartan. In fact, in his extended discussion, he often comes back to the Spartans. [11] Having converted peacefully to Christianity in the year 1000, their respect for the church is unequalled in modern times. Their lineage is noble beyond all doubt. Even their Viking raids are acceptable to this Protestant pastor. In short, the Icelanders of the Commonwealth were almost vice-less and virtuous, and Spartan. Their constitution was exemplary, aristocratic in character. Like Oddur, he points out the medieval historians' brilliant cultural achievements.

In his treatment of the fall of the Commonwealth (188-92) he follows his authority Bodin again. But he sees reason to emphasize that at the time of the aristocracy, Iceland was the equal of Norway, an ally even. But he claims that the Norwegian kings, not oppressive kings but simply kings, were eager to subject Iceland. Then he says: "We have found that various Norwegian kings have at various times plotted against the good fortune of the Icelanders which was first and foremost based on their independent autonomy" (188). Here, then, we clearly see that it was the freedom and independence that was the cause of Iceland's good fortune. Oddur's remark on the freedom-loving Icelanders has grown into the cause for the nation's good fortune; what mattered was not being subject to the king, whether he was oppressive or not. Arngrímur is dangerously close to a dilemma, for he himself has of course nothing but praise for the monarchic constitution. Add to this the fact that Arngrímur criticizes the domestic government of Iceland (198), as did Oddur. Why did they forfeit their freedom he asks? Well, actually they did not. The forces of constitutional change demanded that the aristocracy would degenerate into oligarchy and anarchy, aspirations to tyranny. At this stage, the Norwegian king managed to get what he wanted through what we can call constitutional fate. It could be argued that this historical explanation would more or less hold sway for the next two hundred years, and arguably even longer.

We see the same elements as in Oddur's work, with the addition of this explanation, which has replaced the tragic explanation of Oddur. At this point in his history, Arngrímur does something rather brilliant, pulling together all the threads of his account, as it were. He has described the Commonwealth as a golden age of liberty and cultural distinction, where every other farm either had a hero or a brilliant writer, if not both. He has dwelt on its demise and adduced inevitable constitutional changes as the cause. Then he cites (192) three lines from Ovid's Metamorphoses, where the poet introduces the last age of man, the age of iron (1.129-31): fugere pudor verumque fidesque: / In quorum subiêre locum fraudesque dolique / Insidiæque et vis et amor sceleratus habendi. [12] Thus Arngrímur in a learned fashion likens the fall of the Icelandic Commonwealth with the coming of the age of iron, where splendors are lost and replaced by war and greed. Monarchy, then, came as a relief. This is learned constitutional fatalism.

The tension between the current state of affairs and that of the golden age, between the liberty and greatness of the past and the colonial status of the present, has been solved, at least up to a point. Constitutional fatalism is adduced in explanation. Of course, Arngrímur never hints at the feasibility of independence for Iceland, at a return to the independence that was the pillar of Commonwealth excellence.

When we move about half a century onwards, we find Bishop Þórður Þorláksson at work. In 1666, he published in Wittenberg his Dissertatio Chorographico-Historica de Islandia. On the settlement of Iceland, Þórður's account is in accordance with those of Oddur and Arngrímur. The reason for the settlement of Iceland is the tyranny of Harald the Fairhair. The noble men of Norway were unwilling to submit to his yoke. And again, the Icelanders of the Commonwealth were a freedom loving people. Although Þórður uses Arngrímur's terminology, he refrains from deep explanations of the Commonwealth's fall. The tension, therefore, is evident, and he sees fit to claim that Icelanders were not coerced into submission but suffered it voluntarily (2.2.1). Somehow the Icelanders willingly surrendered the foundation of their greatness. That is all he has to say on the matter. In other respects, the cultural identity codified by Oddur and Arngrímur has become securely entrenched. Þórður places the appropriate emphasis on the purity of the language, and, in the same manner as Oddur and Arngrímur, cites Saxo to underpin the excellence of the medieval Icelanders' learning.

Moving onwards another half a century we reach Þormóður Torfason's huge Historia Rerum Norvegicarum (Copenhagen 1711). Understandably he does not have as much to say about Iceland as the other writers, since he is writing the history of Norway, but some things are clear enough. His sentiments concerning the settlers of Iceland and Harald the Fairhair are the same as of those before him (II.93). And his views on the fall of the Commonwealth are not entirely surprising. The Icelandic aristocracy was torn apart by internal fighting and civil war. It was best served by submitting itself to the rule of one king, i.e. the king of Norway. Þormóður seems to be saying that it was the only solution, but the Bodinian model we found in Arngrímur is discernible, for he adds that, since the aristocracy did not function, it changed into an imperium paucorum. The process was aided by the insidious Hacon, king of Norway, although he regally, according to Þormóður, abhorred cruel measures (IV.333-34), and culminated in monarchic rule.

There are few value judgments in Þormóður's account, but at one point he sees fit to elaborate (IV.335-36): even if there had been no foreign enemy, and no one had ambushed the liberty of the Icelanders, the state of affairs alone would have sufficed not only to extinguish all liberty but to kill off the Commonwealth and the very nation itself. Further, the clergy had become so corrupt, and the contempt for the law so widespread, that God saw fit to deprive the Icelanders of their liberty. They had received their liberty from their forefathers, but did not know how to use it. Here, the loss of liberty is, apparently, a divine punishment for ill behavior and governance, possibly somehow linked, in Þormóður's mind, with the inescapable change of constitution. We discern the familiar inevitability explanation, although now not presented clearly in terms of constitutional teleology or tragic explanations.

Moving on yet again we come to our last historian, Bishop Finnur Jónsson, and his Historia Ecclesiastica Islandiæ, published in Copenhagen in the years 1772-78. This history is the culmination of the trend set by Arngrímur Jónsson. It is as an afterthought that Finnur discusses the characteristics of the settlers, as an addendum in the fourth and last volume. He has this to say about the Icelanders themselves, beginning by openly seeking an identity for the settlers of Iceland:

The national spirit of Iceland and its special character of mind can best be understood from the very History and course of events ... The Icelanders ... accustomed to their ancestral liberty and freedom to undertake whatsoever and to unwillingly suffer nothing, believing it the utmost disgrace to undergo the dominion, monarchic and absolute, which Harald the Fairhair instituted, traveled to Iceland ... (IV.125-26)

We see that, according to Finnur, the settler's attribute is first and foremost their love of liberty. But this attribute has its negative side, reminiscent of the tragic flaw we saw earlier: the Icelanders were arrogant and vindictive while peerless in martial virtues. But these traits, according to Finnur, are also the source of the greatest achievements, for he claims:

From this same fountain of ambition there streamed all manner of eagerness for magnificence and arts, and sciences, for in that they did engage, so much so that they excelled others. But the wiser men and those of a more sedate spirit, engaged in the aforementioned virtues more modestly ... Such, I believe, is the native character of our forefathers, coming from the state and love of liberty... (IV.126)

It emerges clearly from this afterthought that the prowess and love of liberty is emphasized as the characteristic trait of the Icelandic national spirit. The same attributes that made them glorious were apparently also to blame for their internal fighting. It is also quite clear, both from this addendum and other passages, that Finnur considers the cultural achievements of the Commonwealth to have been unequalled; indeed this was a golden age.

But having hinted at a tragic explanation in the manner of Oddur Einarsson, Finnur simply follows the account given by Arngrímur in his Crymogaea in his description of the constitution of the Icelandic Commonwealth, giving as it were a shortened version of it, sometimes verbatim. The aristocracy degenerated into oligarchy and anarchy as the mind of men got viler; this was due or perhaps manifested the inexorable processes of constitutional changes, as explained by Arngrímur. Those who ran the errands of the Norwegian king were simply traitors, according to Finnur's account.

It is curious that in another addendum, Finnur sees fit to explain his, or rather Arngrímur's, position further, not in substance, but rather in attitude. It is as if he is aware of the tension between his view of the glories of the Icelandic Commonwealth and the present colonial status and not satisfied with either the tragic or constitutional explanation. It is perhaps for that reason, because of a slight unease, that he adds this chapter:

It is evident, then, that the Icelanders were not forced to surrender by means of violence or threats, but partly by persuasion, prayers and the most soft promisses, and partly by the internal infirmities of the Republic and, so to speak, the hidden fate of changes. Further, in the very time of the change of the Republic, the ancient Aristocracy began to change into Oligarchy, and even such an Anarchy that no more expedient plan was found by the inhabitants than to submit to the universal power of one King. And this plan did indeed not fail them, for thus far, for five hundred years and more, we have perceived that the Monarchic power is unobjectionable with regard to our matters... (IV.140)

So, Finnur sees fit to interpolate his account with an explanation or even an exclamation: Long live the king! But apparently he is not content with this explanation either and so continues:

Further, most Republics have met this end. For example the Spartan, the Athenian, the Roman, and others. Since, thus, the best constituted Republics, the most accomplished in all liberal learning and the most powerful, have not been eternal, but finally been subjected to monarchic power, who will wonder that the Republic of Iceland was reduced to this extremity? Indeed, it would be much stranger if this Republic, which had been harassed by so many internal seditions and external ambushes for almost four hundred years, would have been able to persevere and protect its liberty. (IV.140)

Thus he ends by stating: what else did you expect? But he hardly gets away with this, for, despite the peace, he has bluntly stated (e.g. in II.353-54) that everything degenerated after the loss of liberty, at least until the reformation, which brought back some light. The tension in a sense remains notwithstanding the tragic or Humanistic explanations of constitutional changes. On the one hand we have the golden age, based as it was on freedom and self-government, the single most potent feature of the medieval Icelanders, according to all the historians. On the other hand we have the loss of liberty, due partly to the tragic flaw of constant internal quibbling and partly to constitutional fate or even God himself, which resulted in degeneration, although a peaceful one. Barely half a century later, with the advent of foreign ideas, this tension would be solved by the wish for a return to independence.



[1] On these foreign accounts, see Jakob Benediktsson, Arngrimi Jonae Opera Latine Conscripta. Vol. IV. Introduction and Notes. Copenhagen 1957: 32-39, 141-49. For a general account, cf. Sumarliði R. Ísleifsson, Ísland, framandi land. Reykjavík 1996: 25-79.

[2] Critically edited by Jakob Benediktsson, Arngrimi Jonae Opera Latine Conscripta. Vol. IV. Copenhagen 1950: 1-85.

[3] Critically edited by Fritz Burg, Qualiscunque Descriptio Islandiae. Hamburg 1928. Jakob Benediktsson, "Hver samdi Qualiscunque descriptio Islandiae?", in Lærdómslistir. Reykjavík 1987: 87-97, argues forcefully for this authorship, but it remains a matter of conjecture.

[4] Critically edited by Jakob Benediktsson, Arngrimi Jonae Opera Latine Conscripta. Vol. II. Copenhagen 1951: 1-225. For a general account of Arngrímur's career and works, see Jakob Benediktsson 1957: 1-81.

[5] On Humanist views concerning the Icelandic language, see Jakob Benedikstsson, "Arngrímur Jónsson og íslenzk málhreinsun", in Benediktsson 1987: 47-68. For a general account, cf. Kjartan Ottósson, Íslensk málhreinsun: Sögulegt yfirlit. Reykjavík 1990: 20-23.

[6] See Jakob Benediktsson, "Den vågnende interesse for sagalitteraturen på Island i 1600-tallet", in Benediktsson 1987: 227-41, and Peter Springborg, "Antiquæ Historiæ Lepores – om renæssancen i den islandske håndskriftsproduktion i 1600-talet", in Gardar 8, 1977: 53-89.

[7] See e.g. Gunnar Karlsson, "Icelandic Nationalism and the Inspiration of History", in Rosalind Mitchison (ed.), The Roots of Nationalism: Studies in Northern Europe. Edinburgh 1980: 77-90, esp. 80-81, and Gunnar Karlsson, "The Emergence of Nationalism in Iceland", in Sven Tägil (ed.), Ethnicity and Nation Building in the Nordic World. London 1995: 33-62, esp. 48-50.

[8] This tension has been pointed out, in the case of Arngrímur, by Jakob Benediktsson 1957: 54-55.

[9] See Gert Kreutzer, "Das Bild Haralds Schönhaars in der altisländischen Literatur", in Heiko Uecker (ed.), Studien zum Altgermanischen. Berlin & New York 1994: 443-61.

[10] On the Humanistic features of Arngrímur's historiography and his debt to Jean Bodin's Methodus, see Jakob Benediktsson 1957: 45-61.

[11] Arngrímur was well acquainted with Niels Krag's work on the Spartans, De Republica Lacedæmoniorum Libri IV (Geneva 1593).

[12] A typographical error has crept into Jakob Benediktsson's commentary, 1957: 314, where he refers to 1.29-31, instead of 1.129-31.



Autor (author): Svavar Hrafn Svavarsson
Dokument erstellt (document created): 2002-08-13
Dokument geändert (last update): 2002-08-20
WWW-Redaktion (conversion into HTML): Manuela Kahle & Stephan Halder
Schlussredaktion (final editing): Heinrich C. Kuhn