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15 October 2017

A Grab Bag of Early Modern Poetry

Manuscript of the Month

Numerous poetical miscellanies, written and collected in Iceland in the 17th and 18th centuries, are preserved in various libraries, both in Iceland and abroad.

Rask 88a, 146r

At the bottom of f. 145r is stamped: “No. 9” and “Fire Rigsdaler”, and beneath is the date 1791 as a part of the stamp. This suggests that this part of the manuscript was offered for sale in Copenhagen in the year 1791. (Click on the picture for a larger version.)

One such is the manuscript Rask 88a, preserved at Den Arnamagnæanske Håndskriftsamling in Copenhagen. It comprises 167 leaves in all, forming distinct booklets, some of which seem to have belonged together from the beginning. There are 14 booklets, made up of approximately 24 quires, written in various hands. It is not known when the booklets were gathered together to form one whole, but it happened in all probability after 1791. At the bottom of f. 145r is stamped: “No. 9” and “Fire Rigsdaler”, and beneath is the date 1791 as a part of the stamp. This suggests that this part of the manuscript was offered for sale in Copenhagen in the year 1791. It contains three Eddic poems, Alvísmál, Völundarkviða and Hárbarðsljóð, all written in the same hand. The handwriting is an imitation of a medieval script. One may presume that all of the booklets were assembled sometime after that. Later they were bound into the poetical miscellany which now carries the call number Rask 88a.

That suggestion is supported by a index in front, which seems to have been made late in the 18th century or at the beginning of the 19th. In the index some items are noted which are not in the manuscript but may have belonged to the bundle before the manuscript was bound. Some of them might have been transferred to other bundles before binding. Kristian Kålund suggests that some of the poems in the register, which are not to be found in Rask 88a, may now belong to Rask 87.[1] Both manuscripts were bound in the 19th century, probably at Kålund’s behest, but after the booklets had been gathered into two bundles, otherwise he would not have made this suggestion. It is possible that the manuscript’s last owner before it came into the Arnamagnæan Collection’s possession, the Danish linguist Rasmus Christian Rask (1787−1832), divided the booklets into two separate bundles, but then he must have done so after the register was made and not taken this into account when doing so. 


The poems in Rask 88a are mainly of a secular nature and most of them have never been printed. They include, for example, two long poems of aphorisms and proverbs, both composed in the 17th century, a poem about the well-known ogress Grýla by the 18th-century poet and naturalist Eggert Ólafsson, comic verses, a poem on seafarers, heroic poetry, verse letters and the above mentioned Eddic poems, to name the major types. Most of the booklets were transcribed in the latter part of the 18th century. Dates occur frequently as parts of titles indicating the dates of the poems’composition, and thus providing terminus post quem of the transcript; for example: “Bréf Mr Sigfúsa í Skriðu 1759“ [The letter of Mr. Sigfús at Skriða in 1759] and “Fáeinar vísur til gamans kv(eðnar) 1760 af Mr M.E.s.“ [A few verses composed for amusement in 1760 by Mr. M.E.s.]. The last year mentioned is on f. 55r: “Árið 1777 liðið” [The passing of the year 1777].

Fragment of an older poetical miscellany and the children of Rev. Jón Arason at Vatnsfjörður

As mentioned above, the manuscript is assembled from separate quires, many of which may have originally been independent booklets, each containing one or more poems. This does not, however, apply to the part of Rask 88a which starts on f. 55r and ends on f. 92v. On that part there is contemporary foliation, 210−217 and 237−315, which indicates that we have here remnants of a larger work, probably from the last part of the 17th century, judging by the script. According to the foliation, 20 leaves are missing internally, 209 leaves in front and leaves are probably missing at the end as well.

Professor Jón Helgason has identified the hand as that of Oddur Jónsson, son of the Rev. Jón Arason at Vatnsfjörður in Ísafjarðardjúp.[2] Oddur died in 1711. At the beginning of this portion of the manuscript we have a poem called “„Raunakveðlingur sra Guðbrands Jónss. 1668” [The Rev. Guðbrandur Jónsson‘s Poem of Sorrow, 1688]. This Guðbrandur was the brother of the scribe and succeeded their father as a minister at Vatnsfjörður. The poem is long, 52 stanzas, and composed at the occasion of the poet‘s illness. It has only been preserved in one other manuscript, as far as we know (JS 204 8vo, now at the National Library of Iceland). The first nine verses are missing from the poem in that manuscript, however. JS 204 8vo belonged to Anna Jónsdóttir, the sister of Guðbrandur and Oddur. In this part of Rask 88a we find both secular and religious poetry, among others hymns and poems by the Rev. Jón Arason of Vatnsfjörður. The children of Jón Arason were known for collecting and copying manuscripts, or having manuscripts copied – among the preserved manuscripts are several poetical miscellanies made by them or for them. At least eight such books have been identified.[3] This part of a manuscript, bound with booklets containing poems copied in the latter part of the 18th century, is in all probability a remnant of yet another poetical miscellany owned by the siblings, and made in the last part of the 17th century or at the very beginning of the 18th century.

Rask 88a, 2r

The manuscript consists of various poems and other writings. (Click on the picture for a larger version.)

[1] Katalog over Den Arnamagnæanske håndskriftsamling, ed. Kristian Kålund (København, 1889-1894), II, pp. 550−551.

[2] Jón Helgason, “„Indledning“, Íslenzk fornkvæði. Islandske folkeviser I-VIII ed. Jón Helgason, Editiones Arnamagnæanæ. Series B, vols. 10-17 (København, 1962-1981), I, p. xvi.

[3] Þórunn Sigurðardóttir, “Constructing cultural competence in seventeenth-century Iceland: The case of poetical miscellanies“, Mirrors of virtue. Manuscript and print in late pre-modern Iceland, ed. Margrét Eggertsdóttir and Matthew James Driscoll,, Bibliotheca Arnamagnæana XLIX. Opuscula vol. XV (Copenhagen, 2017), pp. 277-320..