4 June 2015

AM 595 a-b 4to

Roman wars on Icelandic vellum

Rómverja saga (The saga of the Romans) is a compilation of Icelandic translations from the end of the twelfth century of three classical Latin works, Bellum Iugurthinum and Catilinae coniuratio by Sal­lust and Pharsalia by Lucan. The saga is found in two redactions, the older of which is thought to be nearer to the original, while the younger preserves an abbrevi­ated version of the text. The older redaction is found only in the manuscript AM 595 a–b 4to, which was in all probability copied at the Benedictine monastery at Þingeyrar in northwestern Iceland. 

Two unknown scribes

It is written for the most part in a single hand, probably in the second quarter of the fourteenth century; a sec­ond scribe has written two pages, 29v–30r, at a later time. The manuscript had been transmitted in two separate parts – hence its shelfmark – which were only reunited in the nineteenth century.


The manuscript has come down to us in rather poor shape. It is thought originally to have comprised 76 leaves, only 38 of which are preserved. Several leaves have shrunk owing to bad conditions, and four have had pieces cut off them. F. 24 is particularly badly damaged; it had become separated from the rest of the codex at some point and was acquired separately by Árni Magnússon.
The text has been supplied with red chapter headings (rubrics) and some decorated initials, also written in red, although in several places space has been left for headings and initials which have not been filled in.


The manuscript is characterised by its many marginal illustrations, found particularly at the bottom of the pages. Many of these are contemporary with the writ­ing of the text, while others are later additions, some from as late as the seventeenth century. Several of these imitate older illustrations on the same page, or at least attempt to do so. Most of the older illustrations depict people, but only few of them are related to the text. On one page for example there is an illustration of a castle along with the text ‘Unninn kastali af Me­tello’ (Metellus captures a castle). At the bottom of f. 2r, shown here, a figure seems to be swallowing (or spitting out) the letter ‘s’ in the word skaut (shot) to which he is pointing with his left hand, while pointing with his right hand to the word braut (away) further along in the sentence, perhaps to show that the two words rhyme. The younger illustrator is not as skilled as the older one, but there is on the other hand a greater variation in his illustrations, which among oth­er things depict various mythical animals. There are also a number of names written in the margins, among them some which can be identified as belonging to known persons from eastern Iceland in the seven­teenth century. Besides these, various comments have been added, some related to the text and others that seem to be arbitrary. Finally, some verses have been inserted in the margins. On f. 27v there are verses which may originally be from a dancing song. These are accompanied by musical notation, which is written upside down, although the melody, which is otherwise unknown, may not in fact be related to the verses at all.

Árni Magnússon got the manuscript from Þorvaldur Stefánsson (c. 1666–1749), who was vicar at Eiðar in east Iceland from the year 1700. The name of his pre­decessor, Þorsteinn Jónsson (c. 1621–1699), is written on f. 24r, which, as was mentioned above, Árni ac­quired separately, along with the information that the leaf in question was found on his property. The manu­script thus appears to have travelled from Þingeyrar in the north of Iceland to the learned men in the east, but how and when exactly is not known.

Þorbjörg Helgadóttir

A metatextual reference in the text: A man swallows the letter s in the word "skaut" (shot) - or spits it out - at the same time as he points at it with his left hand. He uses his right hand to point at the word "braut" (away), thus showing that the two words rhyme (internal rhyme)..