This summer a very special commemoration will take place in Iceland. 900 years ago the first Icelandic laws, the Hafliðaskrá, came into existence. At the seventeenth International Saga Conference to be held at Reykjavik and Reykholt on August 12-17, 2018, the jubilee made it even into the title, Íslendinga sǫgur / 900 years Grágás Laws. What are the Gragas? What do we know about their relationship to this law? How does they relate to Icelandic sagas? I will try to provide an introduction to these laws and some answers to these questions. In two earlier posts Scandinavian laws came here already into view. The first post offered a general overview, and the second post looks at modern translations of Nordic laws.
Laws and literature
Medieval Iceland is famous for its sagas, legendary tales about Iceland’s medieval society with grisly stories, strong men and strange encounters. Icelandic is a language with roots in Old Norse. Approaching the sagas and the Edda, the most famous collection of sagas, is complicated by the existence of two versions, one in prose, the other in poetry.
Let’s first look at the Hafliðaskrá. If you would look in the Wikipedia in its various versions you will find only articles about this law in Icelandic, Swedish and Spanish. The lemma in the Icelandic Wikipedia is very short, the Swedish tells us more, and the Spanish points even to scholarly literature. The Hafliðaskrá is a set of laws proposed in the Althing, the Icelandic parliament, by Hafliði Másson and Bergþór Hrafnsson, a lögsögumaður, literally a law man, knowledgable about the law, a term not so far from the Latin iurisperitus. The Hafliðaskrá is also called the Bergþórslög. For the first time in Iceland’s history laws were written down. The great paradox of the Hafliðaskrá is that there is no manuscript witness to its text. We know about it thanks to a saga. It is therefore unclear to which extent any laws issued in 1118 in the Hafliðaskrá are part of the Grágás law collection published around 1200.
For the Grágás 55 manuscripts are listed at the Icelandic manuscript portal Handrit, accessible in icelandic, Swedish and English. There is an entry for the Grágás in the English Wikipedia. By the way, this is the point to mention the online version of the Íslensk-ensk orðabók (Concise Icelandic-English Dictionary), online in the Icelandic digital collection of the University of Wisconsin. The etymology of the word Grágás is curious. Either they are literally the Grey Goose Laws, or they were supposed to have been written with goose quills. The bibliography by Halldór Hermannsson, The Ancient Laws of Norway and Iceland. A Bibliography (Ithaca, N.Y., 1911; Islandica, 4) has been digitized and can quickly be accessed as part of Cornell University’s Islandica: A Series in Icelandic Studies where the latest monographs in the Islandica series published since 2008 can be read online, too.
Scholars view two manuscripts as the main textual witnesses of the Grágás, the Konungsbók [GKS 1157 fol., since 1979 in the Stofnun Árna Magnússonar, Reykjavik; written 1240-1260] and the Staðarhólsbók [Reykjavik, Stofnun Árna Magnússonar, AM 334 Fol., written 1260-1281], both accessible online at Handrit, the digital library of Icelandic manuscripts, The Konungsbók manuscript was held for a long period at the Royal Library in Copenhagen, hence its Latin designation Codex Regius. The Grágás were edited by Vilhjálmur Finsen, first from the Konungsbók, published as Grágás: Islændernes lovbog i fristatens tid (…) in four volumes between 1852 and 1870. Finsen added a Danish translation. The first volume of his edition is online at Baekur, the central Icelandic digital library, but you can find all four volumes in the Internet Archive. In 1879 Finsen’s edition of the Grágás in the Staðarhólsbók appeared. Peter Foote, Andrew Dennis and Richard Perkins translated the Grágás into English [Laws of Early Iceland: Grágás (2 vols., Winnipeg 1980-2006)]. You can read the text of the Grágás in Finsen’s edition (vol. 1) also online at the Icelandic Wikisource. Another online version of the first volume of Finsen’s edition is in fact a reprint [Grágás. Konungsbók (Odense 1974)] which mentions other translations, in Latin, Hin forna lögbók Íslendínga sem nefnist Grágás. Codex juris Islandorum antiquissimus qui nominatur Grágás, Johan Frederik Vilhelm Schlegel (ed. and transl.) (Hafniae 1832) and in German, Islandisches Recht. Die Graugans, Andreas Heusler (transl.) (Weimar 1937), published in the series Germanenrechte of the Akademie für Deutsches Recht, an institution created in 1933 to support ideas of the Nazi regime about law and order in the Third Reich. J.F.W. Schlegel (1765-1836) was a Danish nephew of the brothers August Wilhelm and Friedrich Schlegel. Heusler (1865-1940) was a Swiss medievalist and a specialist of Germanic and Scandinavian languages literature. Earlier he published for example a study on criminal law in the sagas, Das Strafrecht der Isländersagas (Leipzig 1911; online, Internet Archive).
German scholars have continued to study the language of the Grágas in great detail, leading to studies like such as Wortschatz der altisländischen Grágás (Konungsbók) by Heinrich Beck (Göttingen 1993). More recently appeared the monograph by Hans Henning Hoff, Hafliði Másson und die Einflüsse des römischen Rechts in der Grágás (Berlin 2012) who studies the person of Hafliði Másson and looks at the influence of Roman law and Christianity on laws in medieval Iceland. He also gives an overview of early Icelandic laws and their manuscript transmission.
While reading about the Grágás it becomes clear this name has been used only since the sixteenth-century. It must be remembered, too, that Iceland lost its independence in the years 1262-1264 to Norway. There is a very substantial distance in time between the surviving manuscripts and their redaction in their rather loose form transmitted over the centuries. Only a few leaves from the twelfth century with laws knwon later from the Grágás have survived [AM 315 d fol, dated 1150-1175]. Alas they are only partially readable at the surface without special light and other modern tools. At Handritin heima, a website in Icelandic, Swedish, Danish and German, you will find palaeographical and codicological guidance to medieval Icelandic manuscripts. We must remember in particular the efforts of Árni Magnússon (1668-1730) to save Icelandic manuscripts and books, but in 1728 a fire in Copenhagen destroyed many printed books and luckily only a smaller number of manuscripts in his house. Lost forever were thus early versions of famous texts such as the Heimskringla. For the prose version of the Edda the Codex Traiectinus, a manuscript written on paper around 1600 and held at Utrecht since 1643 (Utrecht, Universiteitsbibliotheek, ms. 1374; digital version, Special Collections UB Utrecht) is one of only four more or less complete surviving manuscripts.
The Stofnún Arna Magnússonar (SAM) in Reykjavik honours Magnusson’s heritage and scholarly work and promotes research in the field of Iceland’s cultural history. The institute hosts a number of projects and databases. Six language projects are presented at the Malid portal. The SAM has also created the Íslenskt textasafn, an Icelandic textual corpus, and the ISLEX Orðabókin, a multilingual online dictionary for the various Scandinavian languages. One of the projects awaiting completion is an online catalog of Icelandic manuscripts in Canada and the United States.
The University of Copenhagen has become the home of the Den Arnamagnæanske Kommission, a commission founded in 1772 to govern the Arnamagnæanske Stiftelse, the foundation that safeguarded Magnusson’s manuscripts, books and papers. You can read online at Baekur the 1889 catalogue of the 3,000 manuscripts of which 1,400 remain in Copenhagen. The Danish institute has created a separate website about medieval Nordic manuscripts and the online Ordbog over det norrøne prosasprog, a dictionary for Old Norse and Icelandic prose. The project for The Medieval Nordic Legal Dictionary has so far resulted in a series of translations and studies, and an indispensable bibliography which you can download. Creating the dictionary will be a work for many years. At Septentrionalia you can find a PDF version of Andrea de Leeuw van Weenen’s Grundwörterschatz Altisländisch (1999).
There is a clear tradition of studying Icelandic law in connection with Icelandic literature. This tradition is at work, too, in the choice of themes in the section around the Grágás of the conference in August 2018. Among the themes are the contrast between oral and written culture, the history of legal and administrative institutions, ecclesiastical versus secular law, and of course law and legal culture in the Icelandic sagas. The role of legal knowledge in politics and the historiography of medieval law and legal culture, too, will come into view. One of the things shown here at several points is the need to look at resources in neighbouring Scandinavian countries when you are studying one of them., but of course it is wonderful to go to all these Icelandic digital resources with their short names! While writing the last paragraphs of this post the weather in my country was rather hot. Hopefully it did not lead me to serious errors or omissions. Comments and additional information are always welcome, and to many posts I have added postscripts. Let’s hope the weather and volcanoes on Iceland will not disturb the conference in August.