Month: March 2018

Focus on Scribes

London, British Library Add. 4868

London, British Library Add. 4868, detail of an opening initial of a text copied by Magnús Þórólfsson (f.139v). Photo: SMW.

Main scribes

One of the main aims of this project has been to identify, study, and gain a greater understanding of the scribes who copied manuscripts for Magnús Jónsson í Vigur. That’s why a whole section of the website is dedicated to what I call his “main scribes” – four men who appear to have worked most consistently for Magnús í Vigur over a period of time spanning nearly 50 years. Their work was mostly successive, though there was also some overlap between them, and other indications of collaborative work. Such an example can be seen in the image below, where Jón Þórðarson’s contribution (in lighter ink) ends on the verso side of a leaf in the manuscript Add. 11,153 and Magnús Ketilsson’s contribution starts (in darker ink) on the bottom of the same leaf and continues to the end of the manuscript.

London, British Library Add. 11,153

London, British Library Add. 11,153, scribal collaboration between Jón Þórðarson and Magnús Ketilsson (ff.260v–261r). Photo: SMW.

The individual webpages on the scribes Þórður Jónsson, Magnús Þórólfsson, Jón Þórðarson, and Magnús Ketilsson provide basic overviews about their lives and their contributions to their patron Magnús í Vigur’s library. The information there has been drawn mainly from what could be gleaned from the manuscripts themselves and the notes these men left in them. As my research becomes finalised over the next few months, these scribe pages will continue to be updated, just as the individual manuscript pages are being added and updated as they are completed.

More scribes

Beyond the four main scribes, however, we know that others also copied texts for Magnús í Vigur (and that he also copied several manuscripts himself), but the contributions of these other scribes appear somewhat less regularly, or, rather, they are less well documented.

In the introduction to his 1955 facsimile edition of the miscellany AM 148 8vo (Kvæðabók úr Vigur), scholar Jón Helgason argued for up to 12 different hands at work in that single manuscript, although some may be, rather, be examples of different handwriting from individual scribes – what are called Hands 2 and 4, for example, are probably both those of Magnús Jónsson himself, while Hands 3, 7, and 10 resemble each other in some ways, though they have not been associated with any known scribe. The two scribes behind Hands 5 and 11 likewise remain anonymous.

Two of the four main scribes noted above are also among Jón Helgason’s list of 12 hands – Þórður Jónsson (Hand 8) and Magnús Ketilsson (Hand 12) – while other identifiable scribes from the list include the following three men:

1. Hannes Gunnlaugsson (1640–1686) of Reykjarfjörður (Hand 1) contributes a copy of the famous 17th-century Icelandic poet Hallgrímur Pétursson’s polemic poem “Aldarháttur” (Signs of the times) to Magnús’s Kvæðabók. Hannes’ distinctive and careful work – mainly decorative elements including title pages – is also found in the large and impressive saga manuscripts Lbs 235 fol. (the medieval contemporary histories of Sturlunga saga), JS 27 fol. (romance sagas), and AM 426 fol. (sagas of Icelanders), pictured below.


Reykjavík, Árni Magnússon Institute, AM 426 fol., title page (f.1r). Photo: F. Richter.

2. Magnús í Vigur’s (first) father-in-law Jón Jónsson (d. 1680) of Holt (Hand 9) copied, for Magnús’s Kvæðabók, the beginning of Jón Ólafsson Indíafari‘s mid-17th-century Icelandic translation of Claus Christoffersen Lyschander’s verse Greenland Chronicle (Den grønlandske chronica), a work that was first printed in Denmark in 1608. In addition to this, Jón Jónsson is also known to have corresponded with Magnús í Vigur about exchanging books.

3. Another scribe working for Magnús í Vigur was Jón Björnsson, who was active at least during the winter of 1689–90. He signed his work in the manuscript Add. 4857 on 25 January 1690, as pictured below. His hand does not seem to match any of the unidentified hands listed in the Kvæðabók edition, but more work remains to determine the extent of his contribution to Magnús’s library.

London, British Library Add. 4857

London, British Library Add. 4857, detail of Jón Björnsson’s colophon (f.143v). Photo: SMW.

Conference Report: DHN Helsinki

It’s been a couple of weeks since returning from the 3rd annual Digital Humanities in the Nordic Countries conference in Helsinki, Finland, and I’ve finally been able to write up some of my (informal) reflections on it. I attended and gave a short presentation on my Icelandic Scribes project and this website. As I mentioned in an earlier post leading up to the event, this was my first time at a DH conference and I wasn’t sure what to expect. In fact, all kinds of apprehensions filled my mind as I arrived. Would I understand the papers I attended? What about the plenaries? How would my own presentation be received? Surely I’ll get lots of hard questions from the “real” DH scholars…

Happily, I soon realised I had nothing to worry about, and that my contribution to the DH conversation was a valid and welcome one. Despite being a large gathering of about 300 participants, with four plenaries, multiple slots of four parallel sessions, and about 30 poster presentations, the conference had a friendly and relaxed feeling to it, and I met lots of great people.


My presentation was scheduled for the third day of the conference in a session with the title Manuscripts, Collections and Geography. The other three papers preceding my own were all very interesting – “Big Data and the Afterlives of Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts” (presented by Toby Burrows), “The World According to the Popes: A Geographical Study of the Papal Documents, 2005–2017” (presented by Fredrik Norén), and “Ownership and Geography of Books in Mid-19th Century Iceland” (presented by Örn Hrafnkelsson) – and I think the session was a success overall.

DHN Presentation Cover Slide

Title slide from the presentation, Friday 9 March.

In addition to my own session, I attended sessions on Historical Texts, Our Digital WorldAuthorshipDatabase Design, and Computational Linguistics, as well as the poster displays, which were introduced with a 1-minute pitch in a whirlwind Poster Slam. The presentations and posters featured lots of interesting material that showcased a range of different projects and experiments, theoretical approaches, and technical tools and systems.

Plenary Talks

The four plenaries were also really interesting and engaging, and I felt that they helped to start each day off on an exciting foot. The first, on the Wednesday, was Open and Reproducible Workflows for the Digital Humanities – A 10,000 Meter Elevation View by Alan Liu (University of California, Santa Barbara). Liu considered, from different perspectives zooming ever further out, questions about applying the principles of open science to humanities projects, in order to make such projects’ data and interpretations more transparent for others to build upon in turn. While acknowledging that the humanities and the sciences are different, with different types of research questions and methods, Liu challenged us to consider how we as (digital) humanists can work more openly and reproducibly in our projects.

Thursday’s plenary, Finding the Human in Data: What Can Digital Humanities Learn from Digital Transformations in Cultural Heritage?, by Kathryn Eccles (University of Oxford), was particularly interesting to me. She began her talk with the statement, “I’m not a DH scholar but…”, and asked how often we’ve heard this, or even might say it about ourselves. I could certianly relate to this sentiment. The point Eccles made in posing this question was well taken – that we and our colleagues all use digital methods and tools, and perhaps more often and more thoroughly than some of us realise. Her focus on the interplay between the digital humanities and cultural heritage more broadly was also thought-provoking. I was especially interested in her examples of the use of online crowd-sourcing to tag and annotate artworks, and the potential for using a modified form of this in teaching, to get students to interact with material culture in different ways.

On Friday, the third and final day, there were two plenaries. The first was by Caroline Basset (University of Sussex, but speaking in a personal capacity due to the then ongoing strike action within UK higher education). In her talk, ‘In that we travel there’ – but is that enough?: DH and Technological Utopianism, she considered, from the perspective of media studies, how the digital, still often thought of as “new” media, already has its own history. Basset discussed imagined and reimagined utopic futures, their disappointing realities in light of the commodification of technology and the future, and argued that hope – or hoping against hope – allows us to break from this by imagining and innovating, causing trouble, and working towards something new.

The last plenary, by Frans Mäyrä (University of Tampere), was on Game Culture Studies as Multidisciplinary (Digital) Cultural Studies. Mäyrä introduced us to current trends in multidisciplinary game studies, including both challenges and successes within this growing field. As someone without any knowledge of game studies, I found it an informative and accessible talk. Some of the issues raised had solutions in common with digital projects in other fields, such as the use of crowdsourcing and cooperation between museums and universities in order to access and study older games that require otherwise obsolete technology.


At the end of the conference a number of awards were given out. There were three awards each for Best Poster and Best Paper, as well as three Open Science Awards; I was surprised and humbled to receive one of these for my paper! The criteria taken into consideration for the Open Science Award were the project’s availability of data and source code, the potential for reuse by the wider community, and the overall quality of the work. I feel so very honoured to have the digital aspects of my research project acknowledged in this way!

DHN Open Science Award

DHN’s Open Science Chair Leo Lahti (left) announcing the winners of the Open Science Award. Photo: SMW.


I’ll end this report on the conference with a photo I took of the Lutheran cathedral in the centre of Helsinki. It also lies in the midst of several university buildings. We were lucky enough to have this great view each day, on our way between venues.

Thank you once again to all of the organizers, and I look forward to both attending and (probably) helping behind the scenes at next year’s DHN Conference, which will take place in Copenhagen.

Helsinki Cathedral

Helsinki Cathedral. Photo: SMW.

A Copy of Sníðúlfs ævintýri: Copenhagen, Arnamagnæan Collection AM 578 i 4to

Last month I wrote a short introduction to Rask 33, one of the manuscripts in the Arnamagnæan Collection in Copenhagen, which may have had a connection to Magnús Jónsson í Vigur. Here I’ll highlight another manuscript in the same collection, AM 578 i 4to, part of which, like Rask 33, was copied by one of the main scribes who worked for Magnús Jónsson í Vigur. Again, the connection to Magnús as a potential patron or owner of the manuscript is as yet unclear, but it has been interesting investigating the manuscript as another example of the handiwork of one of Magnús’s many copyists. The scribe in question this time is Magnús Ketilsson, the last to work for Magnús í Vigur, and the text in question is a short tale known as Sníðúlfs ævintýri.

Sníðúlfs ævintýri is an exemplum (plural: exempla), that is to say, a short tale commonly used in preaching. Many tales of this kind survive from throughout the European Middle Ages, in Latin and vernacular languages, including Old Norse. Although the exemplum contained in AM 578 i 4to was copied at the end of the seventeenth century (probably around 1696–1700) in Lutheran Iceland by a scribe who went on to be a Lutheran minister, the text’s origins go back to the Catholic Middle Ages and the story of the life of St Gangulphus.

Copenhagen, Arnamagnæan Institute, AM 578 i 4to

Copenhagen, Arnamagnæan Institute, AM 578 i 4to, the end of Sníðúlfs ævintýri copied by Magnús Ketilsson (ff.2v–3r). Photo: SMW.

As interesting as it would be to be able to connect this particular copy of the story to Magnús Jónsson’s library, we can actually already be certain that he had other copies of the same story in different manuscripts: two copies of slightly different lengths are preserved in the manuscript Add. 11,153 4to, and a third copy is in Add. 4859.

I recently wrote about this manuscript in more detail for the Arnamagnæan Institute’s series Manuscript of the Month (Månedens Håndskrift) for March 2018 and you can read about it on their website in either English ( or Danish (

“A Scribe’s Favourite Exemplum?”

“En skrivers yndlingshistorie?”