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.

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?”