This research project has had at its centre the manuscripts associated with a wealthy and influential man from Iceland named Magnús Jónsson (1637–1702), whose patronage of handwritten books and hunger for literature from Iceland and beyond was especially great. Magnús is often referred to as Magnús í Vigur because his primary residence during his lifetime was at a farm on the small island of Vigur in Ísafjarðardjúp in the Westfjords. He is also sometimes called Magnús digri (the stout).

Early years: 1637–1662

Magnús came from a powerful family and had an impressive pedigree, being the son of a Lutheran minister, grandson of a county magistrate, great-grandson of two Lutheran bishops on both parents’ sides: on his father’s side, Guðbrandur Þorláksson (d. 1627), Bishop of Hólar and famous for having the first Bible printed in Icelandic, known later as Guðbrandsbiblia; on his mother’s side, Oddur Einarson (1559–1630), Bishop of Skálholt. Magnús was furthermore the great-great-great grandson of Iceland’s last Catholic bishop, Jón Arason of Hólar (1484–1550).

Magnús was born on 17 September 1637 in Vatnsfjörður in Vatnsfjarðarsveit in the Westfjords. His parents, betrothed in 1635 and married in 1636, were the Reverend Jón Arason (1606–1673), minister at Vatnsfjörður educated in Copenhagen, and Hólmfríður Sigurðardóttir (1617–1692). Magnús was the first of nine children, with a 20-year age span from oldest to youngest.

He had four sisters – Helga (1638–1718), Ragnheiður the elder (b. 1639), Ragnheiður the younger (1646–1715), and Anna (1650–1722) – and four brothers – Guðbrandur (1641–1690), Sigurður (1643–1730), Oddur (1648–1711), and Ari (1657–1698).


Magnús’s father Jón Arason was not only a Lutheran minister, but a highly educated man who wrote both poetry (religious, secular, and rímur) and history (Vatnsfjarðarannáll) and also translated religious works into Icelandic (e.g. Dyggðaspegill, Lucas Martini’s Der christlichen Jungfrawen Ehrenkränzlein). Jón studied at the University of Copenhagen in the 1620s after graduating from Iceland’s northern Latin school at Hólar. Upon his return to Iceland, Jón was schoolmaster at the Latin school at Skálholt in southern Iceland from 1632 to 1635, before becoming a minister with his own parish, first at Staður in Reykjanes (1635), and then eleven months later at Vatnsfjörður, where he settled and established his family.

Magnús himself was also formally educated, attending school at Skálholt from 1652 to 1653, but he did not remain long enough to complete his studies. His appreciation for and competence in Latin and other languages, notably Danish and German, is reflected in the library of texts he amassed later in life, which included both translations from these languages (some of which he is thought to have done himself) and short works remaining in the original foreign language. It could be argued that Magnús’s seemingly insatiable love of books, literature, and learning was the unavoidable outcome of his very privileged family background, good upbringing, and the excellent educational resources available to him as a young man. His first commissioned manuscript appears to be the book of romances now in Stockholm, Papp. 4to nr 16, copied by the scribe Þórður Jónsson in 1654, when Magnús was still only in his teens.

Family and relationships: 1662–1688

Magnús í Vigur’s personal life was somewhat turbulent. He had relationships with several women, both within and outside of marriage, divorcing and re-marrying, and was the father of both legitimate and illegitimate children.

Marriage to Ástríður Jónsdóttir

At the age of 24 Magnús married for the first time. Almost exactly one year before the wedding, on 1 September 1662, he was betrothed to Ástríður Jónsdóttir, his 17-year-old second cousin. They therefore needed a royal dispensation in order to be able to marry. The wedding took place on 6 September 1663 at the bride’s family’s residence at Holt in Önundarfjörður. Ástríður’s father, Jón Jónsson (d. 1680) was the Lutheran minister there.

Both Magnús and Ástríður received substantial gifts of both fixed and moveable property from their families on the occasion of their marriage, including the farms of Ögur and Vigur from Magnús’s father. Even so, after the wedding, Magnús lived with his bride and his in-laws for the first three years of the marriage. It was while living at Holt that Magnús translated Ævintýr af einum mýlnumanni (‘Tale about a miller’) into Icelandic from German in 1663, according to a note in one of Magnús’s commissioned manuscripts, now in the British Library: Add. 4857. The couple moved away to Ögur not long after that in 1666 – and there is similar evidence of Magnús’s commissioning manuscripts from there. A few years later they set up their household in Vigur.

A letter dated 23 January 1672 is often cited as the earliest reference to Magnús and Ástríður living in Vigur, but they must have been there already in 1669, if the dedication on the title page of the manuscript just mentioned, Add. 4857, is taken at face value.


Magnús and Ástríður had two daughters together. The first, Þorbjörg, was born 20 February 1667, while the family was still living at Ögur. Their second daughter, Kristín, was born five years later in 1672, at Vigur. Both girls grew up to be literate women who appreciated reading and learning, and they both came to be influential in the preservation of their father’s library of manuscripts.

Þorbjörg Magnúsdóttir

On 8 November 1696 Þorbjörg married the lawman and scholar Páll Jónsson Vídalín (1667–1727) at Víðidalstunga. Being of the same age, the two had met at Hólar around 1684, when Páll was studying at the Latin school and Þorbjörg was studying needlework under the tutelage of her aunt Ragnheiður, who then was married to Bishop Gísli Þorláksson (1631–1684) of Hólar.

Þorbjörg and Páll had four children: three sons (Jón the elder, Jón the younger, and Magnús), and one daughter, Hólmfríður, to whom Ástríður, her maternal grandmother bestowed a devotional manuscript shortly before her death (British Library, Add. 4883). Páll would later work closely with the manuscript collector Árni Magnússon (1663–1730), and in addition to the farm Ögur, Páll inherited some of Magnús í Vigur’s manuscripts through his wife Þorbjörg, and some of these in turn came through him to belong to Árni Magnússon. This was despite Þorbjörg outliving Páll by 10 years. She died in 1737, at the age of 70.

Kristín Magnúsdóttir

Magnús í Vigur did not live to see his younger daughter Kristín marry Snæbjörn Pálsson (c. 1677–1767) in April 1706. They lived at Mýri and had three children, Magnús, Markús, and Halldóra; however their time together was short, as Kristín only lived until 1714, aged 42. Snæbjörn came to be known as Mála-Snæbjörn (lawsuit-Snæbjörn), due to the several cases he was involved in against various people, including, in 1720, Páll Vídalín.

Infidelity and divorce

In addition to children with his wife Ástríður, Magnús was also father to an illegitimate child born in 1673, one year after Ástríður had given birth to their second daughter Kristín. After Magnús admitted to adultery with an unnamed woman working on the farm Vigur, Ástríður left Magnús and went to live with her father at Holt. With his help, she petitioned for a divorce from Bishop Brynjólfur Sveinsson (1605–1675) of Skalhólt, who was also her paternal grandfather’s half-brother. Two letters were sent to him, dated 27 and 28 February 1674, just before the end of his time as bishop. Ástríður and Magnús were summoned to the court at the Althing in 1674 but it was still not yet settled. Ástríður wrote again to Brynjólfur in autumn 1674, and his reply of 12 April 1675, only four months before his death later that year, advised her not to return to Magnús. After this, the matter was taken up by Brynjólfur’s successor, Bishop Þórður Þorláksson (1637–1697), and during his first visit to the Westfjords the case for divorce was considered and granted. Ástríður later lived at Mýri in nearby Dýrafjörður, eventually together with her daughter Kristín and son-in-law Snæbjörn. Ástríður died on 30 August 1719, at the age of 73.

After his relationship with Ástríður formally ended, Magnús had another child in 1681 with another mistress, Guðbjörg Jónsdóttir. Guðbjörg was then married to Jón Sigurðsson, a farmer who later worked at Skarð (one of Magnús Jónsson’s farms, under the control of Ögur) and even at Vigur itself after Magnús’s death. Magnús did not, however, publicly acknowledge his paternity of the child, named Sigurður, until 1686. Until then, the boy was considered to be Guðbjörg’s son together with Jón Sigurðsson. When the truth was revealed, Magnús was fined and the record of this notes that the offence was Guðbjörg’s first, and Magnús’s second. Sigurður Magnússon only lived to his mid-twenties, almost certainly dying in the smallpox epidemic that broke out in 1707.

Later years: 1688–1702

Soon after his affair with Guðbjörg was made known, Magnús settled on the idea of marrying a second time. He sought a royal dispensation to marry Sesselja Sæmundsdóttir (born 1673), whose father, Sæmundur Magnússon (born c. 1634 and still living in 1703), was magistrate at Hóll in Bolungarvík. Sesselja was one of seven of Sæmundur’s children with his second wife Solveig Jónsdóttir.

Second marriage to Sesselja Sæmundsdóttir

The dispensation was issued in Denmark by King Christian V on 27 April 1688, when Sesselja was only 15 years of age; permission must have been sought by Magnús at least a year earlier. The dispensation reached Iceland later and was read at the Althing on 30 June 1691. The following year, 1692, the two were married, Sesselja still rather young at 19 years old, while Magnús, old enough to be her father, was 55. The couple did not have any children, and this marriage also seems to have been troubled. Sesselja was living again with her family only a few years later. Her uncle Árni Magnússon (c. 1625–1698) of Hóll in Bolungarvík petitioned to take her into his care. After his death, Sesselja appears to have lived with her father again, with her brother Sigmundur (c. 1675–c. 1737) as her legal guardian.

An adopted son

Around the year 1690 Magnús himself fostered a young man called Magnús Ketilsson (c. 1675–1709), the son of a former schoolmate from Skálholt who died around that year. Magnús saw that his foster-son was also educated at Skálholt, and upon his return from Latin school in 1696, Magnús Ketilsson also copied manuscripts for his foster-father at Vigur for a short period of time. He left Vigur and his life as a scribe in 1700 to work in eastern Iceland as a Lutheran minister, and after marrying and having children died, still as a young man, most likely from the smallpox epidemic.

Death and legacy

Magnús Jónsson í Vigur died at the age of 64 on 23 March 1702. At the time of his death, he had amassed an extensive library of Icelandic and foreign texts from medieval tales and sagas of all literary genres, to modern works on geography and ethnography that were being printed in early modern Europe, to poetry composed by his own family members.

These texts, collected into the various manuscript volumes at the heart of the ICELANDIC SCRIBES research project, continued to be read and copied well after their collector’s death and after his library had been disassembled. Reconstructing it has been a major task and gives an important image of the Renaissance eclecticism, and international ambitions, that were at work in one corner of Iceland.

Magnús the patron

Magnús was a wealthy, powerful, and influential land-owner, a curious scholar, and an avid lover of books, whose influence on early modern manuscript production in Iceland has been long recognised, though little studied in a systematic way. Icelandic scholar Jón Helgason stated over 60 years ago (1955: 7) that an entire volume could easily be written on the subject of Magnús Jónsson and his manuscripts, yet Icelandic scholarship since then has largely focused on medieval manuscripts of earlier centuries and the transmission history of individual texts.

The manuscripts associated with Magnús Jónsson are unique because the texts preserved in them represent a snapshot of the literature – prose, poetry, secular, and religious – available in Iceland at the time, and thus provide special insight into the country’s early modern literary landscape as well as the network of men employed to copy them. Speaking of just one of the many manuscripts commissioned by Magnús Jónsson, Jón Helgason (1955: 15) also noted in the introduction to his edition of AM 148 8vo, the famous miscellany known as Kvæðabók úr Vigur, that this manuscript “shows as though in a cross-section the type of poetry, both ancient and new, thought to be most current in Iceland in the late 17th century”.

Many of the manuscripts in Magnús’s library were commissions copied by one or more of several scribes who worked in his service over the course of the second half of the 17th century; their work is detailed on the Scribes page of this website. However, Magnús was himself also the scribe of several of the manuscripts in his possession. That is, he copied some of his books himself, either in whole or in part. They include the following:

  • AM 284 4to
  • AM 601 c 4to (rímur excerpts copied c. 1675–1700)
  • Three letters to Jón Jónsson at Holt, dated 1662, 1663, and 1672 and preserved in the larger letter collection AM 1058 III 4to
  • parts of AM 148 8vo (also known as Kvæðabók úr Vigur)
  • ÍB 380 8vo
  • ÍBR 5 fol. (also known, together with ÍBR 6 fol., as Vigrabók)
  • ÍBR 6 fol. (also known, together with ÍBR 5 fol., as Vigrabók)
  • parts of JS 43 4to
  • JS 583 4to
  • JS 385 8vo


As part of the ICELANDIC SCRIBES project outputs, a Wikipedia article has been created on Magnús Jónsson í Vigur, shaped largely from the material presented here. It was submitted for review on 22 March 2018.


Last updated: 2018-10-08