Writing in the twilight
The manuscripts of Magnús í Tjaldanesi
Fimmtudaginn 30. nóvember 2017 kl. 16.30
Magnús Jónsson í Tjaldanesi (1835–1922), an ordinary farmer with no formal education, was one of the most prolific scribes of late pre-modern Iceland, producing in the course of his lifetime a vast number of manuscript copies of texts, the majority of them romances of one kind or another—fornaldarsögur, riddarasögur, translations of chapbooks etc.—which he collected into a huge anthology, 20 volumes in all, to which he gave the title Fornmannasögur Norðurlanda (‘Sagas of the ancient men of the north’). There are multiple copies of most of the volumes, and it appears that he copied the entire collection at least four times. Of the 46 manuscripts in Magnús’s hand known to me, 36 are dated, the earliest to 1874, the latest to 1916; the ten remaining are undated but appear mostly to be earlier than the dated volumes. Magnús’s manuscripts contain, in total, texts of nearly 200 individual sagas – essentially everything that was in circulation in late 19th-century Iceland.
All Magnús’s manuscripts are identical in size and format: short, squat quartos each of exactly 800 pages, written in a highly idiosyncratic script. In terms of their design, the manuscripts clearly show influence from printed books, incorporating features such as title-pages, tables of contents and running titles. In about half of Magnús’s manuscripts there are prefaces, another print-feature. In these he typically discusses his exemplar, how he acquired it, by whom it had been written, when and where, and the nature of the text in relation to other copies he has seen. On the basis of all this he speculates on the saga’s age, assuming, not unreasonably, that the more widely disseminated a saga is, the older it is likely to be. Taken together, these prefaces provide a wealth of information on scribal culture in late 19th-century Iceland, a culture which, as Magnús well knew, was fast disappearing.
In my presentation I will examine the nature of the material in Magnús’s collection and his treatment of it, and will try to assess what may have been his intentions with this monumental undertaking, and how it has fared in comparison with the official Icelandic canon which was being forged at roughly the same time.
Matthew Driscoll (Cand.mag., DPhil (Oxon.)) is Professor of Old Norse Philology at the University of Copenhagen. His publications include articles and books on various aspects of late pre-modern Icelandic literature, as well as editions and translations of a number of medieval and post-medieval Icelandic works.
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