Fyrirlestrar Miðaldastofu 2016–2017

Patricia Pires Boulhosa

The Writing of the Icelandic Laws ca. 1250–1300 or Scribes as Law-Makers

Þriðjudaginn 11. október 2016 kl. 16.30
Lögberg 101

Patricia Pires Boulhosa

The famous account in Íslendingabók of how Hafliði Másson and other ‘learned men’ had the laws written down in a book for the first time in 1117 has often supported the idea that Icelandic laws were, to some extent, codified earlier on, and that the numerous and variant texts of the laws recorded in the thirteenth century were ‘private’ books. These law-books did not have the firm authority of Hafliði’s book, which would have remained the main textual reference to all agents involved in law-making. Variance in the Icelandic laws is often seen as problematic: Peter Foote, for instance, speaks of the “legal confusion caused by the number of written sources with competing claims to authority”. Icelanders, according to this view, would have striven to preserve the unity and synthesis of their laws, which was presumably inherent to Hafliði’s laws.

The recording of the Icelandic laws in ca. 1250-1300, including the production of the two best known manuscripts of Grágás (GkS 1157 fol and AM 334 fol), has complex connections to the submission to the Norwegian king. The recording was an effort not only of unity and synthesis, but also a desire to display that unity and synthesis. However, the nature of the Icelandic laws (and I think specially of the way the laws were created) made this effort difficult to realize. This difficulty, I will argue, can be seen on the pages of the manuscripts.

In this lecture, I will explain how a comparison of different Grágás texts and the material evidence of their manuscripts (initials, page layout, revisions, corrections) allows us to understand the nature of Icelandic laws and how they were made. I would also like to question whether the legal texts make claims to authority, and if they do, how this is visible on the written page. I will discuss how people gathered and wrote texts, decorated and displayed them, and how these acts made the scribes and those involved in the making of manuscripts into law-makers too.

Patricia Pires Boulhosa is Honorary Research Associate in the Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic, University of Cambridge. She works on medieval Icelandic law, its social, economic and historical circumstances, its immediate material circumstance — the manuscript — and the interpretative context of scribes and their readers.

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