Árni Magnússon (1663 - 1730) - life and work

Árni Magnússon

Þorlákur Skúlason and Brynjólfur Sveinsson, the respective Bishops of Hólar and Skálholt, began extensive copying of Icelandic vellums onto paper before the middle of the seventeenth century; collection of manuscripts had begun and they were also sent abroad on some scale. Flateyjarbók was sent in 1656 and in autumn 1662 Þormóður Torfason set off from Engey near Reykjavík to present King Frederik III of Denmark with the Codex Regius of the Edda poems and the Gráskinna version of Njal’s Saga. Just over a year after Þormóður Torfason left Iceland with the Codex Regius, Árni Magnússon was born. His parents were Magnús Jónsson, the minister at Kvennabrekka in the Dalir district, later local prosecutor and sheriff, and Guðrún Ketilsdóttir, daughter of archdeacon Ketill Jörundarson from Hvammur in Dalir and his wife Guðlaug Pálsdóttir. Little is known about Árni Magnússon’s childhood and upbringing. He was brought up by his maternal grandparents at Hvammur and received his first education from his grandfather, after whose death in 1670 his maternal uncle, Páll Pálsson, took over. In 1680 Árni Magnússon enrolled in the Skálholt school, where he spent the next three years. Several of his contemporaries there became his lifelong friends: Björn Þorleifsson, later Bishop of Hólar; Jón Halldórsson, later minister at Hítardalur; and Jón Þorkelsson Vídalín, later Bishop of Skálholt.

Icelandic manuscripts remained sought-after while Árni Magnússon was growing up. Many vellums ended up in the private collections of scholars and collectors in Denmark, often gifts from Icelanders who needed the assistance of respected figures in that country. King Frederik III died in 1670 and was succeeded by his son Christian V. He appointed Hannes Þorleifsson, the son of Þorleifur Kortsson, the magistrate at Þingeyrar, as his Keeper of Antiquities in 1681, with the duty of historical writing and collection of manuscripts for the royal archives. Hannes Þorleifsson went to Iceland in summer 1682, collected books there and returned to Denmark that autumn on the ship from Höfði, taking with him what he had acquired. The ship sank on its way to Denmark, and is thought to have gone down with everything on board off Langanes, northeast Iceland. Little is known of how much or what Þorleifsson had managed to acquire during the weeks he spent in Iceland, but when Árni Magnússon later tried to find out he was told that he had been given “a load of parchment book rubbish”. The same summer that Hannes Þorleifsson was collecting manuscripts for the Danish king, Jón Eggertsson from Akrar in Skagafjörður was in Iceland too, on the same errand for the King of Sweden. He undertook his collecting energetically and gathered together dozens of manuscripts which he sent to Sweden the following year. Among them were some of the most noteworthy Icelandic vellum books such as the Homily Book, the oldest Iceland manuscript preserved in its entirety, thought to date from c. 1200, and Helgastaðabók, a beautifully illuminated fourteenth-century manuscript of the Saga of St. Nicholas, once the property of the church at Helgastaðir in Reykjadalur. Jón Eggertsson had planned to take the same ship as Hannes Þorleifsson, but changed his plans at the last moment, spent the winter in Iceland and went abroad in summer 1683.

Árni Magnússon completed the Skálholt school and left for Copenhagen late in the same summer that Jón Eggertsson went abroad with what he had collected. He accompanied his father, Magnús, who by then was the sheriff of Dalasýsla and had been sent there as a member of a party lobbying for Icelandic trade interests. Árni Magnússon enrolled at the University of Copenhagen on September 25, 1683. Little is known of his studies in the following years, although he undoubtedly pursued them with his characteristic industriousness and devotion, and in 1685 he graduated in theology.
In 1684, the summer after he enrolled at the university, Árni Magnússon started working for Thomas Bartholin junior. Although only four years older than Magnússon, Bartholin had completed his schooling ten years before him and had already been appointed professor when the Icelander arrived in Copenhagen. That February, Bartholin had been appointed Keeper of the Royal Antiquities after Hannes Þorleifsson and was now collecting and preparing for publication all the main writings of Danish and Nordic interest. On his urging the King prohibited the sale of Icelandic manuscripts to foreigners and their export in 1685. Bartholin had his assistants copy out all manner of writings and documents that he planned to use in his works, and Árni Magnússon began this task with him alongside his studies.

The summer that Árni Magnússon graduated, 1685, he returned to Iceland to attend to his affairs, after his father’s death the previous year. He was also supposed to look for manuscripts for Bartholin. Magnússon spent the summer with his relatives in Dalir. In the autumn he planned to leave on the ship from Rif, but it was wrecked in the harbour by a storm shortly before it was due to depart. All the other autumn ships had left and no passage abroad was to be had. Forced to stay the winter at Hvammur with his uncle Páll Pálsson, Magnússon spent his time investigating manuscripts and methods of copying them. Ketill Jörundsson, his grandfather, was a prolific copier of manuscripts and his uncle had also served as a scribe. Árni Magnússon was therefore familiar from his childhood home with learned practices, but his acquaintance with Bartholin and working for him undoubtedly sharpened his awareness of the importance of collecting everything that could be found about the history of the nation and its literature, and of preserving it for posterity. Although he did not bring Bartholin many manuscripts from Iceland after this stay, it is fairly certain that he began collecting privately around this time.

In summer 1686 Magnússon returned from Iceland to Copenhagen and resumed his work for Bartholin, where he remained for the next four years. As before, Árni Magnússon’s work involved copying texts from ancient manuscripts and translating quotations from old Icelandic literature into Latin. One product of this work was Antiquitatum Danicarum de causis contemptæ a Danis adhuc gentilibus mortis, which dealt with the contempt for death shown by the Danes in times of old, as its Latin title states. Árni Magnússon assisted Bartholin in preparing this work for printing in 1689 and the book is more than 700 pages in length. To a large extent its content derives from Icelandic sources – sagas, Edda poems and court poetry – as well as other medieval writings. The quotations from the ancient literature are printed both in Icelandic and in Latin translation, presumably made by Magnússon. Another task that he undertook for Bartholin over this period, along with other Icelanders, was to provide source material for a history of the Danish church that Bartholin planned to write. All this material was collected in thick folio volumes, most of which are still preserved in the Royal Archive in Copenhagen. These contain copies from a wealth of manuscripts and all manner of documents from Denmark, Norway and Iceland. One remarkable feature of the Bartholinian volumes is that they preserve copies of manuscripts and printed books from the Danish University Library which were destroyed in the Great Fire of 1728. Alongside his work for Bartholin, Magnússon copied manuscripts privately and had Icelandic students in Copenhagen to assist him in doing so; the copies included texts from Icelandic manuscripts in the University Library and from manuscripts from the private collections of Danish officials, many of which he later acquired on their deaths. This work greatly augmented Árni Magnússon’s growing private collection.

In August 1689 Magnússon went to Norway on Bartholin’s behalf to look for old manuscripts and copies of them in preparation for the work on ecclesiastical history, travelling as far north as Trondheim. On his way back he spent more than three months with Þormóður Torfason on an island just off Stavanger; the two men had first met in Copenhagen and the visit marked the beginning of a friendship and collaboration which lasted for the rest of their lives. Magnússon provided Torfason with immeasurable assistance in preparing and publishing his books over the next few years. After being appointed Royal Historian of Norway in 1682, Torfason had taken most of the chief Icelandic vellums from the Royal Archive in Copenhagen: the Codex Regius of the Edda poems, Flateyjarbók and many other manuscripts of sagas of kings. Furthermore, Torfason owned a good number of manuscripts in his private collection. Magnússon studied the manuscripts that Torfason had with him and extensively copied texts from his books. He returned to Copenhagen in February 1690, having acquired several more manuscripts for his collection.
The same year, Magnússon’s work for Thomas Bartholin came to an abrupt end when the latter was taken seriously ill and died on November 5, aged only 31. Magnússon was in the service of Thomas Bartholin’s brother Caspar the following winter, preparing his library for sale by auction the next summer. The collection contained several Icelandic manuscripts that Bartholin had owned, which instead of being auctioned were acquired by Árni Magnússon. Among them was Möðruvallabók, the greatest medieval collection of Sagas of Icelanders, some of which are not preserved in their entirety anywhere else. These manuscripts were a valuable addition to his collection which he sought to augment by every means at his disposal, and he never ceased to enquire of the whereabouts of manuscripts in Iceland.

Subsequently, Magnússon came under the patronage of Matthias Moth. Moth was the brother of Soffia Amalia Moth, who became the mistress of King Christian V of Denmark in 1671 and had three daughters and two sons by him. One was Ulrik Christian Gyldenløve, whom the king appointed Governor of Iceland when he was only six years old – a position he held until his death in 1719 although he never visited Iceland. Matthias Moth also benefited from his sister. He had entered medicine but abandoned that career in 1675 at Soffia Amalia’s urging and in the following years was awarded numerous offices and sinecures, proving to be a highly capable official. At this time one of his offices was Chief Secretary to the Danish and Norwegian departments of the Government of Denmark, making him a highly influential figure in the realm. Magnússon spent the next few years with Moth, among other things as a librarian, although little else is known about what he was engaged in then. However, it is not unreasonable to assume that the connection with Moth marked the beginning of Magnússon’s growing influence behind the scenes in various matters concerning Iceland over the next few years, for example the conferment of office. Magnússon also appears to have undertaken to publish the first volume of Bartholin’s ecclesiastical history and earned some income for it for some years, even though this was never actually done.

In June 1694 Árni Magnússon was chosen by the University of Copenhagen’s Council to visit Stettin in Germany on its behalf, in order to examine and assess the library which orientalist Andreas Müller Greiffenhagen had offered for sale to it. Although the purchase was never made, Magnússon stayed longer in Germany than was originally planned, spending more than two years there, apparently largely paid for by Matthias Moth. From Stettin he went to Berlin and Frankfurt before arriving in Leipzig in the autumn, where he stayed almost without interruption until Christmas 1696, examining the city’s library and manuscript collection and gathering all manner of written and historical information which he considered useful for his later antiquarian studies.

Shortly after Árni Magnússon set off for Germany, on July 14, 1694, Moth provided him with a letter from the king promising him a professorship at the University of Copenhagen, which was tantamount to a number in the queue for the posts that would later fall vacant. To improve his chances in the competition for a professorship, during his stay in Leipzig Magnússon published a slender volume containing Incertis auctoris Chronica Danorum et præcipue Sialandiæ, the Chronicle of Zealand, one of the few works that he published in his lifetime. He had copied it, while still in Bartholin’s service, from an old calfskin in the University of Copenhagen Library which later perished with the rest of the library in the fire of 1728.

Copenhagen 1697-1702

On returning to Copenhagen Árni Magnússon accepted Matthias Moth’s invitation to stay with him, since he had neither property nor income at the time. Moth stood him in good stead as ever and provided him with a post as secretary in the confidential document archive which was housed in the vault beneath Rosenborg Palace, an office which he retained for the rest of his life. Initially this was an unpaid appointment and undoubtedly entailed few duties. Despite his slender means in these years, Magnússon continued to add to his manuscript collection. He was assisted in this task in various ways. His connection with Moth and thereby with the government of the realm unquestionably made people in Iceland more willing to acquire manuscripts on his behalf or provide him with vellums, in the hope of his support if they had cases to present to the authorities in Copenhagen. One example was Þórður Jónsson, the son of Jón Vigfússon, Bishop of Hólar, who travelled to Copenhagen in 1697 with a view to securing the bishopric of Skálholt which had fallen vacant then on the death of Bishop Þórður Þorláksson. Þórður Jónsson undoubtedly sought Árni Magnússon’s support for his application and gave him manuscripts which included two noteworthy folios. One was the Skarðsbók version of Jónsbók, written around 1363 and the most ornate of all medieval Icelandic manuscripts. The other was the Kálfalækjarbók version of Njal’s Saga which was somewhat older than Skarðsbók, thought to have been written around 1300 and dirty and tattered by this time. Þórður Jónsson did not become Bishop of Skálholt but was granted the headmastership of the school there and held the post for three years. It was Jón Vídalín who obtained the episcopate in 1697 and Árni Magnússon was almost certainly instrumental. On thing is certain: Vídalín had only been bishop for two years when he had all the vellum books and fragments found in the possession of the diocese of Skálholt sent to Árni Magnússon in Copenhagen. Among them were such treasures as the great manuscript of Stjórn AM 227 fol., which ranks with the most beautiful Icelandic medieval vellums, and both Skálholtsbók versions of Jónsbók.

Árni Magnússon corresponded with a number of people in Iceland, seeking their assistance in enquiring about old books and fragments, letters and documents, wherever these were to be found, in order to have them bought or donated, or lent for copying if they were not for sale. In May 1698 he wrote to his friend Björn Þorleifsson, Bishop of Hólar:
I thank you dearly for assenting to having copies made of such letters older than 1560 as you may chance upon in your visitations, and for giving me notitie of pergament books, both good and bad, or such fragments wherever and howsoever obtained, if this might occur. If any are found in the churches, Monfrere may safely take them on the mere pledge to the churches that they shall be returned meo periculo. En Fin, I am so meek in my demands that anything older than 1560, of whatever name, I shall regard as a thesaurum, no matter how little worth each item may be.
By this stage Magnússon had gained extensive knowledge of the books and documents that had been preserved in Iceland and a sizeable quantity of them had come into his possession. In a letter to the Swede Johann Peringskiöld in 1699 he mentions that there was hardly a larger private collection of Icelandic vellums than his anywhere to be found else in Europe. This was no exaggeration.

Christian V died in 1699 and was succeeded by his son Frederik IV. With the change of ruler Matthias Moth was removed from all his offices, costing Árni Magnússon a powerful supporter. Nonetheless, the new king provided for Árni Magnússon well. He was paid a fixed salary for his work at the confidential documents archive from 1700 and on October 22, 1701 the king appointed him to the chair of Danish antiquities at the University. As fate would have it, however, Magnússon spent most of the following ten years back in Iceland, as a special envoy of the king.

Land Register 1702-1712

Tough farming conditions and persistent hardship had severely impoverished Iceland at the end of the seventeenth century. In 1700 the Althing petitioned the king and in autumn 1701 one of the two Lawspeakers, Lárus Gottrup, obtained a royal audience to present proposals for improving national living conditions. Among the measures that the king decided in consequence was to send envoys around Iceland with extensive powers to examine the situation and present further proposals for improvements. He selected Árni Magnússon and Páll Vídalín, deputy Lawspeaker, for the mission. They were issued with a letter of appointment listing 30 duties, dated May 22, 1702. The main task assigned to them was to compile a land register for the whole of Iceland.

Árni Magnússon set off for Iceland immediately and on arriving in Hofsós on June 24, 1702 he went straight to meet Vídalín in Víðidalstunga. On July 18 both men were at the Althing and the following day their announcement of the land register was read out at the Law Council. They ordered landowners to make registers for their property stating its value, rent and chattels, with a copy of deeds of ownership for the land, signed by witnesses. Registers were to be submitted to the sheriff, who would deliver them to the next session of the Althing. The envoys expected to finish compiling the register within one year or so. When it soon transpired that it was impossible to compile a reliable land register in this way, they abandoned this arrangement and decided to travel the country themselves, summon farmers and write the register from their statements. With no roads, travel was only possible in the summer and turned out to be both difficult and uncomfortable. Even after they quickly opted to part up, work separately and employ assistants to gather material for the register in various districts, the task remained much more extensive than they had ever imagined and the collection of source material for the register was not completed until June 1714, or thirteen years after they began. The work was not made any quicker by a smallpox epidemic which raged in Iceland from 1707-1709 and claimed an estimated 18,000 lives. This was an enormous loss, amounting to 35% of this small nation’s population. According to a census taken by Árni Magnússon and Páll Vídalín in winter 1702-1703 Iceland had just over 50,000 inhabitants. After the epidemic, only 32,000 were left in the whole country.

Once the collection of source material for the land register was completed in 1714, a great deal of work still remained on putting it into presentable form and translating it into Danish for the benefit of the authorities who had commissioned it. The authorities expected Árni Magnússon to do this at his own expense but he invariably dodged the duty, and after his death this unsettled matter with the Exchequer prevented his estate from being disposed of. The trustees of his estate eventually had the register translated in 1742-1750. Árni Magnússon and Páll Vídalín’s land register is a remarkable source of information on conditions in Iceland in the beginning of the eighteenth century. Regrettably it is no longer preserved intact, because the registers from the Múli and Skaftafell districts perished in the fire of 1728. It was not until 1913-1943 that the register was published by the Society for Icelandic Studies in Copenhagen, in eleven large volumes.

The land register and census were only two of the numerous duties assigned to Árni Magnússon and Páll Vídalín in the royal letter of appointment. In fact they were supposed to concern themselves with almost everything to do with conditions in Iceland and the royal administration there. They were supposed to inspect the living standards of tied tenant farmers, investigate charges brought by ordinary people against officials of all ranks without discrimination, supervise trading and propose improvements in trading arrangements, inspect the cathedrals and bishoprics, examine the conditions of schools, look at monastic properties, make a study of sulphur mining and prospect for workable minerals and metals, consider fishing reforms, and various other matters too numerous to mention.

Their sweeping mandate to intervene in the affairs of Iceland and its people engendered widespread hopes that they could rectify much of the injustice that was rife in the country, and they were swamped with complaints, charges and pleas from all directions. They tried to solve the problems of as many people as they possibly could. Their intervention in the functions performed by Lawspeakers and sheriffs, investigations of old criminal cases which had not received the appropriate handling and efforts to bring them to a conclusion as prescribed by law aroused opposition and enmity among local officials, leading to protracted legal proceedings which proved burdensome for the two envoys. Officials introduced complications into these cases and complained about Magnússon and Vídalín to the highest national authorities in Copenhagen, gradually undermining the confidence that the envoys had enjoyed there.

The criminal proceedings against farmer Jón Hreggviðsson from Rein are well known from Halldór Laxness’ novel The Bell of Iceland. On suspicion of manslaughter, Jón Hreggviðsson had been sentenced him to execution in 1684. He escaped to the Netherlands and went from there to Denmark where he obtained a letter of passage from the king to return to Iceland, along with permission to take the case to the Supreme Court. Nonetheless, the authorities in Iceland did nothing further in the matter. Magnússon and Vídalín reopened the case twenty years later, in 1708, in order to investigate the part played by Lawspeaker Sigurður Björnsson in it and bring it to a conclusion. Eventually, after prolonged wrangling, the Supreme Court in Copenhagen cleared Jón Hreggviðsson of the murder charge in 1715, almost thirty years after he first came under suspicion. Nonetheless, the Supreme Court rejected the sentence passed by Magnússon and Vídalín against the Lawspeaker for official misconduct and found him not guilty too.

While in Iceland at work on the land register, Árni Magnússon stayed at Skálholt with his friend Bishop Jón Vídalín. Magnússon had taken virtually his entire manuscript collection with him to Iceland and he had plenty of time during the winters to work on it, write letters and make enquiries all over the country in search of old books and documents. A provision in their letter of appointment granted the envoys access to all documents in the country, without a doubt at Árni Magnússon’s instigation. He had scribes at Skálholt who were continuously employed on copying out books and documents which he borrowed from all over Iceland. On his travels around the country he was able to visit farmers whom he knew or believed to own books and fragments. In this way he sought out and saved many scraps of manuscripts which their owners considered worthless and would otherwise have been lost. From Dýrafjörður in the West Fjords, for example, he received two pages from a manuscript that had been written and illustrated in 1200 and contained a fragment of an Icelandic twelfth-century translation of a Greek work of natural science, the Physiologius. In the West Fjords the pages had gone astray and been used for a meal sieve. They would hardly have lasted for long in that role, but today they rank with the Árni Magnússon Institute’s greatest treasures.

Árni Magnússon left Iceland twice during the period he was working on the land register. His first trip was in winter 1705-1706 when he was called back to present his and Vídalín’s proposals for trading arrangements in Iceland. The other occasion was when he spent the winter of 1708-1709 in Copenhagen in connection with various matters and legal cases in which the envoys were involved. On that trip he married a Danish woman, Mette Jensdatter Fischer, on May 16, 1709. Árni Magnússon was 45 when he married, and his bride 19 years older. She was the widow of the Royal Saddlemaker, Hans Wichmand, who had died in 1707; the couple had lived by the square near the royal palace. Jón Ólafsson from Grunnavík recounts that Árni Magnússon knew the couple and sometimes called in to drink morning tea with them on his way to the archive. Little else is known about Mette Magnússon, but she owned a considerable amount of property when they married.
In autumn 1709 Árni Magnússon returned to Iceland and did not see his wife again for more than three years. Two letters which he wrote to her from Iceland have been preserved, mainly dealing with their finances and all kind of errands that he asked her to undertake for him: to buy paper and ink, shoes and shirts, coffee, tea and sugar, French spirits, medicinal preparations and rosewater, shaving soap, a peruke and hair powder. From Iceland he sent eiderdown, barrels of salted meat and woollen socks for his wife to give to his friends in Copenhagen. One letter from Mette to Árni Magnússon has been preserved, dated April 4, 1712. In it she tells her husband about the epidemic that raged in Copenhagen from summer 1711 to spring 1712 and sent 30 thousand people, or one-third of the city’s inhabitants, to their graves, including two of their maidservants: “God on high has visited us with a merciful and goodly pestilence,” she wrote to him.

In 1712 the authorities felt that the land register had taken long enough and called Árni Magnússon back to Copenhagen. War had broken out between Denmark and Sweden yet again, making it dangerous to sail there. Unwilling to risk taking his manuscript collection by sea during times of hostilities, Árni Magnússon stored it away along with the land register documents in chests which were kept at Skálholt for the next eight years. In September 1712 he left Iceland, never to return. It was a difficult crossing and Magnússon only reached Norway. He spent the winter there with his friend Þormóður Torfason and finally reached Copenhagen in March 1713.

The years 1713-1728

Magnússon’s return to Copenhagen marked the beginning of fifteen years in which his life followed a fairly regular routine. The days passed on official duties and research into manuscripts, he and his wife were well off and they were able to live in the style appropriate to their rank and station. In 1714 they moved into one of the university’s professorial residences on Store-Kannikestræde. Árni Magnússon’s house was probably a two-storey timber-framed house with some outhouses in the large grounds which served as homes for the household staff and a pantry, since the university paid part of the professor’s salaries in kind with produce from its farmland.

In Copenhagen, Magnússon resumed the previous work that had been waiting while he was in Iceland. This included his secretarial duties at the confidential documents archive, which was moved from the vault beneath Rosenborg palace to a new building in spring 1720. Just over four years later, in the New Year of 1725, the keeper of the archive and Árni Magnússon’s good friend Frederik Rostgaard fell from royal favour and was immediately stripped of all his offices. Árni Magnússon was given the keys to the confidential documents archive and supervised it for the rest of his life without being formally appointed its keeper.

At the university, Magnússon could finally devote himself to his academic work. Little is known about his teaching and there are no records that he ever gave lectures at the university. On the other hand, he gave tutorials to almost two hundred students, a form of teaching that probably suited him better. He appears to have avoided administrative duties on behalf of the university, although in 1720 he was appointed supervisor of the Ehlers student residence which is two doors down Store-Kannikestræde from where his own house stood. Magnússon was already familiar with the University Library but in 1721 he was appointed deputy librarian and he may have been assigned to run it in 1725. This meant he was a frequent visitor to the library until it burnt down in 1728.

Furthermore, Árni Magnússon resumed his collection and studies of manuscripts, employing scribes as before to copy books and documents from other collections while his waiting for his own to arrive from Iceland. In autumn 1720 all the land register documents and the private manuscript collection that had been stored at Skálholt after he left Iceland in 1712 were transported in 55 chests on 30 horses to Hafnarfjörður. There the chests were put on board a Royal Danish Navy frigate under the command of the new governor of Iceland, Admiral Raben, who took them to Copenhagen. Due to various formalities the manuscript collection was not delivered to Árni Magnússon until February 1721, when he was finally able to arrange them in his residence on Store-Kannikestræde. A number of scribes worked for Árni Magnússon in Copenhagen. The best known is Jón Ólafsson from Grunnavík, who was employed from 1726 until Magnússon’s death, whereupon he worked at the Arnemagnean Institute for most of the time until his death in 1779.

The Great Fire of 1728

At this time Copenhagen was a city fortress enclosed by walls and canals, accessible only through the four gates of Vesterport, Nørreport, Østerport and Amagersport. Inside the walls, the city was crowded with narrow streets. The oldest part was around Gamletorg where the City Hall stood; above Nørregade was Vor Frue Kirke Church with the university campus opposite it. Most buildings were largely timber-framed. The summer of 1728 was warm and dry and the good weather lasted until well into the autumn. On the evening of Wednesday, October 20, a fire broke out in a building by Vesterport, setting off a conflagration which lasted until the Saturday and destroyed a large part of the city, including the entire university campus and professorial residences in the vicinity, several of the main churches including Vor Frue Kirke and Helligåndskirke, and with the latter the University Library in its loft, and hundreds of other buildings and houses. Jón Ólafsson wrote an account of the fire shortly after the catastrophe struck, describing how many aspects of the fire-fighting were apparently bungled at first. The fire brigade had difficulty in bringing in its pumps through the crowds that filled the narrow streets in the quarter. Water was also scarce, since the supply had been cut off in the parts of the city where the fire blazed due to work at Peblings Sø. When water was supposed to be fetched from the canals outside the city walls, the military commander in the city had the gates closed to hinder it, because he feared that desertion by conscripts. There was a strong southwesterly wind and the timber-framed buildings were parched after the warm summer. All this combined to make the fire spread quickly. Eventually, the fire-fighting was organized better and, with the help of thousands of soldiers and sailors from the city garrison and fleet, the authorities managed to extinguish the fire early on the Saturday morning. Jón Ólafsson writes that Árni Magnússon’s residence burnt down around four o’clock on the Thursday afternoon. When Magnússon heard on the Thursday morning that the spire of Vor Frue Kirke had collapsed and the fire would clearly not be contained he began trying to rescue his library with the help of his servants and two Icelanders, Jón Ólafsson and Finnur Jónsson, who later became bishop but was then a student in Copenhagen. They piled books and furniture into a carriage and eventually his coachman managed to force his way through the crowds in the streets with three or four loads to the house of Hans Becker, a timber merchant who had worked as a scribe for Árni Magnússon while the land register was being compiled in Iceland and for several years afterwards, and who now provided his old master with a roof over his head.

Árni Magnússon's last days

The full extent of the damage to Árni Magnússon’s manuscript collection will never be known. He never took the time himself to make exhaustive inventories of his manuscripts, documents and books, so the size of his collection before the Great Fire is not clear. For the short remainder of his life he lived in straitened circumstances and could never set out his collection so as to gain a picture of what had been rescued. He believed the damage was greater than subsequent studies have suggested and refers to this in many places in the letters he wrote back to Iceland in the year after the fire. In one of them he admits that he had managed to rescue most of his books of sagas, and it is now felt certain that the oldest and most valuable core of the collection, the ancient books of vellums, escaped with only a handful perishing. Nonetheless, a great assortment of documents were destroyed, paper copies from older books and various writings by Árni Magnússon himself, which he had spent a long time collecting from sources which are now lost. The greatest damage was to his printed books, the majority of which were lost in the fire. Most professors at the University of Copenhagen lost all their books in the fire and the entire University Library burnt down as well. The rescue of Árni Magnússon’s collection from the conflagration on those dark autumn days in 1728 was therefore a unique event in more than one sense.

Árni Magnússon lived only just over a year after the Great Fire. The ensuing winter was harsh, with heavy frosts at the same time as housing and all necessities were scarce. Like many others, Magnússon was homeless and had to move three times in that single year. On Christmas Eve 1729 he fell ill and it was obvious that he would not survive. On January 6, 1730 he was so weak that when State Counsellor Thomas Bartholin, the grandson of the namesake Árni Magnússon worked for during his first years in Copenhagen, and Assessor Hans Gram visited him to write a will for him and his wife, he could not sign it unassisted. On the morning of January 7, 1730, at a quarter to six in the morning, Árni Magnússon died in his sixty-seventh year. On January 12 he was buried in the north choir of Vor Frue Kirke, which was still a gaping ruin after the fire. His wife Mette died in September that year and was laid to rest by her husband’s side.

Text written by Sigurgeir Steingrímsson, translation Bernhard Scudder