Árni Magnússon Institute in Iceland

The Árni Magnússon Collection

At a young age the Icelander Árni Magnússon (1663-1730) went to study in Copenhagen, and later he became a professor at the University of Copenhagen. He collected an immense number of books, including vellum manuscripts. The majority of his manuscripts were Icelandic, from all periods of Icelandic literary history, starting in the 12th century (before Árni’s time the king of Denmark and other dignitaries had collected medieval Icelandic manuscripts). The great fire in Copenhagen in 1728 destroyed a large percentage of Árni Magnússon’s printed books, as well as a great many manuscripts, especially younger ones.

On his deathbed Árni Magnússon willed all of his possessions to the University of Copenhagen, at that time the only university for all of the countries and territories in the Danish kingdom, including Iceland. In the Árni Magnússon Collection in Copenhagen a great deal of scholarly work has been done in the field of Icelandic studies, especially since 1956, when a special research institute, Det Arnamagnæanske Institut (now Den Arnamagnæanske Samling), took over the collection under the supervision of Professor Jón Helgason (1899-1986).

Return of the Manuscripts from Denmark

In 1961 legislation concerning the manuscripts was passed in Denmark. The Danish parliament consented to honor the wishes of the Icelandic people and transfer to the University of Iceland a substantial portion of the Icelandic manuscripts that were kept in the Árni Magnússon Collection at the University of Copenhagen and the Danish Royal Library. The laws specified that Icelanders would receive the manuscripts that were genuine Icelandic cultural artifacts: in other words, the texts had to have been composed or translated by Icelanders, and had to have something to do with Iceland and events that occurred there. The laws were not immediately implemented, however, because of opposition in Denmark. The case finally went to court and was settled by the Danish Supreme Court on March 19, 1971.


On April 1, 1971, a treaty between the two countries was signed, and on April 21 that same year the first two manuscripts, the Codex Regius of the Poetic Edda (Elder Edda), and the Book of Flatey (Flateyjarbók, containing Norwegian kings’ sagas), were received in Iceland with great ceremony and national celebration. A committee of Danish and Icelandic scholars was appointed to determine which manuscripts were to be included under the provisos of the laws and in 1986 the manuscript collection was finally fully divided. The return of the manuscripts was completed in 1997. After the division of the Arnamagnæan Collection, around 1,400 manuscripts and manuscript fragments remain in Den Arnamagnæanske Samling in Copenhagen, but only half of them are of Icelandic provenance, among them several of the oldest extant Icelandic manuscripts. The two Arnamagnæan institutes work in close cooperation under the guidance of a committee consisting of two representatives from each institution.

The decision made by the Danes to return to the Icelanders such a substantial portion of the Icelandic manuscripts in Denmark has aroused international attention and been considered by the Icelanders a most magnanimous gesture.

The Icelandic Manuscript Institute

The Icelandic Manuscript Institute was established by law in 1962. In that same year professor Einar Ólafur Sveinsson (1899-1984) was appointed as the Institute’s director, and other positions were filled during the following year. The Manuscript Institute was located in the National Library on Hverfisgata (now the Culture House). The reason for the establishment of the Institute was that a solution to the “manuscript case” was in sight. In cooperation with the University of Iceland, construction began on a building where the manuscripts could be stored and where research on them could be performed, and in 1969 the Icelandic Manuscript Institute transferred its offices and activities to the new building on the university campus, which was given the name Árnagarður. The Institute has been located there ever since.

The Árni Magnússon Institute in Iceland

In 1972 the legislation pertaining to the Institute was amended, and was called the Stofnun Árna Magnússonar á Íslandi (the Árni Magnússon Institute in Iceland), most often shortened to Árnastofnun. The Institute was affiliated with the University of Iceland, but had an independent administration and budget. In matters regarding the safeguarding of the manuscripts it reported directly to the government. The rector of the University of Iceland acted as chairman of the supervisory board of the Institute, and joined him on the board were the director of the Institute and a third member appointed by the Minister of Education. The director also holded an appointment as a professor in the Department of Humanities, but had limited teaching duties. Professor Jónas Kristjánsson (b. 1924) filled this position from 1972 to 1994, followed by Professor Stefán Karlsson (b. 1928), from 1994 to 1998. The position was filled by Professor Vésteinn Ólason (b. 1939). The Institute’s staff also included tenured scholars, specialists in the Institute’s research fields, an office manager, a librarian, a conservator, a museum educator, a photographer, and security guards, as well as part-time staff and young scholars hired on a temporary basis.

In June 2006 the Icelandic Alþingi passed legislation concerning The Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies. According to this legislation the Icelandic Language Institute, the University of Iceland Institute of Lexicography, the Árni Magnússon Institute, the Sigurður Nordal Institute, and the Place-Name Institute of Iceland were to be merged into one institute starting on 1 September 2006. The new institute would take over the duties and tasks previously performed by each of the individual institutes. Dr. Vésteinn Ólason was appointed director of the new Institute of Icelandic Studies on 12 September 2006.