Nýtt af Bjarna Jónssyni lögbókarskrifara á Snæfjallaströnd

  • Gísli Baldur Róbertsson
Keywords: Westfjords of Iceland, Lawbook production on parchment, scribal culture


In 1969 Peter Springborg published a paper in which he identified and attributed a group of eight manuscripts to a certain Bjarni Jónsson. In an article published eight years later he added the ninth manuscript to the group. Very little was known about Bjarni and all Springborg was able to gather on him was sparse information which the scribe himself had provided in the manuscripts he produced. From there we have his name and his place of residence which was Mýri and later Skarð on Snæfjallaströnd, located north of Ísafjarðardjúp in the Westfjords of Iceland. From the dated manuscripts it is clear that he was active as a scribe in the period of 1631–1655. He copied sagas, rímur, poetry and law texts. Incidentally, he seems to have specialized in copying Jónsbók, the Icelandic lawbook, for in one of the three copies in his hand, still preserved, he mentions that it was the eighteenth copy he had produced. Unfortunately, this paper does not add to the tally of manuscripts copied by Bjarni Jónsson. It does, however, provide more information on this mysterious and productive scribe than has hitherto been available. Bjarni was the son of the Reverend Jón Þorleifsson at Staður on Snæfjallaströnd and his wife Sesselja. Although efforts have been made to look into his family history very little is known about his ancestors and his mother’s patronym is completely unknown which, undoubtedly, points away from the upper layers of society. Dates in Bjarni’s biography are uncertain but he was, most likely, born in the last decade of the 16th century. His birthplace was, in all likelihood, his father’s living at Staður and he appears to have lived his whole life on Snæfjallaströnd, first at Mýri where he can be found for certain in 1631 and then from at least 1640 at Skarð. It is not clear when Bjarni wed his stepsister but they were in all likelihood married already by 1628. Bjarni lost his livestock during extremely difficult winters in the period 1633–1634. Shortly thereafter he was found guilty of adultery for the second time and had to pay a hefty fine. This must have led to difficulties for him as a land tenant to pay the rent and probably resulted in him losing Mýri and becoming a hired hand at Skarð. Consequently, his wife seems to have either passed away or divorced him. Bjarni appears to be alive in 1658 when a fellow scribe compliments his handwriting on the margin of a manuscript they both had a hand in writing. Jón, Bjarni’s father, was himself an accomplished scribe who penned documents and copied manuscripts. From him Bjarni must have learnt the fundamentals of bookmaking and from his church he also obtained the rudimentary elements of his book production. Namely, the old and useless Catholic vellum manuscripts which he rubbed out and used again, as well as the printed bible of bishop Guðbrandur Þorláksson which he modeled his initials after. It is unlikely that the dates of two out of three of Bjarni’s vellum copies of Jónsbók have been tampered with, i.e. made to show an older age, without his knowledge. All of the three vellum lawbooks ended up in foreign libraries, sold to people who were unable to detect any wrongdoing. It is quite possible that after having lost his livestock Bjarni might himself have changed the date of one of the two above-mentioned manuscripts in order to fetch a higher price for it in a time of need.