Anecdotes of several archbishops of Canterbury

A lost bifolium from Reynistaðarbók – Discovered in The British Library

  • Bjarni Gunnar Ásgeirsson
Keywords: Bifolium, Canterbury, Archbishops, Grímur Thorkelin, Dunstanus saga, English saints, Reynistaðarbók, legends of saints, manuscripts


In 1787, Grímur Thorkelin, the secretary of the Arnamagnæan Commission, gave the manuscript collector Thomas Astle two paper manuscripts and a parchment bifolium. After Astle’s death, these manuscripts found their way into the Stowe collection and are now kept in the British Library. The paper manuscripts contain transcriptions of texts found in a manuscript in the Arnamagnæan collection and were probably written by Thorkelin himself. The bifolium was, however, written in the fourteenth century. It contains a compilation of short stories about English bishops, mostly archbishops of Canterbury, preceded by a short prologue. For the compilation, the compiler has gathered and adapted material from sources that were already available in Old Norse-Icelandic translations, including Árni Lárentíusson’s Dunstanus saga. However, not all the texts in the compilation are known to exist elsewhere in Icelandic translation. An examination shows that the bifolium was written by the same scribe who wrote parts of Reynistaðarbók in AM 764 4to, and a closer look reveals that the bifolium was once a part of that same manuscript. The last narrative on the bifolium tells the life of St Cuthbert, but its conclusion is now at the top of f. 36r in AM 764 4to. Furthermore, catalogues of the Arnamagnæan collection compiled in the first third of the seventeenth century show that tales about archbishops of Canterbury were included in AM 764 4to, but they are now missing. It thus appears that Thorkelin, who had easy access to Arnamagnæan manuscripts, removed the bifolium before journeying to England, causing its text to fall into oblivion for over two centuries. In the article, the history of the bifolium is discussed, and the script and orthography of its scribe examined and compared to that of scribe E in AM 764 4to. The sources of the compilation’s texts are traced, and the compiler’s methods are analysed. Finally, a diplomatic edition of the texts of the compilation that is now split between the Stowe bifolium and AM 764 4to is presented.