Law manuscripts from fifteenth-century Iceland

  • Stefan Drechsler Institutt for lingvistiske, litterære og estetiske studier, Universitetet i Bergen
Keywords: Manuscript production, Scandinavian law cultures, Icelandic book painting, Jónsbók, Kristinréttr Árna Þorlákssonar, Búalög, Hafrafellstunga


This article discusses a number of interdisciplinary aspects of Icelandic law manuscripts, produced in the fifteenth century, which contain important vernacular legal codes dealing with secular and ecclesiastical matters in medieval Iceland, such as Jónsbók and Kristinréttr Árna Þorlákssonar. In this article, it is argued that a continuity of law manuscript production exists in Iceland following the Black Death in 1402–04; this is seen in several ways: indications are found in textual and artistic parts of the manuscripts, as well as in para-texts that accompany the law texts in the margins. With particular focus on the manuscript AM 136 4to (Skinnastaðabók), this article discusses four distinctive cross-disciplinary features of fifteenth-century Icelandic law manuscripts: the adaptation and further development of textual contents initially found in law manuscripts dating back to previous centuries, select types of layouts chosen by the initial scribes, the book painting, and the use of the margins by later users and owners for comments and discussion on the textual content. The article concludes that with the changing Scandinavian politics in the late fourteenth century, Icelandic law manuscripts in the fifteenth century were first and foremost written for, and inspired by, domestic productions. While texts related to Norwegian royal supremacy and trade are rarely featured, the texts most used for domestic issues appear more frequently. On the other hand, statutes and concordats occur as regularly in these manuscripts as they do in earlier works, which indicates ongoing contact with the Norwegian Archdiocese of Niðaróss during the fifteenth century.