The Library at Bræðratunga

Manuscript Ownership and Private Library-Building in Early Modern Iceland

  • Katelin Marit Parsons


Library institutions did not exist in early modern Iceland, meaning that private ownership was central to the preservation of pre-modern manuscripts and literature. However, personal collections are poorly documented in comparison to the activities of manuscript collectors such as Árni Magnússon. This article examines the case study of Helga Magnúsdóttir (1623–1677) and book ownership at her home of Bræðratunga in South Iceland, concluding that Helga Magnúsdóttir engaged in library-building as a social strategy following the death of her husband, Hákon Gíslason (1614–1652). The inventory of the Bræðratunga estate from 1653 includes only four books, all printed. However, nine manuscripts are conclusively identified as having been at Bræðratunga at least briefly during the period from c. 1653 to 1677, and evidence for the presence of another five items is discussed.
Examination of surviving volumes suggests that Helga’s goal was to participate in an active culture of sharing manuscript material across distances, rather than to accumulate a large stationary collection of printed books and codices for Bræðratunga. She thereby played an important but easily overlooked role in the survival of Old Norse-Icelandic literature in the early modern period. Of the manuscripts at Bræðratunga, at least two likely came from Helga’s childhood home of Munkaþverá in North Iceland, the former site of a Benedictine monastery. Her cousin Bishop Brynjólfur Sveinsson of Skálholt (1605–1675) also gifted books to Helga and her family, and on his death she inherited half of his collection of Icelandic books and manuscripts, making her the owner of one of the most significant collections of Icelandic manuscripts in the country. The survival of books from Helga’s library was negatively impacted by the Fire of Copenhagen in 1728, the extinction of her family line in the eighteenth century as a long-term consequence of the 1707–1709 smallpox epidemic and collector Árni Magnússon’s antagonistic relationship with two of her children’s heirs. Árni’s relationship with Oddur Sigurðsson (1681–1741), Helga’s grandson and last living descendent, did eventually improve; an appendix includes a list of manuscripts that Oddur loaned to Árni and may have come from the library at Bræðratunga.