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						Lögberg-Heimskringla, föstudagur 11 aprfl, 1980
Haraldur Bessason:
The deíinition of a national
To this it should be added
that during the centuries in
which Icelandic men were
known as professional
scalds or court poets, they
also enjoyed reputation
outside of their homeland
among         historians         or
chroniclers for being
reliable informants on
historical matters, and also
from the 12th and 13th
centuries we have instances
in          which          Icelandic
historians were summoned
to the Royal House of
Norway for the purpose of
writing the king's own
biography. Thus it is
reasonable to think that in
the Middle Ages the
Icelanders not only felt that
their esteem among foreign
nations depended on and
was proportionate to their
knowledge of history, but it
also appears that this
feeling grew to become a
national awareness, and
thus         the          Icelanders
gradually came to look upon
themselves as having
particular responsibilities in
regard to the preservation
of the Northern cultural
heritage. Through the
annual meetings of the
Icelandic National
Assembly, where people
from every district in the
country were gathered
together, it was possible to
effect a closer national unity
thanpeople had been able to
form in neighbouring lands
and. as a consequence, to
define more clearly than
would otherwise have been
possible the Icelandic role
within the northern or
Scandinavian      community.
The origins of the Icelandic
A few observations on the
genesis of the Old Icelandic
Script, i.e.. the alphabet
and the orthographic
conventions adopted by the
Icelanders are relevant in
the present context. In large
areas of Europe the art of
writing was one of the
cultural phenomena ac-
companying Christianity,
and before the Christian
faith was introduced ínto
the North, the Scan-
dinavians only knew the
Runic alphabet, the use of
which was mostly restricted
to the evocations of
supernatural powers, or to
. inscriptions of epitaphs. At
* the timethe Icelanders were
acquiring the skill of
writing, and this must have
been in the latter part of the
11 th and the first part of the
12 th century, the West
Europeans were using two
different types of script.
One was the so-called
Caroline minuscule which
was commonly used on the
continent, mainly in France
and in Germany. The other
was the Anglo-Saxon insular
script used in vernacular
writings in England. Early
Ic:elandic manuscripts, from
the 12th century, show
influences from both these
types of writing, although
they are predominantly in
Caroline script. Thus the
background to the Early
Icelandic script should be
sought on the European
continent and in England
rather than in Norway, as
has often been done. The
limited supply we have of
early Norwegian
manuscripts suggests a very
hcavy Anglo Saxon in-
fluence upon Norwegian
writing. This is not sur-
prising when one considers
that Christianity was
brought to Norway from
Hngland. However, it is not
necessary to assume that
the Anglo Saxon influence
upon early Icelandic writing
was transmitted through
Norway. There were indeed
quite compelling reasons for
a more direct transmission
of this kind.
An Anglo-Saxon model:
The earliest era in which
Icelandic script came into
being may be divided into
two stages: the adoption of
the Latin alphabet and
thorough knowledge of Latin
writing comprised the first
stage. Second, there was
the adaptation stage during
which the Latin alphabet
vvas adapted to the ver-
nacular language. In both
stages, there were apparent
inf'Iuences from scribal
traditions of both the
huropean content and
England. However, the
Anglo-Saxon influence was
virtually confined to the
second stage, that is the
adaptation of the Latin
alphabot to the Icelandic
Simílar problems - same
One may therefore
assume that in the llth
century Icelandic clerics
learned Latin as it was
spoken or written abroad -
on the European continent
or in England; or else, they
were able to acquire their
education at home either in
sc.hools or through the help
of missionaries. In this
régard it is well to
remember that in the llth
century missionaries from
both Cermany and England
appear to have stayed in
Icnland and then no doubt
molded, to some extent,
early Icelandic education.
In tho llth century schools,
the material of instruction
was undoubtedly in Latin,
and textbooks must have
boon of the same kind as in
schools        elsewhere        in
western Europe. The script
oi'  these  texts   was   in  the
Caroliné minuscle. Then, as
the Icelanders began to use
the Latin alphabet for their
own language, they realized
that this alphabet was
inadcquate for the purpose:
if it were to be made usable
niany additional symbols
were reciuired. Knowing
that other Germanic nations
had previously adapted the
Latin alphabet to their
languages, the Icelanders
would naturally use the
examples of these nations as
models. Here Old English
(Anglo-Saxon) was of great
usn to them. since, in
adapting the Latin alphabet
lo a vernacular pattern, the
Anglo-Saxons had suc-
cessfully solved some of the
major problems which the
h olanders were originolly
faced with. One of the
compelling reasons for
direct transmission of
scribal conventions from
England to Iceland was
thorefore the similar nature
of the problems with which
scribes in both these
counlries found themselves
up against as they were
modifying theLatin alphabet
for use in new language
areas. The Anglo-Saxon
exampie may have first
bocome   known   in   Iceland
through Anglo-Saxon clerics
in Iceland or through
onriiod lcelanders who had
studiod          in          England.
However, thc first bishops
of h eland had received
their schooling in llth
contury Cermany. Reliable
sourcos also inform us that
í( elanders went to France
i'or Iheir oducation. Indeed.
thc man to whom we may
i'ol'or to as the first Icelandic
historian. Saemund the
I.oarned, stuclied in France.
11 is ^enorally assumed that
ho wrote a vvork of history in
I.atin some time before the
first historical work was
produccd in Icelandic,
nlthough this assumption is
only based on indirect
ln an effort to answer to
the question that was posed
earlier in this article, one
should liave to point out
that. to some extent, the
lcolandors received the
incentive to start writing in
their own language from
Germnnic peoples on the
Kuropoan "coritent and in
The   needs   of  the   church:
RoUgioús sermons or the
so-cnlled homilies were
. among. the earliest com-
positiohs to be recorded in
lcelandic. As Christianity
had boon introduced in
Iceland. it naturally became
(juitc important to maintain
the now i'aith in a proper
and bócoming íashion. Thus
great omphasis was placed
:i])mi the education of
priosls ancl clerics, and, of
(ovirse. the officials of the
ChurcJi were expected to
(ondnct their services in
l.íitin. One wonders then if
the Icolandors really had
the time or the facilities to
uive íill the clerics they
required a proper grounding
in this classical language,
ancl if' inadequate language
training did not make it
nocessarv to allow them to
use their native religious
sorviccs in Icelandic.
Concessions of this kind
would explain why sermons
came to be written in
lcelandic or in Old Nor-
As was mentioned earlier,
educated clerics were
responsiblo l'or the writing
oí' some oí Ihe major literary
or historical works in
Modieval Iceland. But one
b'hould also romember that,
in   part.   it   may have  been
As was mentioned earlier,
educated clerics were
responsible for the writing
of some of the major literary
or historical works in
Medieval Iceland. But one
should also remember that,
in part, it may have been
due to the lack of traditional
language training among
members of the clergy that
the necessity of using the
Icelandic language in
writing became obvious.
Early Icelandic Law:
Further reference to the
Icelandic Legislative
Assembly founded in 930,
and early Icelandic law is
now in order. For a long
time one of the most arduous
duties of the Speaker of the
Legislative assembly was
that of committing the entire
national law code to memory
in order to prepare himself
for the reciting of it at three
consecutive annual sessions
of the Assembly, that is to
say one third of the law code
had to be recited each year.
Only a cursory glance at
ancient law manuscrips will
suffice to convince us that
memorizing the code must
have been a great feat. In
our terms the task of the
early Speakers of the
Icelandic National Assembly
would require superhuman
qualities. If we also take into
account that the in Iceland
of old, people were prolific
law makers, adding a
number of new amendments
to their code every year, one
finds it quite easy to un-
derstand that the problem of
preserving the law code in
its correct and original form
would constitute a very
strong motivation on the
part of the leaders of the Old
Icelandic Republic to ex-
pand the use of vernacular
writing. Thus it came about
that considerable portion of
the Old Icelandic law code
was put down in writing at a
farm in northern Iceland in
the winter of 1117-1118.
To be continued
in next issue
Fyrsra Lúterska
11:10 a.m. Sunday School
10:30 a.m. The Service
Next Icelandic Service
April 17 at 7:00 p.m.
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