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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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