In the year 1663, Árni Magnússon was born in the region of Kvennabrekka, Iceland. The occupations and status of his family would serve him well in later life—Árni’s father was a local sheriff with some political clout and his grandfather and uncle were familiar with the processes of printing and scribing. As these latter two men oversaw Árni Magnússon’s early education, their love of books evidently affected the young boy’s future interests.
After graduating from the Skálholt School in Iceland, Árni Magnússon accompanied his father on a trip to Denmark in 1683. While there, he enrolled at the University of Copenhagen and found a job as an assistant to Thomas Bartholin Jr., the Keeper of the Royal Antiquities in Denmark. This trip to Denmark was a momentous event in Árni Magnússon’s life, as the Keeper of Antiquities would set the young scholar on a task that would become his lifelong passion.
Árni Magnússon worked with Thomas Bartholin Jr. from his arrival in Denmark in 1683 until Bartholin’s death in 1690. While in the employ of the Keeper of Antiques, Árni was sent several times out of Denmark to procure Icelandic manuscripts and vellums, or to obtain copies if the owners would not part with the original text. In this role, he was sent to Iceland in 1685 and Norway in 1689. During this time, Árni Magnússon also began cultivating his own private hoard of rare Icelandic works—a collection that would grow to enormous proportions over the next decades.
After Bartholin’s death in 1690, Árni Magnússon managed to gain the patronage of Matthias Moth, the brother of the Danish king’s favorite mistress. Under Moth’s influence, Árni became a professor at the University of Copenhagen and was appointed as secretary for the archive of confidential documents. In 1694, Árni Magnússon was sent to Germany on behalf of the University of Copenhagen. He was there to peruse a library of books that the University of Copenhagen was interested in buying. The purchase for the university never happened, but Árni did increase his own book collection on his multi-year visit to Germany.
When Árni Magnússon could not travel abroad, he would send out letters asking for original texts or copies from various people he knew in other Scandinavian countries. He even wrote frequently to Swedish contacts—a tricky feat, as Sweden and Denmark had a strained relationship in that age; after all, the Second Northern War (or Great Northern War, c. 1700-1721) was fought during his lifetime. Nevertheless, by buying books during his travels or requesting them through letters, Árni Magnússon obtained the largest private collection of Icelandic vellums and manuscripts as early as 1699. That very year, however, King Christian V of Denmark died, which consequently stripped Árni’s patron, Matthias Moth, of all influence, leaving the book collector with an unsure future.
Fortunately, the new king of Denmark, Frederick IV, decided to maintain and even expand Árni’s responsibilities. In 1701, Frederick IV appointed Árni to oversee the antiques held by the University of Copenhagen. The king also sent the book collector back to Iceland in 1702 to survey the island and to orchestrate various commercial and governmental tasks. Árni Magnússon spent most of 1702-1712 in Iceland, working on the tasks appointed to him by the king, while also obtaining or copying more rare texts for his collection. In 1709, on one of his rare trips back to Denmark, Árni married a Danish widow named Mette. It was a long-distance relationship for, a few months after their marriage ceremony, Ârni returned to Iceland, while Mette remained in Denmark. In 1712, however, Frederick IV called the book collector back to Denmark, where he would remain for the rest of his life.
In 1712, the Great Northern War was too tumultuous for Árni to risk his rare manuscripts, so he returned to Denmark without his private collection. These texts (and materials produced from his surveying) were not shipped to Copenhagen until 1720. The scale and size of Árni’s collection can be glimpsed in the effort it took to move all of the documents. To relocate the priceless writings, it took no less than 55 chests, 30 horses and a frigate from the Danish Navy for the collection to reach Copenhagen.
Unfortunately for Árni Magnússon, he ultimately fell victim to the bane of many early manuscript collectors—fire. In 1728, a great inferno broke out in Copenhagen, which flattened the university campus and the residences of the professors, where Árni, his wife, and his private book collection were housed. During the fire, Árni Magnússon managed to cart his most valuable and culturally significant texts to safety, but everything else, including almost the entire library of Copenhagen, was burned. Fortunately, Árni saved most of his original vellums, containing works such as Snorri Sturluson’s Heimskringla, but the majority of his more recently scribed or printed copies were lost in the fire.
Sadly, Árni did not live long after his collection fell to the inferno. He became severely ill in 1729 and died in the first month of 1730. His wife, Mette, followed Árni into death a few months later during the very same year. After Árni Magnússon’s death, the rebuilt University of Copenhagen obtained the many remaining texts that the book collector saved from the fire. Over the centuries after his death, the majority of Árni’s surviving collection has been fittingly relocated back to Iceland, where they reside in the Árni Magnússon Institue of the University of Iceland.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Image of Árni Magnússon (1663-1730), by an unknown artist, combined with the Kringlublaðið [the Kringla leaf], c. 1260, both [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- Lee Hollander’s introduction to Snorri Sturluson’s Heimskringla, translated by Lee Hollander. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1964, 2018.