From amongst the many interesting materials in Aberystwyth University’s Rare Book Room, we’ve chosen some about countries Way Up North for this blog post. To be more accurate, about Iceland, the Faroe Islands, and Greenland. You may wonder, why would materials like these end up in Aberystwyth of all places? The answer to a certain extent lies in the eclectic interests of a certain George Ernest John Powell, and his generous donations.
In my will, therefore, I had left to your University – as well as being quite the worthiest and most intelligent corporate body in my dear but benighted town – all I possessed ‘of bigotry and virtue’ – Letter from GP to Principal T C Edwards, 4.iv.1879
George Powell of Nanteos (1842-1882) came from a family of local dignitaries and landowners, growing up at the Nanteos mansion quite near the benighted Aberystwyth. He eventually took over the estate and became High Sheriff of Cardigan, but before that he spent most of his adult life in London, Paris, and travelling widely elsewhere. A detailed biography has been by compiled by the School of Art, where much of his collection is kept.
One part of the world he visited was Iceland, and like many Victorian travellers he developed a special interest in this isolated country of rugged landscapes and a romantic history preserved in sagas over centuries. He took Icelandic lessons from Eiríkur Magnússon (a scholar and librarian at Cambridge University), and provided financial support to the Icelandic nationalist writer Jón Árnusson. At that time Iceland was still a Danish dependency, and ancient sagas as well as folk history provided the inspiration for a strong nationalist movement in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Saga þess haloflega Herra Olafs Tryggvasonar Noregs Kongs – published by Jone Snorrasone, 1689.
Little is known about the 10th century Norwegian king Olaf Tryggvason, but this saga describes him (sometimes forcibly) converting the Norse to Christianity. In the 12th century a monk at the Þingeyrar monastery in Iceland, Oddr Snorrasson, wrote a Latin biography of the historic king – that original text no longer survives, but the work was translated into Old Norse and copies of that still exist. From this title page we can see that it comes from George Powell’s collection.
Gronlandia: Arngrímur Jónsson, 1688.
Arngrímur Jónsson hinn lærð (the Learned), 1568-1648, was an Icelandic priest and scholar. In 1593 he published Brevis commentarius de Islandia, in which he wrote a defensive response to the widespread negative descriptions of Iceland in contemporary accounts by foreigners. His work was important in introducing European scholars to serious Icelandic history and sagas. This page from his Gronlandia, a history of Norse colonisation of Greenland, is bound in with our copy of Olafs Saga. Gronlandia is full of illustrations depicting the natural life and geography found in Greenland (like the creature above – we think it’s a walrus).
Also from George Powell’s collection is a copy of the Færeyínga saga; a history of the Norse settlement of the Faroe Islands in around 825, and their later conversion to Christianity. Dating from the 12th century it represents the earliest written source of Faroese history, and the most important source from the Viking-era. Though the original manuscript is lost, passages from it were copied in other documents over time and survived that way.
In 1832 it was published for the first time (in Old Icelandic with Faroese and Danish translations), by Carl Christian Rafn in Copenhagen. Rafn (1795-1865) was co-founder and Secretary of the Royal Nordic Antiquarian Society, and helped to establish the Icelandic, Faroese, and Greenlandic national libraries.