Title page of the 1829 publication
The ‘Grágás’ is the name given to a collection of laws dating from the Icelandic Commonwealth period (between 980 and 1262). These were originally oral laws, a third of which would be recited at each annual meeting of the Alþingi – the Iceland national parliament – over a three year period. In 1117 were they written down, but by the Middle Ages they still only existed in two (sometimes contradictory) manuscript fragments. The laws of the Icelandic Commonwealth were being described as the ‘Grey Goose Laws’ by the 16th century – possibly because the original manuscripts were written with goose-feather quills or bound in goose skin.
The complete laws can be categorised into six main sections:
- Christian Laws
- Assembly Procedures
- Treatment of Homicide
- The Wergild Ring List
- The Lawspeaker’s Section
- The Law Council Section
At Aberystwyth we have an early complete volume of the Grágás laws, published (not on anything goose-related) in 1829 with an introduction and notes by the Danish lawyer and academic J.F.W. Schlegel (1765-1836). Schlegel was a professor of jurisprudence at Copenhagen University from 1800, and was the first person in Denmark to study and then teach the philosophy of Kant (in relation to natural law).
This volume also includes a bookplate that tells us a little about its provenance:
Bookplate reading: EX BIBLIOTHECA / FERD. BREYMANN / LEGATA / BIBL. GUELFERBYTANAE / MDCCCLXIII
This tells us that the volume was previously in the private library of Friedrich August Ferdinand Breymann (1798-1863), Supreme Court Judge of Wolfenbüttel in Germany. When he died, this volume, along with over 4700 others, were bequeathed to the Herzog August Library in Wolfenbüttel.
Frontispiece of the 1829 publication.
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.