An antiquarian curiosum: Plush parchment twins

GKS 1002 and 1003 fol. are exclusive 17th-century parchment saga manuscripts, imitations of medieval codices produced at a time when paper books, both handwritten and printed, were already dominant. These stately twins are composed of large folios of clean, stout parchment with shiny gilded edges bound in a sumptuous red velvet binding; each measures an impressive 32cm by 27cm and is about 10cm thick.

GKS1002FolCorner_small
GKS 1002 fol.

The manuscripts were completed in 1667 and 1670 by Páll Sveinsson from Geldingalækur in Rangárvellir for Jón Eyjólfsson from Múli in Fljótshlíð in southern Iceland. Jón was of notable family and quite wealthy, but very little is known about his life. Some twenty years later the manuscripts came to Copenhagen, where they were presented to King Christian V by Björn Þorleifsson, vicar of Oddi, who was at the time aspiring for the bishopric of Hólar and presumably hoped that the king’s favour in this matter would be forthcoming as a result of this gift. Björn himself may have had the manuscripts bound and gilded for the occasion. He might also have been responsible for erasing the title-pages of the two volumes, possibly in order to remove the date and make them appear older. A list of contents in Árni Magnússon’s hand is attached in the first volume, in which he describes the historical characters of the sagas and even their supposed authors.

The first volume contains mainly riddarasögur and the fornaldarsaga Hrólfs saga kraka, which, as often happened, is placed among non-Scandinavian chivalric material – in this case Mágus saga and Flóres saga og Leó, an Icelandic translation of a German chapbook. The three narratives are vaguely connected through the presence of outstanding female characters who are persecuted by crossed rulers. The text of Hrólfs saga kraka in GKS 1002 fol. is significantly reduced by means of paraphrase and omission, perhaps in order to save space on the expensive support. As a result, several interesting details and puns are left out. The second volume opens with three fornaldarsögurHrólfs saga Gautrekssonar, Göngu-Hrólfs saga and Þorsteins saga Víkingssonar – which form a prehistoric prelude to the accompanying Íslendingasögur.

The leaves are bit thicker and stiffer than those of medieval books as the technique of parchment man facture had largely become forgotten by this time, and yet in volume two the books are, justifiably, proudly pre- sented as a continuation of this beautiful craft. In order to further imitate medieval books, a desirable cultural capital, the text is laid out in two columns, and each section starts with an ornamental initial. There are, however, also some strikingly modern features, such as the title-pages, which originally belong to the realm of printed books. The title-pages –erased by Björn Þorleifsson – were almost fully restored by Desmond Slay, and conspicuously resemble those of Magnús Jónsson í Vigur, a contemporary paper manuscript magnate from the Westfjords, a man of outstanding birth and wealth, very distantly related to Jón Eyjólfsson. It is possible that some features of the books: similar compositions, title-pages with a description of the entertaining contents and a respectful address of the commissioner, signify a borrowed style, or merely reflect an aristocratic fashion of the day. The decorative codices of Jón Eyjólfsson are still impressive, and their pristine cleanliness indicates that they were touched and read only by chosen few.

TL, 11 July 2013.