Rask 32

Rask 32 is a remarkably unremarkable manuscript. It is a plain, unadorned paper manuscript from the eighteenth century, one of many such produced in post-Reformation Iceland.

F. 8v of Rask 32, showing the start of Sörla saga sterka.

The bulk of the manuscript was written by the Rev. Ólafur Gíslason (1727-1801), with parts also by his father, the Rev. Gísli Jónsson (1699?-1781). Gísli was a gifted poet, allegedly with a fondness for the bottle, while his son was also known as “Mála-Ólafur”, or “Court-Ólafur”, because he was so often involved in legal disputes with his contemporaries. It is said that he was aggressive, mentally unstable, difficult to deal with and highly unpopular; he was re- peatedly defrocked, but managed to exculpate him- self each time. He and his father must have worked on the manuscript at the same time, as the first hundred pages are by Ólafur, then there are a few pages by Gísli, followed by some 75 pages by Ólafur, again a few pages by Gísli and the rest by Ólafur. This means that the manuscript must have been written between 1756 and 1767 in Saurbæjarþing, western Iceland, when Ólafur acted as his father’s assistant before receiving his first living.

Its next owner was Benedikt Bogason (1749-1819), whose illustrious father, Bogi Benediktsson, owned the only private printing press of the time. Benedikt was well educated and very interested in science and the humanities. When the first leaf of the manuscript was lost, he replaced it. The next thing we know about the manuscript is that it was acquired by the preeminent Danish linguist Rasmus Rask (1787-1832), after whose death it came, along with the rest of his manuscripts, into the Arnamagnaean Collection, where it remains today.

Rask 32 contains texts of 19 fornaldar- and riddarasögur, among them the nowadays highly popular Völsunga saga as well as the never terribly popular Sörla saga sterka. In fact, Rask 32 was the basis for Rafn´s edition of the latter in 1829-30. Variants from texts of two other sagas contained in the manuscript, Sturlaugs saga starfsama and Dámusta saga, were included in the modern editions of those sagas. And that’s pretty much all the attention this manuscript has received so far from the scholarly world. Which is a shame, as it is extremely interesting, exactly because it looks so unimpressive.

Rask 32 after restoration.

Manuscripts like Rask 32 were common in the 18th and 19th centuries; they were the ‘paperbacks’ of their age. At a time when the printing press in Iceland almost exclusively produced religious or improving literature and printed books from abroad were far, far too expensive for ordinary people, the only possibility for them to get something to read was to borrow and copy manuscripts themselves. And when these manuscripts had been read and re-read so often that they literally fell apart, they were mended, often rather crudely. That happened to Rask 32, when its quires and some leaves became loose in the binding. And then they were read and re-read again, until finally they could be mended no more – then a copy of them was made and the sad remains of the old manuscript were thrown away.

Original binding of Rask 32.

Luckily Rask 32 was saved from that fate. Even its original binding has survived. We can, however, see the traces left by innumerable readers. The margins are frayed, there are stains and blotches and a couple of people have even written their names in the margins. There is no decoration of any kind in the manuscript, and the sagas are written in minute script, without much space between the words, but with a lot of abbreviations. It looks quite plain, very much, indeed, like a modern-day paperback. And like its relatives today, Rask 32 is a typical example of its time: a plain, unadorned but nevertheless heavily read manuscript, one that that gives incredible insights into Icelandic manuscript culture. And this is why it is this editor´s choice.

Silvia Hufnagel, 15 December 2011.