By Christine M. Schott
Thesis, University of Iceland, 2010
Abstract: This project investigates what paratextual material—specifically marginalia—can tell us about the way medieval Icelandic readers felt about their books, and how they participated in the creation of the reading experience for future readers through the marks they left on the page. This branch of Material Philology is shedding light on reading and literary practices across medieval Europe, but within the realm of Icelandic literature much still remains to be uncovered.
This thesis discusses and provides a transcription of the marginalia in three particular medieval Icelandic manuscripts, focusing first and foremost on a little-noted Jónsbók manuscript: Rask 72a. This book contains a fairly extensive collection of comments by the scribe on his environment and equipment, all written into the margins. I argue that the scribe was led to record such comments in the margins because of the specifically written (and therefore specifically physical) nature of the Jónsbók law code, which is quite different from the sagas or eddas that had at least some roots in the oral history tradition.
As a supplement to this discussion of the Jónsbók manuscript, I also examine AM 604 4to (a manuscript of rímur) and AM 433a 12mo (Margrétar saga). This secondary investigation provides a broader basis for the discussion of Icelandic book culture. I argue, for instance, that the extensive recording of proverbs in AM 604 indicates a certain awareness of the manuscript as an archival force—a lasting physical artifact instead of simply a record to prompt oral performance in reading. The presence of such collections of deliberately-formulated marginalia in all three manuscripts indicates a certain consonance of attitude toward these three very different kinds of books: on some level conscious or unconscious, the scribes were aware of the physical, enduring nature of their material as much as they were of the value of the text, and at the same time they participated in the creation of future reading experiences by inscribing themselves on the page.
In many ways the story of medieval Icelandic book culture is the story of book culture all over medieval Europe: with the coming of Christianity came the introduction of the codex and the slow but steady process of transitioning from an oral to a written culture. What sets Iceland apart, however, is the surprisingly high volume of manuscript production in comparison to population size, and perhaps more interestingly the unique flowering of vernacular literature that was never subjected to a Latin hegemony. Without falling into romantic notions of a remote island charting its own course in opposition to the literary life of the Continent, we can still say that Icelandic manuscripts were bound up in the unique culture of Iceland with its strong oral history. Yet, possibly because of the continued knowledge of oral culture, Icelandic scribes seem to have been especially sensitive to their books’ very written physicality, a physicality they both celebrated and utilized. They seem, in fact, to have their closest parallels not with the contemporary book culture of fourteenth-century mainland Europe but with that of ninth and tenth-century Anglo-Saxon England, which was similar to Iceland in many ways. However, where England experienced a series of marked breaks in its culture over the centuries, Iceland was fortunate enough to enjoy great continuity over more than a millennium, and the value of its manuscript treasures, though experiencing its own ups and downs, continued to play a role in politics and society even through the twentieth century.