Transfer to Iceland

The transfer of manuscripts from Denmark to Iceland took place as a result of numerous petitions from the Icelanders dating back to the 1830s and increasingly after the constitutional separation from Denmark in 1944, and it is undoubtedly connected to Iceland’s struggle for independence from Denmark. The demands for repatriation are founded on the fact that when Árni Magnússon bequeathed his collection to the University of Copenhagen this was also the university of Iceland.

The first official request for repatriation came in the 1830s from the bishop of Iceland, Steingrímur Jónsson, who wanted all diplomas dealing with the former dioceses of Skálholt and Hólar. This request was denied.

In 1907 the Alþingi, the Icelandic parliament, requested the return of all judicial and religious documents which Árni Magnússon had borrowed but never returned. This request was also denied. Yet another request was made in 1925, which two years later led to four manuscripts and approx. 700 diplomas being transferred from Copenhagen to Iceland.

The decision in parliament

Following the separation from Denmark Iceland petitioned for the return of all Icelandic manuscripts in Danish repositories, and after much heated debate the Danish parliament decided in May 1965 that such documents in the Arnamagnæan Collection as might be held to be "Icelandic cultural property" (islandsk kultureje) — broadly defined as a work composed or translated by an Icelander and whose content is wholly or chiefly concerned with Iceland — were to be transferred to the newly established Icelandic Manuscript Institute (now the Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies, Icelandic: Stofnun Árna Magnússonar í íslenskum fræðum).

It further provided for the transfer from the Danish Royal Library (Det kongelige Bibliotek) of manuscripts belonging to the same categories as the manuscripts relinquished by the Arnamagnæan Institute, and contained a special clause relating to the transfer to Iceland of two manuscripts, the Codex Regius of the Poetic Edda and the vellum codex Flateyjarbók, both of which were in the Royal Library (and would not have been deemed islandsk kultureje under the terms of the treaty). They were, however, of great significance to Iceland, as Codex Regius contains the poems of the Edda – in most cases the only copies extant – and Flateyjarbók is the largest and one of the most lavishly illuminated Icelandic manuscript in existence. Both had been sent to King Frederik III by the Icelandic bishop Brynjólfur Sveinsson in the mid-17th century.

Following the transfer of these two significant manuscripts, a committee was formed consisting of two Danes and two Icelanders, who were tasked with surveying the collections and suggesting which manuscripts should be sent to Reykjavík. The first transfer following the ceremonial delivery of Codex Regius and Flateyjarbók took place in April 1971, and the last two were handed over in June 1997. Altogether a total of 1,666 manuscripts, and all the Icelandic charters and apographa, have been transferred to Iceland, slightly over half the collection, in addition to 141 manuscripts from the Royal Library. Of the manuscripts remaining in Copenhagen about half are Icelandic but have as their chief concern matters not directly related to Iceland, e.g. the histories of the kings of Norway and Denmark, religious texts or translations from Latin and other languages.