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The Flateyjarbók Manuscript

by: Nicole J. Wallace

© 2001 Nicole J. Wallace. Do not use or reproduce without permission.

The Flateyjarbók manuscript is one of the largest and most precious medieval Icelandic manuscripts. It was written in Old Icelandic between AD 1387 and 1394. Jón Hakonarson [b. 1350] a farmer from Víðidalstunga in the county of Húnavatnssýsla, employed two priests, Jín þ+rðarson and Magnús þórhallsson, to copy and illuminate a great collection of sagas of the kings. Magnús did all of the illuminations. Flateyjarbók was created from one hundred and thirteen calve skins and consisting of two hundred and two leaves. Twenty-three leaves were added in the late fifteenth century by þorleifur Bjórnsson who was the governor at Reykholt. 1 While the majority of the manuscript consists of the sagas of the kings, there are many additions and one major part missing. The Norwegian kings who reigned from AD 1030 to 1177 are omitted. It is possible that Jón Hakonarson already owned a manuscript about those kings. There are also other sagas such as Grælendinga Saga, which tells of the Norse discovery of America and is not found anywhere else. Much of Flateyjarbók was copied or adapted from manuscripts which are now lost. The book also ends with an impressive annal from the reign of Julius Caesar until AD 1394. These additions have preserved sagas and information that would have otherwise been lost thus making Flateyjarbók the most valuable of all Icelandic manuscripts.

The Flateyjarbók acquired its name when it was in possession by Jón Finnsson who lived on the island of Flatey. In 1647 he gave the manuscript to Bishop Brynjolf Sveinsson of Skálholt. The bishop then gave the manuscript to the Danish king Frederick III in 1656. The manuscript remained in Copanhagen until it was ceremoniously returned to Iceland on the twenty first of April 1971. 2

To gain a better understanding of the significance of this manuscript, it is necessary to study it in detail. One of the main king sagas is that of King Olaf Haraldsson. He later became St. Olafur. This saga was adapted from Snorri Sturluson's version in Heimskringla. Snorri Sturluson was a historian and chieftain in medieval Iceland. Strynir Karason was the scribe employed for the part of St. Olaf of Heimskringla.3 The Flateyjarbók scribes, who were familiar with the cult of St. Olaf, elaborated on the saga and increased the number of mirablces he performed during his life and after his death. This approach made the saga instantly popular. The Saga of St. Olaf was often circulated and copied alone without the other king sagas.

There was a common belief in the supernatural power of kings. In Norway, there was a king who after his death, was divided into four parts and buried at the four corners of the country in order to insure good crops. Dead kings served a similar purpose to saint relics on the continent. St. Olaf was incredibly popular because he was a king and a saint. 4

The attatched image is a page from the version of St. Olaf's Saga in Flateyjarbók. The text is from the beginning of the saga but the illuminations are a foreshadow of the end of saga when King Olaf falls at the battle of Stiklastadir in AD 1030. St. Olaf fought this battle after being in exile for two years. He had lost the kingdom of Norway to the Danish king Cnut who was elected as king. Most of the inhabitants of Norway rebelled against King Olaf because he had made many attacks on pagan temples and old traditions in order to promote Christianity and unify Norway. His death is described in Heimskringla as thus:

Kálfr ok Olafr hétu frændr Kálfs Árnasonar. þeir stóðu á aðra hlið honum, menn miklir ok hraustir. Kálfr var sonr Arnfinns Armóðssonar, bróðursonr Árna Armóóðssonar. Á aðra hlið Kálfi Árnasyni gekk fram þórir hundr. Ólafr konungr hjó til þóris hunds um herðarnar. Sverðit beit ekki, en svá sýndisk sem dyst ryki ór hreinbjálbanum…þórir hjó til konungs, ok skiptusk þeir þá nokkurum hoggum við, ok beit ekki sverð konungs, þar er hreinbjálbinn var fyrir, en þó varð þórir sárr á hendi…Konungr mælti til Bjarnar stallara: "Ber þú hundinn, er eigi bíta járn." Bjorn snori oxinni í hendi sér ok laust með hamrinum. Kom ţat hogg á oxl þóri ok varð allmikit hogg, ok hrataði þórir við. En því jafnskjótt snori konungr í móti þeim Kálfi frændum ok veitti banasár Óláfi, frænda Kálfs. þá lagði þórir hundr spjóti til Bjarnar stallara á honum miðjum, veitti honum banasár. þá mælti þórir: "Svá bautu vér bjornuna." #254;orsteinn knarrasmiðr hjó til Óláfs konungs með oxi, ok kom þat hogg á fótinn vinstra við knéit fyrir ofan. Finnr Árnason drap þegar þorstein. En við sár þat hneigðisk konungr upp við stein einn ok kastaði sverðinu ok bað sér guð hjálpa. þá lagði þórir hundr spjóti til hans. Kom lagit neðan undir brynjuna ok renndi upp í kví*#240;inn. þá hjó Kálfr til hans. Kon ţat hogg inum vinstra megin útan á hálsinn. Menn greinask at því, hvárr Kálfr veitti konungi sáár. þessi þrjú sár hafði Óláfr konungr til lífláts. En eptir fall hans þá fell sú flest oll sveitin, er fram hafði gengit með konungi. 5

The Flateyjarbók version has been elaborated by the scribes as well as illuminated. The above passage is illustrated in the initial that is encompassed in a square frame. Encircling the image there are three peculiar beasts. Most illuminated manuscripts have imaginary creatures, often hideous, or monsters in the margins and they don't usually relate to the text. However, these three beasts most likely relate if they are viewed in a historical and cultural context.

The Icelanders came out of a Viking culture that was dominated by sea faring. There are many skaldic representations of ships. They also portray the danger of the stormy sea which is symbolized as a troll or sea goddess and the ship is portrayed as the prey. The ship is usually represented as an animal, usually a horse, ox or stag but sometimes another beast.

To protect themselves from these sea creatures, storms, and other perils of the open sea, they would attatch a carved animal head to their prows. These heads could be of a real animal or an imaginary animal and they almost always had gapping mouths. Sometimes these heads were even gilded.

The noteworthy thing about these heads is that they are detatchable. They were attatched when the ship went into battle yet detatched when approaching land, as to not scare the spirits of the land. When used to meet the oponent with hostile intent, they represented the masculinity of the warriors. 6

In the case of Flateyjarbók, they are used in the initial with gaping mouths. The two grey beasts on the side of the soliders are facing the king with their gaping mouths indicating a hostile attack. The orange beast behind the king also has a gaping mouth but the frame runs through it therefore stuffing its mouth. In juxtaposition to the gaping mouth grey figures, this figure must symbolize defeat.

The human figures in the initial can be identified. King Olaf is on the right with the crown. The figure in the grey tunic to the far left is Thostein Knarrarsmid. He struck King Olaf with his ax just about his knee on his left leg, which is shown in the medallion. The solider just behind him in the red tunic and who is mainly hidden from view is holding a spear that has been thrusted into King Olaf's stomach. His name is Thorer Hund. Meanwhile, the king has surrendered his sword and is praying to God for help. The solider in the green tunic who is not engaged in battle can not be identified. Perhaps he is a solider of King Olaf who is facing the opposition but at the same time looking on. It is also possible that this man is the skald. During the saga there are occasional poetic outbursts by a skald that tells about the battle. He could be there reciting what is going on. The figure standing just above King Olaf in the red tunic is named Kalf. He holds a short black spear that is pointed towards the neck of the king. In the saga, he strikes the king in the neck with the spear. These three wounds resulted in the death of King Olaf. They did not happen all at once as the image indicates but the image is the illuminator's short hand of what happens at the end of the saga. The illuminator tries to include as many aspects of the saga as possible in a small artistic space.

The bas-de-page on the left side of the page shows King Olaf fighting a beast that has wolf-like qualities. No such beast is included in the Heimskringla manuscript so this is either an elaboration by the Flateyjarbók scribes or it is symbolic for the enemy. In the sagas, all references to wolves in the context of attributing wolf-like qualities to humans, indicate a human of very violent and moody temperment such as Kveld-Ulf [night wolf] of Egils Saga. Therefore, this beast most likely indicates all of the men who had rebelled against King Olaf in the past. Since King Olaf was fighting for Christianity, the beast could symbolize the wolves in the Edda. In Norse mythology, there is a final battle of the gods called Ragnarok. This battle is symbolic of the end of the world. At the beginning of the end of the world, the two wolves who have been chasing sun and moon will swallow them up. A great earthquake will then break the fetters of the wolf Fenrir. This wolf is the son of Loki and a giantess. Loki was not one of the Æsir or Norse gods but he lived among them. He is notoriously known for his tricks and deception. It is to no surprise that he is partly responsible for the end of the world. His union with this giantess produced three children: Hel, the goddess of the underworld, the Miðgarð Serpent and the wolf Fenrir. The latter two were destructive forces for the Æsir. The wolf Fenrir was tricked into being fettered at the cost of Tyr's hand. Tyr is one of the Norse gods. Once the wolf Fenrir is free, he advances with his mouth open [again the gaping mouth theme]. He ends up swallowing Oðin, the king of the gods. He is then killed by Viðar, another god. In the minature, King Olaf is slaying the wolf. This could be indicative of his mission to promote Christianity and abolish paganism. Since the wolf dies along with the gods during Ragnarok, it could be indicative that this is the end of the pagan gods and pagan beliefs.

The second bas-de-page on the right has a similar theme. While the figure does not have a crown, we are told by scholar Jónas Kristjánsson7 that this is also King Olaf. In this minature, located on the bottom right hand side, he is slaying a hideous sea-ogress. This sea ogress could be symbolic for the Miðgarð Serpent. Thor, the strongest of the Norse gods, fights the Miðgarð Serpent during Ragnarok. He manages in slaying the serpent but then stumbles back ten paces and dies from the poison that is spewing from the dead carcass of the serpent.8

The illuminator's choice of using these symbolic figures creates a picture that is ladden with meaning and significance. It should be noted that these images foreshadow the death of King Olaf and even though King Olaf was successful in most of his battles and promoted Christianity, it was also the cause of his death, thus equating him with Thor, who despite his victory with the serpant, dies anyways. The death of the gods was pretty powerful to the Norse pagans in the pre-christina era. That same force was felt by the Christians at the time of the death of St. Olaf because it questions the power of the Christian God and why Olaf wasn't saved. It also reinforces the mortality of man.

In order to understand the literary tradition in which this manuscript is included, it is important to understand the social and historical reasons why people came to settle there. Once permanent settlements were created in Iceland, the settlers felt the need to assert their differences from their homeland.

Most of the settlers came to Iceland from Norway to avoid the tyranny of King Harald the Finehair [b. 851 d. 931] who was mercilessly sweeping through Norway killing his opponents and trying to unify Norway under his rule. The others came from surrounding Norse colonies in the Orkney Islands, the Faeroe Islands, and parts of Great Britain. These settlers had thus been exposed to both the Celtic tradition of storytelling and to Christianity.9 When they arrived, Iceland was virtually uninhabited with the exception of a few Irish monks who promptly fled upon the arrival of the Norse pagans. From this new barren environment, the new settlers were forced to create their own social space. 10

The medieval population of Iceland, despite having created its own democratic government, considered itself as a group of Norwegians living away from their native land. In fact, in the eleventh century, there was a treaty between the Icelanders and King Olaf Haraldson [the Saint] of Norway. According to the treaty, the Icelanders could enjoy the same status as Norwegian landholders when in Norway in return for treating the Norwegian merchants in the way when they were in Iceland. The Icelanders were also obliged to defend Norway under the king if Norway was attacked while they were there. To compensate for this military duty among other things, six ships of supplies were sent to Iceland annually. 11

Nevertheless, the need for a separate identity became stronger in the twelfth century. Around this time, a lot of secular literature was produced in Iceland and contributed to their sense of nationalism.12 For instance, in the mid twelfth century, the Icelanders created the First Grammatical Treatise in order to create a language solely for the Icelanders and to distinguish it from their Scandinavian counterparts. By the fourteenth century, the linguistic differences between Norwegian Norse and Icelandic Norse had become so great that they had become two separate languages. This treatise also gave the Icelanders a written language outside of the Latin and runic inscriptions. The Latin alphabet, derived from Carolingian Latin brought over from England, was adapted to their West Norse dialect and a few letters such as þ and ð, and the dipthong æ were added to accommodate the sounds they did not recognize in the Latin but heard in their own language.13

Once the Icelanders had established a common language to write in, numerous books began to appear. There are a number of ideological and structural patterns that recur in these texts. They form schemas that created a way of making sense of their experiences and the world around them while acknowledging the supernatural powers that brought the settlers to Iceland, thus legitimizing their land-taking. It is the general opinon that these supernatural powers were construed for the purpose of legitimizing their land claims but the Icelanders, even today believe that supernatural beings inhabit their island, such as elves and hidden folk.

The medieval texts, while legitimizing land claims, also serve the function of establishing social space. Land-taking was primarily a male activity with a few expections like Audr the Deep-Minded. The texts therefore serve to distinguish between male and females space while defining their roles according to the traditional Scandinavian distinctions. These texts also contain long genealogies of the dominant families in Iceland, which reinforce their legitimate claim to the land and the patriarchy of the society as a whole. 14

The manuscripts are of three major genres. The first is Eddiac Poetry. These stories tell the myths and legends of the old Scandinavian traditions and the pagan gods. They were mainly compiled by the great historian and chieftain Snorri Sturluson. These stories give insight into the Norse value system that continued even after the introduction of Christianity in AD 1000.

The second genre is the family saga. The most prominent families in Iceland wrote these sagas to preserve their genealogies and legitimize their land claims and lineage. These sagas offer great insight into everyday life in medieval Iceland and cover a variety of subjects from marriage, feuds, common past times, and even sexual dysfunction.

The thid and last major genre of secular literature is the king saga. These were also mainly compiled by Snorri Sturluson who had a lot of contact with the Norwegian court and acted as an intermediary during the civil wars in the mid twelfth century until he was murdered as a traitor at the order of the Norwegian king.. His book Heimskringla was very popular and many copies of it survive today. The book is a compilation of the Norwegian kings. The existing copies are evidence that the Icelanders felt close ties with their homeland of Norway and considered these kings as part of their social and cultural heritage. Flateyjarbók is part of this genre.

Manuscript production varies greatly in Iceland from the rest of continental Europe. The earliest system of literary production was introduced in Iceland in the early twelfth century by the Church. Therefore, most of the early writings consisted of Church literature and saints' lives written in Latin by educated clergymen. After the First Grammatical Treatise, a secular literate culture emerged. At the beginning of the thirteenth century there were many conflicts between the Church and the secular chieftains. These conflicts coincide with the abrupt break in the literary traditon. Literature was no longer only a convention of the Church but had spread throughout the farmsteads in the country.

Iceland had one of the most literate societies in medieval times. Each farmstead educated their children. Books were extremely valuable possessions. This mentality of valuing literature continues to exist in Iceland today.

The promotion of literacy was possible because Icelandic farmers were able to manufacture their own manuscripts inexpensively. Since many calves were slaughtered each autumn, vellum was usually in abundance. Farmers utilized the long winter nights to copy and create these manuscripts since there was little work to do on their fams in the winter. 15

Before manuscripts became a common household item, these long winter nights were used to tell stories orally. After the creation of manuscripts, the manuscripts were read aloud at the farms. Reading aloud was a new popular form of entertainment in the Norwegian court in the early thirteenth century where many courtly romances and other foreign literatures were being introduced. The Icelanders adopted this form of entertainment and these manuscripts were read at weddings and feasts to entertain guests. They were also read at less formal occassions when everyone in the household had gathered in the largest room around the fire. During this time, the members of the household would be preparing wool, spinning, cooking, or repairing something or other while someone read aloud. 16

In the thirteenth century, mauscripts began to become illuminated. The earlier manuscripts of this period contained illuminated initials to indicate chapter divisions as well as marginal foliage, flowers and elongated Gothic figures. In the fourteenth century, the illuminators had created their own style and drew monsters, scenes from every day life, and even drunken figures. 17

The Flateyjarbók manuscript is a priceless time capsule for the Icelanders because it contains their history, culture and through the illuminations, an expression of art. Its significance for Icelanders today was most evident in 1971 when the manuscript was returned from Denmark. In the eyes of the Icelanders, this manuscript as well as most of the other medieval manuscripts symbolize their country, their language, their nationalism and their identity.


Karlsson, Gunnar, The History of Iceland (University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis) 2000.

Kristjansson, Jonas, Icelandic Sagas and Manuscripts Iceland Review, (Reyjavik, Iceland) 1980.

Lacy, Terry, Ring of Seasons (University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor) 1998.

Samson, Ross [editor] Social Approaches to Viking Studies Cruithne Press, (Glasgow, Scotland) 1991 p.9: Lonroth, Lars, Sponsors, Writers, and Readers of Early Norse Literature

Sturlusson, Snorri, Heimskringla ch. 228

Tomasch, Sylvia and Gilles, Sealy [editors] Text and Territory: Geographical Imagination in the European Middle Ages (U Penn Press: Philladelphia) 1998 p. 175: Ross, Margaret Clunies, Land-taking and Text-making in Medieval Iceland

Young, Jean I. [trans.] (Snorri Sturluson's) The Prose Edda (University of California Press, Berkeley) 1954.


1. Kristjansson, Jonas, Icelandic Sagas and Manuscripts, Iceland Review, (Reykjavik, Iceland) 1980. p.59
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2. Kristjansson, p.59, 89-90.
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3. Samson, Ross [editor] Social Approaches to Viking Studies, Cruthne Press, (Glasgow, Scotland) 1991. p.9: Lonnroth, Lars, Sponsors, Writers and Readers of Early Norse Literature
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4. Tomasch, Sylvia and Gilles, Sealy, [editor] Text and Territory: Geographical Imagination in the European Middle Ages, U Penn Press (Philadelphia) 1998. p. 175. Ross, Margaret Clunies, Land-Taking and Text-Making in Medieval Iceland
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5. Sturlusson, Snorri, Heimskringla ch. 228; as found in Islenzk Fornrit. Translations vary. Here is my translation since I couldn't find an English translation that agreed precisely. One translation didn't even have the chapters matching!
My translation:The kinsmen of Kalf Arnason were named Kalf and Olaf. They stood on one side of him. They were large and brave men. Kalf was the son of Arnfinn Armothsson, nephew of Arni Armothsson. On the other side of Kalf Arnason advanced Thorir the Hound. King Olaf slashed across the shoulders of Thorir the Hound. The sword didn't bite and so it seemed as if dust flew out of the reindeer skin. Thorir struck at the King and they exchanged certain blows and the sword of the king didn't bite where the reindeer skin was present, yet Thorir became wounded on the hand. The king said to Bjorn, his marshal: "Beat (you) down the hound, on whom weapons do not bite." Bjorn turned with his axe in hand and hit [him] with the hammer. [blade] That blow fell on the shoulder of Thorir and it was a mighty blow and Thorir fell. At once, the king turned towards Kalf and his kinsmen and gave Olaf, kinsman of Kalf, his death blow. Then Thorir the Hound put his spear into Bjorn, the marshal and pierced him in the middle, gave him his death blow. Then Thorir said: "So we beat the bears." Thornstein Knarrasmidr [shipbuilder] slashed at King Olaf with his axe and the blow struck his left leg just above the knee. At once, Finn Arnason killed Thorstein. And with that wound, King Olaf sunk against a stone and threw down his sword and prayed to his God for help. The Thorir the Hound thrust [his spear] at him. It slashed him under the coat of mail and ran up through his belly. Then Kalf slashed at him. The blow struck his neck on the left side. Men disagree at this as to which Kalf wounded the king. These three wounds cost King Olaf his life. And after his fall, most of his body of men [companions] which had advanced with him fell with the king.

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6. Ross, p. 167-169.
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7. Kristansson, p.49
8. For more information of Ragnarok in English please see: Young, Jean I. [trans.] Sturluson, Snorri, The Prose Edda (University of California Press, Berkeley) 1954. p. 86-90.
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9. Karlsson, Gunnar, The History of Iceland (University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis) 2000. p.71.
10. Ross, p. 159
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11. Karlsson, p. 48
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12. This same literature was used to promote Icelandic nationalism in the twentieth century when they gained their independence from Denmark in 1944.
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13. Karlsson, 62-63.
Lacy, Terry, Ring of Seasons (University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor) 1998. p.34.

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14. Ross, p. 161
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15. Lonroth p. 4
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16. Lonroth, p. 5

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