Denmark and Iceland clash over priceless medieval manuscripts

They recount tales of Viking raids, Norse history, kings and gods: a priceless collection of medieval manuscripts, bequeathed by an Icelandic scholar to the University of Copenhagen in the 18th century, that Iceland now wants back.

Denmark and Iceland clash over priceless medieval manuscripts
An Icelandic medieval manuscript of the Arnamagnaean Collection at the University of Copenhagen. Photo: Suzanne Reitz/AFP/Ritzau Scanpix

The UN cultural organisation UNESCO has called them “the single most important collection of early Scandinavian manuscripts in existence”, with the earliest one dating from the 12th century.

Some of the texts — known as the Arnamagnaean Collection — have already been returned to Reykjavik, but 1,400 documents are still locked away in Copenhagen.

The jewel of the collection is an almost complete early 15th century copy of “Heimskringla” — the best known of the Old Norse kings' sagas, originally written in the 13th century by Icelandic poet and historian Snorri Sturluson.

Unlike many Icelandic mediaeval manuscripts, which have few decorative flourishes, this version of the Heimskringla is richly illustrated with intricate red lettering on each page.

The Arnamagnaean Collection is named after scholar Arni Magnusson, a historian and literature and language expert who was born in Iceland but died in 1730 in Copenhagen, where he left his 3,000 or so manuscripts.

Each time a document from the collection is borrowed from the university, it is insured for up to five million kroner (670,000 euros).

Keen to ensure good relations with its former colony, Denmark granted Iceland's recurring request to return part of the collection in the 1960s. A treaty signed in 1965 divvied up the goods.

In line with that agreement, more than half of the manuscripts were turned over to Iceland between 1971 and 1997.

The division of documents between the two nations had for years been uncontroversial, but Iceland's Culture and Education Minister Lilja Alfredsdottir now wants more of the collection given back.

She has raised the profile of the issue and linked it to the construction of a new institute dedicated to Magnusson, which will hold an exhibition of mediaeval documents.

“We think it's important that the manuscripts be located in Iceland to a greater extent,” Alfredsdottir told AFP.

Matthew Driscoll, the professor in charge of the collection at the University of Copenhagen, is opposed to the idea, arguing that the remaining manuscripts are part of Denmark's cultural heritage.

The two nations have an intertwined history, Iceland having been under Danish rule from the 1600s until it declared independence in 1944.

Driscoll says the University of Copenhagen has cooperated closely with Reykjavik, digitising all of the works and making them available to researchers.

“These are not things that have been acquired illegally or stolen… Arni owned those manuscripts himself, he was given them or he bought them, and then he left them in a completely legal way to the University of Copenhagen,” Driscoll said.

And even in Iceland, there are mixed opinions about whether the texts should be returned.

Haraldur Bernhardsson, a professor of medieval studies at the University of Iceland, said he fully agreed with the need to make cultural heritage visible for future generations.

But he added: “I think we can do that in collaboration with the Arnamagnaean Collection in Copenhagen.”

Keeping all the Icelandic works in Reykjavik would actually limit the number of scholars and academics who study them, some academics say.

“If you really wanted to request Icelandic manuscripts from abroad, you should perhaps prioritise manuscripts that are not currently being studied, which is obviously not the case with the Arni Magnusson collection,” said Bernhardsson.

READ ALSO: Danish parliament speaker shunned by Icelandic MPs

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How a Viking king inspired one of our best-known modern technologies

A Swede and American tell the story of how they hatched the idea for the moniker 'Bluetooth' over beers.

A Danish 16th-century paining of Viking king Harald Bluetooth
A Danish 16th-century paining of Viking king Harald Bluetooth. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Public domain

At the end of the 1990s, Sven Mattisson, a Swedish engineer working at telecom group Ericsson, and Jim Kardach, an American employed by Intel, were among those developing the revolutionary technology.

In 1998, at the dawn of the “wireless” era, the two men were part of an international consortium that created a universal standard for the technology first developed by Ericsson in 1994.

But prior to that, they had struggled to pitch their wireless products. Intel had its Biz-RF wireless programme, Ericsson had MC-Link, while Nokia had its Low Power RF. Kardach, Mattisson and others presented their ideas at a seminar in Toronto in late 1997.

“Jim and I said that people did not appreciate what we presented,” Mattisson, now 65 and winding down his career at Ericsson, recalled in a recent interview with AFP.

The engineer, who had travelled all the way to Canada from Sweden for the one-hour pitch, decided to hang out with Kardach for the evening before flying home.

“We received a lukewarm reception of our confusing proposal, and it was at this time I realised we needed a codename for the project which everyone could use,” Kardach explained in a long account on his webpage.

‘Chauvinistic story’

To drown their sorrows, the two men headed for a local Toronto bar and ended up talking about history, one of Kardach’s passions. “We had some beers… and Jim is interested in history so he asked me about Vikings, so we talked at length about that,” said Mattisson, admitting that his recollection of that historic night is now somewhat foggy.

Kardach said all he knew about Vikings was that they ran “around with horned helmets raiding and looting places, and that they were crazy chiefs.”

Mattisson recommended Kardach read a well-known Swedish historical novel about the Vikings, entitled “The Long Ships”.

Set in the 10th century – “a chauvinistic story” about a boy taken hostage by Vikings, says Mattisson – one name in the book caught Kardach’s attention: that of the king of Denmark, Harald “Bluetooth” Gormsson.

A Bluetooth adapter from 2004. Photo: Stefan Gustavsson/SvD/TT


An important historic figure in Scandinavia in the 10th century, the king of Denmark’s nickname is said to refer to a dead tooth, or, as other tales have it, to his liking for blueberries or even a simple translation error.

During his reign, Denmark turned its back on its pagan beliefs and Norse gods, gradually converting to Christianity.

But he is best known for having united Norway and Denmark in a union that lasted until 1814.

A king who unified Scandinavian rivals – the parallel delighted those seeking to unite the PC and cellular industries with a short-range wireless link.

And the reference to the king goes beyond the name: the Bluetooth logo, which at first glance resembles a geometric squiggle, is in fact a superimposition of the runes for the letters “H” and “B”, the king’s initials.

Low-cost and with low power consumption, Bluetooth was finally launched in May 1998, using technology allowing computer devices to communicate with each other in short range without fixed cables.

The first consumer device equipped with the technology hit the market in 1999, and its name, which was initially meant to be temporary until something better was devised, became permanent.