Behind Every Great Manuscript: Early Modern Women's Roles in the Preservation of Literary Heritage - Katelin Parsons – Københavns Universitet

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Behind Every Great Manuscript: Early Modern Women's Roles in the Preservation of Literary Heritage - Katelin Parsons

Portrait of an old woman reading (Gerard Dou)
Gerard Dou: Portrait of an old woman reading (source: Wikimedia)

In Halldór Laxness’s historical novel Iceland’s Bell, several leaves from a medieval Icelandic poetry manuscript surface in the bed of an elderly peasant woman in Akranes. She has kept them only because she has found no other use for the hard calfskin, and she parts willingly with them for a single coin. Although the manuscript is fictional, the scene accurately reflects the scattered nature of Iceland’s manuscript heritage in the late seventeenth century.

Scholarly interest in Old Norse-Icelandic literature predates the establishment of formal institutions dedicated to the preservation of the medieval literary past. The collection and study of literary manuscripts in the early modern era is an activity typically associated with highly educated, powerful and wealthy men. However, recent research on women’s literacy in Iceland has demonstrated the importance of women as custodians of codices, who valued them highly and ensured their continued survival. In my presentation, I will examine the histories of four manuscripts of Þiðreks saga af Bern and their connection to the family of Helga Magnúsdóttir of Bræðratunga.

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