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November's Interesting Icelander

Árni Magnússon (I41634)

13 November 1663 – 7 January 1730

By Brian Borgford

"And that is the way of the world, that some men put errors into circulation and others afterwards try to eradicate those same errors. And so both sorts of men have something to do". Árni Magnússon

Arni Magnusson Portrait
Arni Magnusson Portrait

A scholar and collector of manuscripts, Árni Magnússon was unique in his time and in history. The Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies in Reykjavik bears his name and contains much of his collection of manuscripts.

Árni is equally celebrated in Denmark with a related institute and the remainder of his manuscript collection. A street in Copenhagen bears his name. A discontinued 100 Krona bill contains his portrait. Even Iceland’s Nobel prize winner, Halldór Laxness based a character on Árni in his novel, “Iceland’s Bell”.

Although he was born in Iceland and spent his formative years in the land of his birth, many of Árni’s notable accomplishments occurred while living in Denmark or being directed by Denmark, who controlled the affairs of Iceland at the time.

Árni was born in western Iceland in the district of Dalasýsla on November 13, 1663. His father was a minister and later, the sheriff and prosecutor; however, Árni was raised by his grandparents and uncle. At the age of seventeen, he entered the Cathedral School in Skálholt and three years later, accompanied his father to Denmark on a diplomatic mission. While in Denmark, Árni studied at the University of Copenhagen where he earned a degree and began his academic career.

Skálholt Cathedral
Skálholt Cathedral (Photo Credit - D Hanson)

He was appointed to various positions over his career, including secretary to a Danish statesman, and secretary at the Royal Secret Archives. From 1694 to 1696, Árni was dispatched to Germany to assess a book collection that was offered to the University of Copenhagen.

Árni spent ten years, from 1702 to 1712, surveying conditions in Iceland on behalf of the King of Denmark. This project produced the 1703 survey of Iceland’s almost 51,000 residents; a feat not repeated for another hundred and thirteen years.

After his years surveying Iceland, which involved considerable controversy and complaints of judicial interference due to Árni and his partner, Páll Vídalín, inquiring about past court cases, Árni returned to Denmark in 1713 where he spent his remaining years.

Árni resumed his duties as librarian, eventually becoming head of the university library. He was also appointed as professor of Philosophy and Danish Antiquities and professor of History and Geography at the university. During this time, he accumulated his collection of manuscripts, mostly Icelandic, but also those of other Nordic countries, the largest collection of its kind. Upon his death in 1730, Árni bequeathed his collection to the state for the benefit of Icelandic students.

Edda. The new home of the Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies
Edda. The new home of the Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies

Editor's Note: You may recall our October 1, 2023 Roots News article Edda - From Ashes to Majestic. It addresses the relocation of the Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies in Reykjavik that Sunna and Becky visited in August 2023. The link is copied if you would like to read this article as well. Enjoy!


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