What is the source value of Landnámabók? And when is it thought to have been used?

Asked By

Guðmundur Viðar Árnason


Landnámabók (The Book of Settlements) can be used both as an account of certain events and as a historical artefact. As a historical artefact it is testimony to the fact that the Icelanders had started as early as the 12th century to create written records of the settlement of their country. It also shows us how they tackled this subject and what they considered most important to record about it. Additionally, the textual transmission of Landnámabók, when and how the various different versions of it came to be produced, testifies to a continuing interest in the settlements among Icelanders of later centuries.

As far as the information contained in it is concerned, Landnámabók cannot be considered so reliable a source, describing as it does events that took place some 200 years before they were put down in writing. If we limit ourselves to the extant versions, this time lag increases to as much as 400 years. Much of the material in the versions of Landnámabók that we know is taken from the sagas of the Icelanders, though in its original form Landnámabók probably predates any of these sagas. Scholars disagree on the source value of the account of the settlements given in Landnámabók, whether it is a collection of legends or reliable in its broad details. There are few who are inclined to take everything Landnámabók has to say at face value.

It is not unlikely that Landnámabók was used as a source as early as the 12th century by Norwegian historians, writing in Latin, in their accounts of the discovery of Iceland in the works Historia de antiquitate regum Norwagiensium (History of the Ancient Deeds of the Kings of Norway) and Historia Norwegiæ (History of Norway). There is, however, no way of showing for sure whether they used any written version of Landnámabók. From the 13th century we know of a version of Landnámabók, now lost, compiled by Styrmir Kárason (d. 1245), prior of the monastery of Viðey. The oldest versions of the work still extant date originally from in the years around 1300, one by Lawman Sturla Thórðarson (1214-1284), another by Lawman Haukr Erlendsson (d. 1334), and a third by Lawman Snorri Markússon (d. 1313) or somebody closely connected with him.

Interest in the settlement of the country lived on in Iceland. Around 1600 the antiquarian Arngrímur Jónsson (1568-1648) used Landnámabók as a source for a number of works on the history of Iceland, written in Latin for a readership abroad. Around the same time, copies were written up by Björn Jónsson of Skarðsá (1574-1655) and Thórður Jónsson of Hítardalur (1609-1670); their manuscripts provide important evidence for the relationships between the different versions of the work.

Landnámabók was first printed at Skálholt in 1688 on the initiative of Bishop Thórður Thorláksson (1636-1697). Modern critical editions based on all the manuscripts were produced by Finnur Jónsson (1858-1934), professor of Old Icelandic in Copenhagen, and Jakob Benediktsson (1907-1999), director of Orðabók Háskólans (Lexicographic Department of the University of Iceland). Jakob Benediktsson also produced an edition of Landnámabók for the Íslenzk fornrit series, published in 1968 (Íslenzk fornrit I. Íslendingabók, Landnámabók); this edition provides the most accessible introduction to the work as well as going into greater detail on points of debate associated with it than there is room for here.

Finally, it is worth mentioning that, when the 1000 year anniversary of Iceland was celebrated in 1874, the dating of this event was based on Landnámabók. There is, for instance, no reference in Ari the Learned's Íslendingabók (Book of the Icelanders) to 874 as the date of the discovery or settlement of Iceland. So Landnámabók still acts as the Icelanders' prime source when it comes to deciding when to commemorate the founding and origins of their country.

Translated by Nicholas Jones.

Um þessa spurningu


Published 2.12.2005


Answers in English


Sverrir Jakobsson. „What is the source value of Landnámabók? And when is it thought to have been used?“. The Icelandic Web of Science 2.12.2005. (Skoðað 26.5.2024).


Sverrir Jakobssonprófessor í miðaldasögu við HÍ


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