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USTC Completes Full Survey of Icelandic Printing, 1534-1650

By Arthur der Weduwen |

Over the past year, the USTC team has made it a priority to expand its coverage of national print cultures that have thus far been underrepresented in our database. When printing emerged in the fifteenth century it spread quickly throughout Western and Southern Europe, but failed to settle in broad swathes of Europe’s northern and eastern frontiers.

For this reason, the print cultures of these regions did not feature prominently in the first iteration of the USTC. With the extension of the resource to 1650, we have been crucially aware that including the younger print domains of early modern Europe is an important feature to keep the project truly universal.

This past year we have made significant progress, and have expanded the USTC with coverage of the print production of Latvia, Estonia, Finland, Lithuania and Belarus. Now we are in a position to offer also a full survey of Icelandic printing.


The early history of printing in Iceland is one of the most remarkable of all European countries.  A press was introduced as early as 1530, a century before printing first appeared in Norway and Finland, and decades before other countries in Europe; but Iceland would never have more than a single printing press until the eighteenth century. Although its output was very small compared to other national print domains – we have identified only 252 editions printed in Iceland before 1701 – Icelandic print culture was the most vernacular in all of Europe, with only a handful of books printed in Latin. This was highly unusual, especially given that the majority of Icelandic books were religious works. Finally, Iceland’s single press, although it moved location five times, was always owned and managed by one of Iceland’s two bishops.

The unique characteristics of Iceland’s print culture are the result of Iceland’s distinctive geography and history. Without a doubt, Iceland is on the geographical periphery of Europe, almost 1,000 miles west of Norway and 760 miles northwest of Scotland. Settled since the ninth century by Norse immigrants, the country came under the rule of the kingdom of Norway in the thirteenth century and was incorporated into the crown of Denmark-Norway in 1380. Iceland, then populated by some 30,000 people, was both fiercely autonomous, yet also entirely dependent on the Danish crown. From 1602 onwards, the King of Denmark had a personal monopoly over all trade with Iceland, which ensured that most connections with the world abroad – politically, culturally and economically – had to go through Copenhagen. At the same time the people of Iceland were protective of their own language, laws and customs, which developed largely unregulated by the Danish crown. While all books published in the crown of Denmark were formally subject to oversight by the professors of Copenhagen University, this privilege did not extend to books printed in Iceland, because there were few professors who could read Icelandic. Power in Iceland was thus often delegated by the crown to its two bishops, at Hólar in the north and Skálholt in the southwest.

Iceland’s first printer, a Swedish cleric named Jón Matthíasson, arrived in Hólar in the early 1530s, probably at the invitation of its bishop, Jón Arason. It is not sure whether Jón Matthíasson was an experienced printer; in any case, his press does not seem to have been very active. In 1534, he finished a Breviary, a single fragment of which survives. Otherwise, only one other work by him in Hólar is known, on the Four Evangelists. The activity of the press may have been impeded by the convulsions that shook Iceland after the King of Denmark-Norway, Christian III, adopted the Protestant Reformation. Although Lutheranism was introduced in Denmark in 1536 and in Norway in 1537, the King met stern resistance in Iceland, especially from Bishop Jón Arason. In 1550, after a long struggle, Arason and his two sons were beheaded, and Iceland became a Lutheran country. This moment marked a radical departure for Iceland’s print culture. Henceforth it would serve almost exclusively as a tool for the proselytising of the Protestant faith, and the instruction of new generations of clergy. With the exception of seven books, all works printed in Iceland before the eighteenth century would be printed in Icelandic.

USTC 302690
The oldest extant book to be printed in the Icelandic language, this edition of the New Testament (1540, USTC 302690) was produced in Roskilde, Denmark, shortly after the Reformation had been introduced in Denmark, but not yet in Iceland itself. Courtesy of ProQuest.

Iceland’s first printer escaped from the fate of his former patron Arason by converting to Protestantism. He was made minister of the hamlet of Breidabólsstadur, and his press moved with him. Between 1559 and 1562 he was responsible for at least four Lutheran devotional tracts. Matthíasson died in 1567 and was succeeded as minister in Breidabólsstadur by Gudbrandur Thorláksson (Guðbrandur Þorláksson, 1541-1627). A talented theologian and gifted writer, Thorláksson was appointed bishop of Hólar several years later, in 1571. When he took up his seat, the press travelled with him, as did Jón Jónsson, the son of the late Jón Matthíasson. Thorláksson had identified the press as a useful medium that could serve the church and Thorláksson’s influence as bishop. Although printing got underway very soon in Hólar, the press had become decrepit from lack of use and maintenance. When it broke down in 1573, Thorláksson sent his printer to Copenhagen to buy a new press and new typefaces. Over the course of 1574, Jón Jónsson stayed with Andreas Gutterwitz, the royal printer, where he was also able to acquire some valuable experience in the print shop.

When Jónsson returned in 1575 with a fully functioning press, Bishop Thorláksson was delighted. Six editions are known to have come off the press in 1575 and 1576, and many others followed. The bishop rewarded Jónsson by recommending him to King Frederick II, who granted the printer the use of a crown farm at Núpufell, some sixty miles inland from Hólar. For some unknown reason, the press was moved to Núpufell between 1589 and 1593, before returning to Hólar, presumably because the bishop enjoyed better access to the press there. The press that Jónsson brought from Copenhagen in 1575 would now stay at Hólar until the end of the 1680s, when it moved to Skálholt. During this time, the press remained in the hands of three successive bishops of Hólar. There would be four printers who followed in Jónsson’s footsteps, but they were rarely named on the title-pages of their works: it was the bishop who took full responsibility for the output of the press. This is fairly reflected in the extant publications: of the 138 editions printed in Iceland by 1650, seventy were written, edited or translated by Bishop Thorláksson, and another twenty by his successor Thorlákur Skúlason and Thorláksson’s cousin, Arngrimur Jónsson.

USTC 270050
A Lutheran psalm book, printed in Iceland in 1619 (USTC 270050). Luther was the most commonly printed foreign writer in Iceland, and many of his works were adorned with woodcut portraits like that pictured here. Copyright of the National and University Library of Iceland.

The books that these men wrote, translated and published were generally for use by other Icelandic ministers and perhaps some lay members of their congregations. Catechisms, psalm books, prayer books and scriptural commentaries were the most common publications, usually printed in an octavo or duodecimo format. Paper was a scarce commodity and had to be imported from Denmark: it is likely that most books were printed in a print run of some 300 to 500 copies. The most substantial works produced in Iceland were two folio Bibles. The first, edited by Bishop Thorláksson, appeared in 1584, after several years of printing. This was the first complete Icelandic Bible (a New Testament had been printed in Rostock in 1540) and its production was wholeheartedly supported by the Danish crown. The King himself financed its printing, and all Icelandic churches were required to pay a tithe before publication, as well as purchase a copy when it was printed. Supposedly 1,000 copies were produced; we have thus far identified thirty-one extant copies. Clearly by 1644 stock had run out, because a new edition of the same Bible appeared on the Hólar press. These were the only two folios to be printed in Iceland before the eighteenth century.

USTC 270060
The title-page of the 1644 folio Bible (USTC 270060), one of only two folios to be printed in Iceland before the eighteenth century. Copyright of the National and University Library of Iceland.

Today, surviving copies of Icelandic imprints can be found as often in foreign libraries as in Icelandic collections. Many extant works found their way to the library of Cornell, thanks to the collecting interests of the American scholar Willard Fiske (1831-1904), who brought together one of the largest libraries of books related to Iceland. Many others can be found at the British Library, but the most substantial foreign holdings are in Denmark and Sweden. While the American and British collections were largely gathered thanks to a nineteenth-century interest in Icelandic culture, the Scandinavian collections tend to indicate earlier exchanges. Many Icelandic scholars and clergymen travelled to Denmark during their lifetime: to finish their education, attend court and enjoy the delights of the metropolis in Copenhagen, not least buying books. Some also had their writings published in Copenhagen, generally more substantial scholarly works in Latin that could not be undertaken by the Hólar press. By the end of the seventeenth century there is evidence of a large community of Icelanders living in Copenhagen, and we find extant examples of Icelandic almanacs, poems and funeral orations printed in Copenhagen.

USTC 251078
The oldest Icelandic almanac, printed in Hólar in 1597 (USTC 251078). Almost all Icelandic publications concerned religion, but there were a few secular works produced in Hólar, including almanacs, school books and statutes. Copyright of the National and University Library of Iceland.

In seventeenth-century Denmark and Sweden there also emerged a strong interest in the Icelandic language, because the language offered the key to the great historical sagas of mediaeval Iceland. Danish and Swedish scholars began to study the sagas and the runic script, and published their findings on the presses of Copenhagen, Uppsala and Stockholm. In Sweden, extracts from sagas came to be used as material for university disputations: the professors of Uppsala were especially keen to identify in early Icelandic history evidence that would support Swedish claims to the oldest civilisation in Europe. Although this may have been a quest in vain, it did prompt a substantial body of historical and philological literature that placed the cultural heritage of Iceland on the map of European scholars. In 1688, the English minister George Hickes published a Latin-Icelandic dictionary and grammar in Oxford, while several histories of Iceland appeared on the presses of Amsterdam during the seventeenth century. As Iceland became a topic of interest to more scholars abroad, so the publications from the Hólar press also came to their attention, ultimately helping to preserve this remarkable episode in the early history of printing.

ustc 251138
One of the earliest philological publications on runes and the Icelandic language, published in Copenhagen in 1650 (USTC 251138). Many more would follow later in the century, especially in Swedish Uppsala. Copyright of the National and University Library of Iceland.

Arthur der Weduwen is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of St Andrews and the author of Dutch and Flemish Newspapers of the Seventeenth Century (2 vols., Brill, 2017) and The Bookshop of the World. Making and Trading Books in the Dutch Golden Age (co-authored with Andrew Pettegree) (Yale University Press, 2019). For the USTC he works predominantly on the print cultures of the Low Countries, Scandinavia and the Baltic.


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