A lecture presenting the history of Iceland's manuscripts http://gateway.uvic.ca/beck/media/text/saga-heritage.html


was invited to Iceland in the year 2000 to give four lectures, one of them on the seventh centenary of Dante Alighieri's Commedia, whose date, in its fiction, is March 25, 1300, the year of the first Roman Jubilee. A fact which was forgotten in Florence and in Rome, but not at Columbia University in America nor in Reykjavík, Iceland. Though this is the ancients' Ultima Thule, their most distant land.

I am a medievalist but my father and my brother both worked at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in Rome, so awareness of global ecology became a facet of my medieval research. At Princeton in the English Department I taught William Langland's Piers Plowman and Thomas More's Utopia as literary texts, but the Sahel Famine was deeply troubling my brother at FAO who asked that I bring that awareness also to Princeton. My students and I initiated together a course called 'Problems in World Hunger' which we taught in the Woodrow Wilson School and which continued many years after, in which I also included Piers Plowman, Utopia and Lynn White Jr's Medieval Technology and Social Change. Langland describes the poverty of women living in hovels with not enough for their children to eat, rack-rented by landlords, More describes the 'sheep eating the people', the Cistercian monks converting arable farmland to sheep grazing as more profitable for themselves, the wool going to Florence, the people, in losing access to land, starving. Lynn White Jr's son, Lynn T. White III, who taught in our course, applied those observations to modern China, combining them with Clifford Geertz's work on 'Agricultural Involution', about the delicacy and efficacy of wet rice culture at a time when America was bombing rice paddies in Vietnam. Together we founded and worked closely with OxFam-America and stressed the need for Gandhian village level changes, Schumacher's 'Small is Beautiful', the breast-feeding of babies, women's tree-planting projects (being vindicated in this with Kenyan environmentalist and human rights campaigner Wangari Maathai winning the Nobel Peace Prize), handcrafts, rather than massive technological 'fixes'.

Árni Magnusson Institute, Reykjavik, Jónsbók, c. 1400. Gl.kgl.sml.3269.

When I became Director of Medieval Studies at the University of Colorado this awareness continued and was presented in my lectures. One of my students, Philip Roughton, then went to China where he taught Beowulf and 'The Dream of the Rood'; next he went to Iceland to study not the pagan sagas but the Christian manuscripts among their treasures. It was Philip Roughton who invited me to Reykjavík and I stayed in the house of Jónas Kristjánson, Iceland's greatest scholar, Phil taking me also to Skálholt and to Thingvellir.

Richard St Barbe Baker, whom I knew when I was a child, said that trees are earth's skin, and that when there is less than a third, one cannot survive. As I walked to Mass in Iceland each morning I would pass a cemetery. Very beautiful it was and very strange because the great birch trees would gnarl themselves about the tombs. In Iceland there are no trees, the sheep having eaten them. Except in cemeteries, where, protected, they flourish. So I asked Kristín Bragadóttir of Iceland's National Library Preservation Section to have them photographed for me. These are taken by her husband, Sveinn Magnússon. Iceland's population is so small that surnames are one's father's Christian, followed by 'dottir' for the daughter, 'son' for the son.


Photographs, Sveinn Magnússon

Yet when the Irish, who were here before the Vikings, came, this island was filled with great forests, apart from the glaciers and the magma. The Vikings came next, with dairy farming and sheep herding, clearing the forests for a high protein diet, where the Irish hermits had been content with fishing, growing leeks and beans, and living in huts with their bells and their books. The Vikings used the timber clearing from the forests for building their houses, their ships, and marauded other lands, bringing back Irish Christian slaves. Genetically, Icelanders are more Irish than Viking, though linguistically theirs is the purest form the English language has, as it would have been before the Norman Conquest, again wrought by Vikings who this time had settled in France and whose children grew up speaking the French of their raped mothers. For the Vikings in the next generation with a veneer of Christianity from conversion, as Normans from Scandinavia, England, Normandy and Sicily, would become the dreaded 'Crusaders' of the Holy Land. One creates a warrior caste through trauma conquest and with it a terrible generational backlash. Violence begets violence.

Philip Roughton at Skálholt, Site of the Archbishop's Execution. Note absence of trees.

Execution Site at Skálholt, Volcanic Mount Hecla. Note absence of trees

Phil in front of Mount Hecla

Iceland's horses are the size of ponies. Note absence of trees.

William Thomas, in 'Why Ecology Requires Economics', reviewing Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, writes that:

The Vikings reached the Orkney Islands by 800 A.D, Iceland by 870, Greenland by 980, and 'Markland' Labrador) and 'Vinland' (America) by 1000.

They brought their own mode of life, focused on dairy farming and herding sheep. Colonies in the Orkney and Faroe Islands thrived. In Iceland, the Norse hung on, barely surviving severe erosion problems and the cold climate of the 'Little Ice Age' (1400-1800). In 'Vinland,' they retreated in the face of superior numbers of angry natives, whom they called 'Skraelings'. In Greenland, they settled, lived for nearly 500 years, but died in the Little Ice Age, cut off from Europe by sea ice and probably slaughtered by the Inuit people who expanded southward with the spreading cold.

Diamond focuses on Greenland in part because it offers a scene of white Europeans failing and dying for mostly environmental reasons. But the Greenland Norse also exemplify the power of culture and human choices. Like the Norse in Iceland, the Greenland Norse overgrazed and deforested the few areas that were not beneath glaciers. The differences in their fates were due to several factors that Diamond recounts: Iceland was closer to Norway, so it received much more trade from Europe. When the Little Ice Age came, sea ice prevented ships from reaching or leaving Greenland, cutting it off from its main source of timber, Labrador. Diamond rightly criticizes the Greenlanders for attacking the Inuits rather than learning from them how to hunt seals under the ice, build igloos, and otherwise survive in the cold. But the real key to their fate, the real difference between Greenland and Iceland, was that, for unknown reasons, the Greenlanders refused to eat fish. Fish there were in plenty, and the Icelanders lived off the fisheries and sold dried fish to Europe. But the Norse Greenlanders appear to have starved when they could no longer raise enough hay to feed their cows, while fish abounded all around them.

The Greenlanders, Diamond and Thomas tell us, failed to shift cultural paradigms, though it had become suicidal not to. Bede tells us similarly of the pagan Saxons in Sussex starving and suiciding during a three-year drought until taught by St Wilfrid to fish. The pagan Icelandic inhabitants most likely were taught how to fish by their Christian Irish slaves. Christ's disciples were fishermen. The tragedy today is that we have over-fished the oceans with our massive technology largely to feed our pets. There used to be a word for preserving resources. It was 'to husband', where the husband, to preserve the species, his wife and children, did not indulge in 'instant gratification' but instead spun out the resources as needed with planning for the future. Medieval texts and images tell of and show the seas teeming with fish.

Men tend naturally to be hunters, then nomadic cattle herders, while women are gatherers, then agriculturalists, experimenting with the plantings of seeds. The American Plains abounded with bison, sustaining the native peoples, until the white man with his rifle over-slaughtered the herds. It is essential to conserve seed, for example, to hold back the seed potatoes for the next year's planting, rather than the instant gratification of consumption. Judaism is a blend of the nomadic cattle herders of Exodus and the wheat and vine cultivation carried out in the Promised Land by the Canaanites, Philistines, Palestinians, themselves genetically Semites, who later converted to Christianity and Islam. The Sabbath and the Jubilee both built into the rhythm of life the need to conserve, rather than consume, to be prepared in readiness with food and other tasks for the seventh day when no work could be done, and the seven times seventh year when all land was to lie fallow, debts be forgiven and slaves freed. Christ substituted for the bloody animal sacrifices in the Temple the blessing of Canaanite lights by the woman, bread and wine by the man, in the family home, which he would have learned from his parents, Mary and Joseph. In the Synagogue at Nazareth he read that passage from Isaiah proclaiming the Jubilee (Luke 4.18-19). Christianity became the 'religion of women and slaves', because the emphasis of Christ's ministry and his miracles was for the excluded, women, children, Samaritans, Canaanites, lepers, cripples, the blind.

Celtic legends have Helen, mother of Constantine be a British slave concubine to Constans, who bears the future Emperor in York A.D. 274. When Constans died in York, 302, Constantine elevated his mother to be Empress and throughout Christendom, East and West, the Madonna and Child are shown as togaed Empress and Emperor, the conquered conquering their conquerors. In England, queens converted their husbands and their kingdoms to this new religion, already practised in the British Isles by the now-conquered Celts. On Iceland the Irish Christian slaves seem to have persuaded their Viking but republican owners to similarly change, for in the year 1000, at Iceland's Althing at Thingvellir, its great outdoor annual Parliament, Iceland's Republic converted to Christianity.

Thingvellir where the Althing would meet, Icelandic families, women and children as well as men, camping here.

In that year Guthrithyr went first to Greenland, then Vinland (America), where she bore a child, then returned to Iceland where she became an anchoress, then went on pilgrimage to Rome. Iceland for a while flourished, still having sufficent wood for building its ships and one finds thirteenth-century Icelandic maps of the world, its ocean on the other side ('Synn bygd'), and of Jerusalem ('Jorsala-Borg'), showing its buildings with incongruously gabled snow roofs.

Iceland sent its ordinands to study theology at St Victor in Paris and maintained the highest scholarly standards, its clergy and laity treasuring books, which is from their Irish, not their Viking tradition, for which with the livestock rearing they had plenty of parchment, writing out their pagan and their Christian legends. By the fourteenth century the forests were gone, no ships could be built and no ships came, so that the Black Death did not reach Iceland until 1402-1404, some fifty years after its devastation throughout the rest of Europe.

Iceland was forced to become Protestant, its last Catholic Archbishop Jon Aresson executed at Skálholt, 1550. It came under the colonial domination of Denmark which forbade the Icelandic language, took away her manuscripts, taxed her for its own benefit, and, subjected also to volcanic devastation in 1783-86, Iceland lapsed into greater and greater poverty, surviving only by fishing and sheep herding, its sheep now genetically producing the softest and warmest wool. In the seventeenth century the Danish scholar Arni Magnusson sought out these manuscripts, collecting them for his library in Coopenhagen, most of them being lost in the great fire there in 1728. What remained was preserved by the Arnimagnaean Commission established by his Will bequeathing the surviving collection to the University of Copenhagen. In 1918-1944 Iceland became free of Denmark and eventually in 1971 half of her manuscripts were t be returned to her, now under the care of the Stofnun Árna Magnússonar á Ísland, in Reykjavik, the other half being preserved in Copenhagen. Iceland's former President Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, whom I used to see on my daily walks to Mass in Reykjavík, her house being nearby, said:

We feel it to be both an honour and a duty to let people around the world know that we have an independent, ancient and thriving culture. Some nations have cities and cathedrals to remind people of their past - we Icelanders have old manuscripts and books. For us, these have the same value as monuments in other parts of the world, because they represent the first enshrinement of the culture which still lives among us and thrives.

Njals saga, the manuscript called the 'grey-skinned one', for being covered with sealskin, 1300. Árni Magnusson Institute, Gl.kgl.sml.2870.

Egil, who would go berserk, one eye up, the other down, as shown in this manuscript, but who could also compose exquisite poetry. From 17th century manuscript at Árni Magnusson Institute, AM 426.

Amongst Iceland's ancient books are the Njals saga and the Egils saga, the first about bloodfeuding (reminding one of Mafia vendettas) that as suddenly ends with peaceable pilgrimage to Jerusalem, the second about a warrior who is also a consummate poet. Iceland's great modern Nobel Prize winning author was Hálldor Laxness, whose Independent People describes the stupidity and resulting poverty of sheperds addicted to the foreign cash-crop coffee, while Iceland's Bell, translated by my once-student Philip Roughton, describes the loss of Iceland's freedom to Denmark. We find in the pages of Iceland's Bell the historical pilgrim figure of Guthrithyr. And she may well be the answer to this riddle. Lynn White, Jr., blamed religion for ecological disaster. But it was Protestantism that expelled the Madonna and Child. Instead, Catholicism, until recently, kept the image of the nurturing, then grieving, Mother. She had been present on Iceland from 1000 until the Lutherans executed her Archbishop in 1550.

Árni Magnusson Institute, Ecclesiastical Calendar, 1350, AM 249.

Similarly, we see an ecological awareness in Hildegard of Bingen's final manuscript, the Liber Divinorum Operum. Christianity was the religion of 'women and slaves' until the Greco-Arabic universities of the twelfth century, where theology came to be officially taught in lecture halls, the newly invented university think-tanks, from which women were excluded, though they had written theology in monasteries for centuries until that time. When Christianity allowed itself to be conquered by its conquerors (instead of its conquered), the effect upon our 'Mother Earth' was devastating. Another Scandinavian woman, Birgitta of Sweden, now Co-Patroness of Europe, begged that the Church return to what was natural, a word that in Anglo-Saxon is 'kind'. Even pagan Rome had argued for the need to protect the weak. Today, the creed is greed, about exploitation, a misreading of Machiavelli and of Darwin, no longer about nurturing and learning. We live in a 'theatre of cruelty', where the oppressed mirror back to the oppressor their violence, just as much as does the anorexic mirror back to the power-wielders their failure to nurture. Images of the Madonna and Child even are now gone from Catholic churches, a movement which has been observed to take place by anthropologists at precisely the moment when babies became bottle-fed.

Northern Lights above active Icelandic volcano, April 2010

In Iceland one can find volcanic magma next to glittering glacial ice. Hot water, in Iceland, comes from the tap with a smell of sulphur. It is naturally heated water, Iceland's homes similarly being heated from its natural resources. A magnificent glacier waterfall at Gullfoss was eyed by business as a source of energy. Sigríđur Tómasdóttir of Brattholt, born in 1871, with no formal education but well read, did everything in her power to save these Falls from exploitation. The year following her 1978 death, the Ministry of Culture and Education signed an agreement creating a nature reserve around Gullfoss. Though Sigríđur Tómasdóttir succeeded posthumously in saving Gullfoss, the Kárahnjúkar hydro-electric dam project in Iceland has started in earnest. The dam will devastate Western Europe's last pristine wilderness, solely to power an Alcoa aluminium smelter. We might suggest that for an improved ecology in the world we should 'Listen to Women for a Change'. Such as the message of Kenyan's Nobel Peace Prize winner, Wangari Maathai, who has taken up Richard St Barbe Baker's challenge, that we plant trees to save the earth. Certainly, women's perspectives need to be taught in the lecture halls of seminaries for Catholicism to recover what has been so badly eroded from the nurturing 'religion of women and slaves', the oikos, from which come our words 'Oecumene' and 'Ecology', of its magnificent past. For Catholicism, for Christianity, should be Mary's 'Magnificat' and St Francis' Canticles. All Creation is sacred.

Gulfoss glacier falls


Bede. Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Harmondwworth: Penguin, 1990.
Kristín Bragadóttir, National Library, Reykjavík 'Notti bianche d'Islanda a Firenze: William Morris e Daniel Willard Fiske/ Northern Lights in Florence: William Morris and Daniel William Fiske'.http://www.florin.ms/gimeld.html.
Jared Diamond. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. New York: Viking Penguin, 2005.
Egils saga. Trans. Hermann Pálsson and Paul Edwards. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976.
Clifford Geertz. Agricultural Involution: The Processes of Ecological Change in Indonesia. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969/1990.
Hildegard of Bingen. Liber Divinorum Operum. Ed. A. Derolez and P. Dronke. Turnholt: Brepols, 1996. Corpus Christianorum Continuatio Mediavalis 92.
Jonas Kristjansson. Iceland and Its Manuscripts. Preface, President of Iceland, Vigdis Finnbogadottir. Reykjavík: Stofnun Árna Magnússonar á Ísland, 1989.
William Langland. Piers Plowman. Trans. J.F. Goodrich. Harmondworth: Penguin, 1966.
Halldór Laxness. Iceland's Bell. Trans. Philip Roughton. New York: Vintage, 2003.
________. Independent People. Trans. J.A. Thompson. New York: Vintage, 1997.
Joachim Lelewel. Géographie du Moyen Age. Brussels, 1849-1857. 5 vols., atlas.
Thomas More. Utopia. Trans. Paul Turner. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1965.
Njals saga. Trans. Magnus Magnusson and Herman Pálsson, Harmondwworth: Penguin, 1960.
Svanhildur Óskarsdóttir, Arni Magnusson Institute, Reykjavík. http://www.florin.ms/alephd.html. 'The Bible in Icelandic for Nuns'
Ernst Friedrich Schumacher. Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered. New York: Harper and Row, 1973.
William Thomas. 'Why Ecology Requires Economics'. Review of Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. http://www.objectivistcenter.org/navigator/articles/nav+wthomas_jared-diamond.asp
Lynn White, Jr. Medieval Technology and Social Change. New York: Oxford University Press, 1966.

Lecture presenting the history of Iceland's manuscripts


A Statement from Kárahnjúkar Protest Camp

We have gathered to protest the continuing devastation of global ecology in the interest of corporate profits. We have come here to tip the balance of a struggle portrayed to be national, while actually being much larger: from the Narmada Dams in India, to the proposed Ilisu Dam in Turkey, the story is one of big business and oppressive government . The struggle to save our planet, like the struggle against inhumanity, is global, so we have to be too. We’re here to prevent the Kárahnjúkar Dam project from destroying Western Europe’s last great wilderness.

The industrialization of Iceland’s natural resources will not only devastate vast landscapes of great natural beauty and scientific importance, but impair species such as reindeer, seals and fish, and the already endangered pink-footed goose and several other bird species. Through this mindless vandalism against nature, the Icelandic tourist industry will also be affected and the health and quality of life of the Icelandic people. This industrialization will bring pollution such as Iceland has not seen before. Sulphur dioxide, Nitrogen, and many other chemicals used to process aluminium, are all products of the unnecessary and short-sighted profit-driven environmental barbarism of the aluminium industry. Under the burden of Kárahnjúkar, only one of many dams planned, rivers will choke, and people will choke.

If this dam goes ahead, it will pave the way for similar dams of glacial rivers all over the Icelandic highlands; Thjórsárver (protected by the international treaty of Ramsar), Langisjór (one of Europe´s most beautiful lakes), the rivers in the Skagafjördur region and Skjálfandafljót. All just to generate energy for aluminium corporations. If this will be allowed to happen Iceland will face the same sad fate as other global communities, which have suffered under similar projects.

Across the world, people are coming together to oppose the blatant lies, corruption and oppression generated by corporations and governments alike. In this spirit, we are asking that all those opposing the Kárahnjúkar Dam organize or partake in solidarity actions globally or locally.

The world isn’t dying, it is being killed – there is no excuse for silence.