Vígfússon, Gúdbrandr (DNB00)

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VĺGFÚSSON, GÚDBRANDR (1828–1889), Icelandic scholar, born in 1828 in Broadfirth, Iceland, was son of Vigfús Gislason, of an old and respected Icelandic family, by his wife, Halldora Gisladottir. He was brought up by his foster-mother and kinswoman Kristín Vigfúsdottir, to whom, as he thankfully recorded in his last days, he owed not only that he became a man of letters, but almost everything. After his first childhood he was taken by his aunt to the house of a clergyman, to be prepared for the high school of Bessastad, and thither he duly went and studied, accompanying the school when it flitted to Reykjavík. In 1849 he left the school and Iceland for Copenhagen University, which he entered in 1850, holding a bursary at Regentsen College. He was appointed stipendiarius under the Arna-Maguxan trustees, and worked in the Arna-Maguxan library. It was this work that made him familiar with every vellum and paper copy of the classic and popular Icelandic and Old Scandinavian literature, and gave him the material for his future researches. For fourteen years he led a life of research broken by two visits to Iceland (the last in 1858) and tours in Norway and Germany of which he wrote charming accounts in a style that for simplicity and direct idiom is perhaps the most remarkable in modern Icelandic literature. His first printed piece of scholarship was ‘Tímatál’ (written between October 1854 and April 1855), a complete chronology of the whole body of classic Icelandic literature, which still holds good, undisturbed in its conclusions save by his own additions and corrections. His labours as an editor of the Sagas began with ‘Biskopa Sögur,’ 1858. In 1860 followed ‘Bárdar Saga;’ and ‘Forn Sögur’ (in partnership with Möbius), in 1862 the preface to Jón Arnason's ‘Thjód-sögur’ (folk-tales), in 1864 ‘Styrbyggia Saga;’ in 1868 he finished eight years' work in co-operation with Unger, and published the last volume of his edition of ‘Flateyar-bók.’ The prefaces to these editions opened a new era of Icelandic scholarship, the historic method and the results of modern philology being therein applied with an ultimate view to elucidating the whole history of the classic Scandinavian literature. During these years Vígfússon's chief friends were his comrade H. Larpent (the translator of ‘Tartufe’), K. Dahlenborg, the well-known scholar, Von Maurer, Möbius, Unger, and his own distinguished fellow-countryman, Jón Sigurdsson.

While still engaged in printing ‘Flateyarbók’ (every word of which huge manuscript he had copied with his own hand), and preparing for subsequent work, he was approached by Sir George Webbe Dasent, who had been entrusted by the representatives of Richard Cleasby [q. v.] with the task of completing and printing an Icelandic-English dictionary on which that scholar had been for some time engaged. Dasent had found himself unable to fulfil this obligation, and he now persuaded Vígfússon to come to London and take up the work. The Oxford University Press, largely at the instigation of the dean of Christ Church, Dr. Liddell, agreed to print and publish the book, and, after some months in London, Vígfússon moved to Oxford in 1866, where he resided till his death. Without transcribers or assistants, with the help of his own collections of ‘Fritzner’ then appearing in fasciculi, and a miserably inadequate mass of materials supplied by the persons employed at Copenhagen by Richard Cleasby, Vígfússon finished the Oxford Icelandic-English Dictionary in 1873. During its progress he had the advantage of being able to consult Dr. Liddell, whose practical knowledge of lexicography was unrivalled, and Mr. Kitchin (the present Dean of Durham), who gave him much assistance in the English part of his work. He made many and firm English friends, though his laborious life left him but little time unoccupied by the demands of the press during these seven years. However, he had found time to help Dr. John Carlyle, Lord Sherbrooke, and Sir Edmund Head in their Icelandic studies, to furnish Sir George Dasent with much of the material for his preface to ‘Burnt Njal,’ especially the section on Ancient Icelandic Currency, to enjoy the friendship of Thomas Carlyle, of Mr. Garth Wilkinson, of Mr. Coxe, Bodley's librarian, and many living scholars.

In 1874–5 Vígfússon went to Copenhagen and to Stockholm to make transcripts for the Rolls Series editions of the ‘Orkneyinga Saga’ and ‘Háconar Saga,’ and discovered a fuller text of part of the former than had been before known to exist. These appeared with prefaces in 1887. The next three years were occupied with ‘Sturlunga Saga,’ 1878, to which was affixed, as prolegomena, a complete literary history of old northern literature, with full account of the extant manuscript material, a piece of work he had long planned out and at one time hoped to produce as the introduction to his dictionary. In 1879 he brought out (in co-operation with the present writer, who had helped him in writing the prolegomena) an ‘Icelandic Prose Reader.’ Three years of close work with his friend were spent in the preparation of the ‘Corpus Poeticum Boreale,’ 1883, in which the whole body of old Scandinavian poetry is edited and translated, and for the first time chronologically arranged and dated. The ‘Grimm Centenary Papers,’ 1886, may be considered as an appendix to the ‘Corpus.’ He also wrote several papers in the ‘Oxford Philological Society's Transactions,’ in the ‘Philological Society's Transactions,’ and in the ‘English Historical Review,’ on philological and historical subjects.

From 1866 to 1889 he was almost incessantly occupied with his edition of the ‘Landnáma-bóc’ and other origines Islandiæ, and with the duties of his readership, for he had been appointed reader in Icelandic in the university of Oxford in 1884, a position created for him. He made a long stay at Copenhagen, working at the Arna-Maguxan Icelandic manuscripts. In 1886 he went to the Isle of Man, and published in the ‘Manx Note Book’ his readings of the runic monuments there. In 1887 he went to the east and south coasts and visited Downton mound. In 1888 he went for a short visit to the Orkneys and Shetlands. On his return in the autumn his hitherto unbroken health was attacked by cancer, and he died on 31 Jan. 1889; he was buried on 3 Feb. at St. Sepulchre's cemetery, Oxford. He was honorary M.A. of Oxford, 1871, centenary Doctor of Upsala, 1877, and received the order of the Dannebrog, 1885. His portrait by H. M. Paget was painted in 1888, and was subsequently collotyped.

[Personal knowledge; Memoir in ‘Men of the Time,’ communicated by himself, and Memoir by Jón Thórkelson.]

F. Y. P.