1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Iceland
ICELAND (Dan. Island), an island in the North Atlantic Ocean, belonging to Denmark. Its extreme northerly point is touched by the Arctic Circle; it lies between 13° 22′ and 24° 35′ W., and between 63° 12′ and 66° 33′ N., and has an area of 40,437 sq. m. Its length is 298 m. and its breadth 194 m., the shape being a rough oval, broken at the north-west, where a peninsula, diversified by a great number of fjords, projects from the main portion of the island. The total length of the coast-line is about 3730 m., of which approximately one-third belongs to the north-western peninsula. Iceland is a plateau or tableland, built up of volcanic rocks of older and younger formation, and pierced on all sides by fjords and valleys. Compared with the tableland, the lowlands have a relatively small area, namely, one-fourteenth of the whole; but these lowlands are almost the only parts of the island which are inhabited. In consequence of the rigour of its climate, the central tableland is absolutely uninhabitable. At the outside, not more than one-fourth of the area of Iceland is inhabited; the rest consists of elevated deserts, lava streams and glaciers. The north-west peninsula is separated from the main mass of the island by the bays Hunaflói and Breiðifjörðr, so that there are really two tablelands, a larger and a smaller. The isthmus which connects the two is only 4¼ m. across, but has an altitude of 748 ft. The mean elevation of the north-west peninsula is 2000 ft. The fjords and glens which cut into it are shut in by precipitous walls of basalt, which plainly shows that they have been formed by erosion through the mass of the plateau. The surface of this tableland is also bare and desolate, being covered with gravel and fragments of rock. Here and there are large straggling snowfields, the largest being Glámu and Drangajökull, on the culminating points of the plateau. The only inhabited districts are the shores of the fjords, where grass grows capable of supporting sheep; but a large proportion of the population gain their livelihood by fishing. The other and larger tableland, which constitutes the substantial part of Iceland, reaches its culminating point in the south-east, in the gigantic snowfield of Vatnajökull, which covers 3300 sq. m. The axis of highest elevation of Iceland stretches from north-west to south-east, from the head of Hvammsfjörðr to Hornafjörðr, and from this water-parting the rivers descend on both sides. The crest of the water-parting is crowned by a chain of snow-capped mountains, separated by broad patches of lower ground. They are really a chain of minor plateaus which rise 4500 to 6250 ft. above sea-level and 2000 to 3000 ft. above the tableland itself. In the extreme east is Vatnajökull, which is separated from Tungnafellsjökull by Vonarskard (3300 ft.). Between Tungnafellsjökull and Hofsjökull lies the broad depression of Sprengisandr (2130 ft.). Continuing north-west, between Hofsjökull and the next snow-capped mountain, Langjökull, lies Kjölur (2000 ft.); and between Langjökull and Eiriksjökull, Flosaskard (2630 ft.). To the north of the jöklar last mentioned there are a number of lakes, all well stocked with fish. Numerous valleys or glens penetrate into the tableland, especially on the north and east, and between them long mountain spurs, sections of the tableland which have resisted the action of erosion, thrust themselves towards the sea. Of these the most considerable is the mass crowned by Mýrdalsjökull, which stretches towards the south. The interior of the tableland consists for the most part of barren, grassless deserts, the surface being covered by gravel, loose fragments of rock, lava, driftsand, volcanic ashes and glacial detritus.
Save the lower parts of the larger glens, there are no lowlands on the north and east. The south coast is flat next the sea; but immediately underneath Vatnajökull there is a strip of gravel and sand, brought down and deposited by the glacial streams. The largest low-lying plain of Iceland, lying between Mýrdalsjökull and Reykjanes, has an area of about 1550 sq. m. In its lowest parts this plain barely keeps above sea-level, but it rises gradually towards the interior, terminating in a ramification of valleys. Its maximum altitude is attained at 381 ft. near Geysir. On the west of Mount Hekla this plain connects by a regular slope directly with the tableland, to the great injury of its inhabited districts, which are thus exposed to the clouds of pumice dust and driftsand that cover large areas of the interior. Nevertheless the greater part of this lowland plain produces good grass, and is relatively well inhabited. The plain is drained by three rivers—Markarfljót, Thjórsá and Oelfusá—all of large volume, and numerous smaller streams. Towards the west there exist a number of warm springs. There is another lowland plain around the head of Faxaflói, nearly 400 sq. m. in extent. As a rule the surface of this second plain is very marshy. Several dales or glens penetrate the central tableland; the eastern part of this lowland is called Borgarfjörðr, the western part Mýrar.
The great bays on the west of the island (Faxaflói and Breiðifjörðr), as well as the many bays on the north, which are separated from one another by rocky promontories, appear to owe their origin to subsidences of the surface; whereas the fjords of the north-west peninsula, which make excellent harbours, and those of the east coast seem to be the result chiefly of erosion.
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Glaciers.—An area of 5170 sq. m. is covered with snowfields and glaciers. This extraordinary development of ice and snow is due to the raw, moist climate, the large rainfall and the low summer temperature. The snow-line varies greatly in different parts of the island, its range being from 1300 to 4250 ft. It is highest on the tableland, on the north side of Vatnajökull, and lowest on the north-west peninsula, to the south of North Cape. Without exception the great névés of Iceland belong to the interior tableland. They consist of slightly rounded domes or billowy snowfields of vast thickness. In external appearance they bear a closer resemblance to the glaciers of the Polar regions than to those of the Alps. The largest snowfields are Vatnajökull (3280 sq. m.), Hofsjökull (520) Langjökull (500) and Mýrdalsjökull (390). The glaciers which stream off from these snowfields are often of vast extent, e.g. the largest glacier of Vatnajökull has an area of 150 to 200 sq. m., but the greater number are small. Altogether, more than 120 glaciers are known in Iceland. It is on the south side of Vatnajökull that they descend lowest; the lower end of Breidamerkurjökull was in the year 1894 only 30 ft. above sea-level. The glaciers of the north-west peninsula also descend nearly to sea-level. The great number of streams of large volume is due to the moist climate and the abundance of glaciers, and the milky white or yellowish-brown colour of their waters (whence the common name Hvítá, white) is due to the glacial clays. The majority of them change their courses very often, and vary greatly in volume; frequently they are impetuous torrents, forming numerous waterfalls. Iceland also possesses a great number of lakes, the largest being Thingvallavatn and Thorisvatn, each about 27 sq. m. in area. Mývatn, in the north, is well known from the natural beauty of its surroundings. Above its surface tower a great number of volcanoes and several craters, and its waters are alive with water-fowl, a multitude of ducks of various species breeding on its islands. The lakes of Iceland owe their origin to different causes, some being due to glacial erosion, others to volcanic subsidence. Mývatn fills a depression between lava streams, and has a depth of not more than 8¾ ft. The group of lakes called Fiskivötn (or Veidivötn), which lie in a desolate region to the west of Vatnajökull, consist for the most part of crater lakes. The groups of lakes which lie north-west from Langjökull occupy basins formed between ridges of glacial gravel; and in the valleys numerous lakes are found at the backs of the old moraines.
Volcanoes.—Iceland is one of the most volcanic regions of the earth; volcanic activity has gone on continuously from the formation of the island in the Tertiary period down to the present time. So far as is known, there have in historic times been eruptions from twenty-five volcanic vents. Altogether 107 volcanoes are known to exist in Iceland, with thousands of craters, great and small. The lava-streams which have flowed from them since the Glacial epoch now cover an area of 4650 sq. m. They are grouped in dense masses round the volcanoes from which they have flowed, the bulk of the lava dating from outbreaks which occurred in prehistoric times. The largest volume of lava which has issued at one outflow within historic times is the stream which came from the craters of Laki at Skaptá. This belongs to the year 1783, and covers an area of 218 sq. m., and amounts to a volume represented by a cube each of whose sides measures 7½ m. The largest unbroken lava-field in Iceland is Odaðahraun (Lava of Evil Deeds), upon the tableland north from Vatnajökull (2000 to 4000 ft. above sea-level). It is the accretion of countless eruptions from over twenty volcanoes, and covers an area of 1300 sq.m. (or, including all its ramifications and minor detached streams, 1700 sq. m.), and its volume would fill a cube measuring 13.4 m. in every direction. As regards their superficies, the lava-streams differ greatly. Sometimes they are very uneven and jagged (apalhraun), consisting of blocks of lava loosely flung together in the utmost confusion. The great lava-fields, however, are composed of vast sheets of lava, ruptured and riven in divers ways (helluhraun). The smooth surface of the viscous billowy lava is further diversified by long twisted “ropes,” curving backwards and forwards up and down the undulations. Moreover, there are gigantic fissures, running for several miles, caused by subsidences of the underlying sections. The best-known fissure of this character is Almannagjá at Thingvellir. On the occasion of outbreaks the fine ashes are scattered over a large portion of the island, and sometimes carried far across the Atlantic. After the eruption of Katla in 1625 the ashes were blown as far as Bergen in Norway, and when Askja was in eruption in 1875 a rain of ashes fell on the west coast of Norway 11 hours 40 minutes, and at Stockholm 15 hours, afterwards. The volcanic ash frequently proves extremely harmful, destroying the pastures so that the sheep and cattle die of hunger and disease. The outbreak of Laki in 1783 occasioned the loss of 11,500 cattle, 28,000 horses and 190,500 sheep—that is to say, 53% of the cattle in the island, 77% of the horses and 82% of the sheep. After that the island was visited by a famine, which destroyed 9500 people, or one-fifth of the total population.
The Icelandic volcanoes may be divided into three classes: (1) cone-shaped, like Vesuvius, built up of alternate layers of ashes, scoriae and lava; (2) cupola-shaped, with an easy slope and a vast crater opening at the top—these shield-shaped cupolas are composed entirely of layers of lava, and their inclination is seldom steeper than 7°-8°; (3) chains of craters running close alongside a fissure in the ground. For the most part the individual craters are low, generally not exceeding 300 to 500 ft. These crater chains are both very common and often very long. The chain of Laki, which was formed in 1783, extends 20 m., and embraces about one hundred separate craters. Sometimes, however, the lava-streams are vomited straight out of gigantic fissures in the earth without any crater being formed. Many of the Icelandic volcanoes during their periods of quiescence are covered with snow and ice. Then when an outbreak occurs the snow and ice melt, and in that way they sometimes give rise to serious catastrophes (jökulhlaup), through large areas being suddenly inundated by great floods of water, which bear masses of ice floating on their surface. Katla caused very serious destruction in this way by converting several cultivated districts into barren wastes. In the same way in the year 1362 Oeræfajökull, the loftiest mountain in Iceland (6424 ft.), swept forty farms, together with their inhabitants and live stock, bodily into the ocean. The best-known volcano is Hekla (5108 ft.), which was in eruption eighteen times within the historic period down to 1845. Katla during the same period was active thirteen times down to 1860. The largest volcano is Askja, situated in the middle of the lava-field of Odaðahraun. Its crater measures 34 sq. m. in area. At Mývatn there are several volcanoes, which were particularly active in the years 1724-1730. On several occasions there have been volcanic outbreaks under the sea outside the peninsula of Reykjanes, islands appearing and afterwards disappearing again. The crater chain of Laki has only been in eruption once in historic times, namely, the violent and disastrous outbreak of 1783. Iceland, however, possesses no constantly active volcano. There are often long intervals between the successive outbreaks, and many of the volcanoes (and this is especially true of the chains of craters) have only vented themselves in a solitary outburst.
Earthquakes are frequent, especially in the districts which are peculiarly volcanic. Historical evidence goes to show that they are closely associated with three naturally defined regions: (1) the region between Skjálfandi and Axarfjörðr in the north, where violent earth tremblings are extremely common; (2) at Faxaflói, where minor vibrations are frequent; (3) the southern lowlands, between Reykjanes and Mýrdalsjökull, have frequently been devastated by violent earthquake shocks, with great loss of property and life, e.g. on the 14th-16th of August 1784, when 92 farmsteads were totally destroyed, and 372 farmsteads and 11 churches were seriously damaged; and again in August and September 1896, when another terrible earthquake destroyed 161 farmsteads and damaged 155 others. Hot springs are found in every part of Iceland, both singly and in groups; they are particularly numerous in the western portion of the southern lowlands, where amongst others is the famous Geyser (q.v.). Sulphur springs and boiling mud lakes are also general in the volcanic districts; and in places there are carbonic acid springs, these more especially on the peninsula of Snæfellsnes, north of Faxaflói.
Geology.—Iceland is built up almost entirely of volcanic rocks, none of them older, however, than the middle of the Tertiary period. The earlier flows were probably contemporaneous with those of Greenland, the Færoes, the western islands of Scotland and the north-east of Ireland. The principal varieties are basalt and palagonitic breccias, the former covering two-thirds of the entire area, the latter the remaining one-third. Compared with these two systems, all other formations have an insignificant development. The palagonitic breccias, which stretch in an irregular belt across the island, are younger than the basalt. In the north-west, north and east the coasts are formed of basalt, and rise in steep, gloomy walls of rock to altitudes of 3000 ft. and more above sea-level. Deposits of clay, with remains of plants of the Tertiary period, lignite and tree-trunks pressed flat, which the Icelanders call surtarbrandur, occur in places in the heart of the basalt formation. These fossiliferous strata are developed in greatest thickness in the north-west peninsula. Indeed, in some few places well-marked impressions of leaves and fruit have been discovered, proving that in Tertiary times Iceland possessed extensive forests, and its annual mean temperature must have been at least 48° Fahr., whereas the present mean is 35.6°. The palagonitic breccias, which attain their greatest development in the south of the island and on the tableland, consist of reddish, brown or yellowish rocks, tuffs and breccias, belonging to several different groups or divisions, the youngest of which seems to be of a date subsequent to the Glacial epoch. All over Iceland, in both the basalt and breccia formations, there occur small intrusive beds and dikes of liparite, and as this rock is of a lighter colour than the basalt, it is visible from a distance. In the south-east of the island, in the parish of Lón, there exist a few mountains of gabbro, a rock which does not occur in any other part of Iceland. Near Húsavik in the north there have been found marine deposits containing a number of marine shells; they belong to the Red Crag division of the Pliocene. In the middle of Iceland, where the geological foundation is tuff and breccias, large areas are buried under ancient outflows of lava, which bear evidences of glacial scratching. These lava streams, which are of a doleritic character, flowed before the Glacial age, or during its continuance, out of lava cones with gigantic crater openings, such as may be seen at the present day. During the Glacial epoch the whole of Iceland was covered by a vast sheet of inland ice, except for a few small isolated peaks rising along its outer margins. This ice-cap had on the tableland a thickness of 2300 to 2600 ft. Rocks scored by glacial ice and showing plain indications of striation, together with thousands of erratic blocks, are found scattered all over Iceland. Signs of elevation subsequent to the Glacial epoch are common all round the island, especially on the north-west peninsula. There are found strikingly developed marine terraces of gravel, shore lines and surf beaches marked on the solid rock. In several places there are traces of shells; and sometimes skeletal remains of whales and walruses, as well as ancient driftwood, have been discovered at tolerable distances from the present coast. The ancient shore-lines occur at two different altitudes. Along the higher, 230 to 266 ft. above the existing sea-level, shells have been found which are characteristic of high Arctic latitudes and no longer exist in Iceland; whereas on the lower shore-line, 100 to 130 ft., the shells belong to species which occur amongst the coast fauna of the present day.
The geysers and other hot springs are due to the same causes as the active volcanoes, and the earthquakes are probably manifestations of the same forces. A feature of special interest to geologists in the present conditions of the island is the great power of the wind both as a transporting and denuding agent. The rock sculpture is often very similar to that of a tropical desert.
Climate.—Considering its high latitude and situation, Iceland has a relatively mild climate. The meteorological conditions vary greatly, however, in different parts of the island. In the south and east the weather is generally changeable, stormy and moist; whilst on the north the rainfall is less. The climate of the interior tableland approximates to the continental type and is often extremely cold. The mean annual temperature is 37.2° F. in Stykkishólmr on Breiðifjörðr, 38.5° at Eyrārbakki in the south of Iceland, 41° at Vestmannæyjar, 36° at Akureyri in the north, 36.7° on Berufjörðr in the east, and 30.6° at Mödrudalr on the central tableland. The range is great not only from year to year, but also from month to month. For instance, at Stykkishólmr the highest annual mean for March was 39.7°, and the lowest 8°, during a period of thirty-eight years. Iceland lies contiguous to that part of the north Atlantic in which the shifting areas of low pressure prevail, so that storms are frequent and the barometer is seldom firm. The barometric pressure at sea-level in the south-west of Iceland during the period 1878-1900 varied between 30.8 and 27.1 in. The climate of the coasts is relatively mild in summer, but tolerably cold in winter. The winter means of the north and east coasts average 31.7° and 31.3° F. respectively; the summer means, 42.8° and 44.6°; and the means of the year, 33.1° and 35.6°. The winter means of the south and west coasts average 32° and 31.7° respectively; the summer means, 48.2° and 50°; the annual means, 37.4° and 39.2°. The rainfall on the south and east coasts is considerable, e.g. at Vestmannæyjar, 49.4 in. in the year; at Berufjörðr, 43.6 in. On the west coast it is less, e.g. 24.3 in. at Stykkishólmr; but least of all on the north coast, being only 14.6 in. on the island of Grimsey, which lies off that coast. Mist is commonly prevalent on the east coast; at Berufjörðr there is mist on no fewer than 212 days in the year. The south and west coasts are washed by the Gulf Stream, and the north coast by an Arctic current, which frequently brings with it a quantity of drift-ice, and thus exercises a considerable effect upon the climate of the island; sometimes it blocks the north coast in the summer months. On the whole, during the 19th century, the north coast was free from ice on an average of one year in every four or five. The clearness of the atmosphere has been frequently remarked. Thunderstorms occur mostly in winter.
Flora.—The vegetation presents the characteristics of an Arctic European type, and is tolerably uniform throughout the island, the differences even on the tableland being slight. At present 435 species of phanerogams and vascular cryptogams are known; the lower orders have been little investigated. The grasses are of the greatest importance to the inhabitants, for upon them they are dependent for the keep of their live stock. Heather covers large tracts, and also affords pasture for sheep. The development of forest trees is insignificant. Birch woods exist in a good many places, especially in the warmer valleys; but the trees are very short, scarcely attaining more than 3 to 10 ft. in height. In a few places, however, they reach 13 to 20 ft. and occasionally more. A few mountain ash or rowan trees (Sorbus aucuparia) are found singly here and there, and attain to 30 ft. in height. Willows are also pretty general, the highest in growth being Salix phyllicifolia, 7 to 10 ft. The wild flora of Iceland is small and delicate, with bright bloom, the heaths being especially admired. Wild crowberries and bilberries are the only fruit found in the island.
Fauna.—The Icelandic fauna is of a sub-Arctic type. But while the species are few, the individuals are often numerous. The land mammals are very poorly represented; and it is doubtful whether any species is indigenous. The polar bear is an occasional visitant, being brought to the coast by the Greenland drift-ice. Foxes are common, both the white and the blue occurring; mice and the brown rat have been introduced, though one variety of mouse is possibly indigenous. Reindeer were introduced in 1770. The marine mammalia are numerous. The walrus is now seldom seen, although in prehistoric times it was common. There are numerous species of seals; and the seas abound in whales. Of birds there are over 100 species, more than one-half being aquatic. In the interior the whistling swan is common, and numerous varieties of ducks are found in the lakes. The eider duck, which breeds on the islands of Breiðifjörðr, is a source of livelihood to the inhabitants, as are also the many kinds of sea-fowl which breed on the sea-cliffs. Iceland possesses neither reptiles nor batrachians. The fish fauna is abundant in individuals, some sixty-eight species being found off the coasts. The cod fisheries are amongst the most important in the world. Large quantities of herring, plaice and halibut are also taken. Many of the rivers abound in salmon, and trout are plentiful in the lakes and streams.
Population and Towns.—The census of 1890 gave a total population of 70,927, and this number had increased by 1901 to 78,489. The increase during the 19th century was 27,000, while at least 15,600 Icelanders emigrated to America, chiefly to Manitoba, from 1872 to the close of the century. The largest town is Reykjavik on Faxaflói, with 6700 inhabitants, the capital of the island, and the place of residence of the governor-general and the bishop. Here the Althing meets; and here, further, are the principal public institutions of the island (library, schools, &c.). The town possesses a statue to Thorvaldsen, the famous sculptor, who was of Icelandic descent. The remaining towns include Isafjörðr (pop. 1000) on the north-west peninsula, Akureyri (1000) on the north and Seydisfjörðr (800) in the east.
Industries.—The principal occupation of the Icelanders is cattle-breeding, and more particularly sheep-breeding, although the fishing industries have come rapidly to the front in modern times. In 1850, 82% of the population were dependent upon cattle-breeding and 7% upon fishing; in 1890 the numbers were 64% and 18% respectively. The culture of grain is not practised in Iceland; all bread-stuffs are imported. In ancient times barley was grown in some places, but it never paid for the cost of cultivation. Cattle-breeding has declined in importance, while the number of sheep has increased. Formerly gardening was of no importance, but considerable progress has been made in this branch in modern times, as also in the cultivation of potatoes and turnips. Fruit-trees will not thrive; but black and red currants and rhubarb are grown, the last-named doing excellently. Iceland possesses four agricultural schools, one agricultural society, and small agricultural associations in nearly every district. The fisheries give employment to about 12,000 people. For the most part the fishing is carried on from open boats, notwithstanding the dangers of so stormy a coast. But larger decked vessels have come into increasing use. In summer the waters are visited by a great number of foreign fishermen, inclusive of about 300 fishing-boats from French ports, as well as by fishing-boats from the Færoes and Norway, and steam trawlers from England. Excellent profit is made in certain parts of the island from the herring fishery; this is especially the case on the east coast. There are marine insurance societies and a school of navigation at Reykjavik. The export of fish and fish products has greatly increased. In 1849 to 1855 the annual average exported was 1480 tons; whereas at the close of the century (in 1899) it amounted to 11,339 tons and 68,079 barrels of oil, valued at £276,596.
Commerce.—From the first colonization of the island down to the 14th century the trade was in the hands of native Icelanders and Norsemen; in the 15th century it was chiefly in the hands of the English, in the 16th of Germans from the Hanse towns. From 1602 to 1786 commerce was a monopoly of the Danish government; in the latter year it was declared free to all Danish subjects and in 1854 free to all nations. Since 1874, when Iceland obtained her own administration, commerce has increased considerably. Thus the total value of the imports and exports together in 1849 did not exceed £170,000; while in 1891-1895 the imports averaged £356,000 and the exports £340,000. In 1902 imports were valued at £596,193 and exports at £511,083. Trade is almost entirely with Denmark, the United Kingdom, and Norway and Sweden, in this order according to value. The principal native products exported are live sheep, horses, salt meat, wool and hides, to which must be added the fish products—cod, train-oil, herring and salmon—eiderdown and woollen wares. The spinning, weaving and knitting of wool is a widespread industry, and the native tweed (vaðmal) is the principal material for the clothing of the inhabitants. The imports consist principally of cereals and flour, coffee, sugar, ale, wines and spirits, tobacco, manufactured wares, iron and metal wares, timber, salt, coal, &c. The money, weights and measures in use are the same as in Denmark. The Islands Bank in Reykjavik (1904) is authorized to issue bank-notes up to £133,900 in total value.
Communications.—All land journeys are made on horseback, and in the remoter parts all goods have to be transported by the same means. Throughout the greater part of the island there exist no proper roads even in the inhabited districts, but only bridle-paths, and in the uninhabited districts not even these. Nevertheless much has been done to improve such paths as there are, and several miles of driving roads have been made, more particularly in the south. Since 1888 many bridges have been built; previous to that year there was none. The larger rivers have been spanned by iron swing-bridges, and the Blanda is crossed by a fixed iron bridge. Postal connexion is maintained with Denmark by steamers, which sail from Copenhagen and call at Leith. Besides, steamers go round the island, touching at nearly every port.
Religion.—The Icelanders are Lutherans. For ecclesiastical purposes the island is divided into 20 deaneries and 142 parishes, and the affairs of each ecclesiastical parish are administered by a parish council, and in each deanery by a district (hjerað) council. When a living falls vacant, the governor-general of the island, after consultation with the bishop, selects three candidates, and from these the congregation chooses one, the election being subsequently confirmed by the governor-general. In the case of certain livings, however, the election requires confirmation by the crown. In 1847 a theological seminary was founded at Reykjavik, and there the majority of the Icelandic ministry are educated; some, however, are graduates of the university of Copenhagen.
Health.—The public health has greatly improved in modern times; the death-rate of young children has especially diminished. This improvement is due to greater cleanliness, better dwellings, better nourishment, and the increase in the number of doctors. There are now doctors in all parts of the country, whereas formerly there were hardly any in the island. There is a modern asylum for leprosy at Laugarnes near Reykjavik, and a medical school at Reykjavik, opened in 1876. The general sanitary affairs of the island are under the control of a chief surgeon (national physician) who lives in Reykjavik, and has superintendence over the doctors and the medical school.
Government.—According to the constitution granted to Iceland in 1874, the king of Denmark shares the legislative power with the Althing, an assembly of 36 members, 30 of whom are elected by household suffrage, and 6 nominated by the king. The Althing meets every second year, and sits in two divisions, the upper and the lower. The upper division consists of the 6 members nominated by the king and 6 elected by the representatives of the people out of their own body. The lower division consists of the remaining 24 representative members. The minister for Iceland, who resided in Copenhagen until 1903, when his office was transferred to Reykjavik, is responsible to the king and the Althing for the maintenance of the constitution, and he submits to the king for confirmation the legislative measures proposed by the Althing. The king appoints a governor-general (landshöfðingi) who is resident in the island and carries on the government on the responsibility of the minister. Formerly Iceland was divided into four quarters, the east, the south, the west and north. Now the north and the east are united under one governor, and the south and the west under another. The island is further divided into 18 sýslur (counties), and these again into 169 hreppur (rapes) or poor-law districts. Responsible to the governors are the sheriffs (sýslumenn), who act as tax gatherers, notaries public and judges of first instance; the sheriff has in every hreppur an assistant, called hreppstjóri. In every hreppur there is also a representative committee, who administer the poor laws, and look after the general concerns of the hreppur. These committees are controlled by the committees of the sýslur (county boards), and these again are under the control of the amtsráð (quarter board), consisting of three members. From the sheriff courts appeals lie to the superior court at Reykjavik, consisting of three judges. Appeals may be taken in all criminal cases and most civil cases to the supreme court at Copenhagen.
Iceland has her own budget, the Althing having, by the constitution of 1874, the right to vote its own supplies. As the Althing only meets every other year, the budget is passed for two years at once. The total income and expenditure are each about £70,000 per financial period. There is a national reserve fund of about £60,000, but no public debt; nor is there any contribution for either military or naval purposes. Iceland has her own customs service, but the only import duties levied are upon spirits, tobacco, coffee and sugar, and in each case the duties are fairly low.
Education.—Education is pretty widespread amongst the people. In the towns and fishing villages there are a few elementary schools, but often the children are instructed at home; in some places by peripatetic teachers. It is incumbent upon the clergy to see that all children are taught reading, writing and arithmetic. The people are great readers; considering the number of the inhabitants, books and periodicals have a very extensive circulation. Eighteen newspapers are issued (once and twice a week), besides several journals, and Iceland has always been distinguished for her native literature. At Reykjavik there are a Latin school, a medical school and a theological school; at Mödruvellir and Hafnarfjörðr, modern high schools (Realschulen); and in addition to these there are four agricultural schools, a school of navigation, and three girls’ schools. The national library at Reykjavik contains some 40,000 volumes and 3000 MSS. At the same place there is also a valuable archaeological collection. Amongst the learned societies are the Icelandic Literary Society (Bokmentafjelag), the society of the Friends of the People, and the Archaeological Society of Reykjavik.
Authorities.—Among numerous works of Dr Thorvald Thoroddsen, see Geschichte der Islands Geographie (Leipzig, 1898); and the following articles in Geografisk Tidskrift (Copenhagen): “Om Islands geografiske og geologiske Undersögelse” (1893); “Islandske Fjorde og Bugter” (1901); “Geog. og geol. Unders. ved den sydlige Del af Faxaflói paa Island” (1903); “Lavaörkener og Vulkaner paa Islands Höjland” (1905). See also C. S. Forbes, Iceland (London, 1860); S. Baring-Gould, Iceland, its Scenes and Sagas (London, 1863); Sir R. F. Burton, Ultima Thule (Edinburgh, 1875); W. T. McCormick, A Ride across Iceland (London, 1892); J. Coles, Summer Travelling in Iceland (London, 1882); H. J. Johnston Lavis, “Notes on the Geography, Geology, Agriculture and Economics of Iceland,” Scott. Geog. Mag. xi. (1895); W. Bisiker, Across Iceland (London, 1902); J. Hann, “Die Anomalien der Witterung auf Island in dem Zeitraume 1851-1900, &c.,” Sitzungsberichte, Vienna Acad. Sci. (1904); P. Hermann, Island in Vergangenheit und Gegenwart (Leipzig, 1907). Also Geografisk Tidskrift, and the Geographical Journal (London), passim. (Th. T.)
Shortly after the discovery of Iceland by the Scandinavian, c. 850 (it had long been inhabited by a small colony of Irish Culdees), a stream of immigration set in towards it, which lasted for sixty years, and resulted in the establishment of some 4000 homesteads. In this immigration three distinct streams can be traced. (1) About 870-890 four great noblemen from Norway, Ingolf, Ketil Hæng, Skalla-Grim and Thorolf, settled with their dependants in the south-west of the new found land. (2) In 890-900 there came from the western Islands Queen Aud, widow of Olaf the White, king of Dublin, preceded and followed by a number of her kinsmen and relations (many like herself being Christians), Helgi Biolan, Biorn the Eastern, Helgi the Lean, Ketil the Foolish, &c., who settled the best land in the island (west, north-west and north), and founded families who long swayed its destinies. There also came from the Western Islands a fellowship of vikings seeking a free home in the north. They had colonized the west in the viking times; they had “fought at Hafursfirth,” helping their stay-at-home kinsmen against the centralization of the great head-king, who, when he had crushed opposition in Norway, followed up his victory by compelling them to flee or bow to his rule. Such were Ingimund the Old, Geirmund Hellskin, Thord Beardie (who had wed St. Edmund’s granddaughter,) Audun Shackle, Bryniulf the Old, Uni, to whom Harold promised the earldom of the new land if he could make the settlers acknowledge him as king (a hopeless project), and others by whom the north-west, north and east were almost completely “claimed.” (3) In 900-930 a few more incomers direct from Norway completed the settlement of the south, north-east and south-east. Among them were Earl Hrollaug (half-brother of Hrolf Ganger and of the first earl of Orkney), Hialti, Hrafnkell Frey’s priest, and the sons of Asbiorn. Fully three-quarters of the land was settled from the west, and among these immigrants there was no small proportion of Irish blood. In 1100 there were 4500 franklins, i.e. about 50,000 souls.
Table of Icelandic Literature and History.
|I. The Commonwealth. 400 years.|
|Poetry of Western Islands.||Settlement by colonists from Western Isles and Norway.|
|Early Icelandic poets, chiefly abroad.||Constitution worked out—Events of earlier sagas take place.|
|Icelandic poets abroad.||Christianity comes in—Events of later sagas take place.|
|First era of phonetic change.||Peace—Ecclesiastical organization.|
|Ari and his school—Thorodd—Vernacular writing begins.|
|Saga-Writers—Second generation of historians.||First civil wars—1208-22—Rise of Sturlungs.|
|Snorri and his school—Biographers.||Second civil wars, 1226-58—Fall of Great Houses.|
|Sturla—Second era of phonetic change.||Change of law, 1271—Submission to Norwegian kings.|
|II. Medievalism. 250 years.|
|Collecting and editing—Foreign romances.||Foreign influence through Norway.|
|Annalists—Copyists—New Medieval poetry begins.||Great eruptions, 1362 and 1389—Epidemics—Danish rule, 1380.|
|Death of old traditions, &c.||Epidemics—Norse trade—Close of intercourse with Norway.|
|Only Medieval poetry flourishes.||Isolation from Continent—English trade.|
|III. Reformation—Absolute Rule—Decay. 320 years.|
|Odd—Printing—Third era of phonetic change.||Religious struggle—New organization—Hanse trade.|
|First antiquarians.||Danish monopoly—Pirates’ ravages.|
|Hallgrim—Paper copies taken.|
|Jon Vidalin—Arni Magnusson—MSS. taken abroad.||
| Eggert Olafsson.
|Finn Jonsson—Icelandic scholars abroad.|
| Rationalistic movement—European influences first felt.
|IV. Modern Iceland.|
|Modern thought and learning—Icelandic scholars abroad.|| Increasing wealth and population—Free trade, 1854
—Jon Sigurdsson and home rule struggle.
|Home rule granted.|
The unit of Icelandic politics was the homestead with its franklin-owner (buendi), its primal organization the hundred-moot (thing), its tie the goðorð (godar) or chieftainship. The chief who had led a band of kinsmen and dependants Organization. to the new land, taken a “claim” there, and parcelled it out among them, naturally became their leader, presiding as priest at the temple feasts and sacrifices of heathen times, acting as speaker of their moot, and as their representative towards the neighbouring chiefs. He was not a feudal lord nor a local sheriff, for any franklin could change his goðorð when he would, and the rights of “judgment by peers” were in full use; moreover, the office could be bequeathed, sold, divided or pledged by the possessor; still the goði had considerable power as long as the commonwealth lasted.
Disputes between neighbouring chiefs and their clients, and uncertainty as to the law, brought about the Constitution of Ulfliot (c. 930), which appointed a central moot for the whole island, the Althing, and a speaker to speak a single “law” (principally that followed by the Gula-moot in Norway); the Reforms of Thord Gellir (964), settling a fixed number of moots and chieftaincies, dividing the island into four quarters (thus characterized by Ari: north, thickest settled, most famous; east, first completely settled; south, best land and greatest chiefs; west, remarkable for noble families), to each of which a head-court, the “quarter-court,” was assigned; and the Innovations of Skapti (ascribed in the saga to Nial) the Law-Speaker (d. 1030), who set up a “fifth court” as the ultimate tribunal in criminal matters, and strengthened the community against the chiefs. But here constitutional growth ceased: the law-making body made few and unimportant modifications of custom; the courts were still too weak for the chiefs who misused and defied them; the speaker’s power was not sufficiently supported to enable him to be any more than a highly respected lord chief justice, whereas he ought to have become a justiza if anarchy was to be avoided; even the ecclesiastical innovations, while they secured peace for a time, provoked in the end the struggles which put an end to the commonwealth.
Christianity was introduced c. 1000. Tithes were established in 1096, and an ecclesiastical code made c. 1125. The first disputes about the jurisdiction of the clergy were moved by Gudmund in the 13th century, bringing on a civil war, while the questions of patronage and rights over glebe and mortmainland occupied Bishop Arni and his adversaries fifty years afterwards, when the land was under Norwegian viceroys and Norwegian law. For the civil wars broke down the great houses who had monopolized the chieftaincies; and after violent struggles (in which the Sturlungs of the first generation perished at Orlygstad, 1238, and Reykiaholt, 1241, while of the second generation Thord Kakali was called away by the king in 1250, and Thorgils Skardi slain in 1258) the submission of the island to Norway quarter after quarter, took place in 1262-1264, under Gizur’s auspices, and the old Common Law was replaced by the New Norse Code “Ironside” in 1271.
The political life and law of the old days is abundantly illustrated in the sagas (especially Eyrbyggia, Hamsa-Thori, Reykdæla, Hrafnkell, and Niala), the two collections of law-scrolls (Codex Regius, c. 1235, and Stadarhol’s Book, c. 1271), the Libellus, the Liberfragments, and the Landnamabók of Ari, and the Diplomatarium. K. Maurer has made the subject his own in his Beiträge, Island, Grágás, &c.
The medieval Icelandic church had two bishoprics, Skalholt (S., W., and E.) 1056, and Holar (N.) 1106, and about 175 parishes (two-thirds of which belonged to the southern bishopric). They belonged to the metropolitan see of Bremen, then to Lund, lastly to Nidaros, 1237. There were several religious foundations: Thingore (founded 1133), Thwera (1155), Hitardale (c. 1166), Kirkby Nunnery (1184), Stad Nunnery (1296), and Saurby (c. 1200) were Benedictine, while Ver (1168), Flatey after Holyfell (1172), Videy (1226), Madderfield Priory (1296), and Skrid Priory (14th century) were Augustinian. The bishops, elected by the people at the Althing till 1237, enjoyed considerable power; two, Thorlak of Skalholt and John of Holar, were publicly voted saints at the Althing, and one, Gudmund, received the title of “Good” by decree of the bishop and chapter. Full details as to ecclesiastical history will be found in the Biskupasögur (edited by Dr Vigfusson).
Iceland was not agricultural but pastoral, depending upon flocks Mode of and herds for subsistence, for, though rye and other grain would grow in favoured localities, the hay, self-sown, was the only regular crop. In some districts the fisheries and fowling Mode of life. were of importance, but nine-tenths of the population lived by their sheep and cattle. Life on each homestead was regularly portioned out: out door occupations—fishing, shepherding, fowling, and the hay-making and fuel-gathering—occupying the summer; while indoor business—weaving, tool-making, &c.—filled up the long winter. The year was broken by the spring feasts and moots, the great Althing meeting at midsummer, the marriage and arval gatherings after the summer, and the long yule feasts at midwinter. There were but two degrees of men, free and unfree, though only the franklins had any political power; and, from the nature of the life, social intercourse was unrestrained and unfettered; goði and thrall lived the same lives, ate the same food, spoke the same tongue, and differed little in clothing or habits. The thrall had a house of his own and was rather villein or serf than slave, having rights and a legal price by law. During the heathen days many great chiefs passed part of their lives in Norway at the king’s court, but after the establishment of Christianity in Iceland they kept more at home, visiting the continent, however, for purposes of state, suits with clergy, &c. Trade was from the first almost entirely in foreign (Norse) hands.
The introduction of a church system brought little change. The great families put their members into orders, and so continued to enjoy the profits of the land which they had given to the church; the priests married and otherwise behaved like the franklins around them in everyday matters, farming, trading, going to law like laymen.
Life in the commonwealth was turbulent and anarchic, but free and varied; it produced men of mark, and fostered bravery, adventure and progress. But on the union with Norway all this ceased, and there was left but a low Effects of the Union. dead level of poor peasant proprietors careless of all save how to live by as little labour as possible, and pay as few taxes as they could to their foreign rulers. The island received a foreign governor (Earl, Hirdstjori or Stiptamtsmadr as he was successively called), and was parcelled out into counties (sýslur), administered by sheriffs (sýslumadr) appointed by the king. A royal court took the place of the Althing courts; the local business of the local things was carried out by the (hreppstjóri) bailiff, a subordinate of the sheriff; and the goðorð, things, quarter-courts, trial by jury, &c., were swept away by these innovations. The power of the crown was increased by the confiscation of the great Sturlung estates, which were underleased to farmers, while the early falling off of the Norse trade threatened to deprive the island of the means of existence; for the great epidemics and eruptions of the 14th century had gravely attacked its pastoral wealth and ruined much of its pasture and fishery.
The union of the Three Crowns transferred the practical rule of Iceland to Denmark in 1280, and the old Treaty of Union, by which the island had reserved its essential rights, was disregarded by the absolute Danish monarchs; but, though new taxation was imposed, it was rather their careless neglect than their too active interference that damaged Iceland’s interests. But for an English trade, which sprang up out of the half-smuggling, half-buccaneering enterprise of the Bristol merchants, the island would have fared badly, for during the whole of the 15th century their trade with England, exporting sulphur, eiderdown (of which the English taught them the value), wool, and salt stock-fish, and importing as before wood, iron, honey, wine, grain and flax goods, was their only link with the outer world. This period of Iceland’s existence is eventless: she had got peace but with few of its blessings; all spirit seemed to have died with the commonwealth; even shepherding and such agriculture as there had been sank to a lower stage; wagons, ploughs and carts went out of use and knowledge; architecture in timber became a lost art, and the fine carved and painted halls of the heathen days were replaced by turf-walled barns half sunk in the earth; the large decked luggers of the old days gave way to small undecked fishing-boats.
The Reformation in Iceland wakened men’s minds, but it left their circumstances little changed. Though the fires of martyrdom were never lighted in Iceland, the story of the easily accepted Reformation is not altogether The Reformation. a pleasant one. When it was accomplished, the little knot of able men who came to the front did much in preserving the records of the past, while Odd and Hallgrim exhibit the noblest impulses of their time. While there was this revolution in religion a social and political revolution never came to Iceland. The Hanse trade replaced the English for the worse; and the Danish monopoly which succeeded it when the Danish kings began to act again with vigour was still less profitable. The glebes and hospital lands were a fresh power in the hands of the crown, and the subservient Lutheran clergy became the most powerful class in the island, while the system of under-leasing at rackrent and short lease with unsecured tenant right extended over at least a quarter of the better land.
A new plague, that of the English, Gascon and Algerine pirates, marked the close of the 16th century and opening of the 17th, causing widespread panic and some devastation in 1579, 1613-1616 and 1627. Nothing points Decadence. more to the helplessness of the natives’ condition than their powerlessness against these foes. But the 18th century is the most gloomy in Iceland’s annals. Smallpox, famine, sheep disease, and the eruptions of 1765 and 1783 follow each other in terrible succession. Against such visitations, which reduced the population by about a fourth, little could be done. The few literary men, whose work was done and whose books were published abroad, were only concerned with the past, and Jon Vidalin is the one man of mark, beside Eggert Olafsson, who worked and wrote for his own generation.
Gradually the ideas which were agitating Europe spread through Scandinavia into Iceland, and its claims were more respectfully listened to. The continental system, Modern times. which, by its leading to the blockade of Denmark, threatened to starve Iceland, was neutralized by special action of the British government. Trade and fishery grew a little brisker, and at length the turn came.
The rationalistic movement, headed by Magnus Stephenson, a patriotic, narrow-minded lawyer, did little good as far as church reform went, but was accompanied by a more successful effort to educate the people. A Useful Knowledge Society was formed and did some honest work. Newspapers and periodicals were published, and the very stir which the ecclesiastical disputes encouraged did good. When free trade came, and when the free constitution of Denmark had produced its legitimate effects, the endeavours of a few patriots such as Jon Sigurdsson were able to push on the next generation a step further. Questions of a modern political complexion arose; the cattle export controversy and the great home rule struggle began. After thirty years’ agitation home rule was conceded in 1874 (see above, Government). (F. Y. P.)
Poetry.—Iceland has always borne a high renown for song, but has never produced a poet of the highest order, the qualities which in other lands were most sought for and admired in poetry being in Iceland lavished on the saga, a prose epic, while Icelandic poetry is to be rated very high for the one quality which its authors have ever aimed at—melody of sound. To these generalizations there are few exceptions, though Icelandic literature includes a group of poems which possess qualities of high imagination, deep pathos, fresh love of nature, passionate dramatic power, and noble simplicity of language which Icelandic poetry lacks. The solution is that these poems do not belong to Iceland at all. They are the poetry of the “Western Islands.”
It was among the Scandinavian colonists of the British coasts that in the first generations after the colonization of Iceland therefrom a magnificent school of poetry arose, to which we owe works that for power and beauty can be paralleled in no Teutonic language till centuries after their date. To this school, which is totally distinct from the Icelandic, ran its own course apart and perished before the 13th century, the following works belong (of their authors we have scarcely a name or two; their dates can be rarely exactly fixed, but they lie between the beginning of the 9th and the end of the 10th centuries), classified into groups:—
(a) The Helgi trilogy (last third lost save a few verses, but preserved in prose in Hromund Gripsson’s Saga), the Raising of Anganty and Death of Hialmar (in Hervarar Saga), the fragments of a Volsung Lay (Volsungakiraða) (part interpolated in earlier poems, part underlying the prose in Volsunga Saga), all by one poet, to whom Dr Vigfusson would also ascribe Völuspá, Vegtamskviða, Þrymskviða, Grötta Song and Völundarkviða.
(b) The Dramatic Poems:—Flyting of Loki, the För Skirnis, the Harbarðslioð and several fragments, all one man’s work, to whose school belong, probably, the Lay underlying the story of Ivar’s death in Skioldunga Saga.
(c) The Didactic Poetry:—Grímnismál, Vafpruðnismál, Alvíssmal, &c.
(d) The Genealogical and Mythological Poems:—Hyndluljoð written for one of the Haurda-Kari family, so famous in the Orkneys; Ynglingatal and Haustlong, by Thiodolf of Hvin; Rig’s Thul, &c.
(e) The Dirges and Battle Songs—such as that on Hafur-firth Battle Hrafnsmal, by Thiodolf of Hvin or Thorbjörn Hornklofi, shortly after 870; Eirik’s Dirge (Eíríksmál) between 950 and 969; the Dart-Lay on Clontarf Battle (1014); Bíarka-mal (fragments of which we have, and paraphrase of more is found in Hrolf Kraki’s Saga and in Saxo).
There are also fragments of poems in Half’s Saga, Asmund Kappa-Bana’s Saga, in the Latin verses of Saxo, and the Shield Lays (Ragnarsdrapa) by Bragi, &c., of this school, which closes with the Sun-Song, a powerful Christian Dantesque poem, recalling some of the early compositions of the Irish Church, and with the 12th-century Lay of Ragnar, Lay of Starkad, The Proverb Song (Havamal) and Krakumal, to which we may add those singular Gloss-poems, the Þulur, which also belong to the Western Isles.
To Greenland, Iceland’s farthest colony, founded in the 10th century, we owe the two Lays of Atli, and probably Hymiskvtiða, which, though of a weirder, harsher cast, yet belong to the Western Isles school and not to Iceland.
In form all these poems belong to two or three classes:—kviða, an epic “cantilena”; tál, a genealogical poem; drapa, songs of praise, &c., written in modifications of the old Teutonic metre which we know in Beowulf; galdr and lokkr, spell and charm songs in a more lyric measure; and mál, a dialogue poem, and liod, a lay, in elegiac measure suited to the subject.
The characteristics of this Western school are no doubt the result of the contact of Scandinavian colonists of the viking-tide, living lives of the wildest adventure, with an imaginative and civilized race, that exercised upon them a very strong and lasting influence (the effects of which were also felt in Iceland, but in a different way). The frequent intermarriages which mingled the best families of either race are sufficient proof of the close communion of Northmen and Celts in the 9th and 10th centuries, while there are in the poems themselves traces of Celtic mythology, language and manners.
When one turns to the early poetry of the Scandinavian continent, preserved in the rune-staves on the memorial stones of Sweden, Norway and Denmark, in the didactic Havamal, the Great Volsung Lay (i.e. Sigurd II., Fafnis’s Lay, Sigrdrifa’s Lay) and Hamdismal, all continental, and all entirely consonant to the remains of Old English poetry in metre, feeling and treatment, one can see that it is with this school that the Icelandic “makers” are in sympathy, and that from it their verse naturally descends. While shrewdness, plain straightforwardness, and a certain stern way of looking at life are common to both, the Icelandic school adds a complexity of structure and ornament, an elaborate mythological and enigmatical phraseology, and a regularity of rhyme, assonance, luxuriance, quantity and syllabification, which it caught from the Latin and Celtic poets, and adapted with exquisite ingenuity to its own main object, that of securing the greatest possible beauty of sound.
The first generations of Icelandic poets resemble in many ways the later troubadours; the books of the kings and the sagas are full of their strange lives. Men of good birth (nearly always, too, of Celtic blood on one side at least), they leave Iceland young and attach themselves to the kings and earls of the north, living in their courts as their henchmen, sharing their adventures in weal and woe, praising their victories, and hymning their deaths if they did not fall by their sides—men of quick passion, unhappy in their loves, jealous of rival poets and of their own fame, ever ready to answer criticism with a satire or with a sword-thrust, but clinging through all to their art, in which they attained most marvellous skill.
Such men were Egil, the foe of Eirik Bloodaxe and the friend of Æthelstan; Kormak, the hot-headed champion; Eyvind, King Haakon’s poet, called Skaldaspillir, because he copied in his dirge over that king the older and finer Eíríksmál; Gunnlaug, who sang at Æthelred’s court, and fell at the hands of a brother bard, Hrafn; Hallfred, Olaf Tryggvason’s poet, who lies in Iona by the side of Macbeth; Sighvat, Saint Olafs henchman, most prolific of all his comrades; Thormod, Coalbrow’s poet, who died singing after Sticklestad battle; Ref, Ottar the Black, Arnor the earls’ poet, and, of those whose poetry was almost confined to Iceland, Gretti, Biorn the Hitdale champion, and the two model Icelandic masters, Einar Skulason and Markus the Lawman, both of the 12th century.
It is impossible to do more here than mention the names of the most famous of the long roll of poets which are noted in the works of Snorri and in the two Skalda-tal. They range from the rough and noble pathos of Egil, the mystic obscurity of Kormak, the pride and grief of Hallfred, and the marvellous, fluency of Sighvat, to the florid intricacy of Einar and Markus.
The art of poetry stood to the Icelanders in lieu of music; scarcely any prominent man but knew how to turn a mocking or laudatory stanza, and down to the fall of the commonwealth the accomplishment was in high request. In the literary age the chief poets belong to the great Sturlung family, Snorri and his two nephews, Sturla and Olaf, the White Poet, being the most famous “makers” of their day. Indeed, it is in Snorri’s Edda, a poetic grammar of a very perfect kind, that the best examples of the whole of northern poetry are to be found. The last part, Hattatal, a treatise on metre, was written for Earl Skuli about 1222, in imitation of Earl Rognvald and Hall’s Hattalykill (Clavis metrica) of 1150. The second part, Skaldskapar-mal, a gradus of synonyms and epithets, which contains over 240 quotations from 65 poets, and 10 anonymous lays—a treasury of verse—was composed c. 1230. The first part, an exquisite sketch of northern mythology, Gylfa-ginning, was probably prefixed to the whole later. There is some of Sturla’s poetry in his Islendinga Saga, and verses of Snorri occur in the Grammatical Treatise on figures of speech, &c., of Olaf, which contains about one hundred and forty quotations from various authors, and was written about 1250.
Besides those sources, the Kings’ Lives of Snorri and later authors contain a great deal of verse by Icelandic poets. King Harold Sigurdsson, who fell at Stamford Bridge 1066, was both a good critic and composed himself. Many tales are told of him and his poet visitors and henchmen. The Icelandic sagas also comprise much verse which is partly genuine, partly the work of the 12th and 13th century editors. Thus there are genuine pieces in Nial’s Saga (chaps. 34, 78, 103, 126, 146), in Eyrbyggia, Laxdæla, Egil’s Saga (part only), Grettla (two and a half stanzas, cf. Landnamabók), Biorn’s Saga, Gunnlaug’s Saga, Havard’s Saga, Kormak’s Saga, Viga-Glum’s Saga, Erik the Red’s Saga and Fostbrædra Saga. In Nial’s, Gisli’s and Droplaug’s Sons’ Sagas there is good verse of a later poet, and in many sagas worthless rubbish foisted in as ornamental.
To these may be added two or three works of a semi-literary kind, composed by learned men, not by heroes and warriors. Such are Konunga-tál, Hugsvinnsmál (a paraphrase of Cato’s Distichs), Merlin’s Prophecy (paraphrased from Geoffrey of Monmouth by Gunnlaug the monk), Jomsvikinga-drapa (by Bishop Ketil), and the Islendinga-drapa, which has preserved brief notices of several lost sagas concerning Icelandic worthies, with which Gudmundar-drapa, though of the 14th century, may be also placed.
Just as the change of law gave the death-blow to an already perishing commonwealth, so the rush of medieval influence, which followed the union with Norway, completed a process which had been in force since the end of the 11th century, when it overthrew the old Icelandic poetry in favour of the rimur.
The introduction of the danz, ballads (or fornkvædi, as they are now called) for singing, with a burden, usually relating to a love-tale, which were immensely popular with the people and performed by whole companies at weddings, yule feasts and the like, had relegated the regular Icelandic poetry to more serious events or to the more cultivated of the chiefs. But these “jigs,” as the Elizabethans would have called them, dissatisfied the popular ear in one way: they were, like old English ballads, which they closely resembled, in rhyme, but void of alliteration, and accordingly they were modified and replaced by the “rimur,” the staple literary product of the 15th century. These were rhymed but also alliterative, in regular form, with prologue or mansong (often the prettiest part of the whole), main portion telling the tale (mostly derived in early days from the French romances of the Carlovingian, Arthurian or Alexandrian cycles, or from the mythic or skrök-sögur), and epilogue. Their chief value to us lies in their having preserved versions of several French poems now lost, and in their evidence as to the feelings and bent of Icelanders in the “Dark Age” of the island’s history. The ring and melody which they all possess is their chief beauty.
Of the earliest, Olafsrima, by Einar Gilsson (c. 1350), and the best, the Aristophanic Skída-rima (c. 1430), by Einar Fostri, the names may be given. Rimur on sacred subjects was called “diktur”; of these, on the legends of the saints’ lives, many remain. The most notable of its class is the Lilia of Eystein Asgrimsson, a monk of Holyfell (c. 1350), a most “sweet sounding song.” Later the poems of the famous Jon Arason (b. 1484), last Catholic bishop of Holar (c. 1530), Liomr (“gleam”) and Píslargrátr (“passion-tears”), deserve mention. Arason is also celebrated as having introduced printing into Iceland.
Taste has sunk since the old days; but still this rimur poetry is popular and genuine. Moreover, the very prosaic and artificial verse of Sturla and the last of the old school deserved the oblivion which came over them, as a casual perusal of the stanzas scattered through Islendinga will prove. It is interesting to notice that a certain number of kenningar (poetical paraphrases) have survived from the old school even to the present day, though the mass of them have happily perished. The change in the phonesis of the language is well illustrated by the new metres as compared with the old Icelandic drott-kvædi in its varied forms. Most of the older rimur and diktur are as yet unprinted. Many of the fornkvædi are printed in a volume of the old Nordiske Litteralur-Samfund.
The effects of the Reformation was deeply felt in Icelandic literature, both prose and verse. The name of Hallgrim Petursson, whose Passion-hymns, “the flower of all Icelandic poetry,” have been the most popular composition in the language, is foremost of all writers since the second change of faith. The gentle sweetness of thought, and the exquisite harmony of wording in his poems, more than justify the popular verdict. His Hymns were finished in 1660 and published in 1666, two great Protestant poets thus being contemporaries. A collection of Reformation hymns, adapted, many of them, from the German, the Holar-book, had preceded them in 1619. There was a good deal of verse-writing of a secular kind, far inferior in every way, during this period. In spite of the many physical distresses that weighed upon the island, ballads (fornkvædi) were still written, ceasing about 1750, rimur composed, and more elaborate compositions published.
The most notable names are those of the improvisatore Stephen the Blind; Thorlak Gudbrandsson, author of Ulfar-Rímur, d. 1707; John Magnusson, who wrote Hristafla, a didactic poem; Stefan Olafsson, composer of psalms, rimur, &c., d. 1688; Gunnar Pálsson, the author of Gunnarslag, often printed with the Eddic poems, c. 1791; and Eggert Olafsson, traveller, naturalist and patriot, whose untimely death in 1768 was a great loss to his country. His Bunadar-balkr, a Georgic written, like Tusser’s Points, with a practical view of raising the state of agriculture, has always been much prized. Paul Vidalin’s ditties are very naïve and clever.
Of later poets, down to more recent times, perhaps the best was Sigurd of Broadfirth, many of whose prettiest poems were composed in Greenland like those of Jon Biarnisson before him, c. 1750; John Thorlaksson’s translation of Milton’s great epic into Eddic verse is praiseworthy in intention, but, as may be imagined, falls far short of its aim. He also turned Pope’s Essay on Man and Klopstock’s Messiah into Icelandic. Benedikt Gröndal tried the same experiment with Homer in his Ilion’s Kvædi, c. 1825. There is a fine prose translation of the Odyssey by Sweinbjörn Egillson, the lexicographer, both faithful and poetic in high degree.
Sagas.—The real strength of ancient Icelandic literature is shown in its most indigenous growth, the “Saga” (see also Saga). This is, in its purest form, the life of a hero, composed in regular form, governed by fixed rules, and intended for oral recitation. It bears the strongest likeness to the epic in all save its unversified form; in both are found, as fixed essentials, simplicity of plot, chronological order of events, set phrases used even in describing the restless play of emotion or the changeful fortunes of a fight or a storm, while in both the absence of digression, comment or intrusion of the narrator’s person is invariably maintained. The saga grew up in the quieter days which followed the change of faith (1002), when the deeds of the great families’ heroes were still cherished by their descendants, and the exploits of the great kings of Norway and Denmark handed down with reverence. Telling of stories was a recognized form of entertainment at all feasts and gatherings, and it was the necessity of the reciter which gradually worked them into a regular form, by which the memory was relieved and the artistic features of the story allowed to be more carefully elaborated. That this form was so perfect must be attributed to Irish influence, without which indeed there would have been a saga, but not the same saga. It is to the west that the best sagas belong; it is to the west that nearly every classic writer whose name we know belongs; and it is precisely in the west that the admixture of Irish blood is greatest. In comparing the Irish tales with the saga, there will be felt deep divergencies in matter, style and taste, the richness of one contrasting with the chastened simplicity of the other; the one’s half-comic, half-earnest bombast is wholly unlike the other’s grim humour; the marvellous, so unearthly in the one, is almost credible in the other; but in both are the keen grasp of character, the biting phrase, the love of action and the delight in blood which almost assumes the garb of a religious passion.
When the saga had been fixed by a generation or two of oral reciters, it was written down; and this stereotyped the form, so that afterwards when literary works were composed by learned men (such as Abbot Karl’s Swerri’s Saga and Sturla’s Islendinga) the same style was adopted.
Taking first the sagas relating to Icelanders, of which some thirty-five or forty remain out of thrice that number, they were first written down between 1140 and 1220, in the generation which succeeded Ari and felt the Icelandic sagas. impulse his books had given to writing, on separate scrolls, no doubt mainly for the reciter’s convenience; they then went through the different phases which such popular compositions have to pass in all lands—editing and compounding (1220-1260), padding and amplifying (1260-1300), and finally collection in large MSS. (14th century). Sagas exist showing all these phases, some primitive and rough, some refined and beautified, some diluted and weakened, according as their copyists have been faithful, artistic or foolish; for the first generation of MSS. have all perished. We have also complex sagas put together in the 13th century out of the scrolls relating to a given locality, such a group as still exists untouched in Vapnfirdinga being fused into such a saga as Niala or Laxdæla. Of the authors nothing is known; we can only guess that some belong to the Sturlung school. According to subject they fall into two classes, those relating to the older generation before Christianity and those telling of St Olaf’s contemporaries; only two fall into a third generation.
Beginning with the sagas of the west, most perfect in style and form, the earliest in subject is that of Gold-Thori (c. 930), whose adventurous career it relates; Hensa-Þorissaga tells of the burning of Blund-Ketil, a noble chief, an event which led to Thord Gelli’s reforms next year (c. 964); Gislasaga (960-980) tells of the career and death of that ill-fated outlaw; it is beautifully written, and the verses by the editor (13th century) are good and appropriate; Hord’s Saga (980) is the life of a band of outlaws on Whalesfirth, and especially of their leader Hord. Of later subject are the sagas of Havard and his revenge for his son, murdered by a neighbouring chief (997-1002); of the Heiðarirgasaga (990-1014), a typical tale of a great blood feud, written in the most primitive prose; of Gunnlaug and Hrafn (Gunnlaugssaga Ormstungu, 980-1008), the rival poets and their ill-starred love. The verse in this saga is important and interesting. To the west also belong the three great complex sagas Egla, Eyrbyggia and Laxdæla. The first (870-980), after noticing the migration of the father and grandfather of the hero poet Egil, and the origin of the feud between them and the kings of Norway, treats fully of Egil’s career, his enmity with Eirik Bloodaxe, his service with Æthelstan, and finally, after many adventures abroad, of his latter days in Iceland at Borg, illustrating very clearly what manner of men those great settlers and their descendants were, and the feelings of pride and freedom which led them to Iceland. The style is that of Snorri, who had himself dwelt at Borg. Eyrbyggia (890-1031) is the saga of politics, the most loosely woven of all the compound stories. It includes a mass of information on the law, religion, traditions, &c., of the heathen days in Iceland, and the lives of Eric, the real discoverer of Greenland, Biorn of Broadwick, a famous chief, and Snorri, the greatest statesman of his day. Dr Vigfusson would ascribe its editing and completion to Sturla the Lawman, c. 1250. Laxdæla (910-1026) is the saga of Romance. Its heroine Gudrun is the most famous of all Icelandic ladies. Her love for Kiartan the poet, and his career abroad, his betrayal by his friend Bolli, the sad death of Kiartan at his hands, the revenge taken for him on Bolli, whose slayers are themselves afterwards put to death, and the end of Gudrun, who becomes an anchorite after her stormy life, make up the pith of the story. The contrast of the characters, the rich style and fine dialogue which are so remarkable in this saga, have much in common with the best works of the Sturlung school.
Of the north there are the sagas of Kormak (930-960), most primitive of all, a tale of a wild poet’s love and feuds, containing many notices of the heathen times; of Vatzdælasaga (890-980), relating to the settlement and the chief family in Waterdale; of Hallfred the poet (996-1014), narrating his fortune at King Olafs court, his love affairs in Iceland, and finally his death and burial at Iona; of Reyk-dæla (990), which preserves the lives of Askell and his son Viga-Skuti; of Svarf-dæla (980-990), a cruel, coarse story of the old days, with some good scenes in it, unfortunately imperfect, chapters 1-10 being forged; of Viga-Glum (970-990), a fine story of a heathen hero, brave, crafty and cruel. To the north also belong the sagas of Gretti the Strong (1010-1031), the life and death of the most famous of Icelandic outlaws, the real story of whose career is mixed up with the mythical adventures of Beowulf, here put down to Gretti, and with late romantic episodes and fabulous folk-tales (Dr Vigfusson would ascribe the best parts of this saga to Sturla; its last editor, whose additions would be better away, must have touched it up about 1300), and the stories of the Ljosvetningasaga (1009-1060). Gudmund the Mighty and his family and neighbours are the heroes of these tales, which form a little cycle. The Banda-manna saga (1050-1060), the only comedy among the sagas, is also a northern tale; it relates the struggles of a plebeian who gets a chieftancy against the old families of the neighbourhood, whom he successfully outwits; Öl-kofra þattr is a later imitation of it in the same humorous strain. The sagas of the north are rougher and coarser than those of the west, but have a good deal of individual character.
Of tales relating to the east there survive the Weapon-firth cycle—the tales of Thorstein the White (c. 900), of Thorstein the Staffsmitten (c. 985), of Gunnar Thidrand’s Bane (1000-1008) and of the Weapon-firth Men (975-990), all relating to the family of Hof and their friends and kin for several generations—and the story of Hrafnkell Frey’s Priest (c. 960), the most idyllic of sagas and best of the eastern tales. Of later times there are Droplaug’s Sons’ Saga (997-1007), written probably about 1110, and preserved in the uncouth style of the original (a brother’s revenge for his brother’s death is the substance of it; Brandkrossa Þattr is an appendix to it), and the tales of Thorstein Hall of Side’s Son (c. 1014) and his brother Thidrandi (c. 996), which belong to the cycle of Hall o’ Side’s Saga, unhappily lost; they are weird tales of bloodshed and magic, with idyllic and pathetic episodes.
The sagas of the south are either lost or absorbed in that of Nial (970-1014), a long and complex story into which are woven the tales of Gunnar Nial, and parts of others, as Brian Boroimhe, Hall o’ Side, &c. It is, whether we look at style, contents or legal and historical weight, the foremost of all sagas. It deals especially with law, and contains the pith and the moral of all early Icelandic history. Its hero Nial, type of the good lawyer, is contrasted with its villain Mord, the ensample of cunning, chicane, and legal wrong doing; and a great part of the saga is taken up with the three cases and suits of the divorce, the death of Hoskuld and the burning of Nial, which are given with great minuteness. The number and variety of its dramatis personae give it the liveliest interest throughout. The women Hallgerda, Bergthora and Ragnhild are as sharply contrasted as the men Gunnar, Skarphedin, Flosi and Kari. The pathos of such tragedies as the death of Gunnar and Hoskuld and the burning is interrupted by the humour of the Althing scenes and the intellectual interest of the legal proceedings. The plot dealing first with the life and death of Gunnar, type of the chivalry of his day, then with the burning of Nial by Flosi, and how it came about, and lastly with Kari’s revenge on the burners, is the ideal saga-plot. The author must have been of the east, a good lawyer and genealogist, and have composed it about 1250, to judge from internal evidence. It has been overworked by a later editor, c. 1300, who inserted many spurious verses.
Relating partly to Iceland, but mostly to Greenland and Vinland (N. America), are the Floamannasaga (985-990), a good story of the adventures of Thorgils and of the struggles of shipwrecked colonists in Greenland, a Of Greenland and North America. graphic and terrible picture; and Eirikssaga rauða (990-1000), two versions, one northern (Flatey-book), one western, the better (in Hawk’s Book, and AM. 557), the story of the discovery of Greenland and Vinland (America) by the Icelanders at the end of the 9th century. Later is the Fostbrædrasaga (1015-1030), a very interesting story, told in a quaint romantic style, of Thorgeir, the reckless henchman of King Olaf, and how his death was revenged in Greenland by his sworn brother the true-hearted Thormod Coalbrow’s poet, who afterward dies at Sticklestad. The tale of Einar Sookisson (c. 1125) may also be noticed. The lost saga of Poet Helgi, of which only fragments remain, was also laid in Greenland.
Besides complete sagas there are embedded in the Heimskringla numerous small Þættir or episodes, small tales of Icelanders’ adventures, often relating to poets and their lives at the kings’ courts; one or two of these seem to be fragments of sagas now lost. Among the more notable are those of Orm Storolfsson, Ogmund Dijtt, Halldor Snorrason, Thorstein Oxfoot, Hromund Halt, Thorwald Tasaldi, Svadi and Arnor Herlingar-nef, Audunn of Westfirth, Sneglu-Halli, Hrafn of Hrutfiord, Hreidar Heimski, Gisli Illugison, Ivar the poet, Gull-Æsu Thord, Einar Skulason the poet, Mani the poet, &c.
The forged Icelandic sagas appear as early as the 13th century. They are very poor, and either worked up on hints given in genuine stories or altogether apocryphal.
History.—About the year of the battle of Hastings was born Ari Froði Thorgilsson (1067-1148), one of the blood of Queen Aud, who founded the famous historical school of Iceland, and himself produced its greatest monument in a work which can be compared for value with the English Domesday Book. Nearly all that we know of the heathen commonwealth may be traced to the collections of Ari. It was he too that fixed the style in which history should be composed in Iceland. It was he that secured and put into order the vast mass of fragmentary tradition that was already dying out in his day. And perhaps it is the highest praise of all to him that he wrote in his own “Danish tongue,” and so ensured the use of that tongue by the cultured of after generations. Ari’s great works are Konungabók, or The Book of Kings, relating the history of the kings of Norway from the rise of the Yngling dynasty down to the death of Harald Sigurdsson in the year of his own birth. This book he composed from the dictation of old men such as Odd Kolsson, from the genealogical poems, and from the various dirges, battle-songs and eulogia of the poets. It is most probable that he also compiled shorter Kings’ Books relating to Denmark and perhaps to England. The Konungabók is preserved under the Heimskringla of Snorri Sturloson, parts of it almost as they came from Ari’s hands, for example Ynglinga and Harald Fairhair’s Saga, and the prefaces stating the plan and critical foundations of the work, parts of it only used as a framework for the magnificent superstructure of the lives of the two Olafs, and of Harald Hardrada and his nephew Magnus the Good. The best text of Ari’s Konungabók (Ynglinga, and the sagas down to but not including Olaf Tryggvason’s) is that of Frisbók.
The Book of Settlements (Landnamabók) is a wonderful performance, both in its scheme and carrying out. It is divided into five parts, the first of which contains a brief account of the discovery of the island; the other four, one by one taking a quarter of the land, describe the name, pedigree and history of each settler in geographical order, notice the most important facts in the history of his descendants, the names of their homesteads, their courts and temples, thus including mention of 4000 persons, one-third of whom are women, and 2000 places. The mass of information contained in so small a space, the clearness and accuracy of the details, the immense amount of life which is breathed into the whole, astonish the reader, when he reflects that this colossal task was accomplished by one man, for his collaborator Kolsegg merely filled up his plan with regard to part of the east coast, a district with which Ari in his western home at Stad was little familiar. Landnamabók has reached us in two complete editions, one edited by Sturla, who brought down the genealogies to his own grandfather and grandmother, Sturla and Gudny, and one by Hawk, who traces the pedigrees still later to himself.
Ari also wrote a Book of Icelanders (Islendingabók, c. 1127), which has perished as a whole, but fragments of it are embedded in many sagas and Kings’ Lives; it seems to have been a complete epitome of his earlier works, together with an account of the constitutional history, ecclesiastical and civil, of Iceland. An abridgment of the latter part of it, the little Libellus Islandorum (to which the title of the bigger Liber—Islendingabók—is often given), was made by the historian for his friends Bishops Ketil and Thorlak, for whom he wrote the Liber (c. 1137). This charming little book is, with the much later collections of laws, our sole authority for the Icelandic constitution of the commonwealth, but, “much as it tells, the lost Liber would have been of still greater importance.” Kristni-Saga, the story of the christening of Iceland, is also a work of Ari’s, “overlaid” by a later editor, but often preserving Ari’s very words. This saga, together with several scattered tales of early Christians in Iceland before the change of faith (1002), may have made up a section of the lost Liber. Of the author of these works little is known. He lived in quiet days a quiet life; but he shows himself in his works, as Snorri describes him, “a man wise, of good memory and a speaker of the truth.” If Thucydides is justly accounted the first political historian, Ari may be fitly styled the first of scientific historians.
A famous contemporary and friend of Ari is Sæmund (1056-1131), a great churchman, whose learning so impressed his age that he got the reputation of a magician. He was the friend of Bishop John, the founder of the great Odd-Verjar family, and the author of a Book of Kings from Harald Fairhair to Magnus the Good, in which he seems to have fixed the exact chronology of each reign. It is most probable that he wrote in Latin. The idea that he had anything to do with the poetic Edda in general, or the Sun’s Song in particular, is unfounded.
The flame which Ari had kindled was fed by his successors in the 12th century. Eirik Oddsson (c. 1150) wrote the lives of Sigurd Evil-deacon and the sons of Harold Gille, in his Hryggiar-Stykki (Sheldrake), of which parts remain in the MSS. collections of Kings’ Lives, Morkin-skinna, &c. Karl Jonsson, abbot of Thingore, the Benedictine minister, wrote (c. 1184) Sverrissaga from the lips of that great king, a fine racy biography, with a style and spirit of its own. Böglunga-Sögur tell the story of the civil wars which followed Sverri’s death. They are probably by a contemporary.
The Latin Lives of St Olaf, Odd’s in Latin (c. 1175), compiled from original authorities, and the Legendary Life, by another monk whose name is lost, are of the medieval Latin school of Sæmund to which Gunnlaug belonged.
Snorri Sturlason (q.v.) was known to his contemporaries as a statesman and poet; to us he is above all an historian. Snorri (1179-1241) wrote the Lives of the Kings (Heimskringla), from Olaf Tryggvason to Sigurd the Crusader inclusive; and we have them substantially as they came from his hand in the Great King Olaf’s Saga; St Olaf’s Saga, as in Heimskringla and the Stockholm MS.; and the succeeding Kings’ Lives, as in Hulda and Hrokkinskinna, in which, however, a few episodes have been inserted.
These works were indebted for their facts to Ari’s labours, and to sagas written since Ari’s death; but the style and treatment of them are Snorri’s own. The fine Thucydidean speeches, the dramatic power of grasping character, and the pathos and poetry that run through the stories, along with a humour such as is shown in the Edda, and a varied grace of style that never flags or palls, make Snorri one of the greatest of historians.
Here it should be noticed that Heimskringla and its class of MSS. (Eirspennil, Jofraskinna, Gullinskinna, Fris-bok and Kringla) do not give the full text of Snorri’s works. They are abridgments made in Norway by Icelanders for their Norwegian patrons, the Life of St Olaf alone being preserved intact, for the great interest of the Norwegians lay in him, but all the other Kings’ Lives being more or less mutilated, so that they cannot be trusted for historic purposes; nor do they give a fair idea of Snorri’s style.
Agrip is a 12th-century compendium of the Kings’ Lives from Harald Fairhair to Sverri, by a scholastic writer of the school of Sæmund. As the only Icelandic abridgment of Norwegian history taken not from Snorri but sources now lost, it is of worth. Its real title is Konunga-tal.
Noregs Konunga-tal, now called Fagrskinna, is a Norse compendium of the Kings’ Lives from Halfdan the Black to Sverri’s accession, probably written for King Haakon, to whom it was read on his death-bed. It is an original work, and contains much not found elsewhere. As non-Icelandic it is only noticed here for completeness.
Styrmi Karason, a contemporary of Snorri’s, dying in 1245, was a distinguished churchman (lawman twice) and scholar. He wrote a Life of St Olaf, now lost; his authority is cited. He also copied out Landnamabók and Sverri’s Life from his MSS., of which surviving copies were taken.
Sturla, Snorri’s nephew, wrote the Hakonssaga and Magnussaga at the request of King Magnus, finishing the first c. 1265, the latter c. 1280. King Haakon’s Life is preserved in full; of the other only fragments remain. These are the last of the series of historic works which Ari’s labours began, from which the history of Norway for 500 years must be gathered.
A few books relating the history of other Scandinavian realms will complete this survey. In Skioldunga-bok was told the history of the early kings of Denmark, perhaps derived from Ari’s collections, and running parallel to Ynglinga. The earlier part of it has perished save a fragment Sogu-brot, and citations and paraphrases in Saxo, and the mythical Ragnar Lodbrok’s and Gongu-Hrolf’s Sagas; the latter part, Lives of Harold Bluetooth and the Kings down to Sveyn II., is still in existence and known as Skioldunga.
The Knutssaga is of later origin and separate authorships, parallel to Snorri’s Heimskringla, but earlier in date. The Lives of King Valdemar and his Son, written c. 1185, by a contemporary of Abbot Karl’s, are the last of this series. The whole were edited and compiled into one book, often quoted as Skioldunga, by a 13th-century editor, possibly Olaf, the White Poet, Sturla’s brother, guest and friend of King Valdemar II. Jomsvikinga Saga, the history of the pirates of Jom, down to Knut the Great’s days, also relates to Danish history.
The complex work now known as Orkneyinga is made up of the Earls’ Saga, lives of the first great earls, Turf-Einar, Thorfinn, &c.; the Life of St Magnus, founded partly on Abbot Robert’s Latin life of him (c. 1150) an Orkney work, partly on Norse or Icelandic biographies; a Mirade-book of the same saint; the Lives of Earl Rognwald and Sveyn, the last of the vikings, and a few episodes such as the Burning of Bishop Adam. A scholastic sketch of the rise of the Scandinavian empire, the Foundation of Norway, dating c. 1120, is prefixed to the whole.
Færeyinga tells the tale of the conversion of the Færeys or Faroes, and the lives of its chiefs Sigmund and Leif, composed in the 13th century from their separate sagas by an Icelander of the Sturlung school.
Biographies.—The saga has already been shown in two forms, its original epic shape and its later development applied to the lives of Norwegian and Danish kings and earls, as heroic but deeper and broader subjects than before. In the 13th century it is put to a third use, to tell the plain story of men’s lives for their contemporaries, after satisfying which demand it dies away for ever.
These biographies are more literary and medieval and less poetic than the Icelandic sagas and king’s lives; their simplicity, truth, realism and purity of style are the same. They run in two parallel streams, some being concerned with chiefs and champions, some with bishops. The former are mostly found embedded in the complex mass of stories known as Sturlunga, from which Dr Vigfusson has extricated them, and for the first time set them in order. Among them are the sagas of Thorgils and Haflidi (1118-1121), the feud and peacemaking of two great chiefs, contemporaries of Ari; of Sturla (1150-1183), the founder of the great Sturlung family, down to the settlement of his great lawsuit by Jon Loptsson, who thereupon took his son Snorri the historian to fosterage,—a humorous story but with traces of the decadence about it, and glimpses of the evil days that were to come; of the Önundar-brennusaga (1185-1200), a tale of feud and fire-raising in the north of the island, the hero of which, Gudmund Dyri, goes at last into a cloister; of Hrafn Sveinbiornsson (1190-1213), the noblest Icelander of his day, warrior, leech, seaman, craftsman, poet and chief, whose life at home, travels and pilgrimages abroad (Hrafn was one of the first to visit Becket’s shrine), and death at the hands of a foe whom he had twice spared, are recounted by a loving friend in pious memory of his virtues, c. 1220; of Áron Hiorleifsson (1200-1255), a man whose strength, courage and adventures befit rather a henchman of Olaf Tryggvason than one of King Haakon’s thanes (the beginning of the feuds that rise round Bishop Gudmund are told here), of the Svinefell-men (1248-1252), a pitiful story of a family feud in the far east of Iceland.
But the most important works of this class are the Islendinga Saga and Thorgils Saga of Lawman Sturla. Sturla and his brother Olaf were the sons of Thord Sturlason and his mistress Thora. Sturla was born and brought up in prosperous times, but his manhood was passed in the midst of strife, in which his family fell one by one, and he himself, though a peaceful man who cared little for politics, was more than once forced to fly for his life. While in refuge with King Magnus, in Norway, he wrote his two sagas of that king and his father. After his first stay in Norway he came back in 1271, with the new Norse law-book, and served a second time as lawman. The Islendinga must have been the work of his later years, composed at Fairey in Broadfirth, where he died, 30th July 1284, aged about seventy years. The saga of Thorgils Skardi (1252-1261) seems to have been the first of his works on Icelandic contemporary history; it deals with the life of his own nephew, especially his career in Iceland from 1252 to 1258. The second part of Islendinga (1242-1262), which relates to the second part of the civil war, telling of the careers of Thord Kakali, Kolbein the Young, Earl Gizur and Hrafn Oddsson. The end is imperfect, there being a blank of some years before the fragmentary ending to which an editor has affixed a notice of the author’s death. The first part of Islendinga (1202-1242) tells of the beginning and first part of the civil wars, the lives of Snorri and Sighvat, Sturla’s uncles, of his cousin and namesake Sturla Sighvatsson, of Bishop Gudmund, and Thorwald Gizursson,—the fall of the Sturlungs, and with them the last hopes of the great houses to maintain the commonwealth, being the climax of the story.
Sturla’s power lies in his faithfulness to nature, minute observance of detail and purity of style. The great extent of his subject, and the difficulty of dealing with it in the saga form, are most skilfully overcome; nor does he allow prejudice or favour to stand in the way of the truth. He ranks below Ari in value and below Snorri in power; but no one else can dispute his place in the first rank of Icelandic writers.
Of the ecclesiastical biographers, an anonymous Skalholt clerk is the best. He wrote Hungrvaka, lives of the first five bishops of Skalholt, and biographies of his patron Bishop Paul (Pálssaga) and also of St Thorlak (Thorlakssaga). They are full of interesting notices of social and church life. Thorlak was a learned man, and had studied at Paris and Lincoln, which he left in 1161. These lives cover the years 1056-1193. The life of St John, a great reformer, a contemporary of Thorodd, whom he employed to build a church for him, is by another author (1052-1121). The life of Gudmund (Gudmundar Saga Goda), as priest, recounts the early life of this Icelandic Becket till his election as bishop (1160-1202); his after career must be sought out in Islendinga. It is written by a friend and contemporary. A later life by Arngrim, abbot of Thingore, written c. 1350, as evidence of his subject’s sanctity, tells a good deal about Icelandic life, &c. The lives of Bishops Arni and Lawrence bring down our knowledge of Icelandic history into the 14th century. The former work, Arna Saga Biskups, is imperfect; it is the record of the struggles of church and state over patronage rights and glebes, written c. 1315; it now covers only the years 1269-1291; a great many documents are given in it, after the modern fashion. The latter, Laurentius Saga Biskups, by his disciple, priest Einar Haflidason, is a charming biography of a good and pious man, whose chequered career in Norway and Iceland is picturesquely told (1324-1331). It is the last of the sagas. Bishop Jon’s Table-Talk (1325-1339) is also worth noticing; it contains many popular stories which the good bishop, who had studied at Bologna and Paris, was wont to tell to his friends.
Annals.—The Annals are now almost the sole material for Icelandic history; they had begun earlier, but after 1331 they got fuller and richer, till they end in 1430. The best are Annales Regii, ending 1306, Einar Haflidason’s Annals, known as “Lawman’s Annals,” reaching to 1392, and preserved with others in Flatey-book, and the New Annals, last of all. The Diplomatarium Islandicum, edited by Jon Sigurdsson, contains what remains of deeds, inventories, letters, &c., from the old days, completing our scanty material for this dark period of the island’s history.
Literature of Foreign Origin.—After the union with Norway and change of law genuine tradition died out with the great houses. The ordinary medieval literature reached Iceland through Norway, and every one began to put it into a vernacular dress, so neglecting their own classics that but for a few collectors like Lawman Hauk they would have perished entirely.
The Norwegian kings, Haakon Haakonson (c. 1225), and Haakon V. (c. 1305), employed Icelanders at their courts in translating the French romances of the Alexander, Arthur and Charlemagne cycles. Some forty or fifty of these Riddara-Sögur (Romances of Chivalry) remain. They reached Iceland and were eagerly read, many Rimur being founded on them. Norse versions of Mary of Brittany’s Lays, the stories of Brutus and of Troy, and part of the Pharsalia translated are also found. The Speculum Regale, with its interesting geographical and social information, is also Norse, written c. 1240, by a Halogalander. The computistic and arithmetical treatises of Stiorn-Odd, Biarni the Number-skilled (d. 1173), and Hauk Erlendsson the Lawman (d. 1334), and the geography of Ivar Bardsson, a Norwegian (c. 1340), are of course of foreign origin. A few tracts on geography, &c., in Hauk’s book, and a Guide to the Holy Land, by Nicholas, abbot of Thwera (d. 1158), complete the list of scientific works.
The stories which contain the last lees of the old mythology and pre-history seem to be also non-Icelandic, but amplified by Icelandic editors, who probably got the plots from the Western Islands. Völsunga Saga and Hervarar Saga contain quotations and paraphrases of lays by the Helgi poet, and Half’s, Ragnar’s and Asmund Kappabana’s Sagas all have bits of Western poetry in them. Hrolf Kraki’s Saga paraphrases part of Biarkamal; Hromund Gripsson’s gives the story of Helgi and Kara (the lost third of the Helgi trilogy); Gautrek’s Arrow Odd’s, Frithiof’s Sagas, &c., contain shreds of true tradition amidst a mass of later fictitious matter of no worth. With the Riddara-Sögur they enjoyed great popularity in the 15th century, and gave matter for many Rimur. Thidrek’s Saga, a late version of the Völsung story, is of Norse composition (c. 1230), from North German sources.
The medieval religious literature of Western Europe also influenced Iceland, and the Homilies (like the Laws) were, according to Thorodd, the earliest books written in the vernacular, antedating even Ari’s histories. The lives of the Virgin, the Apostles and the Saints fill many MSS. (edited in four large volumes by Professor Unger), and are the works of many authors, chiefly of the 13th and 14th centuries; amongst them are the lives of SS. Edward the Confessor, Oswald of Northumbria, Dunstan and Thomas of Canterbury. Of the authors we know Priest Berg Gunsteinsson (d. 1211); Kygri-Biorn, bishop-elect (d. 1237); Bishop Brand (d. 1264); Abbot Runolf (d. 1307); Bishop Lawrence’s son Arni (c. 1330); Abbot Berg (c. 1340), &c. A paraphrase of the historical books of the Bible was made by Bishop Brand (d. 1264), called Gydinga Sögur. About 1310 King Haakon V. ordered a commentary on the Bible to be made, which was completed down to Exodus xix. To this Brand’s work was afterwards affixed, and the whole is known as Stiorn. The Norse version of the famous Barlaam and Josaphat, made for Prince Haakon (c. 1240), must not be forgotten.
Post-classical Literature.—The post-classical literature falls chiefly under three heads—religious, literary and scientific. Under the first comes foremost the noble translation of the New Testament by Odd Gottskalksson, son of the bishop of Hólar. Brought up in Norway, he travelled in Denmark and Germany, and took upon him the new faith before he returned to Iceland, where he became secretary to Bishop Ogmund of Skalholt. Here he began by translating the Gospel of Matthew into his mother-tongue in secret. Having finished the remainder of the New Testament at his own house at Olves, he took it to Denmark, where it was printed at Roskild in 1540. Odd afterwards translated the Psalms, and several devotional works of the day, Corvinus’s Epistles, &c. He was made lawman of the north and west, and died from a fall in the Laxa in Kios, June 1556. Three years after his death the first press was set up in Iceland by John Matthewson, at Breidabolstad, in Hunafloe, and a Gospel and Epistle Book, according to Odd’s version, issued from it in 1562. In 1584 Bishop Gudbrand, who had brought over a splendid fount of type from Denmark in 1575 (which he completed with his own hands), printed a translation of the whole Bible at Hólar, incorporating Odd’s versions and some books (Proverbs and the Son of Sirach, 1580) translated by Bishop Gizar, but supplying most of the Old Testament himself. This fine volume was the basis of every Bible issued for Iceland till 1826, when it was replaced by a bad modern version. For beauty of language and faithful simplicity of style the finer parts of this version, especially the New Testament, have never been surpassed.
The most notable theological work Iceland ever produced is the Postill-Book of Bishop John Vidalin (1666-1720), whose bold homely style and stirring eloquence made “John’s Book,” as it is lovingly called, a favourite in every household, till in the 19th century it was replaced for the worse by the more sentimental and polished Danish tracts and sermons. Theological literature is very popular, and many works on this subject, chiefly translations, will be found in the lists of Icelandic bibliographers.
The first modern scientific work is the Iter per patriam of Eggert Olafsson and Biarni Paulsson, which gives an account of the physical peculiarities—fauna, flora, &c.—of the island as far as could be done at the date of its appearance, 1772. The island was first made known to “the world” by this book and by the sketch of Unno von Troil, a Swede, who accompanied Sir Joseph Banks to Iceland in 1772, and afterwards wrote a series of “letters” on the land and its literature, &c. This tour was the forerunner of an endless series of “travels,” of which those of Sir W. J. Hooker, Sir G. S. Mackenzie (1810), Ebenezer Henderson (1818), Joseph Paul Gaimard (1838-1843), Paijkull (1867) and, lastly, that of Sir Richard Burton, an excellent account of the land and people, crammed with information of every kind (1875), are the best.
Iceland is emphatically a land of proverbs, while of folk-tales, those other keys to the p
oeple’s heart, there is plentiful store. Early work in this direction was done by Jon Gudmundsson, Olaf the Old and John Olafsson in the 17th century, who all put traditions on paper, and their labours were completed by the magnificent collection of Jon Arnason (1862-1864), who was inspired by the example of the Grimms. Many tales are but weak echoes of the sagas; many were family legends, many are old fairy tales in a garb suited to their new northern home; but, besides all these, there are a number of traditions and superstitions of indigenous origin.
The Renaissance of Iceland dates from the beginning of the 17th century, when a school of antiquaries arose. Arngrim Jonsson’s Brevis Commentarius (1593), and Crymogaea (1609), were the first-fruits of this movement, of which Bishops Odd, Thorlak and Bryniulf (worthy parallels to Parker and Laud) were the wise and earnest supporters. The first (d. 1630) collected much material for church history. The second (d. 1656) saved Sturlunga and the Bishops’ Lives, encouraged John Egilsson to write his New Hungerwaker, lives of the bishops of the Dark Ages and Reformation, and helped Biorn of Skardsa (d. 1655), a bold and patriotic antiquary (whose Annals continue Einar’s), in his researches. The last (d. 1675) collected a fine library of MSS., and employed the famous copyist John Erlendsson, to whom and the bishop’s brother, John Gizurarsson (d. 1648), we are indebted for transcripts of many lost MSS.
Torfaeus (1636-1719) and Bartholin, a Dane (d. 1690), roused the taste for northern literature in Europe, a taste which has never since flagged; and soon after them Arni Magnusson (1663-1730) transferred all that remained of vellum and good paper MSS. in Iceland to Denmark, and laid the foundations of the famous library and bequest, for which all Icelandic students are so much beholden. For over forty years Arni stuck to his task, rescuing every scrap he could lay hands on from the risks of the Icelandic climate and carelessness, and when he died only one good MSS. remained in the island. Besides his magnificent collection, there are a few MSS. of great value at Upsala, at Stockholm, and in the old royal collection at Copenhagen. Those in the university library in the latter city perished in the fire of 1728. Sagas were printed at Upsala and Copenhagen in the 17th century, and the Arna-Magnaean fund has been working since 1772. In that year appeared also the first volume of Bishop Finn Jonsson’s Historia Ecclesiastica Islandiae, a work of high value and much erudition, containing not only ecclesiastical but civil and literary history, illustrated by a well-chosen mass of documents, 870-1740. It has been continued by Bishop P. Peterson to modern times, 1740-1840. The results, however, of modern observers and scholars must be sought for in the periodicals, Safn, Felagsrit, Ny Felagsrit and others. John Espolin’s Arbækr is very good up to its date, 1821.
A brilliant sketch of Icelandic classic literature is given by Dr Gudbrandr Vigfusson in the Prolegomena to Sturlunga Saga (Oxford, 1879). It replaces much earlier work, especially the Sciagraphia of Halfdan Einarsson (1777), and the Saga-Bibliotek of Müller. The numerous editions of the classics by the Icelandic societies, the Danish Société des Antiquités, Nordiske Litteratur Samfund, and the new Gammel Nordisk Litteratur Samfund, the splendid Norwegian editions of Unger, the labours of the Icelanders Sigurdsson and Gislason, and of those foreign scholars in Scandinavia and Germany who have thrown themselves into the work of illustrating, publishing and editing the sagas and poems (men like P. A. Munch, S. Bugge, F. W. Bergmann, Th. Möbius and K. von Maurer, to name only a few), can only be referred to here. See also Finnur Jónsson, Den Oldnorske og Oldislanske Litteraturs Historie (Copenhagen, 1893-1900); R. B. Anderson’s translation (Chicago, 1884) of Winkel Horn’s History of the Literature of the Scandinavian North; and W. Morris and E. Magnusson’s Saga Library. (F. Y. P.)
The recent literature of Iceland has been in a more flourishing state than ever before since the 13th century. Lyrical poetry is by far the largest and the most interesting portion of it. The great influence of Jónas Hallgrímsson (1807-1845) is still felt, and his school was the reigning one up to the end of the 19th century, although then a change seemed to be in sight. The most successful poet of this school is Steingrímr Thorsteinsson (b. 1830). He is specially famous for his splendid descriptions of scenery (The Song of Gilsbakki), his love-songs and his sarcastic epigrams. As a translator he has enriched the literature with The Arabian Nights, Sakuntala, King Lear and several other masterpieces of foreign literature. Equal in fame is Matthías Jochumsson (b. 1835), who, following another of Jónas Hallgrímsson’s many ways, has successfully revived the old metres of the classical Icelandic poets, whom he resembles in his majestic, but sometimes too gorgeous, language. He is as an artist inferior to Steingrímr Thorsteinsson, but surpasses him in bold flight of imagination. He has successfully treated subjects from Icelandic history Grettisljóð, a series of poems about the famous outlaw Grettir. His chief fault is a certain carelessness in writing; he can never write a bad poem, but rarely a poem absolutely flawless. He has translated Tegnér’s Frithiofs Saga, several plays of Shakespeare and some other foreign masterpieces. The great religious poet of Iceland, Hallgrímr Pétursson, has found a worthy successor in Valdemar Briem (b. 1848), whose Songs of the Bible are deservedly popular. He is like Matthías Jochumsson in the copious flow of his rhetoric; some of his poems are perfect both as regards form and contents, but he sometimes neglects the latter while polishing the former. An interesting position is occupied by Benedict Gröndal (b. 1826), whose travesties of the old romantic stories, and his Aristophanic drama Gandreiðin (“The Magic Ride”) about contemporary events, are among the best satirical and humorous productions of Icelandic literature.
Influenced by Jónas Hallgrímsson with regard to language and poetic diction, but keeping unbroken the traditions of Icelandic medieval poetry maintained by Sigurðr Breiðfjörð (1798-1846), is another school of poets, very unlike the first. In the middle of the 19th century this school was best represented by Hjálmar Jónsson from Bóla (1796-1875), a poor farmer with little education, but endowed with great poetical talents, and the author of satirical verses not inferior to those of Juvenal both in force and coarseness. In the last decades of the 19th century this school produced two poets of a very high order, both distinctly original and Icelandic. One is Páll Olafsson (b. 1827). His songs are mostly written in the medieval quatrains (ferskeytla), and are generally of a humorous and satirical character; his convivial songs are known by heart by every modern Icelander; and although some of the poets of the present day are more admired, there is none who is more loved by the people. The other is Þorsteinn Erlingsson (b. 1858). His exquisite satirical songs, in an easy and elegant but still manly and splendid language, have raised much discussion. Of his poems may be mentioned The Oath, a series of most beautiful ballads, with a tragical love-story of the 17th century as their base, but with many and happy satirical allusions to modern life; Jörundr, a long poem about the convict king, the Danish pirate Jörgensen, who nearly succeeded in making himself the master of Iceland, and The Fate of the Gods and The Men of the West (the Americans), two poems which, with their anti-clerical and half-socialistic tendencies, have caused strong protests from orthodox Lutheran clergy. Near to this school, but still standing apart, is Grímur Thomsen (b. 1820).
In the beginning of the ’eighties a new school arose—having its origin in the colony of Icelandic students at the University of Copenhagen. They had all attended the lectures of Georg Brandes, the great reformer of Scandinavian literature, and, influenced by his literary theories, they chose their models in the realistic school. This school is very dissimilar from the half-romantic school of Jónas Hallgrímsson; it is nearer the national Icelandic school represented by Páll Olafsson and Þorsteinn Erlingsson, but differs from those writers by introducing foreign elements hitherto unknown in Icelandic literature, and—especially in the case of the prose-writers—by imitating closely the style and manner of some of the great Norwegian novelists. Their influence brought the Icelandic literature into new roads, and it is interesting to see how the tough Icelandic element gradually assimilates the foreign. Of the lyrical poets, Hannes Hafsteinn (b. 1861) is by far the most important. In his splendid ballad, The Death of Skarphedinn, and in his beautiful series of songs describing a voyage through some of the most picturesque parts of Iceland, he is entirely original; but in his love-songs, beautiful as many of them are, a strong foreign influence can be observed. Among the innovations of this poet we may note a predilection for new metres, sometimes adopted from foreign languages, sometimes invented by himself, a thing practised rarely and generally with small success by the Icelandic poets.
No Icelandic novelist has as yet equalled Jón Thóroddsen (1819-1868). The influence of the realistic school has of late been predominant. The most distinguished writer of that school has been Gestur Pálsson (1852-1891), whose short stories with their sharp and biting satire have produced many imitations in Iceland. The best are A Home of Love and Captain Sigurd. Jónas Jónasson (b. 1856), a clergyman of northern Iceland, has, in a series of novels and short stories, given accurate, but somewhat dry, descriptions of the more gloomy sides of Icelandic country life. His best novel is Randiðr from Hvassafell, an historical novel of the middle ages. Besides these we may mention Torfhildur Hólm, one of the few women who have distinguished themselves in Icelandic literature. Her novels are mostly historical. The last decade of the 19th century saw the establishment of a permanent theatre at Reykjavik. The poet Matthías Jochumsson has written several dramas, but their chief merits are lyrical. The most successful of Icelandic dramatists as yet is Indrði Einarsson, whose plays, chiefly historical, in spite of excessive rhetoric, are very interesting and possess a true dramatic spirit.
In geography and geology Þorvaldr Thoroddsen has acquired a European fame for his researches and travels in Iceland, especially in the rarely-visited interior. Of his numerous writings in Icelandic, Danish and German, the History of Icelandic Geography is a monumental work. In history Páll Melsteð’s (b. 1812) chief work, the large History of the World, belongs to this period, and its pure style has had a beneficial influence upon modern Icelandic prose.
Of the younger historians we may mention Þorkell Bjarnason (History of the Reformation in Iceland). Jón Þorkelsson (b. 1822), inspector of the archives of Iceland, has rendered great services to the study of Icelandic history and literature by his editions of the Diplomatarium Islandicum and Obituarium Islandicum, and by his Icelandic Poetry in the 15th and 16th Century, written in Danish, an indispensable work for any student of that period. A leading position among Icelandic lexicographers is occupied by Jón Þorkelsson, formerly head of the Latin school at Reykjavik, whose Supplement til islandske Ordbøger, an Icelandic-Danish vocabulary (three separate collections), has hardly been equalled in learning and accuracy. Other distinguished philologists are his successor as head of the Latin school, Bjôrn Magnússon Olsen (Researches on Sturlunga, Ari the Wise, The Runes in the Old Icelandic Literature—the last two works in Danish); Finnur Jónsson, professor at the University of Copenhagen (History of the Old Norwegian and Icelandic Literature, in Danish, and excellent editions of many old Icelandic classical works); and Valtýr Guðmundsson, lecturer at the University of Copenhagen (several works on the old architecture of Scandinavia) and editor of the influential Icelandic literary and political review, Eimreiðin (“The Locomotive”).
See J. C. Poestion, Islandische Dichter der Neuzeit (Leipzig, 1897); C. Küchler, Geschichte der isländischen Dichtung der Neuzeit (Leipzig, 1896); Ph. Schweitzer, Island; Land und Leute (Leipzig, 1885); Alexander Baumgartner, Island und die Faroer (Freiburg im Breisgau, 1889). (S. Bl.)
- Jökull, plural jöklar, Icel. snowfield, glacier.
- Flói, bay; fjörðr, fjord.
- Vatn, lake.
- See Th. Thoroddsen, “Explorations in Iceland during the years 1881-1898,” Geographical Journal, vol. xiii. (1899), pp. 251-274, 480-513, with map.
- For the periods succeeding the union, Danish state papers and the History of Finn Jonsson are the best authority.
- Many of these poems were Englished in prose by the translator of Mallet, by B. Thorpe in his Sæmund’s Edda, and two or three by Messrs Morris and Magnussen, as appendices to their translation of Volsunga Saga. Earlier translations in verse are those in Dryden’s Miscellany (vol. vi), A. Cottle’s Edda, Mathias’s Translations, and W. Herbert’s Old Icelandic Poetry. Gray’s versions of Darradar-liod and Vegtamskviða are well known.
- E.g. “The Battle of the Plains of Death,” a burlesque on the battle of Solferino.