Denmark and Iceland clash over priceless medieval manuscripts

They recount tales of Viking raids, Norse history, kings and gods: a priceless collection of medieval manuscripts, bequeathed by an Icelandic scholar to the University of Copenhagen in the 18th century, that Iceland now wants back.

Denmark and Iceland clash over priceless medieval manuscripts
An Icelandic medieval manuscript of the Arnamagnaean Collection at the University of Copenhagen. Photo: Suzanne Reitz/AFP/Ritzau Scanpix

The UN cultural organisation UNESCO has called them “the single most important collection of early Scandinavian manuscripts in existence”, with the earliest one dating from the 12th century.

Some of the texts — known as the Arnamagnaean Collection — have already been returned to Reykjavik, but 1,400 documents are still locked away in Copenhagen.

The jewel of the collection is an almost complete early 15th century copy of “Heimskringla” — the best known of the Old Norse kings' sagas, originally written in the 13th century by Icelandic poet and historian Snorri Sturluson.

Unlike many Icelandic mediaeval manuscripts, which have few decorative flourishes, this version of the Heimskringla is richly illustrated with intricate red lettering on each page.

The Arnamagnaean Collection is named after scholar Arni Magnusson, a historian and literature and language expert who was born in Iceland but died in 1730 in Copenhagen, where he left his 3,000 or so manuscripts.

Each time a document from the collection is borrowed from the university, it is insured for up to five million kroner (670,000 euros).

Keen to ensure good relations with its former colony, Denmark granted Iceland's recurring request to return part of the collection in the 1960s. A treaty signed in 1965 divvied up the goods.

In line with that agreement, more than half of the manuscripts were turned over to Iceland between 1971 and 1997.

The division of documents between the two nations had for years been uncontroversial, but Iceland's Culture and Education Minister Lilja Alfredsdottir now wants more of the collection given back.

She has raised the profile of the issue and linked it to the construction of a new institute dedicated to Magnusson, which will hold an exhibition of mediaeval documents.

“We think it's important that the manuscripts be located in Iceland to a greater extent,” Alfredsdottir told AFP.

Matthew Driscoll, the professor in charge of the collection at the University of Copenhagen, is opposed to the idea, arguing that the remaining manuscripts are part of Denmark's cultural heritage.

The two nations have an intertwined history, Iceland having been under Danish rule from the 1600s until it declared independence in 1944.

Driscoll says the University of Copenhagen has cooperated closely with Reykjavik, digitising all of the works and making them available to researchers.

“These are not things that have been acquired illegally or stolen… Arni owned those manuscripts himself, he was given them or he bought them, and then he left them in a completely legal way to the University of Copenhagen,” Driscoll said.

And even in Iceland, there are mixed opinions about whether the texts should be returned.

Haraldur Bernhardsson, a professor of medieval studies at the University of Iceland, said he fully agreed with the need to make cultural heritage visible for future generations.

But he added: “I think we can do that in collaboration with the Arnamagnaean Collection in Copenhagen.”

Keeping all the Icelandic works in Reykjavik would actually limit the number of scholars and academics who study them, some academics say.

“If you really wanted to request Icelandic manuscripts from abroad, you should perhaps prioritise manuscripts that are not currently being studied, which is obviously not the case with the Arni Magnusson collection,” said Bernhardsson.

READ ALSO: Danish parliament speaker shunned by Icelandic MPs

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‘Lost’ manuscript of pro-Nazi French author published 78 years later

A book by one of France's most celebrated and controversial literary figures arrives in bookstores this week, 78 years after the manuscript disappeared

'Lost' manuscript of pro-Nazi French author published 78 years later

It is a rare thing when the story of a book’s publication is even more mysterious than the plot of the novel itself.

But that might be said of Guerre (War) by one of France’s most celebrated and controversial literary figures, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, which arrives in bookstores on Thursday, some 78 years after its manuscript disappeared.

Celine’s reputation has somehow survived the fact that he was one of France’s most eager collaborators with the Nazis.

Already a superstar thanks to his debut novel Journey to the End of the Night (1932), Celine became one of the most ardent anti-Semitic propagandists even before France’s occupation.

In June 1944, with the Allies advancing on Paris, the writer abandoned a pile of his manuscripts in his Montmartre apartment.

Celine feared rough treatment from authorities in liberated France, having spent the war carousing with the Gestapo, and giving up Jews and foreigners to the Nazi regime and publishing racist pamphlets about Jewish world conspiracies.

For decades, no one knew what happened to his papers, and he accused resistance fighters of burning them. But at some point in the 2000s, they ended up with retired journalist Jean-Pierre Thibaudat, who passed them – completely out of the blue – to Celine’s heirs last summer.

‘A miracle’
Despite the author’s history, reviews of the 150-page novel, published by Gallimard, have been unanimous in their praise.

“The end of a mystery, the discovery of a great text,” writes Le Point; a “miracle,” says Le Monde; “breathtaking,” gushes Journal du Dimanche.

Gallimard has yet to say whether the novel will be translated.

Like much of Celine’s work, Guerre is deeply autobiographical, recounting his experiences during World War I.

It opens with 20-year-old Brigadier Ferdinand finding himself miraculously alive after waking up on a Belgian battlefield, follows his treatment and hasty departure for England – all based on Celine’s real experiences.

His time across the Channel is the subject of another newly discovered novel, Londres (London), to be published this autumn.

If French reviewers seem reluctant to focus on Celine’s rampant World War II anti-Semitism, it is partly because his early writings (Guerre is thought to date from 1934) show little sign of it.

Journey to the End of the Night was a hit among progressives for its anti-war message, as well as a raw, slang-filled style that stuck two fingers up at bourgeois sensibilities.

Celine’s attitude to the Jews only revealed itself in 1937 with the publication of a pamphlet, Trifles for a Massacre, which set him on a new path of racial hatred and conspiracy-mongering.

He never back-tracked. After the war, he launched a campaign of Holocaust-denial and sought to muddy the waters around his own war-time exploits – allowing him to worm his way back into France without repercussions.

‘Divine surprise’
Many in the French literary scene seem keen to separate early and late Celine.

“These manuscripts come at the right time – they are a divine surprise – for Celine to become a writer again: the one who matters, from 1932 to 1936,” literary historian Philippe Roussin told AFP.

Other critics say the early Celine was just hiding his true feelings.

They highlight a quote that may explain the gap between his progressive novels and reactionary feelings: “Knowing what the reader wants, following fashions like a shopgirl, is the job of any writer who is very financially constrained,” Celine wrote to a friend.

Despite his descent into Nazism, he was one of the great chroniclers of the trauma of World War I and the malaise of the inter-war years.

An exhibition about the discovery of the manuscripts opens on Thursday at the Gallimard Gallery and includes the original, hand-written sheets of Guerre.

They end with a line that is typical of Celine: “I caught the war in my head. It is locked in my head.”

In the final years before his death in 1961, Celine endlessly bemoaned the loss of his manuscripts.

The exhibition has a quote from him on the wall: “They burned them, almost three manuscripts, the pest-purging vigilantes!”

This was one occasion – not the only one – where he was proved wrong.