Icelandic Archives at the Turn of the Century

Comma (2004), 2004, (1), 149–158.


Comma, 2004.1 149 Icelandic Archives at the Turn of the Century The roots of Icelandic archives date far back in history, all the way back to when the Church’s organised power imposed the Roman administrative tradition and knowledge on this island in the Atlantic so battered by waves and other elements. The oldest existing document kept at the National Archives of Iceland - which has the special status of still being an active, valid document, something that holds the attention of those who spend time distinguishing between active and passive records - is a register of rights, property, and inventory of the church at Reykholt (Reykholtsmáldagi). It was probably written about fifty years after the first legal texts were recorded in writing according to the first law relating to archives from ca. 1100. Even at that early stage in the middle of the twelfth century, the Roman administrative tradition was translated into Icelandic. It can thereafter be referred to as an Icelandic tradition in the Icelandic Church’s administration. It is fair to say that our archival roots are primarily threefold: they stem from church archives, the secular administration’s archives, and private archives. This threefold aspect runs like a thread throughout the Icelandic history emerging from the archives, in which eight hundred years pass as one day, as can be seen from the inventory from Reykholt. In Iceland, the two Episcopal residences (Hólar in the North and Skálholt in the south) were the most powerful institutions from the Middle Ages until 1800, when they were closed down. Such an organized authority with supervision of the Church’s property and Christian life, legal and pastoral power, as well as comprehensive business affairs and enterprise (including farming on the approximately 360-370 estates which they each owned and a significant amount of fishing) required an administration, which spawned comprehensive records. The archives from Hólar are relatively well preserved, but at Skálholt, fire has caused gaps in the archives at various intervals. Iceland’s secular administration was stipulated in legal provisions in Grágás. The lawbook of the medieval republic was initially preserved orally, as a sort of Middle Age version of electronic recordkeeping, with all the advantages and disadvantages that characterise such records. When Iceland was by treaty added to the Crown of Norway in 1262-64 and a public administration was created, i.e. public records were invented, the first secular documents appeared. The majority of these were juridical documents- verdicts and the like - because the operation and supervision of the public (the King’s) property did not become a relevant form of legal recordkeeping until the time of the Reformation in 1550. The governors of Iceland were initially private individuals who undertook the running of the fief for the King; they collected the King’s income and carried out operations on their own account. A small number of their archives still exist, in particular from the Skarð family, which produced three generations of governors. Christianity, and later the Reformation, were imposed by order. Christianity was adopted by the Icelandic parliament (Althingi) under the shadow of hostage-taking and threats of foreign invasion; the Reformation was imposed by order of a king from continental Schleswig-Holstein under the threat of warships and troops. Both cases mark the beginning of a new era in archiving and the history of the archives in Iceland. We have already seen what the introduction of Christianity brought with it, but in conjunction with the Reformation a modern administration and associated document production were simultaneously introduced into the country. Here the Reformation goes hand in hand with “der Aktenzeitalter” [ed.: the age of records] in which paper and printing had an impact similar to that of computers and the Internet today. At this point, the archives began to grow and their ancient Roman diplomas were overshadowed by volumes of records and other documentary material.

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Author details

Ásgeirsson, Ólafur