Published August 22, 2003


If other nations were as considerate as the Danes are, the exhibition halls at the British Museum or Louvre would be gapingly empty and the citizens of Egypt and Greece would be crowding at their respective harbours, cheering the arrival of several neatly packed forty-foot containers. Cheering and flag-waving is precisely what is presented by the documentary Icelandic State Television recorded on 21 April 1971, with the difference that it was not several containers that arrived at the Reykjavik harbour that day but a military ship with three nicely wrapped-up bundles on board: Codex Regius and the two volumes of the book of Flatey.

The books then got a limo-style ride through the centre of their home country capital, sat through a few speeches at the University Cinema and ended up being deposited at the Árni Magnússon Institute. I admit the documentary is a favourite film of the freak in me and I go to see it regularly. Depending on the mood I am in, I either sit down and absorb the ceremony in quiet awe and admiration or wriggle around on my seat with childlike amusement, watching men of wisdom and prominence march around in white gloves, bow in all directions and like workers at a conveyor belt hand to one another two books the size of one Yellow Pages and one hardcover Charles Dickens.

The three manuscripts opened up a flow of repatriation that did not end until 1997 – and we must remember this is but a fragment of what was written down in Iceland in the Middle Ages. The Icelandic scholar Sigurður Nordal once suggested that the impressive amount of literature produced in Iceland between 1100 and 1400 was basically due to the numerous flocks of sheep and the harsh weather conditions. In other words, every better-off Icelandic farmer would sooner or later find himself sitting idle inside his house while the snowstorm outside made any field work impossible, facing a heap of lamb skins he did not have a clue what to do with. Exaggeration? Blasphemy? Judge for yourself. The fact is that, be they a mere by-product of husbandry or the result of a conscious effort of an unusually culture-aware nation, Icelandic medieval manuscripts are an amazing achievement and an essential part of the country’s cultural heritage.

The drawback of being a part of anybody’s cultural heritage is the fact that you get immediately shovelled into a glass showcase, the light around you is dampened, humidity-regulating machinery set up in all four corners of the room and a chubby Group 4 Security guy hired to keep an eye on your well-being. This is, of course, meant to protect the sensitive material from some unpleasant aspects of the modern world, such as acidulous UV rays or souvenir-hungry tourists’ soiled fingertips, but it also brings an unfortunate barrier between the object and the spectator. Visitors then return home and report to their friends and families that “there was this weird dim light and you know what – they had to take the book out of a vault safe with three locks this big!” but they do not really remember what the book was about.

Well, forget the locks and the do-not-touch signs and see the manuscripts for what they are – the product of blood, sweat and tears of a human like you and me, except for the fact that your or my hand-writing will never attract any scholars apart from our psychoanalysts. The scribes were plagued with backaches, finger cramps and fireplaces that had long ago given up on the vast monastery rooms. I do not think colouring elaborated initials is any healthier for your sight than staring at computer screen eight hours a day, and I doubt scriptoriums were equipped with anatomy-friendly adjustable chairs, in fact they were not equipped with any chairs at all. The contents of the manuscripts are of course of an indisputable value, but it is the margin comments such as “my eyes are sore and tired”, “how cold the scriptorium is today” and “the light is bad and the feather pen keeps breaking”, a Middle Ages equivalent of “Windows crashed again / my computer froze and the data is all gone / I wish it was five o’clock”, that give us an insight to the human aspect of medieval literature.

Other comments show that there actually were certain advantages to a scribe’s work, and that some of the monks were beginning to realize that. It was the unique state servant status the copyists held or, in other words, the emerging gap between those who cater for their comrades’ earthly needs and those who create spiritual value – a gap so familiar in certain countries where some work in fisheries to pay taxes while others receive government grants to carry out their artistic urges. These observant monks looked up from their writing, then jotted down “what a violent storm is raging outside – thank God I do not have to be at sea!” on the margin.

Considering all the pros and cons of manuscript production, one thing becomes apparent; those who cared to copy, produce and pay for books in the Middle Ages must have held the written word in very high esteem and considered the contents of the books to be of a value worth the toil. One day the copier was out of order at the library’s reading room and I had to write down in hand whatever I wanted to keep for future reference – and voilà, much of the information, especially the more verbose parts of it, suddenly turned out not to be that relevant after all. Nowadays, the medieval scribes’ zeal can be compared to the enthusiasm and devotion of anarchists, underground opposition groups and anybody else that produces and distributes illegal press. I am no underground fighter nor a living history but I remember the carbon copies of George Orwell that were passed from one person to another in my Wild East country (communist Czechoslovakia), and I have to laugh when I recall what bad-quality copies they were, and yet how coveted and valuable.

A book was a valuable item in the Middle Ages. It enjoyed respect which has been fading away ever since people noticed the greasy stone tiles in Gutenberg’s kitchen were water repellent and which by 20th century ended up being only vaguely echoed in my father’s “wash your hands before you touch a book” and “do not read at meals.” It is our recognition of this respect that sends medieval manuscripts under glass covers – a tribute to people from centuries ago, who chose to invest their money into the making of a book, although they could have easily bought a house for the same price.

Third millennium technology made goose feather and pricey vellum as the means of transporting information obsolete and turned book production into a matter every Tom, Dick and Harlequin can afford. The technology will, however, never deprive the book of its potential to become an object of art, which is what medieval manuscripts are usually admired for – their artistic and craftsmanship qualities. But keep in mind, next time you are looking at a manuscript, that the book did not appear out of nowhere and pay a silent tribute to the scribe’s arthosis and the book-binder’s blisters. These men were no supermen, they had bad breath, flat feet and poor digestion, yet they were able to produce something that has come to require white gloves and security supervision.

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