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The Icelandic Manuscript Case: A Conversation with Sigrún Davíðsdóttir

King Harald I of Norway (right) receives Norway out of his father Halfdan the Black's hands in this illustration from the Flateyjarbók

Have you heard the one about the former colonial power returning precious cultural treasures to its erstwhile colony, with pragmatism and politics winning the day over legalistic red lines? As with so many areas of life, there's a Nordic precedent to take inspiration and instruction from, as I recently learned in conversation with my good friend the brilliant Icelandic journalist and art collector Sigrún Davíðsdóttir.

Sigrún is best known for her coverage of the Icelandic financial crisis in 2008 and the following years, shining a light on financial crime, tax avoidance, and corruption, but she has published widely on a variety of subjects, including a book she wrote (in Danish), on the return of manuscripts from Danish collections to Iceland in the 1970s, published by the Odense University Press in 1999, Håndskriftsagens Saga – i politisk belysing (The Manuscript Case; its political angle). It's a fascinating tale with some interesting lessons for those engaged in these issues in this new golden age of restitutionary debate and action. Many thanks indeed to Sigrún for sharing this story with the Art Lawyers Association – I hope you all enjoy it as much as I did.


From Nordic Union to Independence

JS: As I now know through our conversations, Danish rule in Iceland ended in 1944 as Iceland became an independent republic. What had been the connection between the two countries?

SD: Iceland came under Norwegian rule with a treaty between Icelandic feudal lords and the Norwegian king in 1262. When Norway, Sweden and Denmark formed a political union in 1397, led by the Danish monarch, Iceland came under Danish rule, governed by Danish envoys. 

The revolutionary ideas of the 19th century inspired Icelandic intellectuals and students studying at the University of Copenhagen – there was no university in Iceland until 1911 – to demand greater rights for Icelanders, culminating in a treaty in 1918, where Denmark acknowledged Iceland as a sovereign nation (the "1918 Treaty").

According to the 1918 Treaty, either nation could unilaterally decide in 25 years to go its own way. By 1943, Denmark was under German rule, Iceland in the Allied territory, with American forces based in Iceland. In 1944, the Icelandic government founded the Republic of Iceland, claiming it had honoured the 1918 Treaty.

Compared to Greenland and the Faroese Islands, where Danish authorities tried for example to eradicate the languages, Danish rule in Iceland was more lenient, but Icelandic anti-colonial sentiments towards Denmark lingered on for decades after 1944. 

Icelandic Manuscripts: Journey and Legacy

“In Iceland, these cultural treasures are even more unique because Iceland has no grand old buildings or other cultural assets, i.e. no tangible remnants of intellectual or material life in earlier centuries. Consequently, these manuscripts enlighten not only history, language, and culture but are also very much the foundation of Icelandic identity.”

JS: What are the manuscripts we are discussing and how did they end up in there?

SD:  Inspired by the Enlightenment of the 17th century, Swedish and Danish kings became interested in history to underpin their power, sending emissaries, mostly Icelanders, to Iceland to collect manuscripts, as sources.

When the Icelandic bishop Brynjólfur Sveinsson (1605-1675) heard of the Danish king’s interest, he sent him some manuscripts. Two of these manuscripts, Flateyjarbók, “Flateybook” (written around 1390), named after the island where the manuscript was written, consisting of sagas of Norwegian kings, and Codex Regius, “The King’s Book” (written around 1270), a collection of unattributed mythical poetry, were centuries later at the top of the Icelandic wish list for manuscripts to be returned. 

The most diligent manuscript collector was Árni Magnússon (1663-1730) who served the Danish king in various positions. During the summers of 1702-1712, he travelled around Iceland as the king’s emissary, writing a property registry and collecting manuscripts. Marrying an elderly wealthy Danish widow, he lived in comfort close to Copenhagen University, where he became a professor, employing scribes to copy and classify manuscripts.

In 1728, a large part of Copenhagen was consumed by fire. The manuscripts in Magnússon’s collection were mostly saved but most of his extensive collection of printed books and his own writings were lost in the fire.

Before his death in 1730, Magnússon bequeathed his collection to the University of Copenhagen, where it was kept as a separate collection, with funds to finance research related to it. The foundation, now called The Arnamagnæan Collection (Den Arnamagnæanske Samling), has always been central to research related to the manuscripts. Icelandic material is also found in the Royal Library, Copenhagen University Library, and the Danish National Archives.

Icelandic manuscripts are also in libraries in Sweden, the UK, France, and the US. The Icelandic manuscripts in Denmark were there because of Danish rule in Iceland, but manuscripts in other countries have no such colonial backstory; Iceland has never made any claims for these manuscripts. 

JS: What is the significance of the Icelandic manuscripts for Icelandic culture?

SD: Written sources from the time before printed books are an inestimable treasure. In Iceland, these cultural treasures are even more unique because Iceland has no grand old buildings or other cultural assets, i.e. no tangible remnants of intellectual or material life in earlier centuries. Consequently, these manuscripts enlighten not only history, language, and culture but are also very much the foundation of Icelandic identity. 

Possibly inspired by the British Isles, where vernacular literature stems from the 6th century, the manuscripts show that Icelanders were writing in their own language from early on, quite exceptional in Europe at the time. Icelandic authors such as Ari the Wise, Ari Þorgilsson (1067-1148) and Snorri Sturlusson (1179-1241) wrote in Icelandic, though they and other authors at the time most likely knew Latin as well. For many of those fighting for Icelandic independence during the 19th century, the manuscripts were the source of the true Icelandic language.

The Fight for Icelandic Manuscripts: A Quest for Cultural Restitution

JS: When were the first calls for the Icelandic manuscripts to be returned to Iceland and how did that campaign develop alongside the independence movement?

SD: The first demands for Icelandic material from Danish collections were made in 1837 but these demands related to archivalia, not the manuscripts. Similar demands for archivalia were made several times up until 1918. The Danish answer was always firm: nothing could be returned as it could set a precedent for other countries and hamper Danish research. 

After 1918, a Danish-Icelandic commission dealt with matters related to the 1918 Treaty. Although the Icelandic government did not bring up the Arnamagnæan Collection the Danish representatives were certain such claims would come later.

Following renewed claims for archivalia, the Danish government returned 700 documents from the Arnamagnæan Collection and other Danish collections to Iceland in 1928. Although appreciative, the Icelandic government, did not rule out further demands.

In 1930, Iceland celebrated the thousand-year anniversary of the Icelandic Althing, which passed a resolution, demanding the return of manuscripts in the Arnamagnæan Collection and manuscripts that had been given to the Danish king, i.e. the Flatey Book and Codex Regius. 

To mark the anniversary, the Danish government decided unilaterally to return half of Icelandic artifacts from the National Museum, earlier discussed in the Danish-Icelandic Commission. As a token of gratitude, the Icelandic government didn’t act on the 1930 manuscript resolution, which the Danes mistook for the claims being put aside. This was wishful thinking as that was never the Icelandic intent; it was just that the timing was not felt to be right immediately after the return of those artifacts.

Icelanders raised the 1930 resolution at the 1938 and 1939 meetings of the Danish-Icelandic Commission. The Danes considered this to be a wholly new demand: Iceland was now demanding back every manuscript that had come to Denmark from Iceland, a demand Denmark would not meet, emphasising that the earlier return of archivalia and artifacts was a final solution. One Danish representative, firmly agreeing with the Danish standpoint, was a young Social Democrat, Hans Hedtoft, who later as a prime minister changed his position and attempted to meet the Icelandic demands.

In 1945, when the two countries’ representatives first met after WWII, they were representing two independent countries discussing the legal aspects of 1944. This time, Iceland’s main concern was the return of all Icelandic manuscripts in Danish collections. When Iceland brought the demand up again in 1946, the Danes answered they would indeed consider finding a solution, but this was a wholly Danish matter and would not be solved through negotiations.

The first Danish step was to set up a committee in 1947 of politicians and academics to find a solution. Its final report in 1951 was broadly in favour of partly meeting the Icelandic demands. 

JS: Were there any particular political circumstances that influenced the manuscript case and are there any wider lessons that can be taken from it?

SD: In my opinion, the most important lesson from the Icelandic-Danish manuscript dispute is that cultural restitution claims can only be solved by political intervention, which will only happen when public opinion favouring restitution in the country with possession is strong enough for politicians to act. This was the case in Denmark in the decades after 1944.

Iceland and Denmark had had a very different WWII: Denmark occupied by Germany, Iceland coming out of the war as a republic, enriched by the Allies’ construction work all over Iceland. Danish support for the Icelandic demands was never entirely party-political but was mainly found among left-leaning, and liberal politicians. In what many Danes saw as an ongoing “battle for the soul of Iceland” Iceland risked becoming permanently tied to the US unless it could be harboured within Nordic cooperation. 

Hedtoft’s Social Democrats and the two liberal parties, Ventstre and Radikale Venstre were keen on a strong union between the Nordic countries. Ideas partly inspired by the Danish “Folk High School” movement, originating in the 19th century, emphasising education for farmers and workers. Its advocates, fervent supporters of the Icelandic demands, had strong ties to the three parties. The Danish Communist Party also supported the Icelandic demands wholeheartedly but had little power.

The Icelandic demands mainly met resistance within the Conservative Party, which regarded Danish history through the 19th and early 20th century as that of a country losing power and standing in the world. Losing the manuscripts would be yet another loss, and an unnecessary one given that Iceland had no legal claim to the manuscripts.

Within academia, there was little support for the Icelandic demands, with the important exception of a few academics with close ties to the three political parties that supported the Icelandic demands.

By the 1960s these political currents were ebbing out. The Nordic cooperation never turned into anything as substantial as some had hoped and European cooperation became the dominant theme in Danish politics. But the echoes of these old ideas were strong enough to bring about a solution, which Iceland agreed to in 1961.

JS: Did the Icelandic side ever seriously consider pursuing a 'legal' route to the return of the manuscripts, or was it always obvious that it was going to be a diplomatic endeavour?

SD: After 1944, when the Icelandic demands were first presented to the Danish government, the idea that Iceland could make a legal claim for the manuscripts – because they were undeniably Icelandic, brought to Denmark by Danish rule, without Icelandic consent – was floated, but the Icelandic government never acted on it. The moral right was Iceland’s focus: the manuscripts were Icelandic cultural heritage, of which Iceland had otherwise little, sent to Denmark because of the countries’ earlier ties at a time when Iceland had no centres of learning.

JS: What legal and political hurdles had to be overcome for the return to be agreed?  

SD: In Denmark, the main legal hurdles were dealt with via the courts, in two court cases, following the 1965 Manuscripts Law: did the Danish state have the legal right to dispose of the property of a private institution, the Arnamagnæan Collection, or was it an expropriation – and if so, would the state have to compensate the Arnamagnæan Collection for the manuscripts sent to Iceland?

In addition to these two key questions, various other legal aspects came up while the Danish government was working on a solution. In 1954, when the Hedtoft government tried to find a way to meet the Icelandic demands, Professor Alf Ross, a Danish authority on sovereignty and international law, thought the Danish government should establish its legal right over the manuscripts by seeking a ruling of the International Court in Hague. The government ignored this advice fearing it would only complicate matters.

The 1954 plan was that the Danish government would declare the manuscripts to be the common property of the two countries, to be placed where they could be used for scholarly purposes.

Some Icelanders consulted indicated that, although this could achieve the practical aim of bringing the manuscripts back, Icelanders could not accept the principle of 'common ownership’. This proved to be the case: Before the plan was properly presented to the Icelandic government a Danish newspaper leaked the plan, which was then met with consternation in Iceland and turned down by the Althing. 

This attempt left both sides upset: the Danish government was offended that their clever path around legal hurdles hadn’t been appreciated; the Icelanders felt misunderstood, as they couldn’t possibly share their national treasure with their former ruler.

Hedtoft died in office in 1955 but his wish to solve the dispute lived on as his party stayed in power. From 1957 to 1960, the Social Democrats led a coalition with Radikale Venstre but their action was blocked by the third coalition party, Retsforbundet, a small conservative party whose leader, Viggo Starcke, was one of Iceland’s staunchest opponents.

JS: What were the terms of the deal that was ultimately agreed?

SD: Following elections in 1960 the Social Democrats formed a government with Radikale Venstre. With strong support for the Icelandic demands, PM Viggo Kampmann was keen to find a solution and turned to Professor Alf Ross to draw lessons from the failed 1954 attempt and draft a bill.

Ross concluded that explicitly declaring common ownership was out of the question. Further, Ross rightly pointed out that Icelanders always talked about getting back “the Icelandic manuscripts from Danish collections”, i.e. each and every manuscript. A demand that not even Danish politicians, positive to the Icelandic demands, were willing to accept as that would curtail Danish research. 

Ross suggested that what should be returned should be defined as Iceland’s “cultural assets” (“kultureje” in Danish, a word Ross crafted) and then not ‘given’ to Iceland but ‘deposited’ with the University of Iceland. With all Icelandic cultural assets being sent to Iceland, the Bill glossed over the fact that Iceland did not get all Icelandic manuscripts from Danish collections. By depositing the manuscript with the University of Iceland, Denmark avoided making any conclusive statement about its ownership of the manuscripts, something Iceland could not accept. Thus, Ross found a clever way around the two thorny issues: Iceland was not getting all the manuscripts and Iceland would not have to accept any statement declaring Danish ownership of the manuscripts. 

Ross defined “cultural assets” as “manuscripts written in Iceland by Icelanders”. During consultations on Ross’ draft, the director of the Royal Library, Palle Birkelund, pointed out that by using this definition, Icelanders would get what they wanted, i.e. all the manuscripts in Danish collections. 

Consequently, the definition was changed to “manuscripts written in Iceland by Icelanders, concerning Icelandic matters.” Interestingly, this excluded returning the two gems of the Royal Library, Codex Regius and Flatey Book since their content is not Icelandic. In addition, the Danish government made a non-negotiable demand: Icelanders would acknowledge the agreement as the final solution.

When presented with this offer in spring 1961 it shocked Iceland’s minister of culture Gylfi Þ. Gíslason, a social democrat in a coalition led by the Conservatives: Iceland was clearly not getting all the manuscripts and in addition would be barred from making further demands in the future. Danish supporters of the Icelandic demands made it clear to the Icelandic government that this was the best possible offer. Icelanders should note that the political interest in solving the case was ebbing out.

To test the definition of “Iceland’s cultural assets”, two Icelandic academics and two Danish, agreed that around 1700 manuscripts from the Arnamagnæan Collection and 200 from the Royal Library would most likely be returned. Neither Codex Regius nor Flatey Book was on the list, but Danish ministers had promised a separate decision regarding these two manuscripts. After tense discussions to the last minute, with the two manuscripts eventually included, the Icelandic government accepted the proposal. On his return to Iceland, Gíslason made a speech on the radio, introducing the agreement. His opening statement was that “the manuscripts are coming home”, with no mention that not all of them would be returned. The understanding within the Icelandic government was that this really was the best possible offer.

The Bill was passed by the Danish Parliament in June 1961 with 110 MPs in favour, 39 against and 30 absent. Afterwards, a group of MPs, some of whom had voted for the Bill but were upset the Bill was rushed through, concluded the Bill might be an expropriation. They made use of Paragraph 73 of the Danish Constitution, whereby 60 MPs could vote to have a bill tested by a new parliament; with 61 MPs in favour, the Bill was blocked. However, the 1961 Bill and the accompanying treaty between Denmark and Iceland was the end of the dispute between the two countries – now it was just for the Danish government to fulfil its obligations.

After elections in September 1964, the Social Democrats formed a government and presented the Manuscripts Bill for the second time, now with ample time for discussion. Academics and others opposing the Icelandic demands organised demonstrations and debates. The Bill was passed in spring of 1965 by 104 MPs in favour, 58 against, 3 abstained and 14 absent, still a convincing majority but a smaller one than in 1961. Again, a group of MPs tried to block the Bill by attempting to use the Constitution’s Paragraph 73 but the fighting spirit had evaporated; only 57 MPs supported the action.

21 April 1971 when the vessel Vædderen arrived with Flateyjarbok and The Codex Regius of the Poetic Edda
With the Manuscript Bill passed into law, the Arnamagnæan Commission, the Collection’s governing board, took the government to Court claiming the 1965 Manuscripts Law constituted an expropriation. When I wrote my book, I found documents showing that as had been rumoured at the time, the shipping magnate A.P. Møller, an enormously influential figure in Danish politics and business, financed the Commission’s legal bills. 

The case went through the District Court and then the Danish Supreme Court where all its thirteen judges ruled in November 1966 in accordance with the District Court: the 1965 Manuscript Law was valid though opinions expressed differed. The Arnamagnæan Collection was judged to be protected by the Constitution’s Paragraph 73 and the Manuscripts Law did constitute expropriation, but justifiably so as it resolved a diplomatic dispute and did not go against the common good. The Court did not rule on compensation as that wasn’t part of the case.

By now, A.P. Møller was unwilling to bankroll the Commission’s further action. The government did however bring a case to clarify the compensation issue. In March 1971, the Supreme Court ruled that, despite the expropriation finding, the manuscripts could not legally be sold. Consequently, the Commission would not suffer a loss and so there should not be any compensation.

A decade after the Icelandic Danish Agreement in 1961, all legal aspects had been clarified, and the treaty could be signed. In April 1971, Codex Regius and Flatey Book were transported to Iceland with great ceremony on a Danish gunboat. Thousands of Icelanders watched as the boat sailed into harbour, with Icelandic TV transmitting live for the first time.

As stipulated by the 1961 Agreement, a committee of two Icelandic and two Danish scholars worked on dividing the manuscripts, a task that lasted until 1982. Also, in accordance with the Agreement, the manuscripts were conserved and photographed before being sent. The last manuscripts reached Iceland in 1997, again with a ceremony but without the earlier pomp and public festivities. 

JS: What relationship have the Icelandic people had with the manuscripts in the years since 1971?

SD: Most of the manuscripts are delicate museum objects, only used by scholars but there is always a selection of manuscripts on display at the Institute of Árni Magnússon in Reykjavík, now in a new building, substituting a building from 1970. Most Icelanders are aware of the manuscripts – they learn about them in school – but there is a lot less attention on them than there was immediately after 1944. 

JS: And just quickly, how would you characterise the relationship between Iceland and Denmark today?

SD: The two countries have a good relationship, both bilaterally and within Nordic cooperation. The anti-colonial sentiments that lingered in the decades immediately following 1944 are now a faint memory. For Icelanders, Denmark is a popular tourist destination and has long been one of the most popular countries for Icelanders to study in. Until 2006, Danish was the first foreign language taught in schools, but it is now the second, after English, and not very popular since most children see little reason to learn the language of such a small nation.

Jon Sharples
Senior Associate in Intellectual Property & Commercial Law at Howard Kennedy LLP

Blogs are written by Art Lawyers Association members and reflect their personal views. They do not represent the views of the Association 


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