Sir Joseph Banks and the Medieval Icelandic Saga

In this article, our social media editor Matt Firth looks at the career of Joseph Banks (1743-1820), and the collection of Icelandic texts he left the British Library…

For Australians, Joseph Banks (1743-1820) is a familiar name from our colonial history. In fact, I suspect that for most of us, setting aside James Cook, his is the only other name we know from the Endeavour voyage of 1768 to 1771. In that venture, co-sponsored by the Royal Society and the Royal Navy, he had been appointed the official botanist. A son and grandson of former parliamentarians, Banks was educated at Eton and Oxford (though not graduating). His father died when Banks was only 17 and so, at age 21, when he entered his inheritance, he became an exceedingly wealthy man. This allowed him the freedom and resources to pursue his passions: botany and exploration.

By the time he joined Cook’s Pacific expedition, Banks had already spent over a year on the east coast of what is now Canada, collecting floral, faunal, and geological specimens. In 1768 the Royal Society managed to get the 25 year old Banks appointed as botanist to the Endeavour – possibly with the aid of his elite connections, though the Society also noted his wealth as a contributing factor to their recommendation. And the rest is (colonial Australian) history. On 29 April 1770, Cook, Banks and crew made landfall at a place later named Botany Bay for the unique specimens Banks collected, and 18 years later the first British colonists would set sail to found a colony there (which they wound up doing up the coast at Sydney Cove).

There Banks likely drops from the radar of most Australians. His intractability saw him leave Cook’s second expedition before it even started, he was influential in proposing Australia, and Botany Bay specifically, as ideal for European settlement. But he never returned to Australia – he had other voyages to make. Which brings me to a collection of manuscripts held at the British Library, and the British scientific expedition to Iceland of 1772. Because, while you may expect the Joseph Banks Collection to contain expedition journals, diaries, Antipodean samples and the like, it is primarily a collection of Icelandic manuscripts donated to the British Museum by Banks in December 1772.

Banks had not changed his interests and become an antiquarian (any more that the average late-eighteenth-century gentleman); his Icelandic expedition was anticipated to be scientific in nature. In his diary, he casts the venture very much as one of exploration, noting the island as rarely visited, abounding in undocumented flora and fauna. And he rather liked the idea of the volcanoes. In fact, the volcanoes became the focus of much of the expedition, including the scaling of Mount Hekla and a visit to Geysir (which can hurl boiling water up to 70 metres in the air). One can’t help but imagine Banks and crew as the progenitors of Iceland’s current tourist boom. The expedition did, nonetheless, return with an impressive array of botanic specimens from Iceland, the Isle of Wight, and the Hebrides. As well as 20 Icelandic manuscripts, later augmented as more were sent to him in the subsequent decade.

The majority of these are Early Modern texts, though frequently copying earlier narratives including some of the Sagas of Icelanders (Íslendingasögur), and I thought I‘d take you through a short overview of four Banks Collection manuscripts I had the pleasure of working with on a recent British Library visit: Add MSS 4864, 4867, 4868 & 4873.

Add MS 4864

17th or 18th century in origin, this codex preserves in its earliest folios a copy of the early thirteenth-century text Hungrvaka, a ‘bishop’s saga’ relating the early years of the Skálholt bishopric. I’ve pictured the opening page below.


The anonymous author opens by telling us he wants to relate knowledge imparted to him by Gizzur Hallson, a twelfth-century political figure. As much of my research revolves around memory, its transmission, and Iceland’s transition to literacy, the implication that the Hungrvaka was interpreting and recording oral narrative is of particular interest to me. That we see it again transmitted into this much later manuscript makes it only more so. The catalogue entry records the codex’s other contents for those interested.

Add MS 4867

17th century in origin, this codex contains some of saga literature‘s greatest hits: Njáls saga, Fljótsdæla saga, Vápnfirðinga saga, Ljósvetninga saga. It also contains Bjarnar saga Hítdælakappa – opening page pictured (f. 186r.).

Bjarnar saga1

There aren’t too many people who would argue that the thirteenth-century Bjarnar saga should be included in the ‘greatest’ hits category – it can be patchily narrated, and includes two significant lacunae, one of which comprises the saga’s opening five chapters. But I like it! I was hoping this manuscript would solve a mystery (namely, whether the first verse of Bjarnar saga is found in that text or independently drawn from another which editors over time have used to repair the opening lacuna). It did not. Once again, a full list of contents is supplied in the catalogue entry.

Add MS 4868

17th century in origin, this codex once again largely preserves Íslendingasögur texts, opening with one of my favourites, Bárðar saga Snæfellsáss. It is a saga that doesn’t fit neatly into the Íslendingasögur mode, having significant legendary elements, with its lead character filling something of an archetypal ‘trickster’ role. Worth a read if you get a chance. The codex also contains some of the more famous sagas like Kormaks saga, but overall represents a reasonable collection of the Íslendingasögur corpus’ more obscure narratives! Check the catalogue. My interest in this one was in the fourteenth-century Kjalnesinga saga, opening page pictured (f. 34r.) – with apologies for the photography…

Kjalnesinga saga1

Kjalnesinga saga ties in with some work I am doing on religion in Iceland and is particularly interesting in describing the presence of Christian communities and churches (Irish settlers) in pre-Conversion Iceland. How much of this can be read as cultural memory preserving some small element of historicity remains to be seen.

Add MS 4873

15th century in origin, this manuscript was by far the most interesting of the collection as a manuscript artefact (which naturally means I was not allowed to take photos of it). Here we have a late medieval copy of Jónsbók, the main Icelandic law-code after 1281 (largely superseding the famous Grágás). Medieval copies of Jónsbók are not in themselves rare, which I suspect is why Banks was able to get his hands on this copy, one of few genuinely medieval manuscripts in the collection. The manuscript construction is interesting, and I suspect it made its way into Banks’ hands as a collection of loose-leaf gatherings, now bound together with modern metal rings. The vellum pages are square, and so dark as to render the writing extremely difficult to read (though the hand itself is quite tidy and legible). Once more, there is a little about it in the catalogue – the contents do not innovate from other extant editions of Jónsbók (as far as I could ascertain).

With that, I’ll end this post. As an Australian researcher of Icelandic medieval texts, it was a rare treat to find those two worlds intersecting!

Matthew Firth

Flinders University

Feature Image: BL Add MS. 15511, f.48. John Cleveley the Younger (1772), ‘View of a mountain, near Hekla with a view of a travelling caravan’.

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