Scandinavia in the Special Collections

This month, we gather together a number of different items which share a northern theme: twentieth-century cartoons, seventeenth-century astronomy, nineteenth-century literature, sixteenth-century history, eighteenth-century exploration, and a seventeenth-century Bible.

Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus [Description of the Northern people], Olaus Magnus (1550) ∑.2.14

Olaus Magnus (1490-1557) was a Swedish writer and Archbishop of Uppsala, and this book was his magnus opus. With over 800 pages of Latin text – and littered with pleasing woodcut prints – Magnus systematically makes an effort to describe the people and the land in full. He writes on religion, law, government, lifestyle, food, wildlife, mythology and more.

The woodcut prints cover a similar range of subjects. The examples shown below include a rendering of a runic alphabet, depictions of a giant, a bear dancing with a woman, a battle between an army of cranes and an army of dwarfs, a King, and Norwegian seamonsters.

St John’s College Library owns a copy of the first two editions of the Historia. The first edition was published in Rome in 1555 and was donated to the College by William Paddy in 1602 while the second edition was published in Basil in 1567 and donated by Nathanial Crynes in 1745. The second edition also bears an armorial binding with the arms of George Carew, Earl of Totness: a key figure in establishing the English assertion of dominance over modern Ireland and friend of Sir Walter Raleigh.

Astronomiæ instauratæ mechanica, Tycho Brahe (1602), Δ.3.25

The title page of the 1602 Mechanica

Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe (1546-1601) was best known in his day for designing enormous scientific instruments. He had big ideas about how he might accurately observe the planets and stars. When Denmark was ruled over by his friend King Frederick II, Brahe received all the funding he could possibly require to realise his plans; the King even gave him a Danish island, Hven, where he built his observatory complex.

However, upon Frederick’s death in 1588, Brahe’s luck reached an end. The new King, Christian IV, was less sympathetic to Brahe’s vision and would not support him.  It was at this stage of his career that Brahe began writing Astronomiæ instauratæ mechanica in which he recorded all his designs, often with illustrative woodcuts and engravings. He used the book as a portfolio to present to potential benefactors. It is for this reason that the first edition (1598) of the Mechanica is so rare; less than one hundred copies were printed by Brahe for his personal advertising.

The Mechanica proved a success, and before too long Brahe received the patronage of Emperor Rudolf II of the Holy Roman Empire who, in 1598, presented him with a castle near Prague to continue his scientific endeavours.

After Brahe’s death in 1601, his friend Johann Kepler arranged for the publication of Brahe’s work, including, in 1602, a second edition – the first trade edition – of the Mechanica. Such is the copy held at St John’s library.

The copy at St John’s was donated by alumnus William Harrison in 1615.

Biblia, se on, Heinrich Keisarild (1624) C.2.14

The title page of Vanha kirkkoraamattu (1624)

Bibles often mark the beginning of publishing and literary history of a country. Such was the case in the USA where all early printed material was religious (see previous blog post on the first Bible printed in the States). Interestingly, in Finland, the first printed book was Abckiria (the ABC book), a textbook of written Finnish.

Abckiria (1543) was written by Mikael Agricola, a bishop who single-handedly designed the written Finnish script. He decided the rules behind the spelling of Finnish, and as a result of his labour also produced the second Finnish book, a translation of the New Testament, in 1548. Agricola was working under the Lutherian ideal of taking Biblical texts out of Latin and translating it into vernacular languages.

It was not until 1624, 76 years later, that a complete Bible was translated and published. This was the Biblia se on, by Heinrich Keisarild, Eskil Petaeus (Bishop of Turku) and their team. A huge project, the Bible was funded by the Swedish state –Finland had been under Swedish rule since the thirteenth-century – and produced in Copenhagan as there was nowhere in Finland suitably equipped for such a project.

An illustration from the Bible, showing Satan in a pit of flames

Nora Samolad Sive Laponi Illustrate, Olof Rudbeck the Younger (1701), HB4/3.c.6.11

The parallel title pages of Olof Rudbeck’s text, in Swedish and Latin

Another project funded by the Swedish crown, this book concerned the relatively unknown area of Lapland. King Karl XI commissioned Olaf Rudbeck the Younger (1660-1740), Swedish explorer and scientist, to take an expedition to Lapland in 1695.

On his journey, Rudbeck discovered 50 new species of plant and made extensive notes on the language and culture of the Sami people. He had the notes to produce an extensive treatise of twelve volumes on his discoveries and observations. However, nearly all were lost in the Great Fire of Uppsala in 1702 and Rudbeck managed only to produce this single slim volume along with an album of his paintings of birds and plants.

The book itself is written in parallel texts of Swedish and Latin throughout, and includes a map of the Baltic Sea as a man:

An illustration by Rudbeck which maps the Baltic Sea in the form of a man

St John’s copy of the text was donated in 1745 by Nathaniel Crynes. It is still in its eighteenth-century gilded binding.

The Saga Library, William Morris and Eiríkr Magnússon (1891), Vet.Trans.1-5

The decorated bindings of the Saga Library special editions

Although he was perhaps best known for his work as an artist and designer, William Morris (1834-1896) was a respected medievalist. Alongside Eiríkr Magnússon – an Icelandic theologian and librarian living in Cambridge – he helped produced some of the first English translations of a number of Old Norse sagas including Völsungasaga, Hávarðar saga Ísfirðings, Hænsa-Þóris saga and Eyrbyggja saga.

Morris and Magnússon’s partnership began in 1868 when the pair first met and Magnússon began teaching Morris Old Norse. Morris learnt quickly and the first of their collaborative translations were published the following year.

The beginning of Morris and Magnússon’s translation of Ynglinga Saga

It was during the 1870s, when Morris was living in Kelmscott Manor, Oxfordshire, with Dante Gabriel Rossetti, that Morris and Magnússon took a number of trips to Iceland together. Their visits are well-documented in Morris’s usually neglected diaries.

The Saga Library is a collection of the sagas translated by Morris and Magnússon – including the whole of Snorri Sturluson’s Heimskringla, a collection of sagas of the lives of the Norweian Kings.

The copies at St John’s College Library are special enlarged editions with only 125 copies. They were donated to the library by Dunstan Skilbeck in memory of his father Clement Oswald Skilbeck, an artist who was friends with Morris. Each book includes a bookplate incorporating a design by Clement Skilbeck.

Jøss! : vitser, skrøner og karikaturer 1940-45 (Whoa!: jokes, stories and caricatures 1940-45), Oddmund Kristiansen (1945)

The cover art for Jøss! (1945)

This rather strange little item includes Norwegian cartoons, satires, and jokes which directly respond to Norway’s position in the Second World War.

The book is the product of 25-year-old visual artist Oddmund Kristiansen, a recent graduate of engineering (Oslo Technical School and Norway Institute of Technology in Trondheim) who had his debut exhibition as an artist at Trondheim Kunsforening in 1944, a year before the publication of Jøss!

Soon after, and perhaps unsurprisingly, Kristiansen gained employment in drawing cartoons for the newspapers in the 1940s and ‘50s. Later he worked in different media as an artist including paintings, cartoons, medieval glass work restorations, murals.

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