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plished we do not know precisely. Tradition attributes the principal share in it to a Saxon bishop named Frederick, who came hither A. D. 981. It seems at any rate to have been more complete and instantaneous than that of their brethren on the Continent; for Christianity was formally adopted by the National Assembly in the spring of A. D. 1000. Churches and monasteries rapidly arose, and religion assumed the same dignified and respected position which was accorded to her in the countries of Europe. Simultaneously, or indeed, to speak more correctly, a short time previously, the political condition of the community was settled. The island was divided into four provinces, subdivided into twelve districts, each governed by local magistrates, elected by the people. An annual assembly, or parliament of the whole island, called the Althing, was held in Thingvalla, a place about fifty miles to the N. E. of Reykjavik. Here solemn trials took place, laws were enacted, and disputes arranged. The whole republic was under the nominal headship of a Lagmann. Land was held by udal (or noble) tenure, which was substantially a semi-feudal system. The gradual rise of powerful families, and the concentration of most of the land in their hands soon changed the elective character of the magistracy into hereditary. This led to feuds and deeds of violence, which ended in the surrender of the sovereignty of the island to Hakon, King of Norway, in 1254, three hundred and eighty years after its first colonization by Ingolf. The constitution, however, continued undisturbed, resembling rather the condition of a republic under royal protection, than that of a dependency, until the beginning of the present century, when the Althing was abolished. It was again restored in 1848.
Previously to the introduction of Christianity the Runie characters had been employed in inscriptions on wood, metal, and stone. But their use was limited to these inscriptions; writing, technically so called, there was
Still the Icelanders had orally preserved their national traditions, and the memory of the prowess of their ancestors, and of the heroes of their race in songs, and in those Sagas which have become identified with the first essays of Runic lore. In the year 1057, however, Isleif, Bishop of Skalholt, introduced the art of writing, together with the Latin alphabet, modified according to the German usage, preserving some few of the old charac
I we do not know precisely. Tradition attributes ncipal share in it to a Saxon bishop named Fredewho came hither a. D. 981. It seems at any rate to een more complete and instantaneous than that of rethren on the Continent; for Christianity was y adopted by the National Assembly in the spring · 1000. Churches and monasteries rapidly arose, eligion assumed the same dignified and respected n which was accorded to her in the countries of e. Simultaneously, or indeed, to speak more cora short time previously, the political condition of mmunity was settled. The island was divided into rovinces, subdivided into twelve districts, each govby local magistrates, elected by the people
. An assembly, or parliament of the whole island, called
Ithing, was held in Thingvalla, a place about fifty to the N. E. of Reykjavik. Here solemn trials took laws were enacted, and disputes arranged. The republic was under the nominal headship of a Lag
Land was held by udal (or noble) tenure, which bstantially a semi-feudal system. The gradual rise erful families, and the concentration of most of the their hands soon changed the elective character of igistracy into hereditary. This led to feuds and of violence, which ended in the surrender of the gnty of the island to Hakon, King of Norway, in hree hundred and eighty years after its first coloniby Ingolf . The constitution, however
, continued rbed, resembling rather the condition of a republic oyal protection, than that of a dependency, until inning of the present century, when the Althing plished. It was again restored in 1848. jously to the introduction of Christianity the Runie ers had been employed in inscriptions on wood,
ters for the expression of peculiar sounds. This proceeding, which prevented the Runic alphabet from attaining the dignity of being the medium of a written language, was the decisive point in the literary history of Iceland. A general taste for learning became rapidly diffused. Societies were formed for the purpose of mutual instruction. The new art of writing was immediately employed in the important task of collecting the ballads, songs, and other memorials of the national antiquities, and of recording the historical recollections of the settlement of the island. Nor were the maritime expeditions of the early inhabitants forgotten, which had led to the colonization of Greenland and the other discoveries along the coast of North America, that reflect such immortal honour on the memory of those intrepid navigators. Several able writers also addressed themselves to digesting and commenting the laws and traditional institutions, and to chronicling in clear and simple narratives the events of their own times. The monks, as usual, especially those of the Benedictine monastery of Tbingeyra, were large contributors to Icelandie literature; anticipating by five centuries the labours of the Maurist Fatherson a small scale, and a different theatre, it is true; but storing up, withal, priceless_materials for the future student of Norse archæology. Indeed nothing can compensate for the national loss sustained, at the introduction of Lutheranism in 1550, in the sack of the convents and the wholesale destruction of valuable manuscripts and relics of antiquity.
The position of Christianity in Iceland was eminently favourable to this literary development and to the course which it took.
The conversion of the island had been effected almost simultaneously, and without any notable opposition. It had not, consequently, been attended with the same sweeping and indiscriminate hostility to the monuments and traditions of Paganism, which had been elsewhere deemed necessary, and had proved so fatal to their preservation. Accordingly, the old Norse theogony still survived in songs and ballads. The old tales
of their heathen forefathers were permitted to retain their place in the people's hearts. Deprived effectively of their religious meaning, by the practical hold which the lessons of Christianity bad taken on the popular mind, or explained away as mythical allegories, there was no ground for fearing
VOL. L.-No. XCIX.
and stone. But their use was limited to these ions; writing, technically so called, there was Still the Icelanders had orally preserved their | traditions, and the memory of the prowess of icestors, and of the heroes of their race in songs, hose Sagas which have become identified with the says of Runic lore. In the year 1057, however, Bishop of Skalholt, introduced the art of writing, with the Latin alphabet, modified according to man usage, preserving some few of the old charac
that they could ever recover their ancient reverence. Perhaps, also, the fact that, from the commencement, the clergy were mainly native, was not without its influence. They had not, as was frequently the case on the Continient, come from a foreign land to combat Heathenism, unacquainted with the peculiar character of the people they were seeking to convert, and consequently ignorant of the mode of dealing with those popular prejudices which were arrayed against their ministry. They were never in the position of strangers, at war with the natives, on all those ideas of which a people is most tenacious, and for this reason alone, if for no other, necessarily regarded as intruders. Nór, when the work of conversion was accomplished, were they compelled, in order to secure its permanency, to recruit their ranks from their own country by men, who, whatever may have been the respect paid to them on account of their religious authority, must always have been looked upon as aliens to the tribe. These eircumstances, it may be, were not without their weight in determining the attitude of the Anglo-Saxon and Irish missionaries towards the traditions and monuments of the Teutonic and Scandinavian tribes which they converted to the faith. But they did not exist in Iceland. There the clergy, from the first, were of the people. They kuew intimately the habits, instincts, and leanings of their fellow-countrymen. They knew the weak points, as well as the strong ones, of their character; for they were those of their own, Consequently they were in a position, from the first, to deal practically with the tales of Northern Mythology. They knew at once how much of them they should reprobate and denounce, what superstitions they should guard against and eradicate, how much they were to explain away as allegory, how much they might allow to live as the legendary story of events whose true version was lost in the mists of antiquity. They acted accordingly. Nor do they seem to have considered, that any danger to the stability of Christianity could arise from their regarding those Pagan remains with more curiosity, perhaps,- for they had a domestic interest in whatever historical value they possessed—but certainly not with greater apprehension as to their practical influence on the conduct of their flocks, than we do those of Ancient Greece or Rome. The event proved the justice of their anticipations; for there is no trace that the Icelanders
could ever recover their ancient reverence. Per-
of strangers, at war with the natives, on all those
Nor, when the work of conversion was accom-
were addicted to any grosser superstitions than any of their contemporaries, even those more favourably circumstanced.
After all, these are mere conjectures on a point which, more than any thing else connected with Iceland, is unique: namely, the singular preservation of Scandinavian traditions which renders its literature so peculiarly valuable in our days. But it is really idle to speculate on the origin of one feature, where everything is equally extraordinary, and may be discussed, but can, at best, be accounted for with difficulty. Rather, let us content ourselves with simply recognizing the facts, whatever may be their explanation. With the introduction, then, of writing a great and general educational and literary movement commenced in Iceland, which continued unabated for fully five centuries. A prominent feature of the literature, which thus arose, was the preservation of the national traditions, as well mythological as historical. The authors and foremost patrons of this educational movement, both in its general aspect and in the particular bias which it assumed, were the clergy and the monks.
The result of all these labours and exertions was an amount of knowledge and cultivation, so widely spread, as to render Iceland a country which, in point of general education and a high-class national literature, was quite unmatched among its contemporaries, and has hardly, if at all, been excelled by its successors.
This literary taste, with its consequent acquirements, although, as we have seen, largely indebted both in its origin and in its progress to the fostering care of the elergy and the monastic establishments, was not, however, as over all the rest of Europe, confined to them alone. It was shared by all elasses; and some of its most polished scholars appear to have been laymen. The natural result was a refinement of manners and an advanced civilization, that seem quite anachronous in that wild age of lawlessness and violence, and wholly beyond what the most extravagant conjecture could expect in so remote and inhospitable a land. Duelling, and trial by ordeal, protected elsewhere and systematized by custom and enactment, were here strictly prohibited. Doubtless, it was impossible to change radically the quick and fiery nature which had been one of the main elements in raising the Norse name to its high position, and which has so deeply
been looked upon as aliens to the tribe. These
ely the habits, instincts, and leanings of their
whose true version st in the mists of antiquity. They acted accordNor do they seem to have considered, that any
to the stability of Christianity could arise from garding those Pagan remains with more curiosity, 1,--for they had a domestie interest in whatever al value they possessed--but certainly not with
apprehension as to their practical influence on the t of their flocks, than we do those of Ancient Rome. The event proved the justice of their
there is no trace that the Icelanders
influenced the characters of all the modern nations of Western and Southern Europe. But it was much modified, theoretically, at least ; and found a fitting expresa sion in a legislation far in advance of its continental brethren,
The records and memorials of this vanished civilization, and the monuments of this dead literature still subsist, in piles of dusty manuscripts, preserved in the Royal Library of Copenhagen, in the British Museum, and elsewhere. Some few of them have been published; and from their freshness and vigour, and the deep interest of their contents, we may imagine the value of the treasure which yet remains entombed. The very names of the labourers in this remote field have perished, or lie buried with the forgotten productions of their genius. One tbere is indeed, which has rescued itself from the general oblivion, either through accident, or through the yet abiding greatness by which its owner, in his day, towered above all his compeers. He was a man who flung his shadow wide over every page of his country's story, who would have been most distinguished in any career, had he chosen to restrict himself to one, and who was without a rival in all. He was a great lord, the greatest in Iceland, owning more vassals than almost all the others together. He held several times the highest office in the gift of his fellowcountrymen. He was a great scholar, antiquary and poet, profoundly versed in all the learning then accessible, at a time when many nobles of Europe could not write their names. And in estimating the bearing of all this on the judgment we should form of the literary condition of the country, we must remember that he was educated altogether in Iceland, and never left his island home until after he had completed his forty-second year. He was besides a most accomplished man, of refined, nay luxurious tastes, of the highest order of talent, and most soaring ambition. He has left behind him a number of works, which, under any circumstances may fairly claim for him that first place in Icelandic literature which was allotted to him by his contemporaries and has been confirmed to him by the voice of posterity ; but which we may well marvel he found leisure to compose, amid the cares and employments of continuous public life, and the distractions entailed by his many political intrigues. Pity that so noble a mind should have been stained by some of