Medieval Studies Historical Literature (Íslendingabók, Landnámabók)
Sverrir Jakobsson
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 February 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0295


In the early 12th century, two major texts on the early history of the Icelanders were composed. One of them is the relatively brief Íslendingabók (Book of Icelanders), composed by the priest and chieftain Ari Þorgilsson (b. c. 1067–d. 1148) between 1122 and 1133. In the prologue, Ari relates that he showed an early draft to the two bishops of Iceland, Þorlákr Runólfsson (b. 1086–d. 1133) and Ketill Þorsteinsson (b. 1075–d. 1145), and another priest and chieftain, Sæmundr Sigfússon (b. 1056–d. 1133). This early version has not been preserved. Ari uses very few written sources, mostly concerning events outside of Iceland, but he mentions nine oral informants. Íslendingabók has been preserved in a 17th-century manuscript, based on an original written around 1200. It is believed that an early version of Landnámabók (Book of settlements) was also composed in the early 12th century. Very little is known about this version except the names of two major contributors, the aforementioned Ari Þorgilsson and Kolskeggr Ásbjarnarson. In the early 13th century, another lost version of Landnámabók was made, by the prior Styrmir Kárason (d. 1245) of the canonry at Viðey. The earliest preserved versions of Landnámabók were composed by the lawman Sturla Þórðarson (b. 1214–d. 1284), the lawman Haukr Erlendsson (b. c. 1264–d. 1334), and someone of the family at Melar, most likely the lawman Snorri Markússon (d. 1313). In a prologue to his version, probably composed between 1306 and 1308, Haukr Erlendsson mentions earlier, lost versions of Landnámabók, and the prologue to his version, Hauksbók, is the chief source as to the development of that text. Sturlubók and Hauksbók are voluminous texts, whereas only fragments have been preserved of Melabók. There are two 17th-century versions of Landnámabók which are of importance. One, called Skarðsárbók, was composed by the priest Björn Jónsson (b. 1574–d. 1655) and is a conglomeration of Sturlubók and Hauksbók. The other, composed by the priest Þórðr Jónsson (b. 1609–d. 1670), is based on Skarðsárbók and Melabók, and provides some insight into some of the material that was in the lost parts of Melabók. Thus, there are three medieval and two early modern versions of Landnámabók that are of importance for the study of the text, but the original version (if there was only one) has not been preserved.


Íslendingabók is one of the earliest narrative texts for the history of Iceland. According to a contemporary source, the First Grammatical Treatise, very few texts in Old Norse existed in Iceland in the first of half of the 12th century apart from laws, genealogies, and exegetical texts, but the main exception is “the wise lore which Ari Þorgilsson has composed with a reasoned conception” (Jakobsson 2017). Works such as Hagnell 1938 and Sigfússon 1944 have demonstrated how this is reflected in Íslendingabók, as Ari refers to hardly any earlier writings but mentions quite a few oral informants. Ari was a chieftain and a priest who had a close connection with many of the leading families in Iceland in his day. According to settlement narratives, the ancestors of Ari were among the leading men of the Western Quarter, although Jakobsson 2017 notes that this view may be colored by the fact that Ari himself was one of the first to write an account of the settlement of that region. Einarsdóttir 1964 has argued that Ari Þorgilsson was an early adopter of Bede’s chronological system, which counted the years since the birth of Christ, and Tómasson 1975 has suggested that Ari was familiar with Continental forms of historiography. The importance of Íslendingabók for the standard view of early Icelandic history is exceptional. It is the earliest narrative source for the settlement of Iceland, earlier visits to the country by Celtic hermits, the formation and the development of the parliament, the ecology, and the population of Iceland between 870 and 1120. As demonstrated by Rafnsson 1979 and Hugason 2000, it is also an important source for the Christianization of Iceland, whereas Ellehøj 1965 discusses its key status in the evolutionary history of the lineages of the earliest kings of Norway. Even if Íslendingabók is relatively brief (around twenty-six pages in a modern edition), it is replete with important facts that are not mentioned in earlier texts. This has aroused much scholarly interest in the work and the circumstances of its writing, of which Sigfússon 1944 is an important example. In the extant version, Ari refers to an earlier draft of Íslendingabók which Ellehøj 1965 regarded as a lost source on the lives of Norwegian kings, which contained some genealogical and chronological information about them that is reflected in later kings’ sagas. In later times, Lindow 1997 and Hermann 2007 have devoted more attention to mythological and literary aspects of the work’s composition.

  • Einarsdóttir, Ólafía. Studier i kronologisk metode i tidlig islandsk historieskrivning. Lund, Sweden: Gleerup, 1964.

    A doctoral thesis on the chronological methods in the earliest Icelandic historical works, with particular emphasis on Íslendingabók. A notable discovery is that the parliament in which the Christianization of Iceland was accepted was probably held in 999 rather than 1000, due to the Ari’s method of counting years.

  • Ellehøj, Svend. Studier over den ældste norrøne historieskrivning. Copenhagen: Munksgaard, 1965.

    A doctoral thesis on the earliest historical writings on Norwegian kings and Icelandic history, with particular emphasis on Íslendingabók and works connected with it. There is much discussion of the lost account of Norwegian kings probably composed by Ari and its possible contents.

  • Hagnell, Eva. Are frode och hans författerskap. Lund, Sweden: Hakan Ohlssons boktr, 1938.

    A doctoral thesis devoted to Íslendingabók and a possible earlier version of the work, which the author regards as a brief epitome, in addition to concise historiography of earlier research on Ari and his authorship.

  • Hermann, Pernille. “Íslendingabók and History.” In Reflections on Old Norse Myths. Edited by Pernille Hermann, Jens Peter Schjødt, and Rasmus Tranum Kristensen, 17–32. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2007.

    An article on the typology of Íslendingabók as a foundation narrative, and its tendency to represent a continuum between pagan and Christian times, which emphasizes its importance for the cultural memory of Iceland.

  • Hugason, Hjalti. Frumkristni og upphaf kirkju: Kristni á Íslandi I. Reykjavík, Iceland: Alþingi, 2000.

    A general overview of the early Church in Iceland, with particular emphasis on the Christianization narrative in Íslendingabók.

  • Jakobsson, Sverrir. “Iceland, Norway and the World: Ari Þorgilsson as a Narrator of Barbarian History.” Arkiv för Nordisk Filologi 132 (2017): 75–99.

    In this article, Íslendingabók is analyzed in a wider context within the oeuvre of Ari Þorgilsson, which included genealogical information about settlers, an epitome of Norwegian kings, a world history, and an early Icelandic annal.

  • Lindow, John. “Íslendingabók and Myth.” Scandinavian Studies 69.4 (1997): 454–464.

    An article on mythical elements in the narrative of Íslendingabók which share some of the concerns that can also be found in Eddic literature. It is argued that the narrative should be regarded not only as historical but also as a mythical narrative.

  • Rafnsson, Sveinbjörn. “Um kristnitökufrásögn Ara prests Þorgilssonar.” Skírnir 153 (1979): 167–174.

    An article on the Christianization narrative in Íslendingabók with particular emphasis on the influence of Irish penitentials on its composition.

  • Sigfússon, Björn. Um Íslendingabók. Reykjavík, Iceland: Björn Sigfússon, 1944.

    A doctoral thesis on the context of Íslendingabók and possible motivations for its composition, including the feud between Hafliði Másson and Þorgils Oddason around 1120 mentioned in annals and a 13th-century manuscript, Þorgils saga ok Hafliða.

  • Tómasson, Sverrir. “Tækileg vitni.” In Afmælisrit Björn Sigfússonar. Edited by Björn Þorsteinsson, Björn Teitsson, and Sverrir Tómasson, 251–287. Reykjavík, Iceland: Leiftur, 1975.

    An article on Íslendingabók which places it in the context of the historical method of medieval historians elsewhere in Europe with a particular emphasis on the prologue by Ari and its interpretation in the context of that genre.

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