Norwegian medieval manuscript fragments

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On this website you will learn more about Norwegian book fragments and find basic information about the liturgical books commonly found in the fragment collections. Medieval manuscripts are cultural heritage demonstrating the knowledge, religious practice, and craftmanship of the past. In Norway, most of the medieval manuscripts disappeared or were reduced to fragments during the sixteenth and seventeenth century. The durable parchment pages were repurposed for practical use, not least as binding material for paper books or booklets. Today, the National Archives of Norway and other public collections hold c. 6000 fragments from about a thousand ‘recycled’ manuscripts.

A gigantic puzzle
For more than a century scholars have reconnected pieces from the old manuscripts. This work is still ongoing and was also an important element of the research project ‘From manuscript fragments to book history’ (2012-2017) funded by Bergen Research Foundation and the University of Bergen. During this project, a majority of the Norwegian fragments was photographed and significant identifications made. Images and basic metadata of Norwegian fragments in the National Archives are available in MeLOD (see button on the top line), a research data framework hosted by Bergen University library.

The digital key
The digital format makes it easier to ‘recreate’ the book which once existed. Today the idea of reconnecting fragments digitally into virtual manuscripts is facilitated by common standards and available software. The fact that the binding is gone, and the fragments are kept in separate collections, perhaps even in different countries, is not a big issue in the digital world. A selection of digitally ‘recreated’ manuscripts is available via the button Virtual manuscripts above.

Please feel free to explore this website and leaf through some of the virtual manuscripts!

From France to Nidaros – travelling musical books

 fredag 10. februar 2017

A detail from the reconstructed antiphoner

Among the fragments from musical books such as graduals and antiphoners, there are a high number of fragments which have a Trondheim provenance and which also display signs of French origin – the reconstructed antiphoner from Nidaros is an example. Additionally, many fragments from Norwegian antiphoners and graduals with a Trondheim provenance also show traits of French stylistic influence. What are the reasons for this?

From the middle of the 12th century and onwards, historical evidence shows that Norwegians regularly travelled to France. Three archbishops in succession – Øystein Erlendsson (d. 1188), Eirik Ivarsson (d. 1213), and Tore Gudmundsson (d. 1214) – are known to have spent time at the famous Parisian Abbey of St Victor, as did Bishop Tore of Hamar (d. 1196), who, like Eirik, became a canon of St Victor. This was also a time when several Norwegian religious institutions were either founded or expanded – among them the convent of Elgeseter in Trondheim, as well as the cathedral of Nidaros itself.

The group of fragments from graduals and antiphoners with a Trondheim provenance largely date to the second half of the 12th century. It is tempting to speculate that these fragments are related to the town’s religious institutions, more specifically the cathedral chapter and the convent of Elgeseter. The latter was founded by Archbishop Øystein Erlendsson himself, and given that both he and his successors had connections to France, it would not be surprising if these connections are reflected in the number of surviving musical manuscripts. 

A book from Norway’s oldest town?

 torsdag 5. januar 2017

An initial from the Tønsberg breviary

Tønsberg is said to be the oldest town in Norway, founded in 871. It was also one of the most important Norwegian towns in the Middle Ages, being home to the country’s largest fortress, Tunsberghus, as well as to the Premonstratensian convent of St Olav - a convent which may have been the owners of the Tønsberg breviary

The Premonstratensians were a French order of regular canons (priests who wanted to live in communities) that came to Norway in the 12th century. The Tønsberg convent was one of two Premonstratensian houses in medieval Norway; the other one was Dragsmark in today’s Sweden. Both of these houses only survive as ruins.

The manuscript referred to as the Tønsberg breviary got its name from the fact that it consists of fragments that were all used as binding on tax lists from Tønsberg. Does this mean that the breviary was in use in Tønsberg in the Middle Ages? If so, is it possible that the book belonged to the Premonstratensian convent? From the script and general aspect of the breviary, a French origin has been proposed. Since the abbot of the convent would attend the general chapter in Prémontré regularly, it would not be hard to explain how liturgical books of French origin could find their way to Tønsberg in the Middle Ages. 

English martyrs in virtual manuscripts

by Åslaug Ommundsen mandag 13. juni 2016

The fragmentary leaf with liturgy for Saint Alphegus

The close connections between England and Norway in the first centuries after the Christianization of Norway left their mark on Norwegian liturgical books. A couple of English martyrs have made it on to the pages of the virtual manuscripts on this website already: one a young king, the other an archbishop of Canterbury. Two missals are named after them: The Saint Edward Missal and The Saint Alphegus Missal.

Saint Edward became king of England when he was only 13 years old, and was murdered three years later, 18 March 978. As was custom in the Middle Ages, the day of the saint’s death was celebrated as the day of his rebirth. Saint Edward was not commonly celebrated in Norway. 

Neither was Saint Alphegus (Ælfheah), archbishop of Canterbury, who was martyred by the hand of the Danes 19 April 1012. The Danish King Cnut later arranged for Alphegus's body to be translated to Cantebury Cathedral in 1023. Alphegus's presence in the missal is probably a result of an older tradition in one of the institutions in Trondheim. The monastery Nidarholm, for instance, may in its first phase go back to the reign of King Cnut.   

A singing scribe in Bergen (ca. 1200-1225)

by Åslaug Ommundsen mandag 13. juni 2016

The Saint Edmund Antiphoner

Among the many fragments in the National Archives Oslo are some leaves and partial leaves from books made by a remarkable scribe, a man who worked in Bergen in the first decades of the thirteenth century. The scribe was most likely a cantor in one of the religious institutions in Bergen. He is most famous for the Old Norwegian Homily book, the oldest surviving book in Old Norse from Norway. The Homily book contains sermons and other religious texts, including a vernacular translation of the legend of Saint Olaf. The Latin songs for the celebration of Saint Olaf’s feast day (29 July) luckily survive in the fragmentary Saint Edmund Antiphoner

The fragments from an antiphoner and a missal were first linked to the Homily book in 1968 by the liturgist Lilli Gjerløw, but the significance of her identification was at first not recognized. At this point the Homily book scribe’s hand was considered to be that of five scribes: four in the Homily book and a fifth one in the liturgical fragments. Nearly a decade ago Michael Gullick pointed out that all ‘hands’  were actually those of one person, and now there is general agreement that he is right.

What can we learn about this scribe from the preserved manuscript material? First of all, he must have been very productive, since we have evidence of four books from his hand. He must have made much more, but at least 90 percent of Norwegian medieval books have disappeared without trace. Secondly, the Homily book scribe was very resourceful and was able to complete a manuscript seemingly without help from others: rubrics, decorated initials and music notation are all entered by the scribe himself. Music notation was a specialist skill, so it is very likely that he was a cantor, responsible for the liturgical singing in his institution, and also responsible for the state of the liturgical books.

His style is so unique that even when he did not write the text himself, his initials, rubrics and musical notation was recognized in another antiphoner, the Saint Lucia Antiphoner, where he was working with, or training, three other scribes. The singing scribe was not alone after all, he was just in a leage of his own.