Bible of Guðbrandur Þorláksson

Landsbókasafn Íslands-Háskólabókasafn, Iceland

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Þorláksson, Guðbrandur: Biblia, Þad Er Øll Heilög Ritning, vtlögd a Norrænu. Med Formalum Doct. Martini Lutheri. Hólar, Jone Jons Syne, 1584, 295, 192, 124 fol., 2º (29 x 19 cm).
Landsbókasafn Íslands-Háskólabókasafn.
Document type and topic: Printing and typography / Bible.

Guðbrandur Þorláksson (1541/42 – 1627) studied at the cathedral school at Hólar in the north of Iceland before attending the University of Copenhagen. After he returned home, Gudbrandur was appointed rector of the school at Skálholt in the south of Iceland for a three year term, and then minister at Breidabólstadur in the north of Iceland until he himself became bishop of Hólar, a position he held until his death in 1627.

He was an energetic editor and publisher. A total of 80 books are known to have been printed while he was bishop. These were chiefly religious works, the Bible of course being the largest and most important, but his worldly books included the Lawbook of Icelanders published in 1578.

Gudbrandur’s Bible consists of 662 folio leaves, each 29 x 19 cm (including marginal references and notes). It is said that it took seven men two years to print it. Originally 500 copies were printed, of which there are still between 30 and 40 copies extant in Iceland, one third of them held in private ownership. It is not known how many copies have been preserved outside Iceland.

The book is divided into three sections, first the Old Testament (ff. 6 + 295), then the Prophets (ff. 4 + 192), and then the New Testament (ff. 1 + 123 + 1). A foreign bookbinder was hired, and he bound half of the number printed. An additional 120 copies were sent to Copenhagen to be bound and the rest were assigned to an Icelander who had learned bookbinding from the foreigner. The book was expensive, the price equivalent to two to three cows. Each church was required to purchase a copy of this Bible, and in addition the publication was supported by a Royal grant.

This Bible was printed with schwabacher lettering, like most books in Iceland at that time. The letters are clear and most of the printing was very well done. Regarded as an innovation in Icelandic publishing for the time, Gudbrandur’s Bible features 29 woodcuts (of which two are printed twice); it has been shown that the bishop acquired them from abroad. The decorated initial letters and the ornaments were quite conceivably made by the bishop himself, as it is known that he was an accomplished carver.

Bishop Gudbrandur made an important contribution to the translation of the Bible, though others had already translated specific parts into Icelandic. The fact that the Bible and other Lutheran books appeared so early in Icelandic, helped to ensure the continuity of the language of the ancient Icelandic literature down to our own time.

Bishop Gudbrandur was well educated and in addition to theology, was interested in mathematics, astronomy and geography; in this connection he made a map of Iceland, the first that was close to presenting the real configuration of the land.

Two facimile editions of Gudbrandur’s Bible have appeared, in 1956–57 and again in 1984.
References: Bandle, Oskar. Die Sprache der Guðbrandsbiblía. Hafniæ 1956. (Bibliotheca Arnamagnæana, 17.). Westergård-Nielsen, Chr. To bibelske visdomsbøger og deres islandske overlevering. København 1957. (Bibliotheca Arnamagnæana, 16). Magerøy, Ellen Marie: Planteornamentikken i islandsk treskurd. I. Tekst. II. Plansjer. København 1967. (Bibliotheca Arnamagnæana. Suppl. 5-6.)
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