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22.06.17 Cormack (trans.), The Saga of St. Jón of Hólar

22.06.17 Cormack (trans.), The Saga of St. Jón of Hólar

This fine translation and study of Jóns saga Hólabiskups is most welcome, as it makes the saga more widely known and available to readers unfamiliar with Old Norse-Icelandic. The volume has been long in the making. As Cormack notes in her prologue, a draft of her translation was ready in 2000, but she then decided to wait for the publication of Peter Foote’s two editions of the saga: a diplomatic edition which appeared in the Editiones Arnamagnæana series (2003) and a normalized edition which appeared in Biskupa sögur I in the Íslensk fornrit series (2003). The former edition contains a detailed discussion of the manuscripts of the saga and their paleography and philology, but does not include a discussion of its sources, contents, and style. Such a discussion is found in Icelandic in the latter edition, which does not reproduce a single version of the saga but combines the three redactions in an effort to re-create a hypothetical Urtext. Peter Foote’s English translation of this discussion, which was delayed because of his failing health, is included as Part II of this volume (105-192) and forms what is essentially a second introduction to the saga. As Cormack points out: “While essential to scholars of language and literature, Professor Foote’s introduction provides more detail than the average reader is likely to require” (ix). (As Biskupa sögur I has been reviewed in several journals, I do not include comments on Foote’s introduction in this review.) Accordingly, the first introduction (1-28)--by Cormack--is aimed at readers who may not necessarily know much about medieval Iceland or Icelandic saints’ lives, but that does not mean that Cormack’s introduction is not valuable to students and scholars within the field of Old Norse-Icelandic literature, for it provides much useful information and also contains original scholarship.

In her introduction, Cormack gives biographical details about Jón Ögmundarson (1052-1121), the first bishop of Hólar, Iceland’s northern bishopric, and discusses the milieux in which the sagas about him were written. Obviously, the focus is on Christianity, still in its infancy during Jón’s episcopacy; the church; and the Icelanders’ familiarity with saints, of which by the time of Bishop Jón they already had one of their own, St. Þorlákr, bishop of Skálholt, Iceland’s southern bishopric. Despite efforts by the clergy of Hólar to repeat the success of the clergy of Skálholt in promoting a patron saint for their own diocese, they were not able to compete. As Cormack points out, “Jón never attained the popularity of Þorlákr” (6). She speculates that “perhaps too much time had elapsed since his death, or perhaps too little had passed since the sanctification of Þorlákr, who still preoccupied the thoughts of Icelanders seeking heavenly aid” (9). She also comments that Jón’s married state could potentially have worked against him and comments that “at the time of his translation, clerical celibacy was the exception rather than the rule, and might for that reason have been considered an indication of special sanctity” (9). Next, Cormack treats the versions of Jóns saga Hólabiskups (this is essentially a summary of the longer discussion by Foote). She notes that both the Latin vita and the original saga are lost, and that the saga now exists in three redactions: the “Skálholt” redaction from the first half of the thirteenth century, the “Latinate” redaction from around 1320, and the “Hólar” redaction from approximately 1500. Each version has its own characteristics. The redactor of the “Skálholt” version (so named because the manuscripts of this version are connected with the cathedral of Skálholt”) often shortens the text. The redactor of the “Latinate” version (so named because it is written in a florid, Latinate style) emphasizes Jón’s celibacy and also includes two interpolations, Gísls þáttr and Sæmundar þáttr. And the redactor of the “Hólar version” (so named because the manuscripts of this version are associated with Hólar) contains material not found in the other redactions, such as personal names and a fuller account of miracles. Cormack then turns to specific literary, hagiographic, and folkloristic motifs in Jóns saga Hólabiskups, for, as she points out, while the saga is hagiographic work, “it is also a vernacular text created in a culture with a strong tradition of oral narrative” (12). She focuses on vernacular elements well known from other Old Norse-Icelandic literary genres, such as the Sagas of Icelanders, the kings’ sagas, and the mythical-heroic sagas, and how they manifest themselves in Jóns saga Hólabiskups. These features include genealogical information, comments on the protagonists’ appearance, focus on travel abroad and outstanding qualities (in Bishop Jón’s case, his eloquence, ability to play the harp, and humility). A long section is devoted to vows and miracles both generally and in the saga followed by a short section on dating and chronology (the saga uses the dating system of Gerlandus). The introduction concludes with reflections on the historicity of Jóns saga Hólabiskups, a discussion of women mentioned in the saga, comments on weights and currency, and notes on medieval Icelandic society (that is, the constitution and division of power and the ambiguous noun fóstri, which can refer both to the foster-parent who raises a child and to the child who is raised).

The translation of Jóns saga Hólabiskups is based on the somewhat defective “Hólar” redaction. However, when the “Skálholt” redaction contains material not found in the “Hólar” redaction or when its text differs considerably from the “Hólar” redaction, Cormack has included that material in italics or commented on it in footnotes. Moreover, when there are erroneous or difficult readings in the “Hólar” redaction, Cormack has turned to the two other redactions and discussed the issue in a footnote. Excerpts from the “Latinate” redaction, that is, Gísls þáttr, Sæmundar þáttr, a section on Bishop Jón’s school at Hólar, and a food multiplication miracle, are included as appendices. Cormack’s translation is accurate, fluent, and idiomatic, and in the process of translating, she made wise decisions, such as ignoring the historical present tense, breaking up lengthy strings of sentences connected by “and” and “but,” and normalizing proper names (although she has retained Latinate personal names). The altogether 124 footnotes to the translation provide very useful information about biblical quotations, characters mentioned, dates, and the location of places mentioned; comments on problematic or ambiguous Old Norse-Icelandic words; references to articles and books; and so forth. A bibliography (divided into primary and secondary sources) and an index of proper names round off the volume.

My review of this book is a rave. It is wonderful that two authorities on Jóns saga Hólabiskups and saints’ lives in general decided to collaborate, and the field of Old Norse-Icelandic and beyond will benefit from their patient labor and knowledge. Sadly, Foote did not live to see this volume published.