Jónsbók – Morgan Pabst (August 2018)

Jónsbók, University of Wisconsin Memorial Library Special Collections, MS121.

Watch the video story of what the Jónsbók is and how it traveled from Iceland to the University of Wisconsin Special Collections.

Listen to the DHRN (Digital Humanities Research Network) interview where Morgan talks about her experiences researching the Jónsbók and making the videos for this project.





Written by Morgan Pabst

Video One – Introduction to Chester Thordarson

Location: Iceland

Chester Thordarson was born Hjörtur Þórðarson in Northern Iceland on May 12, 1867 to Thordur Arnason and Gudrun Grimsdottir. Thordarson lived with his family in Iceland until he was about six years old. His father, Thordur, was a literate man and owned a small collection of books, which he brought with him to the U.S in 1873. It is believed that Thordarson gained his love of books from his late father. When Thordarson started to build his library, he focused mainly on collecting books and manuscripts of Icelandic origins. His collection included two copies of the Jónsbók. The Jónsbók is a book of ancient Icelandic laws that was introduced to Iceland in the year 1281. Both copies are held today at the University of Wisconsin Special Collections, the first is a manuscript copy circa 1640 and the second is a print copy from 1709.


Video Two- Brief History of the Manuscript

Location: Skagafjörður, Iceland and Special Collections

In the thirteenth century King Magnus the VI of Norway, also known as the “Law-mender”, issued a modernized version of Norway’s law for Iceland and presented it at the Althing. The Althing is the equivalent of the Icelandic national parliament, founded in the year 930. However, the laws were not accepted and implemented until after the king’s death in 1281. Jón Einarsson, an Icelandic lawyer in the thirteenth century (or in some cases he was also known as a leader), took upon himself to write down these laws into a manuscript in 1280 and called it Jónsbók. The Jónsbók manuscript was the first time the ancient laws were written down and not orally spoken. The Jónsbók became very important to Iceland and its governing body. The laws covered everything from theft to marriage to farming rights. Some of these laws are still implemented in Icelandic society today.

The Jónsbók manuscript is located in Special Collections on the University of Wisconsin, Madison campus. This manuscript was written circa 1640. Sadly, because it was a manuscript, its author is unknown to us. However, located on the manuscript’s title page there is a faded handwritten note on the bottom that is thought to be written by Chester Thordarson himself, who acquired this book for his collection sometime in the mid twentieth century. The faded note explains what the manuscript is and how he bought it off Thorstein Thorsteinson, from Hofsós Skagafjörður, in northern Iceland before adding it to his collection that was housed in Chicago. The Jonsbok manuscript is still bound in its original 17th century binding. (After further research, the binding for the manuscript may not be the original binding.) Throughout the manuscript there are beautiful decorative initials in the beginning of each section and the running chapter heads, as well as decorative designs at the end of certain sections.


Video 3: Brief History and Introduction to the Jónsbók Printed Book

Location: Hofsós Skagafjörður, Iceland and Special Collections at UW Wisconsin

In the year 1578, the first printed copy of the Jónsbók was released to the public. It became one of the most popular books in Iceland. Three years after it was printed, a new edition was printed in 1580 with a few minor changes. It wasn’t until over a century later that another edition was printed.

In the year, 1697 a man by the name Björn Þorleifsson became the Bishop of Hólar. Bishop Björn served as Bishop from 1697 until his death in 1710. In the year 1703, Bishop Björn bought the only printshop in the town of Skálholt, and moved it Hólar. Bishop Björn used this shop to print numerous books. Two of these books included the 1707 and 1709 editions of the Jónsbók. The 1707 edition of the Jónsbók was based off of the published 1580 edition. The 1709 edition was based off the 1707 edition but included a few minor changes to it. Due to the Jónsbók’s popularity, according to Jana K. Schulman, about 260 copies of the Jónsbók have been preserved, most of these copies are from the Middle Ages.

One of the 1709 printed copies of the Jónsbók is held in Special Collections, located on the University of Madison, Wisconsin campus. It is a reprinted copy that is based off of the the 1707 edition. Jónsbók was edited by Benedict Magnusson Bech for the Bishop of Hólar, Björn Þorleifsson. The 1709 Jónsbók, much like the manuscript, has decorative initials at the beginning of each section and running chapter heads but they are not in color. However, unlike the manuscript there is no handwritten notes in the margins of the text or on the front page describing who previously owned it. The book is also not in its original eighteenth century binding and must have been rebound at a later date. But also unlike the manuscript, there is a printed picture of King Magus, who created these laws for Iceland in 1281, in the beginning of the text. According to Special Collections, this book was owned by Chester Thordarson before it was donated to Special Collections.


Video 4: Chester in the U.S.

Location: Rock Island, Wisconsin

In 1873, Chester Thordarson’s father, Thordur, moved his family to Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Not much is said about exactly why Thordur moved his family to Wisconsin but it is believed to be because of the hard times that befell Iceland. After Hjörtur’s father passed away, his family moved quite often over the years, including to Dane County, Wisconsin. In school, Hjörtur was encouraged to take an American name. Hjörtur, chose the name Chester and became known as Chester Hjörtur Thordarson. Thordarson received an honorary degree in 1929 from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He then pursued a career in the field of electrical engineering. In the year 1894 Thordarson married Juliana Fridriksdottir and would later father two sons. After working for numerous companies he decided in 1895 to start his own business called Thordarson Electric Manufacturing Company. Rock Island first came to Thordarson’s attention when he went to visit his wife’s family, who first settled there when they immigrated to Wisconsin. But it wasn’t until the year 1910 that he began to purchase some land to build his extravagant vacation home. It was here that Thordarson housed his library in his final years. When Thordarson passed away in 1945, in his will he left the collection that contained around 11,000 volumes to the University of Wisconsin, Madison, should they chose to purchase it. His collection was the home of numerous genres and topics, such as, chemistry, science, medicine, and much more.

Both of these Jónsbók manuscripts and the rest of Chester Thordarson’s collection can be found and viewed at Special Collections located in Memorial Library or online.