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1637 Jónsbók. Photo by Kelly Buchanan.

Iceland – Global Legal Collection Highlights

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Jonsbok 1
Detail from 1637 Jónsbók – more photos at end of this post. Photo by Kelly Buchanan.

Today is the National Day of Iceland, which celebrates the establishment of the Republic of Iceland upon Iceland declaring full independence from Denmark on June 17, 1944.  This seemed like a good occasion to share some of the highlights of the Law Library of Congress collection of Icelandic materials with In Custodia Legis readers.


While researching my blog post on Thingvellir, Iceland’s first parliament and the oldest parliament in Northern Europe, I came across a rare gem in the Law Library’s collection: an original Icelandic law book from 1637! The title of this item is Lavgbok islendinga huoria saman hefur sett Magnus Noregs kongur [Law Book for Iceland Compiled by Magnus, King of Norway], but its uniform title is Jónsbók. It is decorated throughout with lettering such as that in the picture on the right.

Jónsbók was the name given to the first handwritten law book in Iceland. It was a compilation of the Icelandic laws that existed in around 1280 and was named after the author, Jón Einarsson, who was the “law speaker” and who compiled the laws at the request of the Norwegian king. In addition to the 1637 edition of this book, I also found a 1934 facsimile, with an English foreword, of a 1578 version of the Jónsbók (also titled Lögbók íslendinga, or Law of the Icelanders).

King Magnus1
Photo by Elin Hofverberg.

The 1578 Jónsbók was the first non-devotional item printed in Iceland.  Prior to its publication, young men had to learn the text of the law book by heart while copies were made by hand. Needless to say, once published, the book was in high demand! It includes this beautiful picture of the Norwegian King Magnus next to the letter that he wrote to his Icelandic subjects in the 12th century.

Grágás Laws

An even earlier text was the Grágás, or “Gray Goose,” laws. These were written in the mid-13th century. The Law Library holds in its collection an 1883 facsimile publication of this medieval law: Grágás. Stykker, som findes i det Arnamagnæanske haandskrift nr. 35l fol., Skálholtsbók, og en række andre haandskrifter, tilligemed et ordregister til Grágás, oversigter over haandskrifterne, og facsimiler af de vigtigste membraner, udg. af Kommissionen for det Arnamagnæanske legat [Grey Goose – Sections that are found in the Arnamagnian manuscript nr. 351 fol of the book of Skálholt, as well as a number of other manuscripts together with a glossary for Gray Goose, overview of the manuscripts and facsimiles of the most important parts, published by the Commission for the Arnamagnian scholarship]. It also holds a translation of some of these early laws, titled Laws of Early Iceland.

In addition, a multivolume Icelandic law collection from 1851, which was printed in Denmark (of which Iceland was a part until 1944), includes a reprint of a 1096 Act (Gizurarstatúta, or Gizuar statute, named after the Bishop who drafted it) adopted by the Icelandic Althing (national parliament).

Other Historic Documents

Other historic Icelandic legal documents to be found at the Law Library of Congress include the Icelandic Home Act of 1904, granting more autonomy to the Icelanders by increasing the powers of the Althing, and the text of the Declaration of Independence from 1944.

Current Materials

Iceland law books1
Photo by Elin Hofverberg.

The Law Library also holds current Icelandic law books in its collection. This includes Lagasafn (a collection of current laws), as well as the Alþingistíðindi (Parliamentary Gazette) and the Stjórnartíðindi (Government Gazette).  The Stjórnartíðindi was first published in 1874, the year Iceland got its own constitution while still part of Denmark. The Law Library has copies starting from 1885.  Since 2005, Stjórnartíðindi has only been published online. The website only dates back to 2001 – earlier editions are only available in print.

Another gazette, the Lögbirtingablað, also became officially available online in 2005. The Law Library holds older editions. This gazette includes information from the courts as well as notifications of new corporations formed.

Secondary Sources

In addition to primary sources, the Law Library holds secondary sources about Icelandic law, including some materials in English. These include: A History of the Old Icelandic Commonwealth (2006) and The Conflict of Law and Justice in the Icelandic Sagas (1995).  Materials in Icelandic include Um lög og rétt: helstu greinar íslenskrar lögfræði [On Legal Concepts: Areas of Icelandic Law] (2009) and Um lög og lögfræði: grundvöllur laga, réttarheimildir [On Legal Concepts: Fundamental Laws and Sources of Law] (2002).

Jón Sigurdsson

Map of Iceland, from Heimskringla, or the Lives of the Norse Kings by Snorre Sturlason (1990 translation).
Map of Iceland, from Heimskringla, or the Lives of the Norse Kings by Snorre Sturlason (1990 translation). Photo by Elin Hofverberg.

While today is the National or Independence Day of Iceland, it is also the birthday of Jón Sigurdsson, a leader of the Icelandic independence movement. The Library of Congress holds several items about or related to him as well, including Af blöðum Jóns forseta [From the Papers of President Jón] (1994) and Bréf til Jóns Sigurðssonar: úrval [Select Letters to Jón Sigurðsson]. In English, the Library holds a translation of a book titled We Call Him President: The National Hero of Iceland, Jón Sigurðsson (2011) and a book called Jón Sigurðsson, The Icelandic Patriot, which was published by a relative in 1887, a few years after the subject’s death in 1879.

There are also books that he has written, including Om Islands statsretlige forhold. Nogle bemærkninger i anledning af etatsraad, professor J.E. Larsens skrift “Om Islands hidtilværende statsretlige stilling” [Regarding Iceland’s Legal Status. Some Comments with regards to the State Council, Professor J.E. Larsen’s text “About Iceland’s Historic and Current Legal Status] (1855).

Finding More Information

If you are interested in Iceland and its laws, you can visit our Guide to Law Online to start your research. You can also keep an eye on our Global Legal Monitor, where we periodically write about Icelandic legal developments. For example, I wrote about the sentencing of Icelandic bankers in 2014. In addition, we sometimes publish posts about Iceland (and many other countries!) on this blog, including a post about the abolishment of a law that permitted hunting of the Basque in Iceland that was written by my colleague Wendy Zeldin.

You can also come and visit us, or simply contact us if there is anything we can do to help you research!

Kvedja! (Greetings!)

Happy Þjóðhátíðardagurinn! (Happy National Day!)

Jónsbók display
1637 Jónsbók – original cover (left); book with current binding (right); storage box (top). Photo by Kelly Buchanan.


1637 Jonsbok
1637 Jónsbók. Photo by Kelly Buchanan.

Update: This was originally published as a guest post by Elin Hofverberg. The author information has been updated to reflect that Elin is now an In Custodia Legis blogger

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