Variance Uncovered and Errors Explained: An Analysis of Nítíða saga in the Seventeenth-Century Icelandic Manuscript js 166 fol .
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Variance Uncovered and Errors Explained:
An Analysis of Nítíða saga in the Seventeenth-Century Icelandic Manuscript js 166 fol.

This article discusses the medieval Icelandic Nítíða saga (“The Saga of Nítíða”) as it is preserved in one of many postmedieval paper manuscripts, and takes into account not only the manuscript’s content and physical aspects, but also its social context, including its scribe, Þórður Jónsson (fl. 1667–93). The article foregrounds the existence of different versions of Nítíða saga by considering the differences between this version of the text and the better-known version from earlier manuscripts. In addition, this article offers an explanation for two scribal errors in one version of the saga through comparison with the other, and shows the importance of further manuscript-based research of this sort in Icelandic literary studies and other fields.

Bernard Cerquiglini has famously said that “variance is the main characteristic of a work in the medieval vernacular. . . . This variance is so widespread and constitutive that . . . one could say that every manuscript is a revision, a version” (37–38). These well-known assertions regarding the variety of textual representation in medieval writing are applicable not only to the literature of more widely studied vernaculars such as French, English, and Italian; they also hold true for the medieval Icelandic literature preserved in both medieval and postmedieval manuscripts. The full value of such textual variance and its prospects for [End Page 303] research have only just begun to be recognized and appreciated in the field of medieval Icelandic literature.

A recent collection of essays edited by Judy Quinn and Emily Lethbridge discusses textual criticism and editorial practices in the field of Old Norse-Icelandic literature. Many of the essays highlight the importance of textual variance in medieval and later manuscripts, and foreground its potential for future study. While the volume generally focuses on family sagas, the discussions of texts and their transmission are equally applicable to the analysis of texts from other medieval Icelandic genres, like legendary and romance sagas, in both the Middle Ages and the postmedieval period. In her introduction, Quinn states that “for those producing manuscripts in Iceland in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, retelling and recasting seem to have been the mainstay of tradition” (16–17). As will be evident in this article, it is still very much the case that sagas are regularly retold and recast in the later Middle Ages and beyond—indeed into the nineteenth century in some cases (Davíð Ólafsson—,1 and it is in this way that Old Norse-Icelandic literature exhibits the type of innovative textual variance so valued by Cerquiglini. This inevitable variance is readily apparent when medieval Icelandic saga manuscripts are compared to copies of the “same” text (with the same title, principle characters, and main plot) made in later centuries.

In addition to variance deliberately introduced by scribes, manuscripts—Icelandic and otherwise—of course also include accidental, error-based variation, which reveals another major aspect of medieval textual transmission, the mechanical, chirographic process that likewise allows us to see texts changing over time. Both types of variation, associated with medieval scribal practice, were carried on in later centuries in Iceland, and both show, in different ways, that the texts we often think of as fixed entities can, in fact, be seen as fluid and changing. The discussions that follow center on these two types of variation in the late medieval Icelandic romance Nítíða saga. I will compare the published medieval text of Nítíða saga to a late seventeenth-century paper copy, in order to show how a medieval text is transmitted over time and manifests itself later in a distinctly separate version, and how this can be seen through the analysis of both innovative variance and variation attributable to error. It is hoped that this case study will also show how valuable further comparative research of this sort could prove to be, in Icelandic and other fields.

Nítíða saga is a romance composed in Iceland probably some time in the fourteenth century, and is an original work without a known European source. In...