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  • Óláfr Ormsson’s Leiðarvísir and its Context: The Fourteenth-Century Text of a Supposed Twelfth-Century Itinerary
  • Arngrímur Vídalín


This article explores the authorship of the text known by scholars as Leiðarvísir, its preservation and context in manuscript, and argues for a reading of it as part of a fourteenth-century geographical treatise rather than as a twelfth-century itinerary. While the arguments presented do not preclude twelfth-century authorship of an urtext of Leiðarvísir by Nikulás Bergsson, available information concerning Nikulás is vague and unreliable. The text itself bears several anachronistic marks for a twelfth-century dating, and its context as it is preserved in manuscript bears witness to its relationship with fourteenth-century learning. The central argument of this article is that the manuscript AM 194 8vo should be read and interpreted as a whole and not by its individual parts. The second argument of the article is that there is no internal indication of Nikulás’s authorship of the text, of whom we know little if anything.


The manuscript AM 194 8vo was written in 1387 by the priest Óláfr Ormsson of Geirrøðareyri (now Narfeyri) in Snæfellsnes, Iceland, and in small part on folios 34v–36v by Brynjólfr Steinráðarson. We know this because the manuscript explicitly lists its scribes, location, and year of composition, and there is no reason to suspect error or dishonesty in this case. For this reason, AM 194 8vo is one of the manuscripts used as waymarks to date other manuscripts. We can thus state, unlike with most manuscripts, that both the compiler of its texts is known and that the time and place of writing of the manuscript is known. [End Page 212]

The manuscript contains diverse material, but it is written as a whole rather than as an assortment of tangentially connected anecdotes and curiosities. As such, it is very different from modern encyclopedias, which are based on an external arrangement of content such as the alphabetical order rather than context, even though we still use the term “encyclopedic” for medieval tomes containing diverse knowledge such as the manuscript in question, AM 194 8vo. The difference lies in the fact that Óláfr Ormsson and his collaborator wrote a coherent text in which all matters are put into context with one another. The manuscript contains a geographical treatise, a short introduction to the many peoples of the world, Augustine’s aetates mundi (“ages of the world”),1 a medicinal treatise, and many other matters. In spite of its eclectic material, the manuscript appears to exhibit an interest in purposeful design.

Aside from being published by Kristian Kålund as Alfræði íslenzk I, AM 194 8vo is mostly known for the fact that it features in a description of an itinerary from Scandinavia to Rome and Jerusalem. It is commonly known among scholars as Leiðarvísir, although this word never appears in the manuscript as a title of the work but rather as a description of it in a postscript. The word leiðarvísir simply means “itinerary.”


This itinerary is believed to have been authored by Nikulás Bergsson, abbot of the Benedictine abbey of Munkaþverá, established in 1155 by Bishop Björn Gilsson (ca. 1100–1162). Nikulás supposedly dictated Leiðarvísir to his scribes sometime between his arrival in Iceland in 1154 and his death in 1159. About his authorship there is only a single indication, which is an attribution at the end of the itinerary: “Leidarvisir sea ok borga-skipan ok allr þessi frodleikr er ritinn ath fyrir-sogn Nikolas abota, er bèdi var vitr ok vidfregr, minnigr ok margfrodr, rádvis ok rettordr, ok lykr þar þessi frasogn” (This itinerary and city guide and all this knowledge is written down in accordance with the diction of the abbot Nikulás, who was both wise and renowned, of great memory and much knowledge, gave good counsel and spoke truthfully, and here concludes this narrative).2

From this we may extract two factoids: First, the text preceding this announcement was written...


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