Iceland was settled during the 9th and 10th centuries A.D., chiefly by Norwegians. The country became Christian around the year 1000, and by 1100 Icelanders began using the Latin alphabet to write down their own language.
Medieval Icelandic literature grew both in number and quality, some of it translated, especially saints lives and homilies from the Latin. A great portion of the literature was original, however, composed by Icelanders and based in part on traditional tales about earlier times. The Eddic poems about heathen gods and Germanic heroes during the period of the Germanic migrations were written down, while prose sagas were produced about events in Iceland and neighbouring countries dating from the earliest period of the settlement of Iceland into the fourteenth century.
Both on account of their value as historical sources and because of the consummate artistry of the texts, medieval Icelandic literature constitutes one of the foremost achievements of medieval European literature. The language of these texts approximates the common language of the Norse people around 1000 A.D.
This literature has been a constant element in the culture of Icelanders ever since it was first committed to vellum. Through the centuries Icelandic literature has been copied time and again, more or less unchanged, inasmuch as the vocabulary of the ancient language has for the most part been preserved to this day and changes in the grammar have been few. At the same time new Icelandic literature continued to be produced over the centuries, both for delight and profit, in verse and prose; this was seldom printed, however, but is similarly preserved in manuscript.
In the seventeenth century medieval Icelandic literature came to be perceived abroad as a source of Scandinavian history, and a large number of Icelandic manuscripts were taken out of the country, especially to Denmark. That is where the king of Iceland ruled, and he wished to have Icelandic manuscripts in his library. The scholar Arni Magnusson, who lived in Copenhagen acquired a large
collection of manuscripts which on his deathbed in 1730, he gave to the University of Copenhagen which at that time was the University for the entire Danish kingdom.
The University of Iceland was founded in 1911. Iceland became a sovereign state in 1918, and an independent republic in 1944. These events resulted in a growing desire on the part of Icelanders to have their manuscripts, the source of their country's history and literature, returned home.
In the 1960's the Danish Parliament decided to bow to the wishes of Icelanders and to transfer to the University of Iceland a large part of Arni Magnusson's collection in addition to a number of other manuscripts in the Royal Library in Copenhagen. These manuscripts are now preserved in a special institute at the university, the Stofnun Árna Magnússonar á Íslandi (The Arni Magnusson Institute in Iceland), where conditions for the preservation of the manuscripts and scholarly research are excellent.
The institute is primarily engaged in research in the field of Icelandic literary and textual studies, publishing mainly editions of the manuscripts and studies based on them, both those in its own and other collections. Furthermore, the institute has a section devoted to folklore, where tape recordings of folk tales, folk songs and related materials are collected and catalogued.
The publications of the institute (Stofnun Árna Magnússonar á Íslandi Rit and the facsimile-series Íslensk handrit) consist of critical editions and studies, partly by the institutes own scholarly staff , partly by scholars outside the institute.
In addition to providing hospitality to foreign scholars using the institutes resources over longer or shorter periods, the institute mounts manuscript exhibitions that are open daily (except Sundays) to the general public during the hours 14.00-16.00 from June 1 to August 31, and during the winter to groups by previous arrangement.