Arngrímr Brandsson

From Medieval

by Ásdís Egilsdóttir

Our knowledge of Arngrímr Brandsson is uncertain and controversial. It does not make things any easier that there seem to be two different fourteenth-century monks named Arngrímr mentioned in Icelandic sources. A brother named Arngrímr is mentioned as one of the monks who were imprisoned and put in irons because they had beaten the abbot of their monastery in Thykkvabær (Islandske annaler, 274, 402). It is however unlikely that this unruly monk is the same person as Arngrímr Brandsson who later became abbot of Thingeyrar. The Thykkvabær and Thingeyrar monasteries belonged to different orders and it is also unlikely that the guilty brother could have become abbot in relatively few years (HELGASON 1950, 16–17).


In 1334 Arngrímr Brandsson was given the benefice of Oddi, near Skálholt in south-west Iceland. In the twelfth century Oddi became one of the three most important centers of learning in south Iceland, the others being Skálholt and Haukadalur. According to Laurentius saga, Arngrímr was held in high esteem (Biskupa sögur I, 865). Arngrímr become a Benedictine monk and was consecrated as abbot in Thingeyrar in 1351. In a letter from 1351 he is referred to as “herra arngrimr holakirkiu officialis,” i.e. the bishop´s deputy (KARLSSON 1963, 23–24). It is stated in the annals that in 1357 priests of the Hólar see brought serious charges against Arngrímr and he was removed from his post. The reason is unknown and two years later he was reinstated (Islandske annaler, 405–6). Arngrímr Brandsson wrote one of the four lives of Guðmundr Arason that have been dated from the fourteenth century (The Life of Guðmundr Arason, Guðmundar saga, Version D). Arngrímr also wrote poetry on Guðmundr Arason and one version of the Icelandic lives of St. Thomas Becket has been attributed to him (KARLSSON 1973, 227–33, 238, 242). Besides being a hagiographer and a poet, Arngrímr also seems to have been a music lover and a musician. The Dominican and bishop Jón Halldórsson sent Arngrímr to Norway in 1327 on his behalf (Islandske annaler, 397). A much-doubted entry in the annal Lögmannsannáll even tells us that he had entered the convent in Bergen in 1357. Whatever his connection was with the Bergen convent the same annal relates that he returned to his abbacy at the Benedictine Thingeyrar the following year. According to Laurentius saga and other sources he spent most of his time there studying the organ. Arngrímr returned two years later, bringing an instrument with him (Biskupa sögur I, 866, 868, 908, Islandske annaler, 397). Because of his musical interests, and the use of termini technici in his Life of Guðmundr indicating knowledge of music and liturgy, it has been suggested that Arngrímr was the author/compiler of the Officium St. Thorlaci (OTTÓSSON 1959, 71–74) (>Sanctus Thorlacus). Arngrímr Brandsson died in 1361 or 1362.

The Life of Guðmundr Arason (Guðmundar saga, Version D)

Arngrímr names himself in one of the miracles of his work, which tells of a blind old woman, who daily rinsed her eyes with water that Bishop Guðmundr had consecrated: “Many times I, Brother Arngrímr, fetched this water for her in my childhood, for she lived fifteen years at my father´s house and there she died.” (Biskupa sögur II, 169). In 1897 B.M. ÓLSEN advanced the hypothesis that this particular Life of Guðmundr Arason was an Icelandic translation of a Latin work. His arguments were that the Life was written with foreign readers in mind and that the style indicated that it was a direct translation from Latin. The descriptions of Icelandic scenery and working conditions are, undeniably, unnecessary for an Icelandic audience. The Latinate style, however, is not a convincing argument in itself. Recent studies have shown that the Latinate style in Icelandic hagiographic works from the fourteenth century is no certain indication that they are direct translations from Latin. Numerous examples show increasing Latin influence on Icelandic style in both translated and Icelandic works of this period. KARLSSON has therefore argued that it is just as likely that Arngrímr´s Life of Guðmundr Arason was originally composed in Icelandic and intended for translation (KARLSSON 1985, 1002–3). If the life of Bishop Guðmundr Arason written by Arngrímr was either composed in or translated into Latin, nothing remains of the Latin text. His life of Bishop Guðmundr Arason is only preserved in Icelandic.

Editions (of the Icelandic version)

  • • SIGURÐSSON, J. & VIGFÚSSON, G. (eds) 1858–1878: Biskupa sögur I–II, Copenhagen (texts repr. in G. JÓNSSON (ed.) 1948: Byskupa sögur I–III, Reykjavík).
  • • HELGASON, J. (ed.) 1950: Byskupa sögur. MS Perg. fol. No. 5 in the Royal Library of Stockholm, CCI 19, Copenhagen.
  • KARLSSON, S. (ed.) 1967: Sagas of Icelandic Bishops. Fragments of eight Manuscripts (Early Icelandic Manuscripts in Facsimile 7), Copenhagen.

Date and Place

Guðmundr Arason, born 1161, was bishop in Hólar from 1203 until his death in 1237. A few years after his death a chronicle of his life was written, probably by the abbot Lambkárr Thorgilsson. This chronicle tells of Guðmundr´s youth and priesthood (it is therefore named the Prestssaga) and ends in a description of Guðmundr´s voyage to Norway to be consecrated in 1202. Guðmundr was never officially recognized as a saint but his relics were exhumed in 1315 and consequently four different lives of him (Versions A–D) were written in the fourteenth century. Arngrímr Brandsson´s version is the latest of the four. One miracle is dated 1343 which is the terminus post quem for this version (KARLSSON 1985, 1000), the terminus ante quem being the year when Arngrímr died (1361 or 1362).

Summary of contents

Guðmundr Arason was bishop during the tumultuous Sturlung age. His life describes his asceticism, charity and miracles, and his struggle for the rights of the Church and ecclesiastical liberty. As a priest he was already well known for his miraculous powers and for consecrating water and springs all over the country. During his episcopacy he had constant conflicts with most of the Icelandic chieftains of the period. For some time he was kept prisoner at Hólar and deprived of all authority. Because of the conflicts he had to stay in Norway for several years. When in Iceland he travelled around the country, relying on his friends and poor followers for shelter and food. After his death his memory was held in veneration although he was never canonised. The Life of Guðmundr by Arngrímr Brandsson is based on historical sources but put in a hagiographic framework. He particularly stresses the similarity between Guðmundr and Thomas à Becket and he compares Kolbeinn Tumason, the bishop´s main adversary, to King Henry II.

Literary models, purpose and audience

In the fourteenth century hagiographic writings, both native and translated, were well known in Iceland. The first attempt to write a hagiographic life of Bishop Guðmundr was Version B, but Arngrímr´s principal source was Version C of the life of Guðmundr (KARLSSON 1985, 994–1003). Arngrímr thoroughly revised his material. He adds new miracles and his own glosses. Besides that, he also omits material that he did not find appropriate for the saint´s image. The style has been altered and made more florid than in all previous versions. He draws analogues from other saints´ lives and there are references to the Speculum historiale by Vincent of Beauvais. Scholars have come to the conclusion that Arngrímr wrote his life of Guðmundr with a foreign audience in mind and also as an attempt to acquire a papal canonization of Bishop Guðmundr. As pointed out by S. KARLSSON, the bishop was most popular among the lower classes and frowned upon by the Church as an institution (KARLSSON 1985, 983). This could be the reason why he was not declared a saint by the authorities as the saintly bishops Thorlákur and Jón had been before and, consequently, no Life and miracles were written of him straight after his death. A Latin Life or lectiones would also have been needed if he had been officially declared a saint.

Medieval reception and transmission

The Life of Guðmundr Arason by Arngrímr Brandsson is preserved in several manuscripts which show that there were two versions of it in existence in the fourteenth century. The oldest manuscript, Stockholm, Royal Library, Isl. Perg. fol. 5 (ca. 1350–1360), contains many verses by Arngrímr himself and another fourteenth-century poet. The number of the preserved manuscripts and fragments indicate that even though Arngrímr´s work may have been written with a foreign audience in mind it was more popular in Iceland than the other fourteenth-century Lives of Guðmundr Arason.


  • • CICLAMINI, M. 1993: “The Hand of Revision: Abbot Arngrímr´s Redaction of Guðmundar saga biskups,” Gripla 8, 231–52.
  • HALLBERG, P. 1969: Stilsignalement och författarskap i norrön sagalitteratur, Göteborg.
  • • HUNT, M.C. 1985: A Study of Authorial Perspective in Guðmundar saga A and Guðmundar saga D. Hagiography and the Icelandic Bishop´s saga, Diss. Indiana University.
  • KARLSSON, S. 1986: “Bóklausir menn. A Note on Two Versions of Guðmundar saga. Sagnaskemmtun,” Studies in Honour of Hermann Pálsson on his 65th Birthday, 26th May 1986, Vienna, 277–86.
  • • KARLSSON, S. 1985: “Guðmundar sögur biskups: Authorial Viewpoints and Methods,” The Sixth International Saga-Conference 28/7–2/8 1985, 983–1005.
  • • KARLSSON, S. 1993: “Guðmundar sögur biskups,” Medieval Scandinavia. An Encyclopedia, New York and London, 245 (Short, but very informative).
  • KARLSSON, S. 1973: “Icelandic Lives of Thomas à Becket. Questions of Authorship,” Proceedings of the First International Saga Conference, London, 237–38.
  • KARLSSON, S. (ed.) 1963: Islandske originaldiplomer indtil 1450 (Editiones Arnamagnæanæ, Series A, Vol. 7), Copenhagen.
  • KARLSSON, S. 1960: Um handrit að Guðmundar sögu bróður Arngríms (Opuscula I. Bibliotheca Arnamagnæana 20), Copenhagen, 179–89.
  • LÁRUSSON, M.M.: “Guðmundr inn góði Arason,” in KLMN 5, 538–42.
  • ÓLSEN, B.M. 1902: Um Sturlungu. Safn til sögu Íslands og íslenskra bókmennta, 3. rev., 193–510.
  • OTTÓSSON, R.A. 1959: Sancti Thorlaci episcopi officia rhytmica et proprium missae in AM 241 A folio. Copenhagen.
  • STORM, G. (ed.) 1888: Islandske Annaler indtil 1578, Oslo (repr. Oslo 1977).