AM 431 12mo

During the past month, smaller manuscripts have moved into the focus of my research. The most exciting one was certainly AM 428 a 12mo, a small booklet featuring a saga and formulas to aid women during childbirth.


AM 431 12mo is a really small book measuring about 12 x 9 cm. That's just as wide as my pocket diary, but not as high – a good size to carry along, especially since it’s so thin. It consists of 25 leaves in an atypical quire structure, and it seems that there are no losses. The text is set in single  columns throughout, yet with some variation regarding the number of lines per page. The manuscript was written in Iceland in the early sixteenth century. From a colophon on the last page, we know the scribe to have been “young Jón Arason”, which allows us to connect it to the manuscript production at his father’s farm in the Icelandic Westfjords. In the same colophon, we find Jón distancing himself from the contents of the manuscript, especially the parts on midwifery.

Árni Magnússon received AM 431 12mo from a certain Gisli Jónsson of Vellir. Today, the manuscript can be found at the Stofnun Árna Magnússonar á Íslandi. The digitisation is accessible online.

Contents, Language & Usage

AM 431 12mo contains two textual units, Margrétar saga on fols. 1r–21r, and a text entitled “Release for a woman in labour” on fols. 21r–25v. Margrétar saga is in Old Norse throughout; there are hardly any variants to other copies, and the text is complete. The other text, however, is more complex. It consists of prayers in corrupted Latin, which are accompanied by instructions in Old Norse. These are more or less correct. They are visually set apart through script: the Latin is written in a bookhand, the Old Norse in a cursive.The texts are complementary in that the Latin could not be used without the Old Norse and vice versa. From the current state of the Latin, it is clear that the scribe did not know enough in order to produce a coherent text or amend it. While each word is an acceptable Latin word, there is virtually no functional grammatical structure in most sentences. Sometimes the meaning is unclear or absurd.

Once you know what text the scribe should have written down, the errors clearly stand out as copying errors deriving from the misinterpretation of a pattern of minims, ascenders and descenders. This means that this copy was not written down from oral transmission (although that may have occurred further down the transmission history), but from an exemplar that the scribe couldn’t read that well. While being unprecedented in other Old Norse manuscripts, the childbirth formula adhere to continental and insular patterns and traditions. What also becomes clear, is that the user of the manuscript, probably a woman acting as some kind of midwife, did not know the formulae well enough to amend them herself. It is debatable in how far the manuscript was actually read from during childbirth, or if it did not more function as a token.

More questions than answers

In Invisibilia’s corpus, AM 431 12mo is the first manuscript about which we know fairly much. We can say for certain who wrote it, we can determine its place and time of production, and we have a pretty vivid idea in which situations this copy might have been used. But as soon as we think that we have a clear image about manuscript production and use, especially in connection with its bilingual composition, we start to see how little it actually is that we see clearly. Many things are actually quite diffuse: What kind of an exemplar was AM 431 12mo copied from? How many of these instructions circulated in Iceland? How did the actual situation of use proceed? Did someone read from it? Was it held up? How did the Latin parts sound? Did the women in labour feel comforted? How much did she understand of the Latin? Working from several publications on midwifery in the Middle Ages, I intend to look more deeply into these and similar questions during the coming weeks. 

If you have any ideas or suggestions, I’d really appreciate your input – via twitter DM or email.

Images taken from