Institutt for lingvistiske, litterære og estetiske studier
research project

Transformations of Medieval Law

Innovation and Application in Early Modern Norwegian Law Books.

AM 101 4to, Den Arnamagnæanske Samling, Copenhagen, Denmark


The Landslov was the first national law-code of Norway, in force for 400 years. It is a vital source for the legal and social history of Norway, but remains somewhat out of reach both for the public and for many scholars. Very little information is available about the translation of the law from Old Norwegian to Danish in the 16th and 17th centuries, the amendments by the roster of monarchs who later edited the law, and its revision to form the law-code Jónsbókin Iceland, some parts of which are still in force today.

The project will research the later manuscripts and versions of the Landslov in order to gain an insight into the development of the law from the end of  the Middle Ages onwards. My project makes these manuscripts and their contents accessible to a wide audience, and highlights Norwegian Early Modern cultural heritage, thus making a substantial contribution to the study of Norway's legal, linguistic and book history.

The overarching research questions the project deals with are:

  1. How and to what extent do innovations and changes in the structure, contents and use of law books of Early Modern Norway reflect changes to Norwegian society during the Reformation and Renaissance?
  2. How did legal circles in Norway and Iceland order and apply their knowledge in medieval and Early Modern times?

Four areas of research

1) Manuscript Compilation

What does the transmission of the Landslov tell us about medieval and Early Modern approaches to ordering knowledge?

A premise of this project is that the Landslov and its translations circulated in manuscript form bound into manuscript books with other texts, here called ‘compilations’, and that the choice of texts in many manuscripts can tell us something about the cultural context of the law, and how the law was understood, applied and interpreted.

The other texts besides the law code in the compilation form a context to the law, and are often texts associated with legal and theological matters. The compilations can consist of texts both old and new; for example, a medieval law written in the 13th century, bound together with later texts from the 16th century. The 13th century law can then be thought to have been read with these later texts in mind. By assessing who owned, wrote, used and added to these legal compilations, we can also understand the role of the individual in the tradition and shaping of the law and innovations in its codicological transmission.

2) Translation

How were concepts, terms and narrative structures translated from Old Norwegian to Danish?

By the 16th century, legal officials could no longer read Old Norse comfortably, and thus had Danish translations of law manuscripts made for practical purposes from around 1530. In the 16th century, these translations were manuscripts, but in 1604 an official translation of the Landslov was made into Danish and the law printed for the first time. Legal vocabulary from Old Norwegian and its translation into Danish will be collected and an analysis of translation strategies conducted. 

The corpus of existing translations will be examined in the light of scribal and translators’ comments, and whether there is any difference in the volume and approach to translation from the beginning to the end of the 16th century. The several lists of legal vocabulary that exist will be taken into consideration. Whether and how the printed Danish translation of 1604 has influenced the manuscript tradition will be considered. This will allow the development of Norwegian legal vocabulary between the 13th and the 17th centuries to be traced and facilitate the study of what the historical basis is for modern legal terminology in Norway.

3) Amendment

How and why was the Landslov transformed from a medieval law to reflect the needs of an Early Modern society, and how is this reflected in the manuscripts? 

The Landslov was in force for over 400 years and rulers of Norway during the lifetime of the law amended and adapted the law as necessary. An ‘amendment’ is a minor change or addition designed to improve legislation. Amendments can thus indicate areas of social, cultural, and political change as the society transformed from medieval to Early Modern, including the Reformation era. 

Amendments were inserted into the law and manuscripts in various ways, and understanding how they were introduced in the physical manuscripts reflects how knowledge was organised on the Early Modern page. In manuscripts, amendments are listed along with laws, inserted into the text, inserted in the margins, or listed separately from laws. The mise-en-page of amendments will allow us to reconstruct how law manuscripts were physically used; were several books used together? Could users easily find what they were looking for? Are some amendments emphasised more than others in the books? 

4) Adaptation

What processes of adaptation formed the Icelandic Jónsbók as the result of the combination of Norwegian and earlier Icelandic law? 

By ‘adaptation’ is meant the remoulding of the Norwegian law for use in Iceland, which became a Norwegian colony in 1262-64. Although Iceland already had a rich legal tradition dating back to the creation of its parliament in 930, Magnus the Law-Mender modified Norwegian laws to make them suitable for Iceland. In 1271, he sent the unpopular law Jarnsíða to Iceland, but, after introducing the Landslov in Norway in 1274, revised the Landslov into the Icelandic version, known as Jónsbók. The final result was a combination of Norwegian and earlier Icelandic law. It was adopted in Iceland in 1281, and parts of Jónsbók are still current. Jónsbók is thus relevant to an exploration of the transformation of the medieval Norwegian law.

Events in the projects

I vesterled conference, University of Bergen, Norway (October 2018)

The project contributed both a paper and a poster at this international conference organised by the Medieval Cluster of the University of Bergen. 

  • Paper: Helen F. Leslie-Jacobsen, “Taking the Law West in the 9th to 13th Centuries”
  • Poster: Helen F. Leslie-Jacobsen, “Transformations of Medieval Law”

The 17th International Saga Conference, University of Iceland, Iceland (August 2018)

At the major international three yearly conference for Old Norse studies, the project both co-organised and sponsered a reception for Early Career Researchers in Old Norse, and contributed a paper.

  • Reception: Network for Early Career Researchers in Old Norse (sponsored by the project Transformations of Medieval Law)
  • Paper: Helen F. Leslie-Jacobsen, “The 1604 Danish Translation of 13thCentury Norwegian Law”

Kings and Queens 7, University of Winchester, UK (July 2018)

The project contributed a paper to this major subject conference on royal studies.

  • Paper, Helen F. Leslie-Jacobsen, “The Self-Representation of King Magnus the Law-Mender in the Landslov of 1274”

The International Medieval Congress, University of Leeds, UK (July 2018)

The project contributed a paper to the largest medieval studies conference in Europe.

  • Paper, Helen F. Leslie-Jacobsen, “St Bridget in a Norwegian Legal Manuscript: Codex Hardenbergensis

European Society for Comparative Legal History: Laws Across Codes and Laws Decoded, Paris, France (June 2018)

The project contributed a paper to this biennial conference on legal history.

  • Paper, Helen F. Leslie-Jacobsen, “How Innovative is Innovative? Adaptations of Norwegian Law in New Law Codes in Iceland and Norway from the Tenth to Thirteenth Centuries”

The 12th International Postgraduate Symposium in Old Norse Studies: Norms, Laws and Literatures (April 2018)

The project organized and sponsored this annual four day international conference for PhD and MA students from Bergen and major UK universities, including Oxford, Cambridge, Durham, Nottingham and Aberdeen.