Illustrations of Northern Antiquities

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Illustrations of Northern Antiquities (1814), or to give its full title Illustrations of Northern Antiquities, from the Earlier Teutonic and Scandinavian Romances; Being an Abstract of the Book of Heroes, and Nibelungen Lay; with Translations of Metrical Tales, from the Old German, Danish, Swedish, and Icelandic Languages; with Notes and Dissertations, was a pioneering work of comparative literature which provided translations and abstracts of various works written in medieval Germany and Scandinavia. Its three authors were Henry Weber, who précised the Nibelungenlied and Heldenbuch ; Robert Jamieson, who translated Danish and other ballads, stressing their close connection with Scottish ballads; and Walter Scott, who provided an abstract of Eyrbyggja saga . It significantly extended British readers' access to early Germanic literature.


Composition and publication

The three authors of the Northern Antiquities were all well known to each other. [1] Henry Weber was a German refugee whom Scott had taken under his wing as a needy and deserving literary scholar; in the year the Northern Antiquities were published his mental health gave way, and he was hospitalized for the rest of his life at Scott's expense. [2] The ballad-collector Robert Jamieson had helped Scott with his Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border as long ago as 1800, [3] and Scott retained his admiration for Jamieson's work in this field. [4]

Work on the Northern Antiquities began at least as early as 1810, when Walter Scott approached the Rev. Richard Polwhele as a possible contributor. [2] Scott may have been responsible for more than the "Abstract of the Eyrbiggia-Saga" that appeared over his name, or rather initials: his son-in-law and biographer J. G. Lockhart asserted that the verse translations scattered through Weber's abstract of the Nibelungenlied were actually Scott's work, though more recently it has been argued that he only revised Weber's verse. [5] [6] The opening Advertisement has also been tentatively attributed to him. [7]

As an affluent patron of scholarship he also advanced the publishing of the work in the teeth of scepticism from the trade as to its commercial viability. [8] [9] Northern Antiquities; or Tracts, Designed to Illustrate the Early History, Poetry, and Romance of the Nations of the North of Europe was announced as being in the press as early as 1811, and as including much material that did not appear in the published volume, such as an abstract of Hervarar saga (rather than Eyrbyggja saga). [10] It was actually published under its final title only in June 1814 in Edinburgh and August 1814 in London, the two publishing houses involved being John Ballantyne and Co., and Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme and Brown, and the printers being James Ballantyne and Co. [11] The book appeared in royal quarto format at a price of three guineas, making it a rather expensive item, [12] [7] and it did not sell well. [12] In consequence a planned second volume was never published, [13] nor did Weber's hopes that the project might lead to "a periodical publication on the subject of ancient Romance and Antiquities in general, Foreign & British" come to fruition. [14] One or the other of these might have included the "translations from some very old Swiss battlesongs" Scott mentioned having completed, [15] [13] or some of the projects mentioned in the Advertisement of the Northern Antiquities: "the Romances of Russia...the more rare and less-known Sagas of Scandinavia...the Original Songs of the Letts and Esthonians...the Poetry of the Celtic Dialects". [16]

Historical importance

Weber's contribution to the Northern Antiquities is notable for including the first account in English of the Nibelungenlied, no complete translation appearing until 1848. [17]

Robert Jamieson was the first writer to point out the strong resemblances of phraseology and incident which exist between the ballads of Scotland and those of Denmark and Sweden. This he did originally in his Popular Ballads and Songs (1806), but more fully and accurately in the Northern Antiquities. [18] In the notes to his translation of the Danish ballad Rosmer Hafmand Jamieson gave a synopsis with quotations of a ballad, Child Rowland , which he claimed to have heard in his infancy recited by a Scottish tailor. It has been suggested that some form of this ballad was quoted by Shakespeare in King Lear and provided Milton with the plot of Comus , though the Shakespearean scholar George Lyman Kittredge commented that it was "manifestly of modern composition". [19] [20] [21]

Scott's version of Eyrbyggja saga was the first English abstract or translation of any of the Sagas of the Icelanders, and the first work to show a clear recognition of their qualities. [22] [23] The first complete translation of Eyrbyggja saga was the work of William Morris and Eiríkr Magnússon; it did not appear until as late as 1892. [24] The abstract may have exercised an influence on Scott's own creative writing. After having long abandoned the writing of his first novel, Waverley , he resumed it shortly after completing his Eyrbyggja abstract, and at least two critics, Edith Batho and John M. Simpson, have detected in it, and in his subsequent novels, the qualities of social realism, comedy, drama, graphic description, and the heroic spirit with which Eyrbyggja saga is imbued. [25] [26]

Contemporary reception

Francis Palgrave, writing in the Edinburgh Review , welcomed the appearance of a work throwing so much new light on early Germanic literature. He described Scott's contribution as "interesting" and Weber's abstract of the Nibelungenlied as one of the most curious parts of the book, but reserved most of his praise for the poetical talent and industry of Robert Jamieson, a man who "well understands the art of combining the useful with the agreeable", and urged him to "gratify the curiosity which he has excited" by publishing something similar on Russian, Latvian or Estonian literature. [27]

An anonymous critic in the Monthly Review wrote of the "rich mass of neglected materials" of which Weber and Jamieson had made "an extensive, elegant, and learned analysis", [28] and saw in Weber's historical survey of early German literature "a precision of information, an erudition of detail, and a comprehensive completeness of circumspection, rarely displayed by the poetic antiquary". [29] He deplored Jamieson's decision to translate the Danish ballads into Scots rather than English, finding the result largely incomprehensible, [30] but he praised the Eyrbyggja abstract as "truly valuable". [12]


  1. Lockhart, J. G. (1862). Memoirs of the Life of Sir Walter Scott, Bart. Vol. IV. Edinburgh: Adam and Charles Black. p. 153. Retrieved 9 April 2021.
  2. 1 2 Simpson 1973, p. 309.
  3. "Scott, Sir Walter". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/24928.(Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  4. Henderson, T. F., ed. (1902). Sir Walter Scott's Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border. Edinburgh: Blackwood. p. 49. Retrieved 9 April 2021.
  5. Johnson, Edgar (1970). Sir Walter Scott: The Great Unknown. Volume I: 1771–1821. London: Hamish Hamilton. p. 435. ISBN   0241017610 . Retrieved 9 April 2021.
  6. Mitchell, Jerome (1987). Scott, Chaucer, and Medieval Romance: A Study in Sir Walter Scott's Indebtedness to the Literature of the Middle Ages (PDF). Lexington: University Press of Kentucky. p. 250. ISBN   9780813153698 . Retrieved 9 April 2021.
  7. 1 2 Todd & Bowden 1998, p. 308.
  8. Simpson, John M. (1973). "Eyrbyggja Saga and nineteenth-century scholarship". In Foote, Peter; Pálsson, Hermann; Slay, Desmond (eds.). Proceedings of the first International Saga Conference, University of Edinburgh, 1971 (PDF). London: Viking Society for Northern Research. pp. 376–377. ISBN   0903521024 . Retrieved 9 April 2021.
  9. Simpson 1973, pp. 309–310.
  10. "Literary register". The Literary Panorama. 10: 845. November 1811. Retrieved 10 April 2021.
  11. Todd & Bowden 1998, pp. 307–308.
  12. 1 2 3 Anonymous 1816b, p. 75.
  13. 1 2 Corson 1979, p. 67.
  14. Ross, Margaret Clunies (1998). The Norse Muse in Britain 1750–1820. Hesperides: letterature e culture occidentali, 9. Trieste: Parnaso. p. 199. ISBN   8886474261 . Retrieved 10 April 2021.
  15. Grierson, H. J. C., ed. (1932). The Letters of Sir Walter Scott 1808–1811. London: Constable. pp. 423, 432. ISBN   9780404056506 . Retrieved 10 April 2021.
  16. Illustrations of Northern Antiquities. Edinburgh: John Ballantyne. 1814. p. v. Retrieved 10 April 2021.
  17. Blamires, David (2009). Telling Tales: The Impact of Germany on English Children's Books 1780–1918. Cambridge: Open Book. p. 355. ISBN   9781906924119 . Retrieved 10 April 2021.
  18. The Ballad Minstrelsy of Scotland, Romantic and Historical. Paisley: Alexander Gardner. 1893. pp. xvi–xvii. Retrieved 10 April 2021.
  19. Muir, Kenneth, ed. (1959). King Lear. The Arden Edition of the Works of William Shakespeare (8th ed.). London: Methuen. p. 128. ISBN   0416101704 . Retrieved 10 April 2021.
  20. Gollancz, Israel, ed. (1895). Shakespeare's Tragedy of King Lear. The Temple Shakespeare. London: J. M. Dent. pp. 184–185. Retrieved 10 April 2021.
  21. Child, Francis James, ed. (1861). English and Scottish Ballads. Volume 1. London: Sampson Low. p. 245. Retrieved 10 April 2021.
  22. Batho 1932, p. 153.
  23. Simpson 1973, p. 310.
  24. Eyrbyggja Saga. Translated by Pálsson, Hermann; Edwards, Paul. Edinburgh: Southside. 1973. p. 28. ISBN   0900025069 . Retrieved 10 April 2021.
  25. Batho 1932, pp. 155–156.
  26. Simpson 1973, p. 312.
  27. Palgrave, Francis (1922). Malden, H. E. (ed.). Reviews, Essays and Other Writings. Volume II. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 154, 182–183. Retrieved 10 April 2021.
  28. Anonymous 1816a, p. 356.
  29. Anonymous 1816a, p. 367.
  30. Anonymous 1816b, pp. 71–72.

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