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only daughter Margaret on her marriage with James III. of Scotland. The arrangement was
. probably intended at the time by the Danish monarch to be only temporary; as the provinces pledged bore a considerable relative importance to the mother country. The whole kingdom of Norway, even in modern times, contained a population only about eighteen times greater than that of the Orkney and Zetland islands.
It may make the antiquary pause before he admits too readily the transmission of historical events without written documents, orally by tradition for a long series of ages, that in these islands in about 350 years, among 50,000 people dwelling in a locality but little frequented, and living from generation to generation with little admixture of or intercourse with strangers, and in a state of society and under circumstances the most favourable for the transmission of oral tradition, not only is the Norwegian language become extinct, but no tradition exists of any one event, much less of any series of connected events, that happened in the Norwegian times; nor does there exist any such strong and general tradition among the inhabitants
at in former days the islands belonged to Nor way, as would justify a scrupulous historian in assuming the fact upon the faith of tradition alone. What is the real value, then, of tradition as evidence of historical facts, if this be the case in three centuries and a half, with the memory not only of striking facts, but of the current language, among a population having on one side of them the highlanders of Scotland boasting of poems transmitted orally from father to son for fourteen or fifteen centuries; and on the other side the Icelanders showing indeed manuscripts of Saga of the twelfth and thirteen centuries, but which they avow were transmitted by oral tradition alone for several ages before being committed to writing ? What is the real historical value of tradition ? It may be safe to assume that names of places and of persons, customs, superstitions, and even a few words and turns of expression of a language may remain unchanged, because not superseded by any more convenient or to the same purport, and there is trouble in giving up and none in retaining these when once established ; and this kind of passive tradition
may exist in a country for an indefinite period, and be worthy of all credence. What may be called active tradition, on the other hand, which depends upon generation after generation committing to memory long narrations in poetry or in prose of events in no way connected with their existing interests or affairs, cannot be depended upon, and can have no existence at all with regard to very distant events. The vis inertiæ of human nature is opposed to it. Such tradition is entitled to credence only in proportion to the support it may have from the other kind, the passive tradition of the country. This position is curiously illustrated in the ancient history of the Orkney and Zetland isles. The language and the active tradition of events of the Norwegian times are extinct; but these have been collected in the Orkneyinga Saga before they were forgotten, and are now singularly supported by the passive tradition of the islands. No district of Great Britain possesses such a curious and minute record of its affairs during the middle ages, as that which Thormodus Torfæus published at Copenhagen in 1715, from the MSS. of the Icelandic Saga in the royal library of Denmark, under the title of “ Orcades, seu Rerum Orcadensium Historiæ libri tres." The object of this work, compiled, we are told, by Torfæus, by the express command of his Majesty Christian V., was of no less importance than to vindicate the undoubted right of the Danish monarch to redeem the mortgage of the sovereignty of these islands, by the re-payment of the 50,000 florins for which they had been pledged in 1468.
In equity, and as an abstract question of right, it
appears to admit of no doubt that a just claim of redemption, or of an equivalent, is to this hour vested in the crown of Denmark. Prescription of rights is in no country allowed to constitute a ground of retention of property against a just original claim of the sovereign; much less between sovereign and sovereign, as trustees of their imperishable sovereignties, can any rights be sustained unless those founded on conquest, treaty, purchase, or other conditions fixed by the laws of nations, and the usages between civilized kingdoms. If it were a case between two honest men in private life, the right would be admitted and compromised.
Obsolete and ridiculous as this claim*
may now appear, if Christian V. had lived a century later, the reclamations of his honest and simpleminded historiographer, Thormodus Torfæus, would have been heard beyond the walls of his royal master's library. In 1804, Buonaparte, in one of his proclamations to the army assembled at Boulogne for the invasion of England, descants upon this very
claim of Denmark to this portion of the British dominions. Suppose the Emperor Napoleon had purchased this claim, or suppose Russia or the United States were now to purchase it from Denmark, our civilians would be puzzled to find any more equitable reason for resisting the redemption than the very cogent one that “might makes right.” Great Britain has spent money more foolishly than she would do in setting herself clear in equity with Denmark on this point.
Torfæus, with amusing and amiable simplicity, and like a true antiquary, forgetting the lapse of centuries, and considering the past time as present, labours with great zeal in his preface to this work to impress the good people of Orkney, in the most barbarous and unintelligible Latin, with a due sense of their obligation to their lawful lord and sovereign, Christian V., for ordering him, Thormodus Torfæus, his Majesty's own historiographer,
* I find that, in 1549, an assessment, for paying off the sum for which the islands stood pledged, was levelled in Norway by Christian III. The Scotch antiquary may possibly find some negotiations between the two countries, about that period, upon the subject.
to compile for their information this history of their ancient affairs.
It is rather singular that Dr. Clarke, in his Travels in Scandinavia, speaks of Thormodus Torfæus* and Snorro Sturlesont as contemporaries, or at least as the two ancient historians of Norway. Torfæus should have been better known in the university of Cambridge. His name belongs to European literature. No author has examined and illustrated Scandinavian history with more diligence and success. If a member of a Danish university had classed together David Hume and the Venerable Bede as ancient and contemporary authors, what a chuckling would have been heard among our reviewers.
In 1780, an Icelandic scholar, Jonas Jonæus, published at Copenhagen, in Icelandic and Latin, the Orkneyinga Saga, “Sive Historia Orcadum a prima Orcadum per Norwegos occupatione ad exitum Seculi Duodecemi." This is the text of the Icelandic MSS. of the Saga, of which the Orcades of Torfæus is a faithful compilation. Jonæus appears to have been in the service of a
* Thormod Torfesen was the son of Torfe Erlendsen, a man of consideration in Iceland. He was born 1636, was educated at the University of Copenhagen, was employed by Frederick III. and Christian V. to translate into Danish the Icelandic Saga, which then attracted the notice of the learned. Torfesen compiled the Series Regum Daniæ, the Orcades, the Greenlandia Antiqua, and other works highly esteemed by the continental antiquaries, from these Icelandic sources; and collected and translated a great many of the Saga. He died about 1715. (Torfesen's Biographia, Minerva Maanedsskrift, October, 1786. Kiobenhavn.)
+ Snorro Sturleson was born 1178.