Sanctus Thorlacus Thorhallson

From medieval

by Ásdís Egilsdóttir

The first Icelandic saint, Thorlákr Thórhallsson (1133–1193, b. 20 July, 23 December) was bishop of Skálholt from 1178. An account of his life and miracles is given in three redactions in the vernacular, versions A, B and C, and separate Books of Miracles. Apart from that, fragments of Latin works written in veneration of St. Thorlákr, have survived.

(1) Legenda Thorlaci S.


  • Breviarium Nidrosiense, Parisius 1519. Facsimile edition, Oslo 1964. (Fragm. Lat IV)
  • [SIGURÐSSON, J. and VIGFÚSSON, G. (eds.) 1858–1878] Biskupa sögur I–II, Copenhagen.
  • HELGASON, J. (ed.) 1978: Byskupa sögur II (Editiones Arnamagnæanæ A 13, 2), Copenhagen, 161–74.
  • • JENSSON, G. (ed.) 2002: “Latínubrot um Þorlák byskup,” in Biskupa sögur II, Íslenzk fornrit XVI, ed. Á. Egilsdóttir, Reykjavík, 339–364.


  • (English) WOLF, K. 1989: “A Translation of the Latin Fragments Containing the Life and Miracles of St Thorlákr along with Collections of Lectiones for Recitation on His Feast-Days,” Proceedings of the PMR Conference, Augustinian Historical Institute, Villanova University 14, 261–76.
  • (Icelandic) JENSSON, G. 2002: “Latínubrot um Þorlák byskup,” in Biskupa sögur II, Íslenzk fornrit XVI, ed. Á. Egilsdóttir, Reykjavík, 339–364.

Date and place

The oldest fragment (Lat I), AM 386 4° I, consists of three separate leaves and has been dated to ca. 1200 (BENEDIKTSSON 1965, 14 n.1). The most extensive fragment (Lat II) is in AM 386 4° II, six leaves dated to the first half of the thirteenth century. Both fragments contain remnants of the saint´s vita. Three fragments contain lectiones for recitation on the saint´s Feast day in the summer, i.e. the day of his translation on 20 July (Lat III). The first, AM 670e 4°, 24–26r is Árni Magnússon´s copy of a lost manuscript and dated by him to ca. 1440. The same applies to the fragment in AM 670e 4°, 28r–30v. The third fragment was discovered in The National Archives of Iceland a few decades ago and is believed to have originated in the bishopric of Hólar. The previously mentioned texts probably come from the bishopric of Skálholt. Lat IV (in Breviarium Nidrosiense, ff.v.– is an extract from Lat II, divided into six lectiones for recitation on Thorlákr´s feast day in the winter.

Summary of contents

Thorlákr Thórhallsson was born in South Iceland, 1133. He studied first in Oddi and then in Paris and Lincoln from 1153 until 1159. When he returned from abroad he was a priest in Iceland for a few years before he entered the newly established Augustinian monastery of Thykkvabær, where he became prior and abbot. Thorlákr was elected as bishop of Skálholt 1174 and consecrated in 1178 in Trondheim. According to the later versions of his legend, Thorlákr fought strongly for the rights of the Church and against the right of laymen to own churches. He also tried to improve the morals of Icelandic chiefs who frequently kept concubines. Thorlákr died in 1193. In 1198 he was declared a saint by the Althing and his relics were translated on 20 July in the same year.

Lat I is a remnant of a vita and four miracles. According to the text the work appears to have been divided into two books (HELGASON 1978, 161). The preserved text starts by describing the ascetic life of Thorlákr´s predecessor, Klængr Thorsteinsson, his illness and death. Then the narrative proceeds to refer to the election of Thorlákr, as told in the previous book, and describes how the church of Skálholt flourished under his distinguished predecessors. The four miracles all took place before the translation.

Lat II is a short survey of the bishop´s life and miracles. Comparison with Lat IV, which derives from Lat II, indicates that it ended with the bishop´s death, but the last part is missing.

The only thing that Lat I and Lat II have in common is that both narratives tell of Klængur Thorsteinsson´s death. There is, however, nothing that indicates that these two narratives are related to each other. The main part of Lat II is a description of bishop Thorlákr´s election and consecration. Then it tells of Thorlákr´s life before he became bishop and miracles that occurred while he was in the monastery of Thykkvabær.

The three fragments that form Lat III describe the canonization and the miracles which took place about the same time. There are similarities between the Latin text and the Icelandic legends and they could therefore all be derived from the same source.

Literary models, purpose

Lat I is not a liturgical text. As a vita, Lat I is rather unusual, since Thorlákur´s predecessors were also covered in this text, although it is difficult to say how extensively they and their lives were described. It is, however, interesting to note the emphasis on the church of Skálholt and how it flourished under the bishops: Sed qualiter beatus Thorlacus ad summi sacerdoti gradum promotus sit sufficienter in superiore huius operis libro expressimus. His igitur presulibus et eximiis plebis sibi commisse rectoribus Scalotensis ecclesia uiguit: et usque ad sancti Thorlaci tempora sicut modo comprobatur magis ac magis in suo statu amplificata et dignanter confirmata conualuit. Isti sunt percipui gregis dominici pastores et verissimi patres patrie qui sue et suorum subditorum utilitati bene prouidentes suos sequaces crebris ammonitiionibus et bonorum operum ex. (We related enough in the previous book of this work of how St. Thorlákr was promoted to the highest ecclesiastical rank. Thus the church of Skálholt flourished under these bishops and excellent leaders of the people who were committed to their charge, and up to St. Thorlákr´s time, as is now shown, it grew more and more strong, extended in its state and worthily reinforced. These are the distinguished shepherds of the Lord´s flock and the wholly true fathers of their native land, who, well providing for their own and their people´s need [exhorted] their followers with repeated admonitions and ex[amples] of good works.) (Translation by WOLF 1989, 264.)

This text could therefore have been a gesta episcoporum of Skálholt, written about the time when the first Icelandic saint and former bishop of Skálholt had shed glory on the bishopric.

Lat II emphasises Thorlákr´s virtues. Although the preserved text is short it is obvious that it makes use of hagiographic motifs. Lectio numbers have been added in the margin of the manuscript by a later hand, which indicates the liturgical uses of this text, apparently for the feast day in winter.

The three overlapping texts that make Lat III all tell of the translation. These texts could possibly be remnants of a lost *Translatio S. Thorlaci in Latin. They have been used as liturgical texts for the feast day in summer, to commemorate the canonization. The day of the canonization was made an obligatory feast day in 1237. Lat IV would have been used for the feast day in winter.

Medieval reception and transmission

Where comparison is possible, all Latin texts except Lat I have parallels in the Icelandic texts. Lat II corresponds with some discrepancies in chapters 8–12 of the Icelandic Life of St. Thorlákr. There are also similarities between the account of the translation and miracles in the Latin fragments and the Icelandic versions, especially version B. In some cases the Latin fragments have fuller, and, probably, more original text. It is however difficult to say which text was written first, a Latin life and miracles or a similar text in the vernacular, but Latin texts for liturgical use must have been needed when Thorlákr had been declared a saint.

(2) Sancti Thorlaci episcopi officia rythmica

Sancti Thorlaci episcopi officia rythmica is a rhyming historia propria for St. Thorlákr´s Office. This is a fourteenth-century officium, for the seven hours of the day, Matutinum, Vesperae, Laudes, Prima, Tertia, Sexta, Nona, together with an Alleluia cum versu and a sequentia. The officium consists of antiphons to be sung with the psalms or other verses from the Bible. The translations of St. Thorlákr´s relics took place on 20 July 1198, three weeks after Bishop Páll Jónsson, Thorlákr's nephew and successor, had declared him a saint at the Althing and allowed an officium to be sung in his honour on his feastday in winter, 23 December (see also Legenda S. Thorlaci below). The Latin fragments written in the early thirteenth century are the oldest witnesses to St. Thorlákr´s Office (HELGASON 1978, 161–68). Nothing, however, is known of the officium which was sung from 1199 until the mid-fourteenth century.


Adest festum percelebre


The text consists mainly of four-line verses, with end-rhyme and alliteration, although sometimes irregular. Inner rhyme is occasionally used. The metre used corresponds to Goliard poetry (Vagabond-verse), with one exception of a leonine hexameter.


Twenty-three leaves in a folio manuscript. The text is ca. 350 lines in the edition.


  • LEHMANN, P. 1937: Scandinaviens Anteil an der lateinischen Literatur und Wissenschaft

des Mittelalters, München. (Words only)

  • •OTTÓSSON, R.A. 1959: Sancti Thorlaci episcopi officia rythmica et proprium missae in AM 241a fol. Bibl. Arn. Suppl. 3, Copenhagen. (Words and music, facsimile of the manuscript)
  • THORKELSSON, J. 1893–1896: Íslenzkar ártíðaskrár. (Words only)
  • THORSTEINSSON, B. 1906–1909: Íslenzk Thjóðlög. (Words and music)


Voces Thules 2006: Officium S. Thorlaci. 4 CDs., Reykjavík.


A few verses have been translated into Icelandic by HELGASON 1958, 28.

Date and place

The officium has been dated to the fourteenth century, the terminus post quem being the use of Officium S. Thomae de Aquino from 1328 or 1334 (OTTÓSSON 1959, 71).

There are several allusions to Iceland in the text, where Iceland is described as the country at the farthest end or corner of the world and an eruption of Hekla is alluded to. The use of alliteration and inner rhyme also point towards Icelandic origin.

The author/compiler of the officium shows an excellent knowledge of Latin and music and Dominican liturgy. The Norwegian Dominican Jón Halldórsson, bishop of Skálholt (d. 1339) was the first bishop in Iceland of a mendicant order and no doubt the most influential one. Jón Halldórsson, who belonged to a convent in Bergen, was educated in Paris and Bologna. He could be considered as a possible author/compiler of the officium, or Arngrímur Brandsson (see entry), whom Jón might have influenced. Arngrímur was interested in music, closely connected to the Dominican bishop and well acquainted with the Dominican order. A much-doubted entry in the annal Lögmannsannáll even says that he had entered the convent in Bergen in 1357. Whatever his connection was with the Bergen convent the same annal tells us that he returned to his abbacy at the Benedictine Thingeyrar the following year. The spelling Thile for Thule and actor for auctor is used in the officium text, which is the same spelling that Arngrímur Brandsson uses in his Life of Guðmundur Arason. However, the author or compiler of the officium still remains unknown (OTTÓSSON 1959, 68–74).

Summary of contents

Highlights are given of the saint´s life and miracles. A gentler image of the bishop is depicted in the officium than in the existing lives and miracles, bringing forward the image of the good shepherd and consolator pauperum.

Literary models

The Officium makes use of the existing legends and miracles of St. Thorlákr. It has been shown that both words and music show Dominican influence. When compared to the thirteenth-century liturgical collection Ecclesiasticum Officium secundum Ordinem Fratrum Prædicatorum there are striking parallels (OTTÓSSON 1959, 48–61). It is very likely that the Norwegian Dominican Bishop Jón Halldórsson introduced the liturgy of his order to Iceland. In one of the antiphons it is said that St. Thorlákr had received the stigmata of the crucified Christ on his body: Crucifixi stigmata/carne sua gessit. This antiphon indicates that the author/compiler knew of Franciscan literature or ideas.

Purpose and audience

The purpose is liturgical, to be sung on the saint´s feast days, 23 December (Memorial feast) and 20 July (Canonization). The manuscript itself gives only vague information on the liturgical structure of the officium, which has been clarified by OTTÓSSON.

Medieval reception and transmission

Sancti Thorlaci episcopi officia rythmica is preserved in only one manuscript, AM 241a fol, which in fact consists of fragments of two manuscripts. The fragment that contains the officium has been dated to ca. 1400 (KARLSSON 1982, 319–20; OTTÓSSON 1959, 44) but various scribal errors indicate that it is a copy. An Officium S. Petri Apostoli precedes the Sancti Thorlaci episcopi officia rythmica and it is followed by a fragment of the Dominican officium De corona spinea, which indicates that at least one leaf is missing. It is known that the manuscript belonged to the cathedral of Skálholt in 1597 (OTTÓSSON 1959, 35). It has been shown that it was also written in Skálholt, probably during the episcopacy of Bishop Vilkin 1394–1405 (KARLSSON 1982, 320).


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  • BENEDIKTSSON, H. 1965: “Early Icelandic Script,” Icelandic Manuscripts, Series in folio 2, Reykjavík.
  • • BENEDIKTSSON, J. 1969: Brot úr Thorlákslesi. Afmælisrit Jóns Helgasonar 30. júní 1969, Reykjavík, 98–108.
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  • EGILSDÓTTIR, Á. 1992: “Eru biskupasögur til?” Skáldskaparmál II, 207–20.
  • EGILSDÓTTIR, Á. 2002: “Latnesk sögubrot,” in Biskupa sögur II, Íslenzk fornrit XVI, ed. Á. Egilsdóttir, Reykjavík, cix–cxxiv.
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  • HELGASON, J. (ed.) 1978: Byskupa sögur II (Editiones Arnamagnæanæ A 13, 2), Copenhagen, 161–74.
  • HELGASON, J. 1958: Handritaspjall, Reykjavík, 28–29.
  • HOLTSMARK, A. (ed.) 1938: A Book of Miracles. MS No 645 4to of the Arnamagnæan Collection (CCI 12), Copenhagen.
  • JENSSON, G. 2003: “The Latin Fragments of Þorláks Saga Helga and their Classical Context,” in Scandinavia and Christian Europe in the Middle Ages. Papers of the 12th International Saga Conference, Bonn 28th July–2nd August 2003, ed. R. Simek and J. Meurer, Bonn, 257–67.
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  • LEHMANN, P. 1937: Scandinaviens Anteil an der lateinischen Literatur und Wissenschaft

des Mittelalters, München.

  • • OTTÓSSON, R.A. 1959: Sancti Thorlaci episcopi officia rythmica et proprium missae in AM 241a fol. (Bibliotheca Arnamagnæana, suppl. 3), Copenhagen.