[From Manx Soc Vol 22, Chronicle of Man]
THE historian of Norway, Peter Andreas Munch, was born in Christiania, on the 15th December 1810. His father had been at one time a teacher in the Military Academy at Christiania, but afterwards accepted a country curacy, and died in 1847 Capitular provost (dean) in Christiania. Munch was educated at the academical school at Skien, in Norway, and did not distinguish himself in classical learning. He had, however, hardly completed his twentieth year when his attention was attracted to the old records of his native land. In 1834 we find him already appointed, with the late Professor Keyser, to superintend the publication of the Ancient Laws of Norway, and with funds granted for the purpose, by the Storthing or Parliament of Norway. He proceeded in 1835 to Copenhagen, taking with him his newly-married wife, the daughter of a merchant at Laurvig in Norway. The years he spent at Copenhagen, at Lund, and at Stockholm, examining old MSS. and documents in the libraries, were, he often said, the very happiest of his life. He was young, hopeful, and perfectly indefatigable in research, and was gifted too, with that rare sagacity in the valuing of documents and records, which characterises none but the thoroughly judicious historian. In 1837 Munch was made reader in history in the University of Christiania, and Professor of that chair in 1841.
He now became deeply engaged in preparation for his great work, The History of Norway, at which he laboured unceasingly during the last twenty years of his life. In 1846 he visited Normandy, and spent a considerable time in Paris; and again, in 1849, he was in Edinburgh, and extended his researches to the Orkney Islands. It was during his stay in Edinburgh that he discovered, and afterwards published, a short MS. Historica Norvagiae, and transcribed numerous letters and documents relating to the early history of Orkney and Shetland. In England he examined the MS. of the text of the Chronicon Manniae, which he edited in 1860, with the addition of most important notes from sources previously almost unexplored.
While engaged in compiling his History of Norway, Munch felt deeply how imperfect was the knowledge of the geography of his native land. The vast plateaux of the Norwegian Fjelds was almost unknown, save to a few hardy hunters. Munch spent his holidays in the recreation of accurately mapping out the wild districts between the Hardanger and Tellenacken, and so well did he organise his staff that a short period sufficed to produce the excellent map of Norway so well known to travellers. In 1855 Munch was in Drontheim, for the purpose of studying the noble old Cathedral, about which he had already written so much. The text to the magnificent illustrated work on Drontheim Cathedral, published about 1859 by the Norwegian Government, was written by Munch, both the original Danish, and the English version, and it is hard indeed to detect that the latter is not the work of an Englishman. As a specimen of English correctly written by a foreigner, it is perhaps unrivalled.
As a Runologist, Munch had not, we think, an equal in all Europe. His observations on the early Runic alphabet, his notes on the Runic Stone of Tune, and on the remarkable Runic inscriptions in the Isle of Man, are only surpassed by his elaborate disquisition on the Maeshowe Runes, which he published only the year before his death. A more cautious and less fanciful interpreter of Runes we never met with. Munch always advocated and enforced the simplest rendering of these short inscriptions, and blamed those who ever sought for recondite meanings in these mystic-looking letters.
Not contented with the documents he had obtained in the libraries of northern Europe, Munch determined, about the year 1856, to proceed to Rome, and search the Archives of the Vatican for materials for his history. The close relation between Scandinavia and the Vatican in ancient times, was well known to the historian, but very few of the important papers relating to Norway had been transcribed. A general idea prevailed that it was impossible for a foreigner, and above all for a Lutheran, to gain access to the wondrous stores in the Vatican Archives.
Munch's perseverance overcame all obstacles, and by the assistance of Cardinal Rauseher and Father Theiner, he was allowed not only to have transcripts, but to search for himself all through the treasured papers. In Rome, Munch was busily engaged for a long time. He left his family there, while he returned for a visit to Norway; and had once more returned to Rome to re-conduct his family to Christiania, when he was seized with his fatal illness in May 1863. He rallied for a week or two, but all hope of work was gone; and on the 25th of May 1863, another attack of apoplexy closed the scene. His great work was thus unfortunately left incomplete, ending with the close of the 14th century.
The great characteristics of Munch's mind were untiring industry and truthfulness. He was the very opposite to some antiquaries, and even historians; he abhorred a brilliant fiction, and many a cherished tradition of the North fell before his unsparing pen. His literary activity was enormous; few men, even in these productive days, have written so much; much fewer indeed, have written so well. Norway may well be proud of her great historian, philologist, runologist, and antiquary. Rarely have such talents and so much industry and rectitude been combined in a single individual.