Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages

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Anonymous Poems (Anon)

VII. Leiðarvísan (Leið) - 45

not in Skj

Leiðarvísan (‘Way-Guidance’) — Anon LeiðVII

Katrina Attwood 2007, ‘(Introduction to) Anonymous, Leiðarvísan’ in Margaret Clunies Ross (ed.), Poetry on Christian Subjects. Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages 7. Turnhout: Brepols, pp. 137-78.

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Skj: Anonyme digte og vers [XII]: G [2]. Leiðarvísan, et digt fra det 12. årh. (AI, 618-26, BI, 622-33)

SkP info: VII, 137-78

notes: indep. text

old edition introduction edition manuscripts transcriptions concordance references search files


Leiðarvísan ‘Way-Guidance’ (Anon Leið) is a drápa of forty-five sts in dróttkvætt metre. Its name is given in st. 44/8. The poem is a version of the so-called Sunday Letter or ‘Epistle from Heaven’, in which Christ enjoins his followers, on pain of various cruel torments, to respect the sanctity of Sunday, to observe the festivals of the church and (in some versions) to fulfil various obligations of the Christian life.

After a conventional opening with requests to God for inspiration and to his audience for a hearing, the poet describes the Letter’s arrival in sts 6-7: written by Christ himself with golden letters, it was found in Jerusalem on a Sunday and scrutinised by ‘wise men’. They found in it a message to the effect that people who work on a Sunday (st. 8), who fail to observe holy days (st. 9) or who fail to pay the correct tithe (st. 10) will be punished severely. By contrast, baptised people who respect the sanctity of Sunday (sts 11-12) are promised prosperity and peace. The stefjabálkr (sts 13-33) illustrates the significance of Sunday observance in an enumeration of important events from biblical history and religious tradition, all of which are said to have happened on a Sunday. Two refrains occurring at intervals of four sts divide this list into sections concerning ‘Genesis events’ (the creation and Noah, sts 14-16), ‘Exodus events’ (Moses and the Israelites, sts 18-20), ‘Christ events’ (the Annunciation, Birth and Baptism, sts 22-4), Miracles (Cana and the feeding of the Five Thousand, sts 26-8) and events expressing Christ’s triumph and glory (Triumphal entry into Jerusalem, Resurrection and Pentecost, sts 30-2). Thematic parallels between the chosen events, and verbal echoes within the poem, help to establish the theme. The slœmr (sts 34-45) balances the upphaf in both length and subject-matter. St. 34 echoes the opening requests for inspiration, the poet reiterating that he is powerless without help from God. He then goes on to warn that the Second Coming and Day of Judgement (which will, apparently, also take place on a Sunday) are imminent, and urges people to respect Sundays accordingly (sts 35-7). He promises deliverance, peace, eternal life and general happiness to those who love God and pray regularly (sts 37-9), and exhorts all Christians to implore God to grant them a place beside the Holy Cross (st. 40). The poem ends with four sts (42-5) in which the poet prays for himself, thanks one prestr … Rúnolfr (‘Rúnolfr the priest’; see below) for his help with the composition of the poem, then names the poem Leiðarvísan ‘Way-Guidance’, before commending it, with a last bidding-prayer, to its audience.

The legend of a letter from Christ concerning Sunday observance enjoyed a widespread and recurrent celebrity during the Middle Ages. Versions are extant in Lat. and in several vernaculars, dating from the C6th until well into the C14th. Exactly where the letter originated is unclear, although Priebsch (1936, 26-34) suggests, from a detailed comparison of its contents with more mainstream theological writings — notably those of Caesarius of Arles — that its history may have begun in Spain or the Moorish Empire. The widespread distribution and relative simplicity of the theme, however, suggest that versions of the Letter may well have appeared more or less independently in widely differing countries and cultures as and when the perceived need for it arose. Delehaye (1899), Priebsch (1936) and Lees (1990) give detailed accounts of the history and reception of the Letter in Western Europe, while the eastern recensions (many of which seem to derive from Gk texts produced in the C12th and thus considerably later than the earliest Lat. versions) are treated at length in Bittner (1906). Attwood (2003, 59-67) provides a summary of the history of the Letter, drawing particular attention to its apparent connections with the Crusades and the rush of pilgrim journeys — and travelogues — which they inspired.

It may be in this connection that the Letter reached Scandinavia. Apart from Leið — whose title perhaps tantalises us with suggestions of pilgrimage, as well as with more conventional connotations of the way of (Christian) life, — there are two known references to the text in ON-Icel. literature, both occurring in works directly concerned with pilgrim journeys to Jerusalem, one real, one imaginary. The Leiðarvísir ‘Itinerary’ is a prose account of a pilgrimage made in the mid-C12th by one ‘Níkulás’, usually identified with Níkulás Bergsson (d. 1159/1160), who became abbot of the Benedictine house at Munkaþverá shortly after its foundation in 1155 and is named elsewhere as the author of a Jónsdrápa postula (see skald biography in Ník Jóndr) and a Kristsdrápa (Hill 1983, 1993a, 1993b; for an alternative attribution of Leiðarvísir to abbot Níkulás Sæmundsson of Þingeyrar, see Riant 1865, 80).

The longer version of Leiðarvísir includes the following description of a side-chapel in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre: Þar suðr frá því við veggin er alltari sancti Simeonis, þar kom ofan brefit gull-ritna ‘South of there [the main sepulchre] by the wall is the altar of S. Simeon, where the letter written in gold came down’ ( I, 26-7). There can be little doubt that it is to the Sunday Letter, reproductions of which may have been among the souvenirs on sale to medieval pilgrims to Jerusalem, that Níkulás refers. The similarity between the title of his itinerary and that of Leið has led to suggestions that Níkulás Bergsson might be the author of the drápa (Kedar and Westergaard-Nielsen 1978-9, 195; Astås 1993, 390). Although this attribution cannot be made for certain, it is likely that the poet had his background in the same monastic circles as Níkulás did. The Sunday Letter is also mentioned in the description of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the C14th Kirialax saga, which draws heavily on the longer version of Leiðarvísir: Þar stendr Simions kirkia, ok er þar vardveittr hanndleggr hans yfir alltari; þar kom ofan bref þat er sialfr drottin ritadi sinum haundum gullstaufum um hin helga sunnudag ‘S. Simeon’s chapel is there, and his arm-bone is preserved above the altar; the letter about holy Sunday which the Lord himself wrote in golden letters with his own hand came down there’ (Kålund 1917, 65, quoted in Kedar and Westergård-Nielsen 1978-9, 210).

Some of the extant versions of the Sunday Letter also contain a Sunday List, an enumeration of scriptural and pseudo-scriptural events which are said to have occurred on Sunday. The purpose is presumably to reinforce the Letter’s message concerning Sunday observance. Lees (1990) gives a detailed account of the textual relationships between surviving Lat., OE and OIr. versions of the Sunday Letter and the Sunday List. There is general agreement that the surviving Western European versions of the Sunday Letter can be divided, on the basis of their accounts of the circumstances of the Letter’s arrival on earth and its content, into three recensions. Attwood (2003, 68-77) undertakes a detailed comparison of Leið with representative texts of these three recensions and concludes that, although the direct source for Leið is not known, the account of the Sunday Letter in the poem most closely resembles that found in texts from the first recension. There are some thematic parallels between Leið and the late OE homily Sermo angelorum nomina (Pseudo-Wulfstan Homily XLV, in Napier 1883, 226-32) and its likely source, now represented by a late C14th Lat. text Epistola Salvatoris Domini nostri Jesu Christi (Priebsch 1899, 130-4), though it is unlikely that the poet had direct access to either text (Attwood 2003, 76-7). Attwood (2003, 70-5) also indicates several similarities between the Sunday List preserved in the stefjabálkr of Leið (sts 13-33) and those found in two MHG versions of the Sunday List which make no mention of the Sunday Letter: the homily De die dominico, which is preserved in a C15th ms. from the Benedictine monastery of S. Emmeram in Regensburg (Strauch 1895, 148-150), and a Sunday List transmitted in a C12th copy of the homily collection known as the Speculum Ecclesiae, preserved in the monastery at Benediktbeuern (Melbourn 1944, 147-8). Both these texts were known in Scandinavia, and they have been shown to have exerted considerable influence on the HómÍsl sermon In natiuitate Domini (Tveitane 1966). There is considerable similarity between Leið’s list and that found in the S. Emmeram homily (Attwood 2003, 74-5), although there are some minor omissions and alterations in Leið’s narrative. It is probably safest, however, to assume that none of the surviving Sunday Letters or Sunday Lists is the immediate source of Leið, but that the existence of the German and OE analogues suggest probable transmission routes for the material to Iceland.

Leið can be confidently dated to the second half of the C12th, on the basis of its relationship with other Christian drápur of this period (Skard 1953; Attwood 1996b). Other members of the group are Gamlkan Has, ESk Geisl and Anon Pl. These poems share a remarkable number of dictional and structural parallels, the most important of which are detailed in the Notes to this edn and in Attwood 1996b. The chronology of the poems is discussed in the Introductions to Gamlkan Has and Anon Pl. We have no reliable information about the authorship of Leið, although there is a possible hint in st. 43, where the poet thanks a certain gǫfugr prestr ‘noble priest’ called Rúnolfr for his help in composing the poem. Rúnolfr cannot be identified with certainty, although, as discussed in the Notes to st. 43, speculation has generally centred on two priests of that name mentioned in a Prestatal of 1143 (DI I, 180-94). These are Rúnolfr Dálksson, the nephew of Bishop Ketill Þorsteinsson of Hólar (bishop 1122-45) and Rúnolfr Ketilsson (d. 1186), the son of the same bishop. Both men are known to have had an active interest in skaldic poetry, and it is clear that, whoever the author of Leið was, he is likely to have moved in the priestly community, rich in scholarship, which would have been afforded by either Rúnolfr’s connection with Bishop Ketill.

Leið is preserved complete in AM 757a 4° (B) of c. 1400 on fols 10r l. 39 - 11r l. 38. The first thirty-five sts are also found in AM 624 4° (624), which dates from the late C15th (Kålund 1888-94, II, 179). In neither case, however, is the preservation entirely satisfactory: B is extremely dark and difficult to read, and, like all of the other poems preserved in that ms. (Gamlkan Has, Anon Líkn, Anon Heildr, Anon Gyð, and Anon Mdr), the text is badly affected by wearing and lacunae. The 624 version seems to have been copied from B, and hence is useful as a witness to B’s readings at a time when that ms. was in a far better state of preservation. Although 624 is clearly legible, words and phrases are often wrongly ordered, and the text has many misunderstandings and miscopyings (see Attwood 1996a, 41). It has been used selectively in this edn, along with the transcripts described below, when B is defective.

Lbs 444 4°ˣ (444ˣ) is a bundle of loose papers, among which are what appear to have been the working papers for Sveinbjörn Egilsson’s printed edn of four Christian poems (1844). 444ˣ’s transcription of Leið from B is likely to be the work of Brynjólfur Snorrason, an Icel. student at the Arnamagnæan Institute in Copenhagen from 1842-50 (Attwood 1996a, 32-3). The reference ‘444ˣ’ in the textual apparatus refers to this transcription of B. Brynjólfur’s transcription was copied by Jón Sigurðsson in JS 399a-b 4°ˣ (399a-bˣ), and both this transcription and 444ˣ are heavily annotated by Sveinbjörn Egilsson. The 399a-bˣ transcript is identical in all respects to that preserved in 444ˣ, and the reference ‘399a-bˣ’ in the Readings should be taken as shorthand for both transcripts. The 444ˣ bundle also contains other material related to Leið. For ease of reference, this additional material is designated by bracketed numerals, in the form ‘444(1)ˣ’ etc. 444(1)ˣ is a single paper bifolium comprising a diplomatic transcription of sts 1-2 and 35 from 624. The hand is that of Konráð Gíslason. 444(2)ˣ is an untitled diplomatic transcription of 624 in Jón Sigurðsson’s hand. The text is lightly annotated by both Jón and Sveinbjörn Egilsson. 444(3)ˣ is a partially normalised transcription of 624 in Sveinbjörn’s hand. The text is heavily annotated and prose recastings of sts 1-4, 8, 14-18, explanations of complex kennings and a schematic résumé of the poem, all in Sveinbjörn’s hand, are scribbled in the margins. Extensive use has also been made of Hugo Rydberg’s transcription of B in Rydberg 1907, which is generally reliable, though less conservative than the 444ˣ transcription, in that Rydberg incorporates speculative reconstructions (always annotated) into his transcription. Where readings from Rydberg 1907 are given among the Readings, they are designated BRydberg. The text of Leið in Lbs 1152 8°ˣ fols 53-69 has also been consulted. This is Sveinbjörn Egilsson’s clean, print copy for his 1844 edn. There are four minor discrepancies between this copy and the printed text (to which reference is made below): accents are included in áðr (49/5), hánum (37/8), and orðvápn (44/4), while the printed text adds an accent in sképnu (15/8) which does not appear in Lbs 1152 8°ˣ. Reidar Astås’s annotated Norw. translation of Leið in Astås 1970 has also been consulted, as has Attwood 1996a, which is the present ed.’s doctoral thesis.

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