Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages

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Anonymous Poems (Anon)

VII. Plácitusdrápa (Pl) - 59

not in Skj

Plácitusdrápa (‘Drápa about S. Eustace’) — Anon PlVII

Jonna Louis-Jensen and Tarrin Wills 2007, ‘(Introduction to) Anonymous, Plácitusdrápa’ in Margaret Clunies Ross (ed.), Poetry on Christian Subjects. Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages 7. Brepols, Turnhout, pp. 179-220.

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Skj: Anonyme digte og vers [XII]: G [1]. Plácítúsdrápa, Digt fra det 12. årh. (AI, 607-18, BI, 606-22)

SkP info: VII, 179-220


old edition introduction edition manuscripts transcriptions concordance references search files


PlácitusdrápaDrápa about Plácitus’ (Anon Pl) is the only C12th Icel. poem to be preserved in a near-contemporary ms.: AM 673 b 4° (673b), dated to c. 1200. Ms. 673b contains a number of mistakes which indicate that it is a transcript of an older ms., not an original. Since no other copy of the poem has survived, some of these errors are difficult or impossible to correct, but the transmission of Pl would nevertheless have compared favourably with that of other early poetry if the codex unicus had not been badly damaged by wear and tear. The preserved leaves are disfigured by numerous small holes in the vellum and by stains, possibly caused by damp, that have more or less obliterated large areas of writing. It is to be hoped that better methods than the ones presently used to decipher worn and indistinct writing will be developed in the future, but for the time being the only way to recover the passages that are torn or mouldered away remains conjecture, which of course carries varying degrees of conviction.

There are some discrepancies between certain eds and transcribers regarding the actual ms. readings. The available versions include: Þorsteinn Helgason’s transcript, used by Sveinbjörn Egilsson (cf. Louis-Jensen 1998, 89n.) and printed in his edn after Sveinbjörn’s normalised text, referred to in the apparatus as 673bÞH; Halldór Einarson’s transcripts (673bHE) which are included as variants to 673bÞH in Sveinbjörn’s edn; Sveinbjörn’s own notes to the transcripts (673bSE); Finnur Jónsson’s readings in 1887 (673bFJ) and Skj A (673bSkj); and Jón Helgason’s readings in 1932-3 (673bJH). Many of these works have readings that are now no longer visible: such readings are included in the textual apparatus. Where these eds have indicated a reading as uncertain, the reading is followed by ‘(?)’.

Conjectures to Pl are found chiefly in Sveinbjörn Egilsson (1833), Finnur Jónsson (1887), Skj, and also in an article by Jón Helgason (1932-3) and a number of paragraphs in NN. Reference should also be made to Konráð Gíslason’s edn of Nj (with Eiríkur Jónsson 1875-89, II); the comments on Pl made there were used by Finnur Jónsson in his 1887 edn and Skj. It should be emphasised that it is difficult to distinguish between reading of the ms., conjecture and emendation in some of these sources. Unless otherwise noted, conjectures are those proposed by Sveinbjörn Egilsson 1833.

Conjectures are incorporated into the main text in the following cases: where a previous ed. has been able to read the text in the ms. with some degree of certainty, even if the ms. is now no longer legible; where some text of a line survives and a missing word can be conjectured on the basis of the metre, the prose version or some other evidence indicating the precise wording; or where the emendation is of a minor or grammatical nature. Other plausible conjectures made by eds are included in the Notes.

The edn of Louis-Jensen 1998 is a version of the Pl text and translation in Skj B, updated with readings and emendations from Jón Helgason 1932-3. The present edn is based on Louis-Jensen 1998, but has been compared with the unique ms. by Jonna Louis-Jensen and Tarrin Wills. As a result, a few of the readings presented here differ from those in Louis-Jensen 1998. The English translation in Louis-Jensen 1998 is based on John Tucker’s unpublished translation of the Danish prose version in Skj B. The present translation and prose word order have been independently revised by Tarrin Wills and Margaret Clunies Ross, while the deconstruction of kennings was prepared by Jonna Louis-Jensen. The Introduction, Variant readings and Notes are based on Louis-Jensen 1998, with revisions and additions by Tarrin Wills and Margaret Clunies Ross.

The ms. fragment 673b is likely to have originally been part of a larger compilation, which probably included the also fragmentary AM 673 a II 4° (Louis-Jensen 1998, xcii-iii). The latter includes the remains of an Icel. translation of the Lat. Physiologus, probably from an English source, and parts of two sermons, on the religious-symbolic meanings associated with parts of a ship, and on the symbolism of the rainbow (Larsson 1891; Hamre 1949). While 673b is itself dated c. 1200, scholars agree that its text of Pl is a copy at one or more removes from the original written text. This allows for the possibility that the poem was composed as early as c. 1150 or as late as c. 1200; for the various arguments, see Louis-Jensen 1998, xcic-cii. The scribe was an Icelander, and there is no reason to doubt that the composer of Pl was also an Icelander, despite arguments by Seip (1949) that both were Norw. It appears, however, from marginal additions to both ms. fragments, that the compilation was in Norway in the late C14th.

Louis-Jensen (1998, ciii-cxxv) has demonstrated that Pl may be compared to versions A and C of the four extant prose redactions of Plácitus saga (see Tucker 1993 and 1998 for a discussion of the prose texts), though all extant mss of these versions of the prose saga are considerably later than 673b. She shows by means of detailed comparisons that Pl descends from the same translation as A and C, and that it shows a particular affinity to C, whose scribe is likely to have been influenced by Pl. She also queries Finnur Jónsson’s proposal (1887, 257-8) that the poet of Pl may have worked directly from an abbreviated Lat. source. These deductions are of considerable interest for the literary and stylistic study of Christian skaldic poetry.

The legend of Placidus is one of the most exciting in Christian hagiography. It tells of a Roman general and favourite of the Emperor Trajan (r. 98-117), who converted to Christianity after an encounter with Christ in the form of a stag, changed his name to Eustace, was subjected to various trials, being deprived of his wife by a lecherous ship’s captain and of his two sons by wild beasts, and was then reunited with his family before they were all martyred together in an ox-shaped oven of brass for refusing to sacrifice to pagan gods for the success of the new Emperor, Hadrian (r. 117-38).

The legend of Placidus/Eustace exists in several Greek and Lat. versions, and probably took shape under the dual influence of Greek romance and the Christian Bible. From the C9th the legend became popular in Carolingian circles and spread from there to England, where vernacular versions in both prose and verse developed and attained considerable popularity during the C11th (Lapidge 1988). Knowledge of the legend may have spread to Scandinavia from France, Germany or England, the latter being perhaps the most likely source. The various Norse redactions of the prose saga of Plácitus, the earliest of which is a fragment written c. 1150 in Trondheim, together with the unique early ms. of Pl, bear witness to the popularity of the legend in medieval Iceland from C12th onwards. This may be in part because of the genuine interest of the narrative, in part because, as an example of a virtuous pagan, the figure of Placidus struck a chord in a society concerned with the fate of its own ‘noble heathens’, as a number of sagas of Icelanders reveal. Oddly enough, in spite of the popularity of his legend, Plácitus was not himself the subject of any recorded cult in Iceland (Cormack 1994), even though surviving Icel. calendars from before 1400 attest to the liturgical importance of his feast (Tucker 1998, xxxi).

Pl is a fragmentary drápa in dróttkvætt metre, preserved on 5 leaves of 673b. Louis-Jensen has calculated that at least a first and a last leaf have been lost (1998, xcii; cf. Finnur Jónsson 1887, 254; Lange 1958a, 100-1). It is clear from the structure of the drápa and the extant 59 sts that 11 sts have been lost at the opening and 8 at the end, making up an original number of 78 sts. 10 sts remain of an original 21-st. introduction (upphaf). The central section of the poem (stefjabálkr), comprising 36 sts, begins at st. 11 with the first refrain (stef), which is repeated at sts 18 and 25. Stef 2 occurs at sts 32, 39 and 46. The concluding slœmr begins at st. 47 and runs to st. 59, but it is presumed to have comprised 8 more sts to a total of 21, in parallel with the upphaf.

The anonymous poet of Pl adapted his narrative very skilfully to skaldic conventions. As Louis-Jensen has demonstrated (1998, cvii-cxxv), he was often able to echo words and phrases in the prose version of the legend he was presumably working from, while adapting them to the considerable metrical constraints of dróttkvætt. In addition, as his was a narrative poem, he had to tell a story while at the same time observing the micro-structural divisions of the stefjabálkr. This may be why he sometimes rearranges the sequence of events in the narrative, in comparison with the normal prose sequence of the legend. Of outstanding interest, particularly in comparison with other C12th drápur, is the poet’s copious use of kennings to ornament his narrative. These fall particularly into the traditional categories of kennings for man, warrior, seafarer, generous man and woman, alongside kennings of a newer, Christian type for God, Christ, holy man and priest. Noteworthy also is the poet’s skilful use of direct speech (where the prose texts sometimes have reported speech) to enliven the narrative.

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