Guðrún Nordal 2012, ‘Poetry and society: The circumstances of skaldic production’ in Diana Whaley (ed.), Poetry from the Kings’ Sagas 1: From Mythical Times to c. 1035. Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages 1. Turnhout: Brepols, pp. xc-xciii.
We have no reliable written sources about the emergence of skaldic poetry in the North. However, the subject matter of the earliest datable poetry and the narratives in which the poetry is preserved in later centuries give some clues to the social circumstances in which the poetry was created, transmitted and then preserved. They show that skaldic poetry was practised at the highest level of society from the ninth century to the middle of the fourteenth, and that the verse served not only the ends of the secular ruling class, but that it belonged at the heart of pagan religion as well as that of the Christian Church and its learned milieu. No other literary genre of the medieval North married so successfully, and over five centuries, the interests of the secular and religious powers. Verse-making was frequently practised by aristocratic poets, but was also enriched by talented poets from the lower social classes who could earn a living by composing verse for their patrons.
The term dróttkvætt ‘court poetry’ alludes to the poets’ audiences in the pre-Conversion period in Scandinavia; the word drótt ‘court’ suggests the privileged environment of the king or the army leader and his band of retainers. The complexities of skaldic metre and its intricate diction indicate that skaldic poetry was intended for a limited group of those knowledgeable about the rules and mythological background to the diction, perhaps even intended originally as a ‘secret language’ of the members of the drótt (Lindow 1975, 323). Skaldic literacy spread rapidly and so successfully that skaldic verse came to be practised and enjoyed in most of the West Nordic region over a period of five hundred years.
The earliest poets were of Norwegian origin, but after the conversion of Norway most of the known poets are Icelandic (cf. §1.2). We also know of a handful of Orcadian poets from the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. Identifying the nationality of the known poets must rely to some degree on the Icelandic authorship of most of the sagas and manuscripts in which the poetry is contained. However, in many cases it is difficult to determine the nationality of the poet with any certainty.
The strong position of skaldic verse at the royal court in the pre-Conversion period was maintained in the Christian era, which meant that the poets had an influential role in shaping for posterity the political image and historical role of two of the most important Christian kings of Norway, Óláfr Tryggvason and S. Óláfr Haraldsson. The eleventh century marks the transition period from the pagan oral culture to the Christian textual one and that century is characterised by a wealth of poetry about the most important Christian kings, the two Óláfrs and Haraldr harðráði ‘Hard-rule’. Haraldr was himself a poet and his court was seen by later writers to have played a significant role in consolidating the practice and social importance of the skaldic art.
Skaldic poetry thus played a highly significant political and religious role in the ninth, tenth and eleventh centuries, but was then turned into one of the most surprising building blocks of the Christian textual culture of the North. The earlier verse was transmitted orally, so Christian writers faced the challenge of transforming this poetry into a commodity in the new textual culture. The first difficulty was a reliable method by which to turn the oral verse into a written text – to find the right letters to accurately represent the oral sounds. The First Grammarian clearly has this problem in mind when he refers to skaldic examples in his analysis of the sound system (Guðrún Nordal 2009). A reliable encoding of oral textual transmission was a prerequisite for preserving the authenticity of the poetry in a written context. As can be seen from the testimony of the grammatical treatises (dated from the middle of the twelfth century to the middle of the fourteenth century) and works such as Snorra Edda, the early pagan verse was used in relation to the teaching of grammatica in very much the same way as classical pagan verse was used to elucidate the teaching of Latin. Skaldic verse was thus given a heightened role at the heart of the syllabus in the schools and in medieval literature, and this paved the way for its use as an authentic source in the kings’ sagas.
This triple role, the political, the religious and the pedagogic, is exemplified by the court poet and priest Einarr Skúlason. He was a learned man, already ordained a priest when he travelled to Norway to present his poems for a number of royal patrons in Scandinavia. Einarr created the first vernacular saga of S. Óláfr as a Christian drápa, named Geisli ‘Light beam’. He recited the poem in the cathedral of Niðaróss (Trondheim) in 1153, and in his audience were not only three Norwegian kings, but the newly-consecrated archbishop of the see. Einarr designed the poem as a metrical vita, with a prologue, account of the saint’s life and death, a list of his miracles and an epilogue. Already in the middle of the twelfth century Geisli typifies the maturity of the skaldic tradition in terms of Christian learning and classical writing.
Skaldic poetry found its way into kings’ sagas in the twelfth, thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, and was most likely transmitted in the royal circles that patronised the writing of these works. The verse was used as source material in the sagas of the kings, and became a foundation for many of their narrative sequences. Court poetry is only rarely preserved outside the context of these sagas, or separately in manuscripts containing them (such as the poem Geisli in Bergsbók and Flateyjarbók), circumstances that suggest that the verse was transmitted orally until it was encoded in the kings’ sagas.
Skaldic verse is found in all of the indigenous saga genres of the North, in kings’ sagas, sagas of Icelanders, contemporary sagas and fornaldarsögur. The poetry in the sagas of Icelanders falls into two categories: 1. Verse datable to the tenth to eleventh centuries, often by poets who are also known as court poets (Hallfreðr and Kormákr) or as having interacted with the royal courts (Egill), and 2. Poetry composed in the thirteenth or fourteenth centuries at the time when the sagas were written. The same can be said of the fornaldarsögur. Many of the poems in the fornaldarsögur must have been transmitted orally over a long period of time, but a large part of the verse was probably composed at the time of writing the sagas. In these two genres we notice the intermingling of an oral tradition with an active tradition of skaldic verse-making in Iceland in the twelfth, thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.
The pedagogic role of skaldic verse in the teaching of grammatica in the schools had the consequence that an even larger group of poets in Iceland had studied the practice of skaldic poetry as part of their education. The school texts relating to skaldic poetry, such as the grammatical treatises, Litla Skálda and Snorra Edda, are only known from Icelandic manuscripts, except for Háttalykill, which is of joint Orcadian and Icelandic origin. As a consequence of its centrality to the pedagogic tradition, the practice of skaldic verse-making in the twelfth, thirteenth and fourteenth centuries was equally important in the Church and religious circles, as well as in the aristocratic milieu in Iceland (Guðrún Nordal 2001, 142-3).
The saga narratives and manuscripts of skaldic verse preserve only a fraction of the skaldic poetry that was transmitted and known in the Middle Ages. Skáldatal ‘Enumeration of Skalds’ names a number of poets from the ninth to the late thirteenth centuries whose identity is unknown and whose works are lost. Our picture of skaldic poetry is therefore dependent on the preferences of medieval writers working in the interests of secular patrons, themselves or the Church.
A case in point is the portrayal of poetic activity in Iceland in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries as it can be gauged from Sturlunga saga. The poets mentioned there are mainly powerful men, either goðar, powerful farmers or members of the distinguished families in the country, or professional poets staying with, or in the company of, these same aristocratic chieftains. The picture is therefore curiously uniform. The geographical distribution of the verse tallies with that of the sources and of the known writers; the poets are almost exclusively from the west and north-west of Iceland. We are therefore in the hands of the medieval writers when we judge the origin, the social variety and function of skaldic verse.
Skaldic poetry was practised well into the fourteenth century in Iceland, after the poets had lost their royal patronage in Norway. The strongest poetic communities at this time are found in the monasteries of learned Benedictine monks and abbots in the north of Iceland. They left behind a number of religious drápur, in the tradition of Geisli, about Bishop Guðmundr Arason. The Benedictines were also responsible for the creation of the Codex Wormianus, which contains the youngest complete version of Snorra Edda, where this work is placed in a pedagogical context with the four grammatical treatises and Rígsþula. In the vernacular poetry of these clerics there is a seamless linking of their deep scholastic learning, their doctrinal interpretation and the skaldic art. At the end of the long-flourishing tradition of skaldic poetry we note, therefore, how the cloistered audience of this deeply Christian verse brings to mind the elite courtly drótt of ninth-century Norway which enjoyed the earliest known mythological poems.