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Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages

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Gunnlaugr Leifsson (GunnLeif)

13th century; volume 8; ed. Russell Poole;

VIII. 2. Merlínusspá II (Merl II) - 68

Skj info: Gunnlaugr Leifsson, Islandsk munk, d. 1218 (AII, 10-36, BII, 10-45).

Skj poems:
Merlínússpá I
Merlínússpá II

Gunnlaugr Leifsson (GunnLeif, d. 1218 or 1219) was a monk at the Benedictine house of Þingeyrar, a monastery near the shores of Húnaflói, in northern Iceland, that maintained close relations with the seat of the bishop at Hólar (Turville-Petre 1953, 135). Nothing is known concerning Gunnlaugr’s place of birth, upbringing or social origins. He was regarded in his own time as a man of singular Latin learning (LH II, 394-5) and worked in a distinguished historiographic and hagiographic milieu (de Vries 1964-7, II, 246). In a rare personal anecdote, perhaps apocryphal, Arngrímr Brandsson, a Benedictine monk and abbot at Þingeyrar (d. 1361 or 1362), tells that Gunnlaugr attempted to recite his new history of Saint Ambrose at the church at Hólar but was rebuffed by Bishop Guðmundr Arason (LH II, 394-5; Ciklamini 2008, 1). The two men were evidently on good terms at an earlier stage, however (Ciklamini 2004, 66), and, while bishop at Hólar, Guðmundr commissioned Gunnlaugr to prepare a life of Jón helgi ‘the Saint’ Ǫgmundarson and an account of portents and miracles pertaining to Þorlákr Þórhallsson, both in Latin (LH II, 394-5). 

Works ascribed to Gunnlaugr that survive in one form or other include the Latin life of Jón helgi, represented by a close Icelandic translation; the account of Þorlákr’s miracles; a Latin expansion of Gunnlaugr’s Þingeyrar colleague Oddr Snorrason’s life of King Óláfr Tryggvason, extant in the shape of excerpts translated into Icelandic; an Icelandic original version of Þorvalds þáttr víðfǫrla ‘The Tale of Þorvaldr the Far-traveller’ that may at one time have formed part of the life of Óláfr; and a now entirely lost life of Saint Ambrose (LH II, 394-403; Turville-Petre 1953, 194-200; Bekker-Nielsen 1958; de Vries 1964-7, II, 245-7; Würth 1998, 205-6; Ciklamini 2004, 66; Katrín Axelsdóttir 2005). The only work ascribed to Gunnlaugr that appears to survive in a relatively complete state is Merlínusspá ‘The Prophecies of Merlin’ (Merl I and II). It is also the sole medieval instance of a direct verse translation into Icelandic from Latin prose (Würth 1998, 206).

no FJ abbr

Merlínusspá II — GunnLeif Merl IIVIII (Bret)

Russell Poole 2017, ‘ Gunnlaugr Leifsson, Merlínusspá II’ in Margaret Clunies Ross (ed.), Poetry in fornaldarsögur. Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages 8. Turnhout: Brepols, p. 134. <> (accessed 28 June 2022)

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Skj: Gunnlaugr Leifsson: Merlínússpá I, fri oversættelse (AII, 10-21, BII, 10-24); stanzas (if different): 43, 45/1-4 | 44 | 45/5-8

SkP info: VIII, 145

old edition introduction edition manuscripts transcriptions concordance search files

12 — GunnLeif Merl II 12VIII (Bret 12)

edition interactive full text transcriptions old edition references concordance


Cite as: Russell Poole (ed.) 2017, ‘Breta saga 12 (Gunnlaugr Leifsson, Merlínusspá II 12)’ in Margaret Clunies Ross (ed.), Poetry in fornaldarsögur. Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages 8. Turnhout: Brepols, p. 145.

‘Gengr hon síðan         gótt frón yfir,
svát ór sporum snótar         sprettr upp logi.
Með rǫmmum reyk         Rúténéos
sá vekr ok verð         verþjóðu gerr.

‘Hon gengr síðan yfir gótt frón, svát logi sprettr upp ór sporum snótar. Sá vekr Rúténéos með rǫmmum reyk ok gerr verð verþjóðu.

‘Then she will walk over the good land, so that flame springs up from the footsteps of the woman. It will wake up the Ruteni with the powerful smoke, and make a meal for the sea-people.

Mss: Hb(49v) (Bret)

Readings: [3] ór sporum: sporum Hb    [7] verð: ‘verkn’ Hb

Editions: Skj: Gunnlaugr Leifsson, Merlínússpá I 12: AII, 12, BII, 12-13, Skald II, 8, NN §§95, 607, 2992A; Bret 1848-9, II, 18 (Bret st. 12); Hb 1892-6, 273; Merl 2012, 77-8.

Notes: [All]: Cf. DGB 116 (Reeve and Wright 2007, 153.159-61; cf. Wright 1988, 108, prophecy 33): Quacumque incedet passus sulphureos faciet, qui dupplici flamma fumabunt. Fumus ille excitabit Rutenos et cibum submarinis conficiet ‘Wherever she goes, she will leave tracks of sulphur, which will burn with a double flame. That smoke will arouse the Flemings and provide food for the people beneath the sea’ (cf. Reeve and Wright 2007, 152). The expression submarini ‘people beneath the sea’ is an elegant variation referring to the Ruteni. Cf. II 23 Note to [All]. For the ethnic designation Ruteni, denoting peoples inhabiting Flanders, Geoffrey states his authority as Julius Caesar in De bello gallico (DGB 54.1-2: Reeve and Wright 2007, 68-9). Gunnlaugr does not carry over Geoffrey’s mention of sulphur but adds the characterisation of the smoke as powerful, which could be based on local knowledge of the choking or suffocating odour of sulphur dioxide, released naturally by volcanic activity. In mentioning the Ruteni, Geoffrey appears to allude to the presence of Flemish mercenaries in England in royal Anglo-Norman service from William the Conqueror onwards (on which see Poole 1955, 135). The flame will arouse the Ruteni and provide them with food inasmuch as warfare calls up mercenaries and secures them a livelihood; for a similar expression, cf. actus eius cibus erit narrantibus ‘his deeds will feed those who tell them’ (I 28 Note to [All]). Often the younger sons of knightly families and trained for warfare, these mercenaries stood to earn a better living in England, where many of them settled, than at home. Under Henry I, probably between 1107 and 1111, entire communities of Flemish immigrants were transferred to the Welsh marches from central England, where their possession of land had led to grievances (Oksanen 2008, 264-5) that Geoffrey appears to reflect. — [2] gótt frón ‘the good land’: Gunnlaugr adds this idea. — [3] ór sporum ‘from the footsteps’: The prep. ór is added by Skj B (followed by Skald, Merl 2012 and this edn). Bret 1848-9 supplies at. — [7] verð ‘a meal’: Emended from ms. ‘verkn’ (refreshed) by Finnur Jónsson (Skj B), on the basis of a conjecture in Bret 1848-9. Kock prefers to emend to verk, taken in the sense ‘suffering’ (NN §95; Skald, followed by Merl 2012), but evidently without taking account of DGB. — [8] verþjóðu ‘the sea-people’: This is the meaning to be inferred from DGB (so Skj B) but, as pointed out in Bret 1848-9, where instances are given, the cpd would normally be understood as ‘mankind’, with first element verr ‘man’. Kock (NN §95; cf. NN §§607 and 2992A, followed by Merl 2012) rejects the sense ‘sea-people’ out of hand, listing parallel formations in West Germanic poetry, but overlooks DGB and also Merl II 23/3, where the context requires that verþjóðu be glossed as ‘sea-people’ (cf. Finnur Jónsson 1924a, 329-30). The reference, in both Geoffrey and Gunnlaugr, is presumably to the exposure of the Flemish coastal counties, which lay below sea level, to frequent inundations from the onset of the so-called Great Reclamation Period in the C12th (Augustyn 1995, 12-13). Many of the Flemish mercenaries came from this region (Oksanen 2008, 265). In choosing the heiti ver, conventionally used to mean ‘sea’ in poetry but lit. ‘hunting or fishing ground’ (Fritzner: ver 1), Gunnlaugr may be rationalising Geoffrey’s talk of ‘submarine’ people. A Flemish coastal fishing industry flourished at his time, with backing from the larger towns and ports (Tys and Pieters 2009, 91‑4).

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