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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 3 July 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, 149

old edition introduction edition manuscripts transcriptions concordance search files

16 — GunnLeif Merl II 16VIII (Bret 16)

edition interactive full text transcriptions old edition references concordance


Cite as: Russell Poole (ed.) 2017, ‘Breta saga 16 (Gunnlaugr Leifsson, Merlínusspá II 16)’ in Margaret Clunies Ross (ed.), Poetry in fornaldarsögur. Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages 8. Turnhout: Brepols, p. 149.

‘“Kom Kambría
með Kornbretum,
seg Vintóni:
‘Vǫllr þik gleypir.
Fœr hirðis sjǫt
hinig, es leggja
lung at láði;
munu liðir allir
hǫfði fylgja;
þats hjǫlp guma.’


‘“Come Cambria, along with the Cornish Britons, say to Winchester: ‘The plain will swallow you up. Move the shepherd’s settlement here, where ships make for the land; all limbs will follow the head; that is the salvation of men.’

notes: Cf. DGB 116 (Reeve and Wright 2007, 153.166-8; cf. Wright 1988, 108, prophecy 35): accede, Kambria, et iunge lateri tuo Cornubiam, et dic Guintoniae ‘absorbebit te tellus; transfer sedem pastoris ubi naues applicant, et cetera membra caput sequantur’ ‘Come, Wales, and join Cornwall at your side, and say to Winchester, “The earth will swallow you up; move the seat of your shepherd to the place where ships make landfall, and let the remaining limbs follow the head”’ (cf. Reeve and Wright 2007, 152). Geoffrey’s prophecy expresses Welsh aspirations to restore the see of St Davids to metropolitan status (Tatlock 1950, 405; Poole 1955, 296; Barrow 1956, 220; Brooke 1961, 212); the key to this kind of advocacy was to present the preferred location as no mere rural retreat but the major urban centre within its diocese, hence the mention of ships, with its implication that St Davids was a port as well as a city (see Note to I 59/2). Winchester may have been the target of this campaign insofar as its bishop traditionally filled the post of Chancellor of England and hence commanded significant secular power. The allegory here is probably based on the literal fact that the city of Winchester is notoriously built upon unstable ground. Channels of the river Itchen come close to the Cathedral, causing periodic flooding of the crypt. The admonition for the limbs to follow the head has its ultimate source in the Aesopian fabulist Babrius 134: ‘Fable of the Snake and his Tail’ (Perry 1984, 174-5), where the tail insists on replacing the head as leader but, having then blindly led the snake into a stony pit, is obliged to beg the head to save the snake by resuming its customary role; Gunnlaugr goes beyond Geoffrey in spelling out that this is mankind’s salvation, as stated by Babrius, because symbolically the tail represents the irrational and has to be subordinated to the head, which represents the rational. He therefore either knew the fable independently of DGB or found this amplification in a commentary on DGB. In Geoffrey’s allegory the limbs would represent the regions dependent upon Winchester, which, with numerous estates, was the richest diocese in England.

texts: Bret 16

editions: Skj Gunnlaugr Leifsson: Merlínússpá I 16 (AII, 13; BII, 13); Skald II, 8; Bret 1848-9, II, 20 (Bret st. 16); Hb 1892-6, 273; Merl 2012, 81-2.


AM 544 4° (Hb) 49v, 7 - 49v, 9 (Bret)  transcr.  image  image  image  
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