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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, 136

old edition introduction edition manuscripts transcriptions concordance search files

3 — GunnLeif Merl II 3VIII (Bret 3)

edition interactive full text transcriptions old edition references concordance


Cite as: Russell Poole (ed.) 2017, ‘Breta saga 3 (Gunnlaugr Leifsson, Merlínusspá II 3)’ in Margaret Clunies Ross (ed.), Poetry in fornaldarsögur. Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages 8. Turnhout: Brepols, p. 136.

Leita ýtir         orð at vanda
— viti flotnar þat —         frœðis þessa.
Heldr fýsumk nú         fornra minna
miðsamlig rǫk         mǫnnum segja.

Ýtir leita at vanda orð þessa frœðis; flotnar viti þat. Heldr fýsumk nú segja mǫnnum miðsamlig rǫk fornra minna.

Men seek to elaborate on the words of this lore; let people realise that. Rather, I now hasten to tell men of momentous signs from ancient memories.

Mss: Hb(49r) (Bret)

Editions: Skj: Gunnlaugr Leifsson, Merlínússpá I 3: AII, 11, BII, 11, Skald II, 7, NN §92, FF §62; Bret 1848-9, II, 14-15 (Bret st. 5); Hb 1892-6, 272; Merl 2012, 67-8.

Notes: [1]: This edn follows Kock (NN §92; Skald; cf. Merl 2012) in retaining the ms. readings ýtir leita (refreshed), ‘men seek’. Emendation to leitiga ýtum ‘I do not seek … for men’, with Bret 1848-9 (followed in Skj B), is unnecessary. — [2] at vanda orð ‘to elaborate on the words’: The inf. vanda can be glossed as either ‘make elaborately, take care over, elaborate on’ (CVC: vanda I 2; Fritzner: vanda 3) or ‘make difficulties concerning, baulk at, object to’ (CVC: vanda II 2; Fritzner: vanda 1, 2). The former is the only usage documented for poetry in LP: vanda and is that adopted here, as in Bret 1848-9 (söge pyntelige Ord ‘seek out embellished diction’) and Skj B (identical). Gunnlaugr may possibly be noting the inclination of other poets to produce elaborate renderings of the Prophecies, thereby perhaps anticipating the attitude to obscurity exhibited by the C14th composer of Lilja (Anon Lil 98VII), which expresses disapproval of poetry composed in an elaborate (vandan) style. Kock’s interpretation, noggrant återjiva ‘render exactly’, is derived from the same sub-sense of vanda. Although the sense ‘make difficulties concerning’ is otherwise undocumented in poetry up to and including Gunnlaugr’s time, a case could perhaps be made for it insofar as Geoffrey’s material was undoubtedly objected to by some contemporaries. External to Merl, scepticism concerning Geoffrey’s historiography culminates in the strenuous objections expressed by William of Newburgh (b. 1135/6, d. in or after 1198). In his Historia rerum Anglicarum, apparently composed between 1196 and 1198 (cf. Taylor 2004), William writes (Liebermann and Pauli 1885, 225): Qui etiam maiori ausu cuiusdam Merlini divinationes fallacissimas, quibus utique de proprio plurimum adiecit, dum eas in Latinum transfunderet, tanquam authenticas et inmobili veritate subnixas prophetias vulgavit ‘Furthermore, with greater temerity he promulgated the utterly false predictions of a certain Merlin, to which assuredly he added more of his own, then rendered them into Latin, as if they were authentic prophecies founded on an unwavering veracity’. Gunnlaugr’s parenthesis flotnar viti þat ‘let people realise that’ (l. 3) could be understood as the poet’s honest disclosure and advance warning to his audience that such objections have been raised. At the same time, he differentiates his own attitude from that of the persons who would make difficulties by stating that he means to launch right into his account. — [7] miðsamlig rök ‘momentous signs’: Both words in this phrase offer difficulties of interpretation. In its draft article on rǫk ONP proposes the following main senses: 1. ophav, oprindelse, grund, argument, bevis; 2. tegn, under, åbenbaring; 3. forhold, hændelse, begivenhed ‘1. beginning, origin, cause, argument, proof; 2. sign, wonder, revelation; 3. condition, event’. While this might suggest a variety of possible senses in II 3/7, the presence of rǫk in II 2/4 limits the options, if we assume that the same sense applies in both stanzas, which seems likeliest. Here sense 2. ‘sign’ is selected. The adj. miðsamligr (here n. pl., agreeing with rǫk) is not attested elsewhere and any explanation can only be tentative. Compounds, either adjectives or adverbs, with the final element ‑samlig- are numerous (cf. Fritzner IVsamliga and  samligr). The attestations show that the first element in such compounds is typically if not invariably a noun rather than an adj. or verb. On that basis, in this edn the first element in miðsamlig is interpreted as mið ‘middle-point’, in one of its derived senses of ‘pointer, mark, sign, indicator, indication, guidance’ (cf. ONP: mið (hafa mið); Fritzner: II mið). Particularly relevant is the attestation (Unger 1874, 304; cf. CVC, ONP: mið) kváðu þeir lítil mið at Páli ok kenningum hans ‘they said that there was little guidance [to be had] from Paul and his teachings’, i.e. the teachings were ‘little to be relied on’. Comparable senses can be inferred from the verb miða ‘mark, indicate, point to, enable someone to gauge’ (CVC: miða; Fritzner: miða 1). Signs (rǫk) that are miðsamlig would on this logic be ‘indicative, pregnant, momentous’, from a basic sense of ‘pointing to’, where the thing pointed to is the shape of the future. The same thinking can be seen in Merl I 100/3-8: nemi skynsemi ok skili gǫrla, hvat mun táknat í þessi tǫlu – spásaga esat ǫll enn liðin ‘let them learn wisdom and understand fully what is signified in this narration – the entire prophecy has not yet come to pass’. The following stanza, I 101/7-10, enjoins the audience to compare recent events with the prophecies to see that they do indeed coincide, i.e. to see how the prophecies point to and are borne out by subsequent events. Suggestions by previous eds about the meaning of miðsamligr differ widely. Bret 1848-9 translates it as mindeværdig ‘memorable’, followed by Merl 2012 (though there the gloss is misleadingly ascribed to LP (1860): miðsamligr), but this is purely ad hoc, since there is no connection between the attested senses of the Icelandic words mið, miða and the concept of memorability. Finnur Jónsson explains as passende ‘fitting’, from a literal rammende midten ‘hitting the midpoint’ (LP: miðsamligr), but such a sense seems too vague to measure up to the demands of the context. Kock (FF §62) translates ll. 5-8 as själv önskar skalden ivrigt att för folket tälja en välbehaglig följd av forna minnen ‘for his part the skald wishes earnestly to give men a pleasing series of ancient memories’, where miðsamlig is glossed as välbehaglig ‘pleasing’. This gloss rests upon a posited derivation of miðsamligr from MHG mitesam ‘affable, friendly’; in support Kock adduces other foreign words in Merl, but these are not properly speaking comparable and in any case the notion of ‘affable’, even stretched to ‘pleasing’, scarcely fits the context.

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