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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 30 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, 138

old edition introduction edition manuscripts transcriptions concordance search files

4 — GunnLeif Merl II 4VIII (Bret 4)

edition interactive full text transcriptions old edition references concordance


Cite as: Russell Poole (ed.) 2017, ‘Breta saga 4 (Gunnlaugr Leifsson, Merlínusspá II 4)’ in Margaret Clunies Ross (ed.), Poetry in fornaldarsögur. Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages 8. Turnhout: Brepols, p. 138.

Ljós mun lýðum         ljóðbók vesa;
þós í frœði         flest at ráða,
þats fyrir jǫfurr         ǫldum sagði
brezkri þjóðu;         nú skal brag kveða.

Ljóðbók mun vesa ljós lýðum; þós flest at ráða í frœði, þats jǫfurr sagði brezkri þjóðu fyrir ǫldum; nú skal kveða brag.

The song-book will be clear to men; yet most [of it] is to be interpreted by means of wisdom that ages ago the leader imparted to the British people; now the poem shall be recited.

Mss: Hb(49r) (Bret)

Readings: [2] ljóðbók: ljóðborg Hb

Editions: Skj: Gunnlaugr Leifsson, Merlínússpá I 4: AII, 11, BII, 11, Skald II, 7, NN §93; Bret 1848-9, II, 15 (Bret st. 4); Hb 1892-6, 272; Merl 2012, 68-70.

Notes: [All]: Here Gunnlaugr concludes his introduction. — [2] ljóðbók ‘song-book’: Emended in this edn from ms. ljóðborg ‘city of song’ (refreshed). Such a cpd would normally be construed as a kenning meaning ‘mouth, chest’ and similar, but the sense required by context is ‘poem’, as posited in Bret 1848-9 and Skj B. Gunnlaugr refers elsewhere to the parts of this poem as bók (I 95/2, II 63/3) or bœkr, the latter collocated with adj. bjartar ‘bright’ (I 96/3-4), corresponding to ljós ‘clear’ here. Cf. ljóðabók ‘book of lays’ (CVC, ONP: ljóðabók). Possibly Latin titles such as Herbert of Bosham’s well-known Liber melorum ‘Book of songs/harmonies’, written shortly after 1186 (cf. Smalley 1973, 79), suggested this expression. — [5, 6] fyrir ǫldum ‘ages ago’: This interpretation follows Skj B. Kock, followed by Merl 2012, objects to the complicated word order and instead proposes, with parallels from West Germanic poetry, that ǫldum and brezkri þjóðu (l. 6) should be read as in apposition (NN §93): vad fursten forutsagt för människorna, för det bretonska folket ‘what the leader prophesied before men, before the British people’. But Gunnlaugr occasionally uses complex word orders (cf. I 13/5-10, I 54/9-12, I 63/5-8), whereas the typically West Germanic style of variation imputed to him by Kock is nowhere unmistakably exemplified. — [5] jǫfurr ‘the leader’: There is nothing in DGB to justify reference to Merlin as jǫfurr, a heiti whose attestations relate specifically to leaders and rulers (LP: jǫfurr), but possibly the use of this heiti reflects influence from Geoffrey’s later Vita Merlini, which narrates the life of Merlin Caledonius (also known as Silvestris) (Poole 2014, 23-4). Crick (2011, 70-1) comments that often medieval commentators failed to discriminate between Merlin Caledonius and Merlin Ambrosius, and Merlinian prophecy circulated without precise attribution. For a probable instance of this confusion see Curley (1982, 220); Gunnlaugr might have drawn upon such a commentary. For references to Merlin Caledonius as king see Clarke’s edn of Vita Merlini (1973, 52-3). — [8] skal ‘shall’: The verb is impersonal. Emendation to skalk ‘I shall’, with Merl 2012, is unnecessary.

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