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Gunnlaugr Leifsson (GunnLeif)

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

VIII. 1. Merlínusspá I (Merl I) - 103

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 I (‘The Prophecies of Merlin I’) — GunnLeif Merl IVIII (Bret)

Russell Poole 2017, ‘ Gunnlaugr Leifsson, Merlínusspá I’ in Margaret Clunies Ross (ed.), Poetry in fornaldarsögur. Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages 8. Turnhout: Brepols, p. 38. <> (accessed 6 August 2021)

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Skj: Gunnlaugr Leifsson: Merlínússpá II (AII, 22-36, BII, 24-45)

SkP info: VIII, 75

old edition introduction edition manuscripts transcriptions concordance search files

38 — GunnLeif Merl I 38VIII (Bret 106)

edition interactive full text transcriptions old edition references concordance


Cite as: Russell Poole (ed.) 2017, ‘Breta saga 106 (Gunnlaugr Leifsson, Merlínusspá I 38)’ in Margaret Clunies Ross (ed.), Poetry in fornaldarsögur. Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages 8. Turnhout: Brepols, p. 75.

‘Svá tœmir láð         lýða bǫrnum,
— drífr hryggr heðan         herr ór landi —
at skógar þar         skjótla vaxa,
es ársamir         akrar vôru
fyrr með fyrðum         á fold Breta.

‘Svá tœmir láð {bǫrnum lýða} — hryggr herr drífr heðan ór landi —, at skógar vaxa skjótla þar, es fyrr vôru ársamir akrar með fyrðum á fold Breta.

‘Thus the land will be emptied of {the children of men} [MANKIND] — the grieving people will stream from here out of the land — so that the forests will quickly grow there where previously among men there were fertile fields in the land of the Britons.

Mss: Hb(51v) (Bret)

Readings: [5] skógar: skjótla Hb

Editions: Skj: Gunnlaugr Leifsson, Merlínússpá II 38: AII, 27, BII, 31-2, Skald II, 20; Bret 1848-9, II, 52 (Bret st. 106); Hb 1892-6, 279; Merl 2012, 156.

Notes: [All]: Cf. DGB 112 (Reeve and Wright 2007, 147.61-2; cf. Wright 1988, 103, prophecy 5): Erit miseranda regni desolatio, et areae messium in fruticosos saltus redibunt ‘There will be grievous desolation in the kingdom and the threshing-floors for harvest will revert to fruitful glades’ (Reeve and Wright 2007, 146). This passage would make better sense if in infructuosos ‘in unfruitful’, the reading of ms. H of the First Variant Version were adopted (Wright 1988, 103), thus correcting an obvious haplography. This is done by e.g. the Anglo-Norman decasyllabic translation: lande senz fruit ‘fruitless scrub’ (Blacker 2005, 35) and Alain de Flandres (Wille 2015, 128). Implicitly, at least, Gunnlaugr’s skógar ‘forests’ are unfruitful: it is unclear whether he knew such a reading or has rationalised the text on his own initiative. Geoffrey explains in DGB XI that the famine and plague are so severe that the Saxons cannot survive in Britain any better than the Britons (Reeve and Wright 2007, 278-9). Gunnlaugr interweaves motifs from the source passage corresponding to I 36. — [1] tœmir ‘will be emptied’: The verb is used impersonally. This is one of only two attestations in poetry, both in C12th or later texts (LP: tœma). — [4] herr ‘people’: Merl 2012 reads acc. sg. her, treats drífr as transitive and construes hryggr as the subject (adj. for noun), yielding a translation traurig drängt er (man?) die Menge von hier aus dem Land ‘sorrowful he (one?) expels the multitude from here out of the land’. But this fits poorly with DGB and leaves the identity of the person described as hryggr ‘sorrowful’ unexplained; moreover, the required sense of drífa is attested in only a single dubious instance (ONP: drífa B út 2). Geminate <r> is frequently simplified in Hb (Hb 1892-6, xliii). — [5] skógar ‘forests’: Emended by Bret 1848-9, followed by all eds, for ms. skjótla ‘quickly’ (not refreshed), an anticipation of the next line. Also possible would be the reverse order skjótla … skógar.

Runic data from Samnordisk runtextdatabas, Uppsala universitet, unless otherwise stated