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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. 1. Merlínusspá I (Merl I) - 103

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 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 18 September 2021)

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

SkP info: VIII, 51

old edition introduction edition manuscripts transcriptions concordance search files

5 — GunnLeif Merl I 5VIII (Bret 73)

edition interactive full text transcriptions old edition references concordance


Cite as: Russell Poole (ed.) 2017, ‘Breta saga 73 (Gunnlaugr Leifsson, Merlínusspá I 5)’ in Margaret Clunies Ross (ed.), Poetry in fornaldarsögur. Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages 8. Turnhout: Brepols, p. 51.

En hers jaðarr         halda máttit
brezkri jǫrðu         né bauga fjǫlð.
Alt fór inn heiðni         herr it eystra
eldi ok jarni         eylands jaðar.

En {jaðarr hers} máttit halda brezkri jǫrðu né fjǫlð bauga. Inn heiðni herr fór alt it eystra, jaðar eylands, eldi ok jarni.

And {the leader of the army} [RULER = Vortigern] could not hold the British land nor the mass of treasures. The heathen army overran the edge of the island, all the east, with fire and iron.

Mss: Hb(50v) (Bret)

Editions: Skj: Gunnlaugr Leifsson, Merlínússpá II 5: AII, 22, BII, 25, Skald II, 15; Bret 1848-9, II, 40 (Bret st. 73); Hb 1892-6, 277; Merl 2012, 132.

Notes: [All]: This stanza possibly represents an inference from one or both of the following in DGB 105: Vortegirnus … duci eorum Hengisto dedit agros plurimos in Lindiseia regione (Reeve and Wright 2007, 127.299-300) ‘Vortigern … gave their leader Hengest extensive lands in the region of Lindsey’ (Reeve and Wright 2007, 126) or [Saxones] urbem Lundoniae primitus adeuntes ceperunt. Ceperunt deinde Eboracum et Lindocolinum nec non et Guintoniam, quasque prouincias deuastantes (Reeve and Wright 2007, 137.494-5) ‘[The Saxons] went first to London, which they took. Next they took York, Lincoln and Winchester and laid waste to all regions’ (Reeve and Wright 2007, 136). But the more likely source, at least for ll. 5-8, is Bede (HE I 15; Colgrave and Mynors 1969, 50-1), who locates the incursions generically in orientali parte insulae ‘in the eastern part of the island’, cited by Henry of Huntingdon (HA 1996, 78-9). — [5-6] alt it eystra ‘all the east’: Lit. ‘all the eastern [edge]’. An adverbial phrase, modifying fór ‘overran’, whose acc. object is jaðar ‘edge’. Bret 1848-9 paraphrases loosely here: over Öens hele östlige Bred ‘over the island’s entire eastern margin’ (similarly Skj B), obscuring the syntax. Cf. Merl I 73/7-8 for adverbial constructions with comp. and sup. adjectives of direction. Merl 2012 appears to presuppose movement towards the east rather than along the eastern side: fuhr … ganz nach Osten bis an den Rand der Insel ‘drove all the way to the east up to the edge of the island’. — [5] fór ‘overran’: For this sense of fara, see LP: fara A4. — [8]: Double alliteration on vowels in even lines, where one of them is <j>, as seen here, occurs rarely as an apparent licence, starting in the late C12th. See Note to Eyv Hál 10/2-3I.

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