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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 17 September 2021)

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

SkP info: VIII, 88

old edition introduction edition manuscripts transcriptions concordance search files

52 — GunnLeif Merl I 52VIII (Bret 120)

edition interactive full text transcriptions old edition references concordance


Cite as: Russell Poole (ed.) 2017, ‘Breta saga 120 (Gunnlaugr Leifsson, Merlínusspá I 52)’ in Margaret Clunies Ross (ed.), Poetry in fornaldarsögur. Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages 8. Turnhout: Brepols, p. 88.

‘Sprett es í miðju         mótpenningum;
mun gǫrst gleðu         glatask ránsemi.
Tennr munu gylðis         trausti numnar,
ok léons vargar         verða at fiskum
hvassir hvelpar         hvaltúnum í.

‘Sprett es í miðju mótpenningum; ránsemi gleðu mun gǫrst glatask. Tennr gylðis munu numnar trausti, ok vargar léons, hvassir hvelpar, verða at fiskum í {hvaltúnum}.

‘There will be a split down the middle of stamped pennies; the thieving ways of the kite will completely come to a stop. The wolf’s teeth will be deprived of their strength, and the lion’s wolves, keen cubs, will become fish in {the whale-enclosures} [SEA].

Mss: Hb(52r) (Bret)

Readings: [3] gleðu: gleði Hb    [7] léons: léo Hb

Editions: Skj: Gunnlaugr Leifsson, Merlínússpá II 52: AII, 29, BII, 34, Skald II, 21-2; Bret 1848-9, II, 56-7 (Bret st. 120); Hb 1892-6, 280; Merl 2012, 166-7.

Notes: [All]: Cf. DGB 113 (Reeve and Wright 2007, 146-7.83-6; cf. Wright 1988, 104, prophecy 11): Findetur forma commercii; dimidium rotundum erit. Peribit miluorum rapacitas, et dentes luporum hebetabuntur. Catuli leonis in aequoreos pisces transformabuntur, et aquila eius super montem Arauium nidificabit ‘The shape for trading will be split: the half will be circular. The greed of kites will be ended, and the teeth of wolves blunted. The lion’s cubs will become fishes of the sea, and his eagle will nest on mount Aravius’ (cf. Reeve and Wright 2007, 146).  The reference of the first sentence is to a currency reform contemplated by Henry I which has occasioned much confusion in the sources. John of Worcester, writing 1118 or earlier, and following him Symeon of Durham, in his Historia de Regibus ‘History of the Kings’, writing probably in 1129 or earlier, appear to have the correct story: they state under the year 1108 that, ‘since pennies were often rejected because bent and broken, Henry I made several orders about them, one being that circular halfpence should be coined’ (Tatlock 1950, 404). This new issue was stamped with an outer circle to guard against the practice of clipping (Poole 1955, 415). A somewhat different story is told by William of Malmesbury (Mynors et al. 1998-9, I, 742-3): Cum nummos fractos, licet boni argenti, a uenditoribus non recipi audisset, omnes uel frangi uel incidi precepit ‘Having heard that broken coins, although made of good silver, were not being accepted in payment, he gave orders that all coins alike should be broken or cut’. Gunnlaugr’s account seems to reflect this less accurate version but he understands that the coins were stamped. More general information on Henry’s measures against corrupt money-lenders and merchants, characterised as kites and wolves in Geoffrey’s allegory, is contained in William (loc. cit.) and Henry of Huntingdon (HA 1996, 474-5). The last historical event that can be identified with certainty in the Prophecies is the drowning of Henry I’s children, including the heir-apparent William Adelin, collectively referred to in the allegory as the lion’s cubs, in 1120 in the wreck of the White Ship (cf. Henry of Huntingdon, HA 1996, 466-7; Taylor 1911, 13; Tatlock 1950, 403). By the eagle, Geoffrey refers to the Empress Matilda, but he describes her taking refuge on a mountain – this and the eagle motif in apparent reference to her marriage to Henry IV, the German emperor, in 1114 (Curley 1982, 242-3) – and there is no apparent awareness that she was subsequently active in English politics in dispute with her cousin Stephen of Blois for the English crown. Gunnlaugr treats the catuli leonis ‘lion’s cubs’ as part and parcel of the evil forces that the Beast of Justice (Henry I) has checked, a shift from Geoffrey’s version of the story that might reflect influence from the chroniclers’ condemnations of the drowned passengers and crew as variously sodomites (Henry of Huntingdon) or drunkards (William of Malmesbury) that brought the wrath of God upon themselves. Merl as extant contains no mention of the eagle. This might be simply a matter of accidental loss of text subsequent to Gunnlaugr but it is conceivable that the mention was deliberately by-passed by Gunnlaugr or his source, as contradicting known recent history. — [1-2]: Bret 1848-9 explains this as a reference to the custom of dividing coins as a token of allegiance, apparently in ignorance of the various C12th accounts mentioned above (see Note to [All]). Finnur Jónsson explains mótpenningum correctly as præget mønt ‘stamped coins’ (LP: mótpenningr). The explication in Merl 2012 is unclear and seems to reflect some chronological confusion. The noun mótpenningr is a hap. leg. and may be a neologism on Gunnlaugr’s part; ONP: mót 1 cites two instances from C14th prose texts of the simplex in reference to marks or stamps on silver coins. The noun mótmark ‘stamp-mark’ and verb mótmarka ‘mark with a stamp’ appear first in the latter half of the C13th in Norwegian contexts (ONP: mótmark, mótmarka). — [3] gleðu ‘of the kite’: Emended from ms. gleði ‘gladness’ (not refreshed) in Skj B (followed by Skald). In Bret 1848-9 an otherwise unattested m. by-form of gleða (*gleðr?) is proposed. Merl 2012 retains gleði, translating this in combination with ránsemi as das Vergnügen am Rauben ‘pleasure in robbery’. Gunnlaugr no doubt rendered Geoffrey’s animal lore accurately but in subsequent transmission of Merl the phrase was possibly misinterpreted in this way. — [7] vargar léons ‘the lion’s wolves’: Emended from ms. ‘leó vargar’ (not refreshed) in the present edn. This yields a free-standing noun with initial v-, needed to carry alliteration with verða in l. 8. Presupposed is Gunnlaugr’s use of a double form of the gen. case of léo, i.e. léons beside léonis. For the form cf. GSvert Hrafndr 4/7IV, ljóns ‘of the lion’. The nom. pl. hvelpar ‘cubs’, rendering Geoffrey’s catuli, is construed as standing in apposition to vargar. The solutions adopted by previous eds do not reckon with the deficiency in alliteration. Bret has léo-vargarLövevargens’ (‘of the lion-wolf’), evidently interpreted as a sg., governing hvassir hvelpar, thus ‘the keen cubs of the lion-wolf’, an analysis also adopted by Merl 2012 (independently?), while Skj B (followed by Skald) emends to léo-varga ‘of the lion-wolves’. Use of the potentially pejorative word vargr ‘wolf, outcast’ in relation to the children of Henry I may be explained as reflecting the censorious attitude to them displayed by the chroniclers (on which see Note to [All]). For attestations of the latter meaning in skaldic poetry cf. Mark Eirdr 6/1II, ÞSjár Þórdr 2/1I, Eskál Vell 7/6I. The handling of vowel quantities in the borrowed word léó is uncertain. LP has léó, perhaps reflecting the fact that a long first vowel is metrically required in II 57/7. But contrast Skj B, CVC, Fritzner: leó, while Skald has léo-. The second vowel appears to be short in Anon Pl 23/2VII and Svtjúg Lv 1/8I. Perhaps this foreign word could be flexibly treated to achieve correct metre, or alternatively the present attestation could represent an anticipation of ModIcel. monosyllabic ljón (for possible parallel instances see ONP: ljón sb. m., ljón sb. n.). The vowel quantities in Latin and Greek are short followed by long (Lewis and Short 1879: leō; Liddell and Scott 1940: λέων).

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