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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 20 September 2021)

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

SkP info: VIII, 93

old edition introduction edition manuscripts transcriptions concordance search files

56 — GunnLeif Merl I 56VIII (Bret 124)

edition interactive full text transcriptions old edition references concordance


Cite as: Russell Poole (ed.) 2017, ‘Breta saga 124 (Gunnlaugr Leifsson, Merlínusspá I 56)’ in Margaret Clunies Ross (ed.), Poetry in fornaldarsögur. Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages 8. Turnhout: Brepols, p. 93.

‘Einn sitr nýtastr
Englandi at
auðar skelfir.
Þó ro siklingar
sunnan komnir
fimm eða fleiri
foldu at ráða.


‘{The one worthiest shaker of riches} [GENEROUS MAN] of Neustria will preside over England. Yet five kings or more have come from the south to rule the land.

notes: This stanza may represent a rationalisation of and extrapolation from Geoffrey’s prophecy 16 (Reeve and Wright 2007, 149.97-9; cf. Wright 1988, 105): Exin de primo in quartum, de quarto in tercium, de tercio in secundum rotabitur pollex in oleo ‘Then from the first to the fourth, from the fourth to the third, from the third to the second, the thumb shall roll in oil’ (Reeve and Wright 2007, 148). This enigmatic passage presumably refers to the anointing of successive Norman kings, as recognised in some of the commentaries (Hammer 1935, 30). But other commentators were bewildered by this passage, as emerges e.g. from the explication pollex in oleo, hoc est non difficultate, sed gratia quasi (Hammer 1940, 418) ‘thumb in oil, i.e. not with difficulty but as if with pleasure’, and Gunnlaugr could well have shared their bewilderment. Instead Gunnlaugr, or more probably his source ms., appears to extrapolate from the passage so as to praise Henry II (r. 1133-89); this interpretation may have been assisted by annotation or commentary of the kind we find in John of Cornwall’s version of the Prophetiae Merlini. John speaks of quartum seu quintum ‘the fourth or the fifth’ in the sequence of kings (Curley 1982, 234), where Gunnlaugr speaks of ‘five or more’, and this shared vagueness as to the exact number of Norman kings (down to John’s and Gunnlaugr’s source’s respective times of writing?) may reflect the fact that Henry I’s son and designated successor William Adelin, who perished in the White Ship (see I 52 Note to [All]) but had been crowned previously, was sometimes counted as the fourth, with Stephen then taken to be the fifth (Curley 1982, 244; cf. Faletra 2012, 333) and Henry II the sixth; the list could be stretched to a seventh after the advanced coronation of Henry II’s son (also Henry) in 1170 (Poole 1955, 212-13).

texts: Bret 124

editions: Skj Gunnlaugr Leifsson: Merlínússpá II 56 (AII, 30; BII, 35); Skald II, 22, NN §3143; Bret 1848-9, II, 58 (Bret st. 124); Hb 1892-6, 280; Merl 2012, 170-1.


AM 544 4° (Hb) 52r, 8 - 52r, 10 (Bret)  transcr.  image  image  image  
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