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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 22 September 2021)

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

SkP info: VIII, 96

old edition introduction edition manuscripts transcriptions concordance search files

59 — GunnLeif Merl I 59VIII (Bret 127)

edition interactive full text transcriptions old edition references concordance


Cite as: Russell Poole (ed.) 2017, ‘Breta saga 127 (Gunnlaugr Leifsson, Merlínusspá I 59)’ in Margaret Clunies Ross (ed.), Poetry in fornaldarsögur. Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages 8. Turnhout: Brepols, p. 96.

‘Mun hann byskupa         borgum skrýða
ok helgan stað         hefja margan.
Tígnar borgir         tvær pallío;
gefr hann þýjum Krists         þægjar hnossir.

‘Hann mun skrýða byskupa borgum ok hefja margan helgan stað. Tígnar tvær borgir pallío; hann gefr þýjum Krists þægjar hnossir.

‘He will endue bishops with cities and elevate many a holy place. He will honour two cities with the pallium; he will give acceptable treasures to the servant-women of Christ.

Mss: Hb(52r) (Bret)

Editions: Skj: Gunnlaugr Leifsson, Merlínússpá II 59: AII, 30, BII, 36, Skald II, 22; Bret 1848-9, II, 59 (Bret st. 127); Hb 1892-6, 280; Merl 2012, 172-3.

Notes: [All]: Cf. DGB 114 (Reeve and Wright 2007, 149.102-4; cf. Wright 1988, 105, prophecy 17): Renouabit namque beatorum sedes per patrias et pastores in congruis locis locabit. Duas urbes duobus palliis induet et uirginea munera uirginibus donabit ‘For he shall rebuild the homes of the saints throughout his lands and place shepherds in appropriate places. He will dress two cities in two pallia and give virginal gifts to virgins’ (cf. Reeve and Wright 2007, 148). ‘Shepherds’ here equates to bishops (cf. Note to II 16/5). Whether Geoffrey means a renewal of the pallia held by York and Canterbury or the bestowal of pallia on two new sees is unclear. — [1-2]: In this edn the ms. reading borgum ‘cities’ (not refreshed) is retained. The resulting sentence reads: hann mun skrýða byskupa borgum ‘he will endue bishops with cities’, with byskupa construed as acc. pl., corresponding to DGB’s pastores ‘shepherds’. Extended uses of skrýða relating to appurtenances other than clothing are characteristic of ‘learned style’ and are attested in Fritzner: skrýða and ONP: skrýða. Also to be noted is Geoffrey’s use of induet ‘will dress’ in the immediate context, skrýða being the standard translation for Lat. induere (ONP: skrýða). To present meritorious persons with a city has its purported precedent in Arthur (DGB IX 157: Reeve and Wright 2007, 214-15) but in Geoffrey’s time would have been especially appropriate when a prelate was the recipient. Episcopal migrations from small sequestered villages to the major urban centre in the diocese had been set in train in 1049-50 and were accelerated by Archbishop Lanfranc’s council at London in 1075; thus the bishops of Lichfield, Selsey and Sherborne were called on to move their seats to the appropriate towns of Chester, Chichester and Salisbury respectively (Barrow 1956, 61; Stenton 1965, 227). Remigius, the first post-conquest bishop of Lincoln, maintained a seat at Stow St Mary, a few miles north-west of Lincoln, without a seat in Lincoln itself, whereas the second bishop, Robert de Bloet (1094-1123), acceded to the new rules by taking up residence in the city proper. Of his successors, Bishop Alexander, Geoffrey’s patron, used land granted by Henry I (Woodfield and Woodfield 1981-2, 1) towards an ‘aggrandisement’ of the complex of cathedral, palace and precinct (Coulson 2003, 199). Geoffrey’s talk of placing bishops in appropriate places seems to chime in with these developments, cf. the commentary in congruis locis, in metropolitanis civitatibus ‘in appropriate places, in metropolitan cities’ (Hammer 1940, 419). Gunnlaugr’s choice of phrasing makes the idea of episcopal distinction somewhat more explicit and brings the language closer to an Arthurian presentation of an entire city rather than merely land within it (for a later instance of this motif see Kalinke 2009, 227). Bret 1848-9, followed by subsequent eds, interprets ms. borgum as borg um, with um construed as the completive particle with inf. skrýða ‘endue’ and byskupa construed as gen. pl. The sense is then taken to be ‘he will adorn the city of bishops’. — [1] hann ‘he’: Again a reference to the strong Norman king first mentioned in I 56. — [6] pallío ‘with the pallium’: Latin 2nd declension ablative sg. Compare Note to I 56/2. — [7] þýjum Krists ‘to the servant-women of Christ’: This phrase probably translates the uirginibus ‘to virgins’ of Geoffrey’s text. The word virgo ‘virgin’ is a common expression for ‘nun’ in the C12th (Freeman 2015, 268). Finnur Jónsson (LP: þý) considered Gunnlaugr may have had female saints in mind, but he could equally have been thinking of nuns. — [8] þægjar hnossir ‘acceptable treasures’: The identical phrase appears in the undatable fragment Anon Stríðk 1III. Whereas Gunnlaugr’s usage of the adj. is in accord with its standard meaning of ‘acceptable [in the sight of God or God’s servants]’ (cf. I 54/4), the more general sense of ‘delightful’ has been proposed for the latter poem, with its decidedly secular and irreverent tone; but possibly the standard sense of þægr is operative there as well and the poet can be seen as engaged in a travesty of the moral ethos that it embodies.

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