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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 23 September 2021)

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

SkP info: VIII, 100

old edition introduction edition manuscripts transcriptions concordance search files

63 — GunnLeif Merl I 63VIII (Bret 131)

edition interactive full text transcriptions old edition references concordance


Cite as: Russell Poole (ed.) 2017, ‘Breta saga 131 (Gunnlaugr Leifsson, Merlínusspá I 63)’ in Margaret Clunies Ross (ed.), Poetry in fornaldarsögur. Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages 8. Turnhout: Brepols, p. 100.

‘Ríðr inn prúði         til Peritónis ár
hvítum hesti         hvatr ǫldurmaðr.
Ok hvítum þar         hann markar staf
aldrœnn yfir         ô kvernar hús.

‘Inn prúði, hvatr ǫldurmaðr, ríðr hvítum hesti til ár Peritónis. Ok hann, aldrœnn, markar þar hvítum staf hús kvernar yfir ô.

‘The splendid man, a bold lord, will ride a white horse to the river Periron. And there he, the aged [man], will mark out a mill-house above the river with a white staff.

Mss: Hb(52r) (Bret)

Readings: [7] aldrœnn: aldrœn Hb

Editions: Skj: Gunnlaugr Leifsson, Merlínússpá II 63: AII, 30-1, BII, 36-7, Skald II, 23; Bret 1848-9, II, 61 (Bret st. 131); Hb 1892-6, 281; Merl 2012, 176.

Notes: [All]: Cf. DGB 115 (Reeve and Wright 2007, 149.108-10; cf. Wright 1988, 105, prophecy 19): Niueus quoque senex in niueo equo fluuium Perironis diuertet et cum candida uirga molendinum super ipsum metabitur ‘A snow-white old man on a snow-white horse will divert the river Periron and with a white rod measure out a mill on its bank’ (cf. Reeve and Wright 2007, 148). The Book of Llan Dav, c. 1150, locates Aper Periron not far from the town of Monmouth as a branch of the Cadlan (Curley 1982, 244, citing Williams 1955, xxxvi-xxxvii); some of the commentaries also place it near Monmouth (e.g. Hammer 1940, 419). The C10th Armes Prydein ‘The Prophecy of Britain’ describes a confrontation between the Welsh and the steward of an English king, possibly Æthelstan, at this location (Curley 1982, 225-6; Faletra 2008, 134). However, it is possible that Geoffrey is alluding by means of this anecdote about a snow-white old man to the rapid rise of the Cistercians, a monastic order distinguished by its members’ wearing of white robes. The order gained institutional definition with the Carta caritatis of Stephen Harding, confirmed by Pope Calixtus II in 1119 (Poole 1955, 187), and rapidly became very popular in England (Barrow 1956, 105). The earliest known reference to the adoption of white clothing by the Cistercians occurs in a letter of Peter the Venerable (1092/94–1156), abbot of Cluny, to Bernard of Clairvaux (Burton 2006, 10). The reference to a water mill may also be suggestive, as the typical Cistercian monastery straddled a mill-race, an artificial stream diverted from a nearby river to provide power for grain milling and other technologies as well as running water for domestic purposes (Hansen [n. d.], accessed 03/09/2015; cf. Bostan et al. 2012, 187; Woods 2005, 33). The Cistercians’ founding of Tintern Abbey, not far from Monmouth, occurred early enough for Geoffrey to have been able to allude to it in the separate Libellus Merlini as well as the subsequent DGB. — [1, 2] ríðr … til ‘rides … to’: Possibly a misinterpretation of divertet ‘will divert’ (applying to the course of the river). — [2] Peritónis ‘Periron’: This reading agrees with that of ms. R of the First Variant Version, viz. Peritonis for majority Perironis (Wright 1988, 105), but may be a case of coincident error, given that confusion of <r> and <t> is frequent. The form Perítónis is a Latin gen. (cf. léónis in I 57/7), and Gunnlaugr seems to have taken it over as a gen. of definition specifying the river denoted generically by the common noun ár (gen. case). — [4] ǫldurmaðr ‘lord’: This term, adopted from OE/Early ME ealdormann, aldormann (LP: ǫldurmaðr, but not noted by Hofmann 1955) or Middle Low German (AEW: ǫldurmaðr), occurs in later C12th skaldic poetry, notably Bjbp Jóms 11/2I and Anon Pl 13/4VII, evidently in the sense of ‘leader’; see Notes to those two locations. Gunnlaugr may have used it in awareness of English terminology, but it was also current in reference to Old Testament patriarchs (ONP: ǫldurmaðr) and was subsequently applied to Norwegian guild leaders (Fritzner: ǫldurmaðr), perhaps influenced by ME alderman. At some point it appears to have become associated with aldr ‘age, old age’ (ONP: ǫldurmaðr, citing Kolsrud 1952, 110): Prestbiter þyðiz olldur madr at voro máli. þviat hann skylldi sua vera at uiti ok uisdomi ‘Priest is translated as ǫldurmaðr in our language because he should be such in knowledge and wisdom’. Possibly this had already occurred at Gunnlaugr’s time. — [6, 7] hvítum staf ‘with a white staff’: See Note to I 47/3-4. — [7] aldrœnn ‘the aged [man]’: In this edn the adj. is taken as in apposition with hann ‘he’ and referring back to the man mentioned in the first helmingr. The emendation to –rœnn is minor, since geminate <n> is frequently not shown in Hb (Hb 1892-6, xliii). In previous eds the adj. is construed as n. pl., qualifying hús, also construed as n. pl.,  but this deviates from Geoffrey’s text, where it is the niveus ‘snow-white’ man who is described as ‘old’ (senex), not the mill-house, which in the logic of the passage is presumably not old, since it awaits construction, and is clearly sg., not pl.  

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