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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 21 September 2021)

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

SkP info: VIII, 112

old edition introduction edition manuscripts transcriptions concordance search files

76 — GunnLeif Merl I 76VIII (Bret 144)

edition interactive full text transcriptions old edition references concordance


Cite as: Russell Poole (ed.) 2017, ‘Breta saga 144 (Gunnlaugr Leifsson, Merlínusspá I 76)’ in Margaret Clunies Ross (ed.), Poetry in fornaldarsögur. Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages 8. Turnhout: Brepols, p. 112.

‘Þá munu á foldu         fǫgr víf draga;
blístrar meyjum         metnuðr í spor.
Munu kvensemi         kastra smíðuð;
svíkr gumna vin         girnð in ranga.

‘Þá munu fǫgr víf draga á foldu; metnuðr blístrar í spor meyjum. Kastra kvensemi munu smíðuð; in ranga girnð svíkr {vin gumna}.

‘Then beautiful women will make their way on the ground: pride hisses in the maidens’ trail. Castles of desire for women will be built; the wrongful concupiscence betrays {the friend of men} [RULER].

Mss: Hb(52v) (Bret)

Readings: [1] á foldu: foldu Hb

Editions: Skj: Gunnlaugr Leifsson, Merlínússpá II 76: AII, 32, BII, 39, Skald II, 25; Bret 1848-9, II, 65-6 (Bret st. 144); Hb 1892-6, 281; Merl 2012, 188-9.

Notes: [All]: Cf. DGB 115 (Reeve and Wright 2007, 151.122-4; cf. Wright 1988, 106, prophecy 23): Mulieres incessu serpentes fient, et omnis gressus earum superbia replebitur. Renouabuntur castra Veneris, nec cessabunt sagittae Cupidinis uulnerare ‘Women in their movement will become snakes and their every step will be filled with pride. The Fortress of Venus will be renewed, and Cupid’s arrows will not fail to wound’ (cf. Reeve and Wright 2007, 150). Geoffrey’s castra Veneris is rendered more generically by Gunnlaugr as kastra kvensemi ‘castles of desire for women’ (cf. I 74 Note to [All]), and he rationalises the reference to Cupid’s arrows. The word kvensemi (or kvennsemi) ‘desire, lust for women’ occurs chiefly in learned texts (ONP: kvensemi, cf. kvensamr; Fritzner: kvennsemi, cf. kvennsamr). The target of disapproval here may be the developing cult of love that was to reach its apogee in the later C12th at the courts of aristocratic women such as Eleanor of Aquitaine and Ermengarde of Narbonne (see Cheyette 2001, 237-8, 244-5); Gunnlaugr and his audience could have known of the ethos at Ermengarde’s court from Rv Lv 15, 16, 17, 19, 20, 21, 25II. — [1-2]: A difficult passage which has resisted definitive solution. This edn follows Skj B (also Skald and Merl 2012) in adding prep. á ‘on’ before foldu ‘land’. This solution represents a refinement of Bret 1848-9, which tentatively supplies prep. um ‘around’ before foldu. It results in the sentence Þá munu fǫgr víf draga á foldu ‘Then beautiful women will make their way on the ground’. The idea would be that the women move along the ground in the manner of snakes, as stated by Geoffrey. In the sense ‘move oneself’, however, the reflexive dragask would be expected rather than active draga (CVC: draga), though see Fritzner: draga 18; LP: draga 12 for rare and uncertain attestations in this sense. An alternative interpretation of the ms. text that avoids emendation would be to regard it as a late C13th or C14th garbling that has effaced Gunnlaugr’s original. Here ms. foldu would be interpreted as fǫldu ‘headdress’, a f. counterpart of faldr ‘headdress’ (only one example extant in ONP but clearly attested in Bbreiðv Lv 4/3V (Eyrb 28), KormǪ Lv 49/2V (Korm 70), and KormǪ Lv 60/5V (Korm 81)). Then draga would have the sense ‘wear’ (ONP: draga A4), attested in translation texts from the mid to late C13th. The resulting sentence would read Þá munu fǫgr víf draga fǫldu ‘Then beautiful women will wear headdress[es]’. Women sporting headdresses of varying grades of showiness were emblematic of pride in medieval literature, the locus classicus in Old Norse being 29/1 (Dronke 1997, 168, 227). — [3] blístrar ‘hisses’: The application of the verb blístra in context remains unclear. Attested senses include ‘make a strong blowing noise (of uncertain type), whistle, hiss, snort, sniff’ (so ONP: blístra); in the present context ‘hiss’ is tentatively selected, in view of Geoffrey’s allusion to snakes, which Gunnlaugr otherwise seems to have passed over, at least to judge from the present state of the text. Bret 1848-9 translates as hvisler ‘hisses’, followed by Skj B, while Merl 2012 has pfeift ‘whistles’. Meanwhile the idiom blístra í spor, glossed in ONP: blístra as ‘to sniff in somebody’s tracks [to no avail]’, ‘to whistle for somebody in vain’ (cf. also ÍF 8, 227 n. 3, ÍF 30, 38 n. 3), also needs to be taken into account. Conceivably Gunnlaugr could have in mind verses where the speaker is an intimidated or outwitted male lover (e.g. Bjbp JómsI and Steinarr WomanIII). In DGB, however, it is overweening behaviour on the part of women themselves that is under attack, not the allegorised pride of someone sniffing in vain in their tracks. Admittedly it is uncertain whether Gunnlaugr has resumed his close adherence to the Latin by this point or whether the rendering might be looser and more euphemistic (cf. Note on ll. 1-2); replebitur ‘will be filled’ is semantically remote from blístrar, though for another somewhat loose translation of replebitur see I 70/8. An alternative approach would see the problem as lying with a disruption of the text: blístrar could have arisen through error for original *miklask (3rd pers. sg. pres. ind. of miklask ‘be augmented, increased’), thus *metnuðr miklask í spor meyjum ‘pride is augmented in the maidens’ tracks’, where *miklask would loosely render replebitur. The noun metnuðr occurs in collocation with miklask in Anon HsvVII 30, as a variant reading for magnask (LP: mikla), and with þróask ‘swell’ in Hávm 79/4. In prose usage mikill ‘great’ and its superlative mesti ‘greatest’ are frequent collocates of metnuðr (ONP: metnuðr). For the idea of something springing up from the footsteps of a woman, cf. II 12/3-4. — [6] kastra ‘castles’: Latin 2nd declension n. nom. pl. 

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