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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 5 August 2021)

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

SkP info: VIII, 114

old edition introduction edition manuscripts transcriptions concordance search files

77 — GunnLeif Merl I 77VIII (Bret 145)

edition interactive full text transcriptions old edition references concordance


Cite as: Russell Poole (ed.) 2017, ‘Breta saga 145 (Gunnlaugr Leifsson, Merlínusspá I 77)’ in Margaret Clunies Ross (ed.), Poetry in fornaldarsögur. Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages 8. Turnhout: Brepols, p. 114.

‘Verðr at blóði
brunnr inn fagri;
þós á grundu
gnótt hvers konar.
En á holmi
hildingar tveir
berjask of brúði
sús í víðri


The fine spring turns to blood; yet there is every kind of bounty on the earth. And two leaders fight on an island over a bright-haired woman; she is in broad Vadum batuli.

notes: Cf. DGB 115 (Reeve and Wright 2007, 151.124-6; cf. Wright 1988, 106, prophecy 23): Fons Annae uertetur in sanguinem, et duo reges duellum propter leaenam de Vado Baculi committent. Omnis humus luxuriabit, et humanitas fornicari non desinet ‘The spring of Anna will turn to blood, and two kings will fight a duel over the lioness of Stafford. All the soil will be rank, and mankind will not cease to fornicate’ (cf. Reeve and Wright 2007, 150). The name Anna (with a common variant reading ‘Amne’) is not mentioned elsewhere in DGB and has not been identified; Gunnlaugr translates generically. Merl 2012, 190 states that this p. n. cannot be identified with any actual city, but in fact Geoffrey’s Vadum baculi is no more than a thin disguise for the English p. n. Stafford, rendered folk-etymologically as ‘ford of the stave’ (cf. gué de bastun ‘Ford of the Staff’ in the Anglo-Norman decasyllabic version; Blacker 2005, 41). Gunnlaugr seems to have recognised that a ford was involved, translating Lat. vado with the vernacular cognate vað ‘ford’, but not to have understood the allusion in Baculi. The town of Stafford (OE æt Stæfforda) in the West Midlands, site of major fortifying works in the Anglo-Saxon period under Queen Æthelflæd, assumed renewed importance under the Normans, with the construction of a castle (Stenton 1971, 605); Geoffrey appears to be extrapolating from that history into continuing prominence for this settlement under British rule in an imagined future. It is possible that the key role of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, at Stafford in the early C10th prompted his evocation of a ‘lioness’ associated with that locality (Tatlock 1950, 27-8), as the culmination of his animadversions on women and their power over men earlier in the same prophecy. Although Gunnlaugr’s rendering apparently reduces the lioness to a simple ‘bride’ (i.e. ‘woman’), he may be continuing the theme of destructive female pride in his own way: see Note to ll. 7-8 below. Merl lacks the reference to fornication; also the duel is ‘nativised’ into a hólmganga, a ritualised single combat classically fought on an island.

texts: Bret 145

editions: Skj Gunnlaugr Leifsson: Merlínússpá II 77 (AII, 32-3; BII, 39); Skald II, 25; Bret 1848-9, II, 66 (Bret st. 145); Hb 1892-6, 281; Merl 2012, 189-90.


AM 544 4° (Hb) 52v, 2 - 52v, 4 (Bret)  transcr.  image  image  image  
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