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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 26 September 2021)

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

SkP info: VIII, 116

old edition introduction edition manuscripts transcriptions concordance search files

80 — GunnLeif Merl I 80VIII (Bret 148)

edition interactive full text transcriptions old edition references concordance


Cite as: Russell Poole (ed.) 2017, ‘Breta saga 148 (Gunnlaugr Leifsson, Merlínusspá I 80)’ in Margaret Clunies Ross (ed.), Poetry in fornaldarsögur. Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages 8. Turnhout: Brepols, p. 116.

‘Kømr kaupskapar         kappgóðr þinig
villigalti         virðum samna,
þeims af fróni         flýðu áðan.
Lætr hann byggva þá         brezkar jarðir,
borgir eyddar,         ból góligust.

‘Kappgóðr villigalti kaupskapar kømr þinig samna virðum, þeims flýðu áðan af fróni. Hann lætr þá byggva brezkar jarðir, eyddar borgir, góligust ból.

‘The wild boar of commerce, exceedingly good, will come there to gather men who had previously fled from the land. He causes them to settle the British lands, the devastated cities, the choicest estates.

Mss: Hb(52v) (Bret)

Readings: [6] flýðu: flýði Hb

Editions: Skj: Gunnlaugr Leifsson, Merlínússpá II 80: AII, 33, BII, 40, Skald II, 25, NN §3258D; Bret 1848-9, II, 67 (Bret st. 148); Hb 1892-6, 282; Merl 2012, 191-2.

Notes: [All]: Cf. DGB 115 (Reeve and Wright 2007, 151.128-9; cf. Wright 1988, 106, prophecy 26): Superueniet aper commercii, qui dispersos greges ad amissam pascuam reuocabit ‘The boar of commerce will arrive and call the scattered flocks back to their lost pasture’ (Reeve and Wright 2007, 150). This is a third salvific boar-king in Geoffrey’s series. Gunnlaugr rationalises the allegory by replacing ‘flocks’ with ‘men’ and expanding ‘pasture’ to include the concept of ‘cities’. — [2] kappgóðr ‘exceedingly good’: A hap. leg., which, in the absence of any counterpart in the Latin, resists definitive interpretation. Difficulty is caused by the variety in uses of kapp- in the other compounds where this is the initial element, along with the fact that some of them are also hap. leg. The interpretation tentatively adopted in this edn is due to Bret 1848-9 and Skj B, which take kapp- as an intensifier, thus ‘very good’, but varies on it by introducing the concept of ‘exceeding’ or ‘outdoing’ inherent in the sense of kapp ‘contest, ardour’ (see CVC, Fritzner, ONP: kapp). Against this, NN §3258D, followed by Merl 2012, proposes the interpretation ‘able in competition’. Gunnlaugr goes beyond DGB so as to introduce the word kapp, either as simplex or compounded, in three other instances: I 41/2 hvítdreki kapps ‘the white serpent of belligerence’, I 92/1 mǫnnum kapps ‘to men of bravery’ and II 9/3-4 í kappsauðga borg ‘in the exceedingly prosperous city’. They demonstrate that he was capable of using the word in both the key meanings in contention here. Kock is only able to discount the latter meaning by basing himself on a highly select subset of kapp- compounds that exhibit the former meaning; Merl 2012 does not elaborate on this aspect. Also, in context the characterisation of the boar-king as ‘able in competition’ would seem to have little relevance, whereas his being described as ‘exceedingly good’ can be taken as borne out by the restoration of his people to their former fortunes; in effect, he will be a ‘good king’ memorable as outdoing other kings in terms of ‘goodness’, a decided contrast to the bad leadership described in the preceding stanzas and also a polar opposite of a subsequent ruler, the asni illingar ‘ass of evil’ (I 87/1-2). The specific aspects of his goodness are further spelt out in the following stanzas. — [4] samna ‘to gather’: In Skj B emended to samnar ‘gathers’ (followed by Skald), but the inf. can be understood as following on loosely from kømr ‘comes’ (cf. Bret 1848‑9 and, apparently independently, Merl 2012). — [6] flýðu ‘fled’: Emended from ms. flýði in Skj B to give a verb in the 3rd pers. pl. pret. indic., followed by subsequent eds. Bret 1848‑9 retains the ms. reading without comment. — [10] góligust ból ‘the choicest estates’: Cf. Anon (Mberf) 2/2II ból, þats ek veit gólast ‘the farm, which I find the best’.

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