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Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages

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Vol. I. Poetry for Scandinavian Rulers 1: From Mythological Times to c. 1035

1. Contents (DW)
2. General Introduction (MCR)
3. Volume Editor’s Preface and Acknowledgements (DW)
4. General Abbreviations (DW)
5. Sigla used in this volume (TW)
6. Technical Terms in this volume (DW)
7. Contributors (DW)
8. Volume Introduction (DW)
-. Poetry for Scandinavian Rulers 1: The Corpus
A. Bibliography (HB)
B. Index of First Lines (TW)
C. Indices of Names and Terms (DW)
X. Changes and corrections since printing

(subheadings only)

1. Defining and characterising the corpus

1.1. What is skaldic poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages?
1.2. The skaldic corpus from the early Viking Age to the end of the fourteenth century
1.3. The primary evidence for the skaldic corpus
1.4. The division of the corpus in this edition

2. Character and objectives of the present edition

2.1. A brief history of scholarship on skaldic poetry after the Middle Ages
2.2. History of the skaldic editing project’s database
2.3. Editorial methodology
2.4. Principles of translation
2.5. Editing and the skaldic database

3. Questions of textual reconstruction

3.1. Reconstruction of skaldic poems
3.2. Dating of poetry and principles of normalisation

4. The metres of skaldic poetry

The poetry edited in the volumes of SkP comprises poems and stanzas composed in what are conventionally labelled ‘skaldic’ metres (such as kviðuháttr ‘poem’s form’, dróttkvætt ‘court metre’, hrynhent ‘flowing-rhymed’ and runhent ‘end-rhymed’) as well as those composed in ‘eddic’ metres (e.g. metres characteristic of the poetry of the Poetic Edda, such as fornyrðislag ‘old story metre’, málaháttr ‘speeches’ form’ and ljóðaháttr ‘songs’ form’). As discussed in §1.1 above, the term ‘skaldic’ poetry is difficult to define, because eddic metres are not limited to the poetry found in the Poetic Edda (and hence excluded from the present edition); rather, just like the skaldic metres, all three eddic metres were used in lausavísur (free-standing occasional stanzas) and in longer encomiastic poetic compositions. Furthermore, the skaldic metres clearly evolved from the eddic fornyrðislag, either as hypometrical or hypermetrical variants (with or without internal rhyme) or as regularised fornyrðislag with internal rhyme or end-rhyme (see the overview at the end of §4.1). The present section of the Introduction gives an overview of the structural peculiarities of the Old Norse metres (§4.1) and an outline of their genesis and development over the centuries (§4.2-4; for a summary of the history of Old Norse metres, see Gade 2002a). The final paragraph (§4.5) offers a brief discussion of types of poems and other formal parts of Old Norse poetry.

4.1. Constitutive features of Old Norse and Germanic alliterative poetry
4.2. Eddic metres
4.3. Skaldic metres
4.4. The metrical development of skaldic metres
4.5. Formal structures in Old Norse poetry: stanzas and poems

5. The diction of skaldic poetry

Skaldic style is characterised by the varying of words with poetic synonyms (heiti, literally ‘name(s)’) and different kinds of periphrastic expressions comprising two or more parts (kennings). This distinction is also attested in Snorra Edda, which enumerates kennings and heiti, sometimes quoting stanzas and offering explanations, in two consecutive parts of the section called Skáldskaparmál ‘The Language of Poetry’.

5.1. Kenning
5.2. Heiti
5.3. Metaphors

6. Poetry and society: The circumstances of skaldic production

We have no reliable written sources about the emergence of skaldic poetry in the North. However, the subject matter of the earliest datable poetry and the narratives in which the poetry is preserved in later centuries give some clues to the social circumstances in which the poetry was created, transmitted and then preserved. They show that skaldic poetry was practised at the highest level of society from the ninth century to the middle of the fourteenth, and that the verse served not only the ends of the secular ruling class, but that it belonged at the heart of pagan religion as well as that of the Christian Church and its learned milieu. No other literary genre of the medieval North married so successfully, and over five centuries, the interests of the secular and religious powers. Verse-making was frequently practised by aristocratic poets, but was also enriched by talented poets from the lower social classes who could earn a living by composing verse for their patrons.

The term dróttkvætt ‘court poetry’ alludes to the poets’ audiences in the pre-Conversion period in Scandinavia; the word drótt ‘court’ suggests the privileged environment of the king or the army leader and his band of retainers. The complexities of skaldic metre and its intricate diction indicate that skaldic poetry was intended for a limited group of those knowledgeable about the rules and mythological background to the diction, perhaps even intended originally as a ‘secret language’ of the members of the drótt (Lindow 1975, 323). Skaldic literacy spread rapidly and so successfully that skaldic verse came to be practised and enjoyed in most of the West Nordic region over a period of five hundred years.

The earliest poets were of Norwegian origin, but after the conversion of Norway most of the known poets are Icelandic (cf. §1.2). We also know of a handful of Orcadian poets from the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. Identifying the nationality of the known poets must rely to some degree on the Icelandic authorship of most of the sagas and manuscripts in which the poetry is contained. However, in many cases it is difficult to determine the nationality of the poet with any certainty.

The strong position of skaldic verse at the royal court in the pre-Conversion period was maintained in the Christian era, which meant that the poets had an influential role in shaping for posterity the political image and historical role of two of the most important Christian kings of Norway, Óláfr Tryggvason and S. Óláfr Haraldsson. The eleventh century marks the transition period from the pagan oral culture to the Christian textual one and that century is characterised by a wealth of poetry about the most important Christian kings, the two Óláfrs and Haraldr harðráði ‘Hard-rule’. Haraldr was himself a poet and his court was seen by later writers to have played a significant role in consolidating the practice and social importance of the skaldic art.

Skaldic poetry thus played a highly significant political and religious role in the ninth, tenth and eleventh centuries, but was then turned into one of the most surprising building blocks of the Christian textual culture of the North. The earlier verse was transmitted orally, so Christian writers faced the challenge of transforming this poetry into a commodity in the new textual culture. The first difficulty was a reliable method by which to turn the oral verse into a written text – to find the right letters to accurately represent the oral sounds. The First Grammarian clearly has this problem in mind when he refers to skaldic examples in his analysis of the sound system (Guðrún Nordal 2009). A reliable encoding of oral textual transmission was a prerequisite for preserving the authenticity of the poetry in a written context. As can be seen from the testimony of the grammatical treatises (dated from the middle of the twelfth century to the middle of the fourteenth century) and works such as Snorra Edda, the early pagan verse was used in relation to the teaching of grammatica in very much the same way as classical pagan verse was used to elucidate the teaching of Latin. Skaldic verse was thus given a heightened role at the heart of the syllabus in the schools and in medieval literature, and this paved the way for its use as an authentic source in the kings’ sagas.

This triple role, the political, the religious and the pedagogic, is exemplified by the court poet and priest Einarr Skúlason. He was a learned man, already ordained a priest when he travelled to Norway to present his poems for a number of royal patrons in Scandinavia. Einarr created the first vernacular saga of S. Óláfr as a Christian drápa, named Geisli ‘Light beam’. He recited the poem in the cathedral of Niðaróss (Trondheim) in 1153, and in his audience were not only three Norwegian kings, but the newly-consecrated archbishop of the see. Einarr designed the poem as a metrical vita, with a prologue, account of the saint’s life and death, a list of his miracles and an epilogue. Already in the middle of the twelfth century Geisli typifies the maturity of the skaldic tradition in terms of Christian learning and classical writing.

Skaldic poetry found its way into kings’ sagas in the twelfth, thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, and was most likely transmitted in the royal circles that patronised the writing of these works. The verse was used as source material in the sagas of the kings, and became a foundation for many of their narrative sequences. Court poetry is only rarely preserved outside the context of these sagas, or separately in manuscripts containing them (such as the poem Geisli in Bergsbók and Flateyjarbók), circumstances that suggest that the verse was transmitted orally until it was encoded in the kings’ sagas.

Skaldic verse is found in all of the indigenous saga genres of the North, in kings’ sagas, sagas of Icelanders, contemporary sagas and fornaldarsögur. The poetry in the sagas of Icelanders falls into two categories: 1. Verse datable to the tenth to eleventh centuries, often by poets who are also known as court poets (Hallfreðr and Kormákr) or as having interacted with the royal courts (Egill), and 2. Poetry composed in the thirteenth or fourteenth centuries at the time when the sagas were written. The same can be said of the fornaldarsögur. Many of the poems in the fornaldarsögur must have been transmitted orally over a long period of time, but a large part of the verse was probably composed at the time of writing the sagas. In these two genres we notice the intermingling of an oral tradition with an active tradition of skaldic verse-making in Iceland in the twelfth, thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.

The pedagogic role of skaldic verse in the teaching of grammatica in the schools had the consequence that an even larger group of poets in Iceland had studied the practice of skaldic poetry as part of their education. The school texts relating to skaldic poetry, such as the grammatical treatises, Litla Skálda and Snorra Edda, are only known from Icelandic manuscripts, except for Háttalykill, which is of joint Orcadian and Icelandic origin. As a consequence of its centrality to the pedagogic tradition, the practice of skaldic verse-making in the twelfth, thirteenth and fourteenth centuries was equally important in the Church and religious circles, as well as in the aristocratic milieu in Iceland (Guðrún Nordal 2001, 142-3).

The saga narratives and manuscripts of skaldic verse preserve only a fraction of the skaldic poetry that was transmitted and known in the Middle AgesSkáldatal ‘Enumeration of Skalds’ names a number of poets from the ninth to the late thirteenth centuries whose identity is unknown and whose works are lost. Our picture of skaldic poetry is therefore dependent on the preferences of medieval writers working in the interests of secular patrons, themselves or the Church.

A case in point is the portrayal of poetic activity in Iceland in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries as it can be gauged from Sturlunga saga. The poets mentioned there are mainly powerful men, either goðar, powerful farmers or members of the distinguished families in the country, or professional poets staying with, or in the company of, these same aristocratic chieftains. The picture is therefore curiously uniform. The geographical distribution of the verse tallies with that of the sources and of the known writers; the poets are almost exclusively from the west and north-west of Iceland. We are therefore in the hands of the medieval writers when we judge the origin, the social variety and function of skaldic verse.

Skaldic poetry was practised well into the fourteenth century in Iceland, after the poets had lost their royal patronage in Norway. The strongest poetic communities at this time are found in the monasteries of learned Benedictine monks and abbots in the north of Iceland. They left behind a number of religious drápur, in the tradition of Geisli, about Bishop Guðmundr Arason. The Benedictines were also responsible for the creation of the Codex Wormianus, which contains the youngest complete version of Snorra Edda, where this work is placed in a pedagogical context with the four grammatical treatises and Rígsþula. In the vernacular poetry of these clerics there is a seamless linking of their deep scholastic learning, their doctrinal interpretation and the skaldic art. At the end of the long-flourishing tradition of skaldic poetry we note, therefore, how the cloistered audience of this deeply Christian verse brings to mind the elite courtly drótt of ninth-century Norway which enjoyed the earliest known mythological poems.

A. Notes

[1] This Introduction, edited by Margaret Clunies Ross, is an introduction to the nine-volume series Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages; see below for the introduction to Volume I. It is a joint production of all the General Editors of SkP, and the parts can be attributed in the following way to individual authors: §§1.1, 1.2, 1.4 and 2.1, Margaret Clunies Ross; §§2.2 and 2.5, Tarrin Wills; §§2.3, 2.4 and 3.1, Diana Whaley; §§3.2 and 4, Kari Ellen Gade; §§1.3.1 and 5, Edith Marold, and §§1.3.2 and 6, Guðrún Nordal. Edith Marold’s sections were translated from German by John Foulks.

[2] On the etymology and cognates of skald, see AEWskáld.

[3] The Codex Wormianus (AM 242 fol, W) of the mid-fourteenth century contains an incomplete text of the poem Rígsþula ‘Rígr’s þula’, while AM 748 I a 4° (A), of c. 1325, contains five of the same poems as the Codex Regius of the Poetic Edda, plus one,Baldrs draumar ‘Baldr’s Dreams’, that is unique to it. Two manuscripts of Snorra Edda contain the poem Grottasǫngr ‘The Song of Grotti [a magical hand-mill]’, while the poem Vǫluspá ‘The Prophecy of the Seeress’ is found in the early fourteenth-century Icelandic compilation known as Hauksbók (Hb) ‘The Book of Haukr [Erlendsson]’. The Gylfaginning section of Snorra Edda contains quotations from several of the Poetic Edda poems, especially VǫluspáGrímnismál ‘The Speech of Grímnir’ and Vafþrúðnismál‘The Speech of Vafþrúðnir’. Snorri also mentions or quotes from some poems of eddic type that have not survived in the written record.

[4] The standard edition of the Poetic Edda is NK, which also has an accompanying dictionary, translated into English and augmented as LT 1992. Edd. Min. includes a number of eddic poems not in the Codex Regius, many from fornaldarsögur. There are also two major German commentaries on the Edda poems, S-G and Kommentar.

[5] However, again conventionally, this edition excludes rímur, even though the earliest ríma, Einarr Gilsson’s Óláfs ríma Haraldssonar, dates from the mid-fourteenth century.

[6] There are some prose links and explanatory prose sections in the Codex Regius of the Poetic Edda, probably added by a commentator, but the manuscript is largely a poetic anthology.

[7] Both versions of Skáldatal ‘Enumeration of Skalds’ (SnE 1848-87, III, 251, 259) claim that Starkaðr inn gamli ‘the Old’ was the first skald whose poetry people knew in the medieval period. Starkaðr is said to have composed for kings of the Danes.

[8] Although there is good evidence to establish the ethnicity of some skalds, there are many who have been assigned an ethnicity (usually Icelandic) by earlier scholars without any hard evidence to support it. In most cases, later researchers have simply accepted Finnur Jónsson’s designation of poets in Skj as either Icelandic or Norwegian, but this edition has adopted a more sceptical stance in cases where there is no evidence to support one or the other. See further Gade (2000, 82-4) and Clunies Ross (2009a), as well as individual poet biographies in this edition.

[9] The volumes are: SkP IPoetry from the Kings’ Sagas 1: From Mythical Times to c. 1035, ed. Diana Whaley; SkP IIPoetry from the Kings’ Sagas 2: From c. 1035 to c. 1300, ed. Kari Ellen Gade (2009); SkP IIIPoetry from Treatises on Poetics, ed. Kari Ellen Gade and Edith Marold; SkP IVPoetry on Icelandic History, ed. Guðrún Nordal; SkP VPoetry in Sagas of Icelanders, ed. Guðrún Nordal and Tarrin Wills; SkP VIRunic Poetry, ed. Edith Marold; SkP VIIPoetry on Christian Subjects, ed. Margaret Clunies Ross (2007); SkP VIII = Poetry in fornaldarsögur, ed. Margaret Clunies Ross; SkP IX = Bibliography and Indices, ed. Margaret Clunies Ross et al.

[10] In Skald, Kock follows Finnur’s dating and attributions of the poetry in the skaldic corpus.

[11] In poetry composed in metres that are not syllable-counting and contain hypermetrical lines, such as málaháttr and ljóðaháttr, these principles do not obtain.

[12] Note that the principles for the normalisation of fourteenth-century poetry are outlined in §9 of the Introduction to SkP VII, and they will not be addressed here. For the normalisation of the language of the runic corpus, see Introduction to SkP VI.

[13] The discussion below does not attempt to be exhaustive; rather, it gives an overview of the most important changes.

[14] Note that this date, as most others, is approximate.

[15] Modified from Sievers (1893). That system is convenient for the classification of Old Norse poetic verses and for showing how skaldic metres developed from the eddic metres, but it does not capture fully the distribution of primary and secondary stresses indróttkvætt and hrynhent, for example (see Gade 1995a). The overview above is simplified and does not attempt to be exhaustive. See also §4.4 below. The Old Norse verse examples cited for metrical purposes here and elsewhere are often incomplete linguistic units. Hence the English translations are literal and often give incomplete sense.

[16] The periphrasis describing fire as ‘the dog of embers’ is not treated as a kenning, since the referent, fire, is already indicated by the determinant glóða ‘of embers’. See further Note to Þjóð Yt 4/11-12I.

© Skaldic Project Academic Body, unless otherwise noted. Database structure and interface developed by Tarrin Wills. All users of material on this database are reminded that its content may be either subject to copyright restrictions or is the property of the custodians of linked databases that have given permission for members of the skaldic project to use their material for research purposes. Those users who have been given access to as yet unpublished material are further reminded that they may not use, publish or otherwise manipulate such material except with the express permission of the individual editor of the material in question and the General Editor of the volume in which the material is to be published. Applications for permission to use such material should be made in the first instance to the General Editor of the volume in question. All information that appears in the published volumes has been thoroughly reviewed. If you believe some information here is incorrect please contact Tarrin Wills with full details.