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Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages

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GunnLeif Merl II 16VIII (Bret 16)

Russell Poole (ed.) 2017, ‘Breta saga 16 (Gunnlaugr Leifsson, Merlínusspá II 16)’ in Margaret Clunies Ross (ed.), Poetry in fornaldarsögur. Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages 8. Turnhout: Brepols, p. 149.

Gunnlaugr LeifssonMerlínusspá II

text and translation

‘“Kom Kambría         með Kornbretum,
seg Vintóni:         ‘Vǫllr þik gleypir.
Fœr hirðis sjǫt         hinig, es leggja
lung at láði;         munu liðir allir
hǫfði fylgja;         þats hjǫlp guma.’

‘“Kom Kambría með Kornbretum, seg Vintóni: ‘Vǫllr gleypir þik. Fœr sjǫt hirðis hinig, es lung leggja at láði; allir liðir munu fylgja hǫfði; þats hjǫlp guma.’
‘‘“Come Cambria, along with the Cornish Britons, say to Winchester: ‘The plain will swallow you up. Move the shepherd’s settlement here, where ships make for the land; all limbs will follow the head; that is the salvation of men.’

notes and context

Cf. DGB 116 (Reeve and Wright 2007, 153.166-8; cf. Wright 1988, 108, prophecy 35): accede, Kambria, et iunge lateri tuo Cornubiam, et dic Guintoniae ‘absorbebit te tellus; transfer sedem pastoris ubi naues applicant, et cetera membra caput sequantur’ ‘Come, Wales, and join Cornwall at your side, and say to Winchester, “The earth will swallow you up; move the seat of your shepherd to the place where ships make landfall, and let the remaining limbs follow the head”’ (cf. Reeve and Wright 2007, 152). Geoffrey’s prophecy expresses Welsh aspirations to restore the see of St Davids to metropolitan status (Tatlock 1950, 405; Poole 1955, 296; Barrow 1956, 220; Brooke 1961, 212); the key to this kind of advocacy was to present the preferred location as no mere rural retreat but the major urban centre within its diocese, hence the mention of ships, with its implication that St Davids was a port as well as a city (see Note to I 59/2). Winchester may have been the target of this campaign insofar as its bishop traditionally filled the post of Chancellor of England and hence commanded significant secular power. The allegory here is probably based on the literal fact that the city of Winchester is notoriously built upon unstable ground. Channels of the river Itchen come close to the Cathedral, causing periodic flooding of the crypt. The admonition for the limbs to follow the head has its ultimate source in the Aesopian fabulist Babrius 134: ‘Fable of the Snake and his Tail’ (Perry 1984, 174-5), where the tail insists on replacing the head as leader but, having then blindly led the snake into a stony pit, is obliged to beg the head to save the snake by resuming its customary role; Gunnlaugr goes beyond Geoffrey in spelling out that this is mankind’s salvation, as stated by Babrius, because symbolically the tail represents the irrational and has to be subordinated to the head, which represents the rational. He therefore either knew the fable independently of DGB or found this amplification in a commentary on DGB. In Geoffrey’s allegory the limbs would represent the regions dependent upon Winchester, which, with numerous estates, was the richest diocese in England.



Text is based on reconstruction from the base text and variant apparatus and may contain alternative spellings and other normalisations not visible in the manuscript text. Transcriptions may not have been checked and should not be cited.

editions and texts

Skj: Gunnlaugr Leifsson, Merlínússpá I 16: AII, 13, BII, 13, Skald II, 8; Bret 1848-9, II, 20 (Bret st. 16); Hb 1892-6, 273; Merl 2012, 81-2.


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