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Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages

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Vol. VII. Poetry on Christian Subjects 8. Introduction 5. Poets and their Audiences

5. Poets and their Audiences

Margaret Clunies Ross 2007, ‘Poets and their Audiences’ in Margaret Clunies Ross (ed.), Poetry on Christian Subjects. Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages 7. Turnhout: Brepols [check printed volume for citation].

The majority of the twenty-eight Christian skaldic poems in this volume are anonymous, only six being by authors for whose names we have good medieval evidence.[13] This phenomenon contrasts with the situation of secular skaldic poetry, where named skalds are frequent. Chase (1993) has suggested that the anonymity of much Christian skaldic poetry may reflect the humility and self-effacement enjoined upon Christian clerics, especially those in monastic orders. Where we do know the poets’ names, we also know that in four cases those poets were clerics, the exception being Kolbeinn Tumason, a leading chieftain of the late twelfth and early thirteenth century.[14] This small sample supports the inferences one can draw on grounds such as manuscript context, subject matter and style, that most of the poetry in this volume is likely to have been composed by priests or monks, either for their fellow clergy or for mixed lay and clerical audiences. Given many of the poets’ attention to the minutiae of transforming liturgical phraseology into skaldic kennings, one suspects that the poets’ audiences must have appreciated this kind of artistry. Such audiences, one imagines, would be most likely found in elite secular households that particularly patronised skaldic verse and were the owners of proprietary churches to which they would have contributed books and other church property (Ordo Nidr., 40; cf. Guðrún Nordal 2001, 117-43 for thirteenth-century patrons of skalds) or in religious communities or in both.

Christian skaldic poetry with didactic or homiletic intent could have been read aloud to the poets’ audiences as an addition to vernacular sermons, embellishing their content in memorable and moving verse. Likewise, the poetic counterparts to prose saints’ lives would have served as sophisticated reworkings of vernacular legends for the education and entertainment of elite audiences. Those poems that assume a prior knowledge of hagiography might well have been composed by clerics for specific religious houses or secular patrons devoted to particular saints. The audience of Alpost, for example, might well have been a religious community that possessed sculpted images of the apostles or possibly paintings or relics of them, so that, as the poem was spoken, a toast could actually have been drunk to each apostle in turn incorporating a nod to the material image. The audiences of Heil and Mey may also have been able to see images of the saints whose passions were read out to them. In the case of Mey, it is likely that such a large number of verses in honour of holy virgins would have been of special importance to religious communities of women. It is also quite likely, in view of its subject matter, that Kálfr Hallsson’s Kátrínardrápa might also have been composed for religious women.[15]

One of the most likely contexts in which Christian skaldic poetry might have been read aloud would have been as an accompaniment to meals in religious, and especially monastic, communities. At meal times monks were supposed to be silent and to engage in religious contemplation. The reading of poetry in their own language, intricate though it is, would have provided appropriate substance for contemplation and reminded its audience of important Christian doctrine, especially if they were already familiar with vernacular prose lives of the saints. Sverrir Tómasson (2003) has suggested that some late skaldic verse, especially that modelled on Latin hymns, may even have been sung.

Notes

[13]   Two of the six are by the same author, Gamli kanóki.

[14]   The five named poets are Einarr Skúlason, Níkulás Bergsson, Gamli kanóki, Kolbeinn Tumason and Kálfr Hallsson (for their biographies, see the Introductions to ESk Geisl (Einarr’s biography is in Volume II), Ník Jóndr, Gamlkan Has, Kolb Jónv and Kálf Kátr). Although we do not know the name of the Leið poet, he is also likely to have been a cleric, because in st. 43 of his poem he thanks a certain noble priest by the name of Rúnolfr for helping him establish the foundation of his drápa. Rúnolfr’s identity is uncertain, but the two most likely candidates both moved in ecclesiastical circles (see Note to Leið 43/8).

[15]   The number of convents in medieval Iceland was small. Poetry devoted to female saints would have been especially favoured in nunneries like Kirkjubœr in the south, founded in 1186 and dedicated to the Virgin Mary, and Staðr on Reynisnes in the north, founded in 1296. Both were Benedictine foundations. As Cormack remarks (1994, 87), the first known Katrín in Iceland was an abbess of Staðr, consecrated in 1298, and a second woman of that name was elected abbess of the same foundation in 1330. Perhaps the poet Kálfr composed his Kátr in honour of the saint and one or other of these two abbesses.

References

  1. Bibliography
  2. Chase, Martin. 1993. ‘Christian Poetry. 2. West Norse’. In MedS, 73-7.
  3. Ordo Nidr = Gjerløw, Lilli, ed. 1968. Ordo Nidrosiensis Ecclesiae (Orðubók). Norsk historisk kjeldeskrift-institutt. Den rettshistoriske kommisjon. Libri liturgici provinciae Nidrosiensis medii aevi II. Oslo: Universitetsforlaget.
  4. Internal references
  5. Guðrún Nordal 2017, ‘(Biography of) Kolbeinn Tumason’ in Kari Ellen Gade and Edith Marold (eds), Poetry from Treatises on Poetics. Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages 3. Turnhout: Brepols, p. 270.
  6. Ian McDougall 2007, ‘(Introduction to) Anonymous, Allra postula minnisvísur’ in Margaret Clunies Ross (ed.), Poetry on Christian Subjects. Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages 7. Turnhout: Brepols, pp. 852-71.
  7. Kirsten Wolf 2007, ‘(Introduction to) Anonymous, Heilagra manna drápa’ in Margaret Clunies Ross (ed.), Poetry on Christian Subjects. Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages 7. Turnhout: Brepols, pp. 872-90.
  8. Kirsten Wolf 2007, ‘(Introduction to) Anonymous, Heilagra meyja drápa’ in Margaret Clunies Ross (ed.), Poetry on Christian Subjects. Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages 7. Turnhout: Brepols, pp. 891-930.
  9. Martin Chase 2007, ‘(Introduction to) Einarr Skúlason, Geisli’ in Margaret Clunies Ross (ed.), Poetry on Christian Subjects. Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages 7. Turnhout: Brepols, pp. 5-65.
  10. Katrina Attwood 2007, ‘(Introduction to) Gamli kanóki, Harmsól’ in Margaret Clunies Ross (ed.), Poetry on Christian Subjects. Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages 7. Turnhout: Brepols, pp. 70-132.
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