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Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages

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Note to GunnLeif Merl I 52VIII (Bret 120)

[All]: Cf. DGB 113 (Reeve and Wright 2007, 146-7.83-6; cf. Wright 1988, 104, prophecy 11): Findetur forma commercii; dimidium rotundum erit. Peribit miluorum rapacitas, et dentes luporum hebetabuntur. Catuli leonis in aequoreos pisces transformabuntur, et aquila eius super montem Arauium nidificabit ‘The shape for trading will be split: the half will be circular. The greed of kites will be ended, and the teeth of wolves blunted. The lion’s cubs will become fishes of the sea, and his eagle will nest on mount Aravius’ (cf. Reeve and Wright 2007, 146).  The reference of the first sentence is to a currency reform contemplated by Henry I which has occasioned much confusion in the sources. John of Worcester, writing 1118 or earlier, and following him Symeon of Durham, in his Historia de Regibus ‘History of the Kings’, writing probably in 1129 or earlier, appear to have the correct story: they state under the year 1108 that, ‘since pennies were often rejected because bent and broken, Henry I made several orders about them, one being that circular halfpence should be coined’ (Tatlock 1950, 404). This new issue was stamped with an outer circle to guard against the practice of clipping (Poole 1955, 415). A somewhat different story is told by William of Malmesbury (Mynors et al. 1998-9, I, 742-3): Cum nummos fractos, licet boni argenti, a uenditoribus non recipi audisset, omnes uel frangi uel incidi precepit ‘Having heard that broken coins, although made of good silver, were not being accepted in payment, he gave orders that all coins alike should be broken or cut’. Gunnlaugr’s account seems to reflect this less accurate version but he understands that the coins were stamped. More general information on Henry’s measures against corrupt money-lenders and merchants, characterised as kites and wolves in Geoffrey’s allegory, is contained in William (loc. cit.) and Henry of Huntingdon (HA 1996, 474-5). The last historical event that can be identified with certainty in the Prophecies is the drowning of Henry I’s children, including the heir-apparent William Adelin, collectively referred to in the allegory as the lion’s cubs, in 1120 in the wreck of the White Ship (cf. Henry of Huntingdon, HA 1996, 466-7; Taylor 1911, 13; Tatlock 1950, 403). By the eagle, Geoffrey refers to the Empress Matilda, but he describes her taking refuge on a mountain – this and the eagle motif in apparent reference to her marriage to Henry IV, the German emperor, in 1114 (Curley 1982, 242-3) – and there is no apparent awareness that she was subsequently active in English politics in dispute with her cousin Stephen of Blois for the English crown. Gunnlaugr treats the catuli leonis ‘lion’s cubs’ as part and parcel of the evil forces that the Beast of Justice (Henry I) has checked, a shift from Geoffrey’s version of the story that might reflect influence from the chroniclers’ condemnations of the drowned passengers and crew as variously sodomites (Henry of Huntingdon) or drunkards (William of Malmesbury) that brought the wrath of God upon themselves. Merl as extant contains no mention of the eagle. This might be simply a matter of accidental loss of text subsequent to Gunnlaugr but it is conceivable that the mention was deliberately by-passed by Gunnlaugr or his source, as contradicting known recent history.


  1. Bibliography
  2. HA 1996 = Greenway, Diana E., ed. 1996. Henry of Huntingdon. Historia Anglorum: The History of the English People. Oxford: Clarendon.
  3. Reeve, Michael D., and Neil Wright. 2007. Geoffrey of Monmouth. The History of the Kings of Britain. An Edition and Translation of De gestis Britonum [Historia regum Britanniae]. Woodbridge: Boydell.
  4. Tatlock, J. S. P. 1950. The Legendary History of Britain. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
  5. Taylor, Rupert. 1911. The Political Prophecy in England. Columbia University Studies in English, vol. 2 no. 13. New York: Columbia University Press.
  6. Wright, Neil, ed. 1988. The Historia Regum Britannie of Geoffrey of Monmouth. II. The First Variant Version: A Critical Edition. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer.
  7. Poole, Austin Lane. 1955. From Domesday Book to Magna Carta, 1087-1216. 2nd edn. Oxford: Clarendon.
  8. Curley, Michael J. 1982. ‘A New Edition of John of Cornwall’s Prophetia Merlini’. Speculum, 217-49.


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