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Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages

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Note to GunnLeif Merl II 16VIII (Bret 16)

[All]: 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.


  1. Bibliography
  2. 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.
  3. Tatlock, J. S. P. 1950. The Legendary History of Britain. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
  4. Wright, Neil, ed. 1988. The Historia Regum Britannie of Geoffrey of Monmouth. II. The First Variant Version: A Critical Edition. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer.
  5. Poole, Austin Lane. 1955. From Domesday Book to Magna Carta, 1087-1216. 2nd edn. Oxford: Clarendon.
  6. Barrow, G. W. S. 1956. Feudal Britain: The Completion of the Medieval kingdoms 1066-1314. London: Edward Arnold.
  7. Brooke, Christopher. 1961. From Alfred to Henry III 871-1272. London: Nelson.
  8. Perry, Ben Edwin, ed. and trans. 1984. Babrius: Aesopic Fables in Iambic Verse. Loeb Classical Library 436. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


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