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Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages

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Skaufhala bálkr — Svart SkaufVIII

Svartr á Hofstöðum

Kari Ellen Gade 2017, ‘ Svartr á Hofstöðum, Skaufhala bálkr’ in Margaret Clunies Ross (ed.), Poetry in fornaldarsögur. Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages 8. Turnhout: Brepols, p. 948. <> (accessed 20 September 2021)


Skaufhala bálkrBálkr about Tassel-tail’ (Svart Skauf) consists of forty-two stanzas and is preserved in two mss, AM 603 4° (603) and Rask 87 8°ˣ (Rask87ˣ). Ms. 603, from Hól in Hörðurdalur, can be dated to c. 1530 or earlier (Kålund 1888-94, II, 3-5; Jón Þorkelsson 1922-7, 154), and fols 81-82 of the ms. contain sts 1-5, 8-39 and 41/1-7. The title of the poem is written in the right margin of fol. 81 of  603 in a later hand, and at the top of fol. 82 in the same hand as the ms.: Skaufala BꜳlkurBálkr about Tassel-tail’. The ms. mostly contains rímur and the poem is recorded as item number 16, between Heims ósómi ‘The Unseemliness of the World’ (no. 15) and Deila karls ok kerlingar ‘The Dealings between a Man and a Woman’ (no. 17), which is also incomplete and begins in medias res at the top of fol. 83. In Jón Ólafsson’s catalogue, which was made when 603 must have been more complete than it is now, the poem is listed after Deila karls ok kerlingar under the rubric Skaufhala. Bälkar Tveir ‘Two Bálkar about Tassel-tail’ (Kålund 1888-94, II, 4). This seems to imply that, at the beginning of the eighteenth century, there could have existed more than one version of Skauf (or, at least, two poems with that title).

Rask87ˣ(112r-116r) contains sts 1-28 and 30-42 of Skauf. In that ms. the poem was copied by Einar Hálfdanarson á Kirkjubæjarklaustri (d. 17 March 1752; see Jón Þorkelsson 1888, 219; 1922-7, 154), the father of Hálfdan Einarsson who ‘invented’ the poet Sigurðr fóstri ‘Fosterer’ Þórðarson around 1750 (see below). In Rask87ˣ, Skauf occurs as item 20, between Sniꜳrs Kvædi ‘Poem about Snjárr’ and Tóukvæði ‘Poem about a Fox’, and the caption is Refsz-BꜳlkurBálkr about a Fox’.

As stated above, Jón Ólafsson’s catalogue of the contents of 603 seems to imply that this ms. must have contained more than one poem with the title Skaufhala bálkr, and the citation of the half-stanza in Björn á Skarðsá’s Grænlandsannáll, which attributes the poem to ‘Einarr fóstri’ (see below and Note to st. 42/3-4), may also point in that direction (for other, later poems about skaufhali ‘Tassel-tail’, see Jón Þorkelsson 1899, 242-3). However, as far as the two versions of Skauf in 603 and Rask87ˣ are concerned, they are so similar that we are clearly dealing with two closely related versions of the same poem. The metre is fornyrðislag, with metrical irregularities that are common in the poetry of the fornaldarsögur.

It is not possible to assign a date to the poem based on metrical criteria, but the desyllabification of ‑r was well under way, which suggests a date after 1350. In the present edition, excrescent [u] resulting from desyllabification has been introduced when required by the metre (see Notes to sts 13/5, 16/3 below). The Rask87ˣ version of the poem is definitely later than the 603 version, and it is characterised by later linguistic forms, by attempts at syntactic simplification, as well as by efforts to achieve double alliteration in the odd lines, which result in metrical irregularities (such as loss of alliteration in the following, even line and an increased number of lines with suspended resolution on the second lift). The 603 version, on the other hand, contains older linguistic forms, such as the demonstrative pronoun sjá (m. nom. sg.) ‘this’, which is uncommon after the fourteenth century, a clear distinction between the inflected dual possessive pronoun okkr ‘we two’ and the genitive of the dual okkar ‘of us two’, as well as the ending ‑a (rather than ‑i) in the 1st pers. sg. pres. and pret. indic. of weak verbs (see the Notes to the individual stanzas below). The scribe of 603 also occasionally uses the cliticised form ‘hefc’, literally ‘have-I’ (sts 30/1, 37/5), which indicates that he is copying an older exemplar which cannot date from the second half of the fifteenth century.

The authorship of Skauf is problematic since the poem is credited variously to Svartr á Hofstöðum, Einarr fóstri and Sigurðr fóstri Þórðarson, added to which there are three men who could be called ‘Svartr á Hofstöðum’ and who flourished at an approximately relevant period. Nevertheless, metrical and linguistic evidence for dating the poem in the second half of the fourteenth century, and the greater credibility of some sources rather than others, favour Svartr Þorleifsson the younger (d. 1392), and he is tentatively taken as the poet in this edition (see Biography). In more detail, the relevant information is as follows.

The poet seemingly identifies himself in st. 42/4 as Svartr á Hofstöðum, saying that he has assembled ‘this poem and nursery rhymes’ (þennan bálk og barngælur) to entertain himself and an unlearned multitude (meingi ófróðu). However, while this stanza appears in the eighteenth-century ms. Rask87ˣ, the older ms., 603, is unfortunately incomplete, ending part-way through st. 41/7. Meanwhile a version of Skauf 42/1-4 also survives as an isolated helmingr in Grænlandsannáll (AM 115 8°(30r)) by Björn Jónsson á Skarðsá (1574-1656), and Björn’s text has ‘Einarr fóstri’ as the poet’s name; this seems less likely than the attribution to Svartr (see discussion below).

Three men named Svartr and from the same family are associated with the farmstead Hofstaðir. Svartr Þorleifsson, who lived during the first half of the fourteenth century (mentioned in Icelandic documents in 1300 and 1343; see Jón Þorkelsson 1888, 222), can probably be excluded since Skauf evidently dates from later in the century. His grandson Svartr Þorleifsson (here called ‘Svartr Þorleifsson the younger’), however, died in 1392 (see Storm 1888, 367, 420 and Jón Þorkelsson 1888, 222), and can be considered the most likely poet of Skauf; a minor point in favour of this is the fact that he appears to have had ties to the family of Björn jórsalafari ‘Jerusalem-farer’ Einarsson (see Storm 1888, 407, s. a. 1361 and Einar Arnórsson 1949, especially pp. 13-27), who has been associated with Skauf (see below). Jón Þorkelsson (1888, 223) first argued for Svartr Þorleifsson the younger’s authorship, but in later works (1899; 1922-7, 152-3, 169-80) he argued at length that the skald who composed Skauf (as well as SkíðarímaRíma about Skíði’) was Svartr Þórðarson, and he dated Skauf between 1462 and 1477. This Svartr, who may have been the grandson of Svartr Þorleifsson the younger, is documented in 1477 (Jón Þorkelsson 1899; 1922-7, 152-3, 169-80; Hannes Þorsteinsson 1902, 712 n. 3) as having sold land from Hofstaðir, and he appears to have been a poet on the evidence of his great-great-great-grandson Jón lærði ‘the Learned’ Guðmundsson (1574-1658) who in his Um ættir og slekti ‘On families and kindreds’ cites a reisubók ‘travelogue’ by Björn Einarsson, now lost but known to Jón in his youth, as evidence that Svartr was skald to the lady Óluf or Ólöf ríka ‘the Mighty’, wife of Björn Þorleifsson á Skarði, both of whom died in 1479 (Hannes Þorsteinsson 1902, 712). He mentions Ólöf’s delicate reception of a lofmansöng ‘flattering love-song’ by Svartr, but he does not claim that Svartr Þórðarson composed Skauf (or Skíðaríma, which he attributes to Einarr fóstri). Furthermore, the oldest ms. of Skauf, 603, contains archaic linguistic forms that are very difficult to reconcile with a 1462-77 date of composition (see Introduction below and Notes to the individual stanzas).

To complicate matters further, as already mentioned, Björn á Skarðsá in his Grænlandsannáll cites a version of Skauf 41/1-4 which names Einarr fóstri as the poet (see Note to st. 42/3-4 below), and he states in prose (Finnur Magnússon, Rafn et al. 1838-45, I, 112-13): Fróðir menn segja at sá Einar fóstri hafi kveðit Skíðarímu til skemtunar einn tímaHann kvað ok Skaufhalabálk ok barngælur, svo sem hann nefnir í endíng bálksins ‘Learned men say that this Einarr fóstri once composed Skíðaríma for entertainment … He also composed Skaufhalabálkr and nursery rhymes, as he mentions at the end of the bálkr’. According to Björn á Skarðsá, Einarr fóstri was the poet of Björn jórsalafari Einarsson of Vatnsfjörður (d. 1415) and his wife Ólöf [sic], and he takes that information from Björn Einarsson’s reisubók, also used by Jón lærði. Jón also states that Einarr fóstri was Björn Einarsson’s skald, but he only credits him with the composition of Skíðaríma and does not mention Skauf (Hannes Þorsteinsson 1902, 712); nor does he mention Ólöf in this connection. From this now-lost travelogue (or via the works of Björn á Skarðsá and Jón Guðmundsson), the tradition about Einarr fóstri, Skíðaríma and Skauf found its way into various printed works and mss from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (see the references in Jón Þorkelsson 1888, 212; 1922-7, 163-7). The identity of this ‘Einarr fóstri’ proved to be elusive, however, and the claims that he was the poet of Björn Einarsson and his wife Ólöf [sic] and composed both Skíðaríma and Skauf are challenged by Jón Þorkelsson (1899; 1922-7, 152-3, 169-80). According to him, Björn Einarsson (whose wife’s name was Solveig Þorsteinsdóttir, not Ólöf Loptsdóttir) had at some point been confused with his grandson Björn Þorleifsson á Skarði and therefore the travelogue cited by Björn á Skarðsá and Jón Guðmundsson in reality described Björn Þorleifsson’s journeys and not those of Björn Einarsson. Jón Þorkelsson also finds support for his conclusion in a ms. of Skíðaríma from c. 1800, which attributes it to Sigurðr fóstri, adding that some say it is by Svartr, the skald of lady Ólöf.

A further attribution, to Sigurðr fóstri Þórðarson, can be dismissed as based on a mistaken inference. Around 1750 Hálfdan Einarsson, who studied in Copenhagen 1750-5, maintained, based on information from a genealogy available to him, that the poet who had composed Skíðaríma was one Sigurðr fóstri Þórðarson, not Einarr (see the discussion in Jón Þorkelsson 1922-7, 168-9). Hálfdan was the son of Einar Hálfdanarson, who copied Skauf in Rask87ˣ, and it could well be that he knew Svartr as the poet who composed Skauf and that this knowledge led him to doubt the attribution of Skíðaríma to ‘Einarr fóstri’. Subsequent scholars and scribes adopted Hálfdan’s suggestion (see the references in Jón Þorkelsson 1888, 213-17, 224-8; 1922-7, 163-9), and, by inference, Skauf was also attributed to Sigurðr fóstri Þórðarson. It was not until the end of the nineteenth century, when Jón Þorkelsson discovered the copy of the complete poem in Rask87ˣ, that Svartr á Hofstöðum was acknowledged as the poet who composed Skauf (see Jón Þorkelsson 1888, 218-23; 1899; 1922-7, 152-3, 169-80). As already noted, the language and metre of the poem make it most likely that the Svartr in question was not Svartr Þórðarson, who flourished around 1470, as Jón Þorkelsson came to believe, but Svartr Þorleifsson the younger (d. 1392).

Skauf is a poem about an old fox who is goaded by his wife, the vixen, to go on a foraging expedition to procure food for the four cubs that remain in their lair (sts 4-14). He embarks on his journey and manages to kill a fat sheep (sts 15-17). When the fox returns to the den the next morning (without the sheep), he has been severely wounded (sts 18-19) and he proceeds to tell his wife about his disastrous adventure (sts 20-9). According to him, when he prepared to return to their den with the carcass of the sheep, he was surprised by a long-legged man with a staff and a hellish hound, who chased the fox into the mountains and inflicted an injury on him with his staff as he was hiding in a hole. After recounting this adventure, the fox embarks on a story about his own ‘heroic’ life of crime (sts 30-7), and he announces his impending death and the prophecy that an avenger will be born from his family (sts 38-40). The poem concludes with sts 41-2, and in st. 42/4 the poet gives his own name, Svartr á Hofstöðum.

Skauf is much more than a nursery rhyme (barngælur, st. 42/2) or a tale about animals, but, like the European animal fable, attributes human thoughts, actions and, in this case, literary models to the fox and vixen that are its protagonists, thereby allowing the poet to satirise recognised Icelandic poetic forms. Although foxes figure quite often in European animal fables, there is no obvious reason here to suspect a non-Icelandic model or source (for a detailed comparison of Skauf and European beast epics, see Amory 1973, 6-12; we are grateful to John Lindow for providing a copy of this paper, which had very limited circulation). Stanzas 4-14 are a parody of a female hvǫt ‘incitement’ (see e.g. Sigsk 10-13, Ghv 1-8), and with sts 19-40 the poet offers a very clever satire on the genre of ævikviður ‘life-poems’, found in fornaldarsögur and elsewhere (see also Amory 1973, 4-6). The poem contains verbal echoes that suggest that Svartr must have been familiar with such poems as Ǫrvar-Oddr’s Ævidrápa (ǪrvOdd Ævdr) and Hallmundr’s Hallmundarkviða (HallmGr HallkvV). In this context it should also be noted that one, admittedly late, ms. that contains Skíðaríma states that the ríma was copied from sögubók Svarts á Hofstöðum ‘the saga-book of Svartr á Hofstöðum’ (Maurer 1894, 305; but see the reservations voiced by Jón Þorkelsson 1899, 246).

Skauf is of interest because it contains an abundance of unusual terms and nickname-like compounds for ‘fox’ (skaufhali ‘Tassel-tail’, sts 1/2, 2/2, 3/2; gortanni ‘Filth-tooth’, st. 4/1; dratthali ‘Dragging-tail’, sts 9/2, 15/2, 17/2; loðbakur ‘Woolly-back’, st. 10/3; rebbhali ‘Foxtail’, sts 12/2, 14/2) and ‘vixen’ (langhala ‘Long-tail’, st. 1/4; lágfæta ‘Short-leg’, st. 10/2) and two kennings for ‘fox’ and ‘vixen’ (sauðbítr ‘sheep-biter’, st. 18/6; grenlægja ‘lair-lier’, sts 4/2, 5/1), as  well as a wealth of terminology for sheep and fish products (Valgerður Erna Þorvaldsdóttir’s expertise on sheep in Iceland is gratefully acknowledged). As such, the poem provides a unique glimpse of daily life in rural medieval Iceland and medieval (and later) Icelandic characteristically negative attitudes to foxes (Icelandic Arctic fox, Vulpes lagopus fuliginosus), which were one of the main dangers to sheep.

Skauf has previously been edited by Kölbing (1876, 242-55), in CPB II, 383-4, by Jón Þorkelsson (1888, 229-35; 1922-7, 154-60), as well as by Páll Eggert Ólason (1947, 57-70). The first two editions are based on 603 only, and the third contains the text without critical apparatus and with occasional errors and ex silentio emendations. Because metrical and linguistic criteria support a date of composition before the end of the fourteenth century, the decision was made to include Skauf in SkP (whereas it is omitted from Skj and Skald). The present edition is the first to provide a translation of that poem into a modern language other than Icelandic.


  1. Bibliography
  2. Skald = Kock, Ernst Albin, ed. 1946-50. Den norsk-isländska skaldediktningen. 2 vols. Lund: Gleerup.
  3. CPB = Gudbrand Vigfusson [Guðbrandur Vigfússon] and F. York Powell, eds. 1883. Corpus poeticum boreale: The Poetry of the Old Northern Tongue from the Earliest Times to the Thirteenth Century. 2 vols. Oxford: Clarendon. Rpt. 1965, New York: Russell & Russell.
  4. Storm, Gustav, ed. 1888. Islandske annaler indtil 1578. Christiania (Oslo): Det norske historiske kildeskriftfond. Rpt. 1977. Oslo: Norsk-historisk kjeldeskrift-institutt.
  5. Jón Þorkelsson [J. Thorkelsson]. 1888. Om digtningen på Island i det 15. og 16. århundrede. Copenhagen: Høst & søns forlag.
  6. Kålund, Kristian. 1888-94. Katalog over den Arnamagnæanske håndskriftsamling. 2 vols. Copenhagen: Gyldendal.
  7. SkP = Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages. Turnhout: Brepols.
  8. Kölbing, Eugen. 1876. Beiträge zur vergleichenden Geschichte der romantischen Poesie und Prosa des Mittelalters unter besonderer Berücksichtigung der englishen und nordischen litteratur. Breslau: Koebner.
  9. Amory, Frederic. 1973. ‘Skaufalabálkur, the fornaldarsögur, and the European Beast Epic.’ In Second International Saga Conference, Reykjavík 1973. Papers distributed to participants. 12 pp.
  10. Einar Arnórsson. 1949. ‘Smiður Andrésson: Brot úr sögu 14. aldar’. Sögurit 1, 9-126.
  11. Hannes Þorsteinsson, ed. 1902. ‘Ritgerð Jóns Guðmundssonar lærða um ættir o. fl.: Með formála og athugasemdum’. In Jón Sigurðsson et al. 1856-1939, 3, 701-28.
  12. Maurer, K. 1894. Weitere Mittheilungen über die Huldar Saga. Abhandlungen der königlichen bayerischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, philosophisch-philologische Classe 20, No. 2. Munich: Verlag der königlichen Akademie.
  13. Páll Eggert Ólason, ed. 1947. Kvæðasafn 1300-1600. Vol. 2 of Einar Ólafur Sveinsson et al., eds. Íslands þúsund ár. 4 vols. Reykjavík: Helgafell.
  14. Internal references
  15. Kari Ellen Gade 2017, ‘(Biography of) Svartr á Hofstöðum’ in Margaret Clunies Ross (ed.), Poetry in fornaldarsögur. Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages 8. Turnhout: Brepols, p. 948.
  16. Not published: do not cite ()
  17. Not published: do not cite ()
  18. Not published: do not cite (ǪrvOdd ÆvdrVIII (Ǫrv))
  19. Not published: do not cite (HallmGr HallkvV (Gr))
  20. Not published: do not cite ()
  21. Not published: do not cite ()
  22. Kari Ellen Gade (ed.) 2017, ‘Svartr á Hofstöðum, Skaufhala bálkr 41’ in Margaret Clunies Ross (ed.), Poetry in fornaldarsögur. Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages 8. Turnhout: Brepols, p. 984.
  23. Kari Ellen Gade (ed.) 2017, ‘Svartr á Hofstöðum, Skaufhala bálkr 42’ in Margaret Clunies Ross (ed.), Poetry in fornaldarsögur. Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages 8. Turnhout: Brepols, p. 984.

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