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Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages

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Hugsvinnsmál — Anon HsvVII

Anonymous Poems

Tarrin Wills and Stefanie Gropper 2007, ‘(Introduction to) Anonymous, Hugsvinnsmál’ in Margaret Clunies Ross (ed.), Poetry on Christian Subjects. Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages 7. Turnhout: Brepols, pp. 358-449.


Hugsvinnsmál (‘Sayings of the Wise-minded One’, Anon Hsv) is an anonymous translation of the Dicta or Disticha Catonis, a Lat. didactic poem from the C2nd or C3rd AD. The title of the poem is mentioned in the last st. In Lbs 1199 4°ˣ (1199ˣ) the poem has the title Hugsvinnsmál: harðla nýtsöm ‘Hugsvinnsmál: very useful’. The Icel. title indicates that the Lat. Catonis (‘of Cato’) must have been thought to derive from the adj. catus ‘clear-sighted, intelligent’. Hsv belongs to so-called gnomic or wisdom literature, and it shares the eddic ljóðaháttr metre with other didactic poems including, among others, large parts of Hávm.

Hsv is one of very few ON-Icel. translations in verse. It is presented as a conversation between father and son and is a rather free adaptation of the disticha as well as of the prose passages in the Lat. original. Hsv has been dated to the C13th on the basis of its metre, style and vocabulary (Tuvestrand 1977, 12-13). It is difficult to determine the exact dating, but for the purposes of normalisation, the text is presumed here to be from the second half of the C13th. The First Grammatical Treatise, written in the mid-C12th, quotes one of the Lat. Disticha with a translation (FGT 1972, 228-9), but its wording does not correspond to that of mss of the complete Hsv. Thus it cannot be concluded that there already existed a complete ON-Icel. translation of the Disticha Catonis at this time.

During the Middle Ages the Disticha were very popular. The text was widely used as a school book and translated into many European languages. The poem begins with an epistula in which the father gives reasons for the work’s composition. The epistula also includes 55 breves sententiae ‘brief opinions’, hortatory commands such as ‘love your parents’ or ‘do not drink too much wine’. These sententiae may have been added to the text in Carolingian times. The introduction is followed by four books with approximately 140 gnomic rules for a good life, each book beginning with a prose introduction. These books are written in two-line hexameters, i.e. the so-called disticha. All parts of the Disticha, including the prose and the breves sententiae, are rendered in the ljóðaháttr metre in Hsv. There are some lacunae and adjustments to the order, including the use of the prefaces to books III and IV at the end of the poem.

Much of the advice given in the disticha often represents basic rules of human behaviour. Therefore in many cases it remains uncertain whether similar rules in vernacular languages can be traced back to their influence. Many problems connected to the Lat. text are still unsolved. The identity of the Cato of the title is uncertain as well as the dating of the different text layers. We do not know how many distichs belong to the original collection nor how many were added during transmission. As a school book the Disticha were very often copied, glossed and translated. Many classical and medieval texts allude to the Disticha or quote from them. Since the largest part of the work was composed in pre-Christian times, it was often commented upon and interpreted from a Christian point of view in medieval mss (see Schiesaro 1996).

The transmission of Hsv is complex. It is preserved in at least forty-four mss, three of them containing more then one version. At least twenty-three mss preserve the complete text. Most mss are paper and written in the C18th and C19th. The oldest nearly-complete extant version was written in the C15th (AM 624 4°). Lbs 1199 4°ˣ (1199ˣ, late C17th) represents a text of the whole poem. Related to it are AM 720 a IV 4° (720a IV, C16th), preserving sts 13-25, 111-19, 123, 130, 138, 143 and 147) and AM 723 a 4°ˣ (723aˣ, C17th), preserving sixty-eight sts. Another, possibly older group is represented by JS 401 4°ˣ (401ˣ, C18th), preserving most of sts 20-58; and AM 696 XV 4° (696XV, c. 1500), which preserves thirty-four sts in the first part of the poem. This last ms., while important in the stemma and relatively old, is a poorly-preserved fragment of a leaf and is missing the ends of most ms. lines. Since the dating of the individual mss is quite often very difficult, a stemma can be most reliably established according to internal criteria. There are two main versions of the poem, neither of them identical with the presumed archetype. Tuvestrand 1977 provides the most comprehensive treatment of the mss and their transmission. In agreement with previous eds she established a stemma with two branches. The following is a modified version:

| |
624 [beta]
| |
148x ---------------------
| |
[gamma] [delta]
| |
------------ --------------------
| | | | |
696XV 401x 720a IV? [mu] [lambda]
| |
723ax 1199x, etc.

In several passages the two versions differ considerably, and comparison with the Lat. text does not help to answer the question of which version is closer to the original, or even if there was a single original. Concerning the order of the distichs, however, the first version is usually closer to the Lat. text. In cases where the two versions have a completely different text, comparison with the Lat. text reveals that both versions represent equally good translations. Tuvestrand suggests that the translator may have made several translations, and therefore she thinks it is impossible to assume an archetype. According to her the oral transmission of Hsv also has to be taken into account. For this reason she decided to give both versions in her edn.

Skj A’s text is based on the oldest ms. of the first version, AM 624 4° (624). However, Skj B departs so significantly and routinely from 624’s readings that it has to be considered as an edn of the second version. Because the second version is generally more metrically sound and apparently less corrupt, it is also used as the basis of the present edn. The present edn takes a selection of mss representative of the two main versions. 1199ˣ represents the best ms. of the second version which preserves the text in full, and is used as the basis of this edn. Also included in the apparatus are 720a IV, 723aˣ, 401ˣ, 696XV. Finally, readings from 624 are also included in the apparatus as the only independent witness to the first version. In addition, readings are occasionally taken from Hallgrímur Scheving’s edn of the poem (1831), although these are marked as emendations when there is no other evidence. Hallgrímur Scheving appears to have had access to a now-lost ms., but it is difficult to establish the textual status of his edn because he may have emended the text himself (cf. Tuvestrand 1977, 58). The readings in his edn, however, are very close to those in 1199ˣ. In addition to these eds, the main contributions to the editing of Hsv are by Konráð Gíslason (1860) and Hugo Gering (1907). There are also brief notes to the poem by ‘J. S. H.’ in Halldór Hermannsson 1958, 81-3.

All mss coincide in the order of the sts (where recorded) up to st. 51. The order of sts in the present edn largely follows that of 1199ˣ, but a number of modifications have been made on the basis of other mss to bring the order closer to that of the Lat.

The language of the Lat. poem is simple and clear, but the syntax sometimes seems to be rather monotonous, which may be related to limited possibilities for variation within the Lat. hexameters. For this reason the Disticha are easily comprehensible and were therefore very popular in the classroom. For a long time there was only one known tradition of the Disticha Catonis, called the vulgate version. Since Hsv only contains Disticha that are also found in this vulgate version of the Lat. text, its exemplar must have belonged to this version. Hsv is also composed in a very simple style with an easily comprehensible and not very large vocabulary. But since it renders the Lat. text very freely or rather paraphrases it, it might not have been intended as a translation aid for school children. The Icel. poem uses the eddic metre ljóðaháttr throughout as an equivalent of the hexameter of the Lat. poem. Ljóðaháttr was the metre typically used for vernacular gnomic poetry during the Middle Ages. As in other vernacular versions of the Disticha there is a strong Christian influence in Hsv. Because of parallels in content and phrasing, a close connection between Sól and Hsv has been suggested. It is striking that most of these parallels can be found in mss of the second version of Hsv. Therefore they might be related to the revision of the poem by a later redactor. In addition a relationship between Hsv and the ljóðaháttr parts of Hávm has been pointed out, although there is still ongoing discussion concerning the direction of the influence (cf. von See 1972 and Hermann Pálsson 1985). It may, however, be wrong to suggest only one direction of influence. The many and rather late mss of Hsv indicate the enduring popularity of the poem. It is interesting that the metre is more regular in the second version of Hsv. There may have been a long process of revision with influence from poems originally younger than Hsv and which in former times had themselves been influenced by Hsv or even directly by the Lat. Disticha.

In the C17th the Lat. poem was again translated into Icel. by Jón Bjarnason (d. 1635) and by Bjarni Gizurarson (c. 1621-1712), but the latter translation only contains the first two books of the Disticha Catonis. Halldór Hermannsson 1958 contains an edn of Jón Bjarnason’s translation.

The editorial practice here follows the general principles, and those specifically for ljóðaháttr, outlined in the Introduction to this volume. In particular, the present edn uses ms. readings which produce alliteration according to the rules of ljóðaháttr, and readings are prefered which conform to the specific metrical rules for ljóðaháttr. However, the present edn does not emend on metrical grounds where no ms. evidence exists. Lines that do not conform to the metrical rules are discussed in the Notes. All mss of the poem use post-1300 orthography, (such as ie for é and often interchangeable i and y) but are silently changed here to c. 1250-1300 norms. There is considerable variation between mss in their use of pre- and post-1300 syntax (such as the omission of at and the relative particle er (e.g. st. 25/2), which are taken here to be post-1300), but these are silently normalised on the basis of the C13th dating.

Kari Ellen Gade has provided extensive advice on the text, including a number of notes. The text of the Lat. Disticha included here is from Marcus Boas 1952, and the present English translation of the Lat. is of the Boas text. Other accessible English translations of the Lat., text such as the Loeb (Goold 1982) and the electronic text on the Labyrinth website <> are based on different versions of the Lat.


  1. Bibliography
  2. Skj A = Finnur Jónsson, ed. 1912-15a. Den norsk-islandske skjaldedigtning. A: Tekst efter håndskrifterne. 2 vols. Copenhagen: Villadsen & Christensen. Rpt. 1967. Copenhagen: Rosenkilde & Bagger.
  3. Skj B = Finnur Jónsson, ed. 1912-15b. Den norsk-islandske skjaldedigtning. B: Rettet tekst. 2 vols. Copenhagen: Villadsen & Christensen. Rpt. 1973. Copenhagen: Rosenkilde & Bagger.
  4. Tuvestrand, Birgitta, ed. 1977. Hugsvinnsmál: Handskrifter och kritisk text. Lundastudier i nordisk språkvetenskap A:29. Lund: Blom.
  5. Hermann Pálsson, ed. 1985a. Áhrif Hugsvinnsmála á aðrar fornbókmenntir. Studia Islandica/Íslensk Fræði 43. Reykjavík: Menningarsjóður.
  6. Boas, Marcus, ed. 1952. Disticha catonis. Amsterdam: North-Holland Publishing Company.
  7. Schiesaro, A. 1996. ‘Dicta Catonis’. In Hornblower et al. 1996, 465.
  8. Gering, Hugo, ed. 1907. Hugsvinnsmál. Eine altisländische Übersetzung der Disticha Catonis. Kiel: Lipsius & Tischer.
  9. Goold, G. P., ed. 1982. ‘Dicta Catonis’. In Duff et al. 1982, 592-629.
  10. Internal references
  11. Not published: do not cite (RunVI)
  12. Carolyne Larrington and Peter Robinson 2007, ‘(Introduction to) Anonymous, Sólarljóð’ in Margaret Clunies Ross (ed.), Poetry on Christian Subjects. Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages 7. Turnhout: Brepols, pp. 287-357.
  13. Not published: do not cite ()
  14. Matthew Townend (ed.) 2012, ‘Óttarr svarti, Hǫfuðlausn 8’ in Diana Whaley (ed.), Poetry from the Kings’ Sagas 1: From Mythical Times to c. 1035. Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages 1. Turnhout: Brepols, p. 750.

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