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Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages

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Liðsmannaflokkr — Anon LiðsI

Anonymous Poems

Russell Poole 2012, ‘(Introduction to) Anonymous, Liðsmannaflokkr’ 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. 1014.


The ten stanzas of LiðsmannaflokkrFlokkr of the household troops’ (Anon Liðs) depict and commemorate a military campaign in England led by Knútr inn ríki Sveinsson (Cnut the Great), king of Denmark, and his ally Þorkell inn hávi ‘the Tall’ Strút-Haraldsson, c. 1015-16 (see Note to st. 4/2). Stanza 1 contains an exhortation to the men prior to the landing in England and describes some fighting once on land, st. 2 describes the preparations for (further?) battles, and st. 3 reproaches a non-combatant who takes a protective role vis-à-vis his daughter or ward. In st. 4 and st. 5/1-4 the focus is upon Þorkell and his leadership in a battle fought on heathland. From st. 5/5-8 through to the end of the flokkr the focus is upon Knútr and his tenacious siege of London, in which he avails himself of a circumvallation (díki) of the city. In response to a formidable defence mounted by Úlfkell/Ullkell (OE Ulfcytel/Ulfcetel), an English leader, the invading army wavers and has to be called to order by Knútr. The speaker is to be imagined as telling the tale of his and his comrades’ brave deeds to a female companion, presumably the mær ‘maiden’ mentioned in st. 5/3 and addressed in sts 7/6 and 10/4. The further references to a woman in London in sts 8/1 and 9/1-2 may concern this same mær or possibly a ‘widow’ (ekkja) who is specifically interested in Knútr’s success. Seemingly distinct from these is Grjótvǫr (= Steinvǫr: see Note to st. 9/7).

All ten stanzas are cited as a continuum in ÓHLeg (1982, 48-53) and in the excerpts (articuli) from the Lífssaga of Óláfr helgi by Styrmir Kárason inn fróði ‘the Learned’ in Flat (1860-8, III, 328, cf. II, 22-3 for context; Sigurður Nordal 1914, 118; ÓH 1941, II, 684). Both medieval sources describe them as a flokkr. Knýtl contains st. 9/1-4 and st. 8/5-8, grouped as a single stanza, followed by st. 2 (ÍF 35, 116). The two Óláfr sagas (the Styrmir extracts and ÓHLeg) are independent reworkings of the early thirteenth-century ÓHÆ which probably included the stanzas (Fidjestøl 1982, 21-2). Knýtl has been traced by Bjarni Guðnason (ÍF 35, xcii) to a lost *Knúts saga, which the compiler of ÓHÆ also drew on. Knýtl (ÍF 35, 116) also makes clear that the stanzas it cites are excerpted from a flokk[r], er þá var ortr af liðsmǫnnum ‘a flokkr which was then made by the household troops’, and its selective approach avoids the naming of Knútr’s rival Scandinavian leaders Þorkell and Óláfr. That the Knýtl handling of the material is secondary is indicated by the fact that st. 9/1-4 and st. 8/5-8 make a less satisfactory unit than those stanzas as printed below.

The sources differ as to the attribution of the stanzas. In the Óláfr sagas, Óláfr Haraldsson, future king of Norway, is the speaker. The context shows him helping Knútr in conquering London (see st. 1, Context and Note to [All]). He is not named or otherwise identified in the stanzas cited. In Knýtl, by contrast, the stanzas cited are presented as a collective composition by the liðsmenn ‘household troops’ of Knútr (see st. 2, Note to [All]), and this has given rise to the traditional editorial title of the flokkr. Óláfr plays no part in the narrative of Knýtl. Using external sources, notably the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (ASC), we can link the subject-matter of the stanzas with campaigning in England led by Knútr and Þorkell in the second decade of the eleventh century that culminated in a takeover of the kingship by Knútr and of an English earldom by Þorkell in 1016. Þorkell was regarded by the Anglo-Saxon defenders as the most formidable of the Scandinavian leaders in this campaign (Keynes 1980, 216-22; for previous phases in Þorkell’s career in England, which evidently involved changes of allegiance, see Notes to Sigv Víkv 4/6-7, Víkv 6 [All], Ótt Hfl 8 [All]). Along with Eiríkr jarl Hákonarson, he has been credited with having won Knútr’s campaign of 1015-16 for him (Campbell 1982, 208). By contrast, Óláfr’s campaigning in England seems to have occurred in 1009-12 and 1014-15 (Johnsen 1916, 13-14; Poole 1980, 275) and by 1015 he had returned to Norway (Moberg 1941, 28-30). Bjarni Guðnason (ÍF 35, xcv-xcvi) accordingly rejects the attribution of the stanzas to Óláfr and argues that Knýtl reproduces *Knúts saga in crediting them to the liðsmenn, or perhaps a single liðsmaðr. The liðsmenn are mentioned in the kings’ sagas as a personal or perhaps institutional militia or bodyguard forming part of the entourage of various kings, but their history and detailed function remain obscure (John 1977, 173-6, 191; cf. Hollister 1962, 12-16).

The present edition retains the composition and ordering of the ten-stanza flokkr preserved in the Óláfr sagas (cf. Poole 1987, 281-3; Poole 1991, 86-90; CPB II, 106-8 includes the ten plus Ólhelg Lv 2 and 8). Other editions have followed the distribution of stanzas established in Skj, where Finnur Jónsson tentatively divided them into two groups, the first consisting of lausavísur thought to be by Óláfr c. 1010 (Liðs 3, 4, 6 and 9/5-8 in this edition) and the second comprising the remaining stanzas, taken as the Liðs composed by Knútr’s men and printed among the anonymous poetry of the eleventh century (cf. LH I, 459). Although adopting this organisation of the material, Ashdown (1930, 206) notes that the resulting text is ‘exceedingly puzzling’ and that ‘further expurgation’ from the stanzas in Finnur’s text of Liðsmannaflokkr might be needed (cf. Albeck 1946, 35; Holtsmark 1954, 104-5; Hofmann 1955, 61; de Vries 1964-7, I, 281-2).

Most scholars have regarded the stanzas as of early eleventh-century date, though de Vries (1964-7, I, 281-2) suspected later composition (see Note to st. 8/4). The linguistic evidence, which shows some admixture of Old East Norse and Old English forms, points to composition in an eleventh-century Anglo-Scandinavian milieu (see Notes to sts 2/7-8, 5/6, 6/2; Hofmann 1955, 64-70; Poole 1987, 284-6), consistent with the presence of Danes and Swedes among Þorkell’s and Knútr’s followings (Whitelock 1941, 137-9). Similarly, the mixing of material relating to Þorkell (named in st. 4/2) and Knútr (st. 7/1) points to a contemporary author who was well-informed about Anglo-Scandinavian politics in the second decade of the eleventh century (Poole 1987, 99).

The flokkr is composed from the viewpoint of the rank-and-file participant. The free handling of tenses, an allusive style and some strong characterisations give the poem a feeling of immediacy and engagement. The flokkr urges esprit de corps but also suggests a capacity to criticise and evaluate. Evaluations of the leaders are attributed not merely to the speaker (sts 4/1-4 and 5/1-4) but to the liðsmenn in general (st. 5/5-8). The poet’s handling of the story suggests some awareness of the peculiar balance of power between the two Danish leaders, such that Þorkell was an independent war-lord first and an ally or subject of Knútr second. On the English side King Æthelred and his son Eadmund Ironside are completely ignored in favour of Ulfcetel, who, from a base in East Anglia, appears to have fulfilled the functions of an earl at this period, albeit without title. Surprisingly frank is st. 6, which implies that he threw the invading forces into temporary disarray. A recognition that from the outset he was the vikings’ staunchest and ablest opponent may be implied (he is prominent in ASC s. a. 1004; and cf. Keynes 1978, 230). The opening words in st. 7, Knútr réð ‘Knútr decided’, carry the distinct implication that Knútr overruled another leader, presumably Þorkell or Eiríkr jarl (see above and Poole 1991, 106-7), in order to carry the resistance to Ulfcetel through.

The mss preserving the stanzas are DG8 (ÓHLeg), Flat (Flat), and, for sts 2, 8/5-8 and 9/1-4, JÓ, 20dˣ, 873ˣ, 41ˣ (Knýtl). As to the ms. relationships, there is no clear primacy. The Knýtl mss tend to agree, as expected, but there are significant divergences between DG8 and Flat, as illustrated by the variant readings in st. 2/3 (frétt in DG8, freyr in Flat, and frár in Knýtl) and in st. 2/8 (samða in DG8, seiða in Flat and ‘søda’ or ‘sæda’ in Knýtl). Additionally, DG8, Flat and the mss of Knýtl all appear to contain independent errors and possibly scribal emendations. The choice between DG8 and Flat as main ms. is therefore not easy, but Flat has the better text overall (e.g. see Note to st. 1/1 gǫngum) and has been preferred here.


  1. Bibliography
  2. Fidjestøl, Bjarne. 1982. Det norrøne fyrstediktet. Universitet i Bergen Nordisk institutts skriftserie 11. Øvre Ervik: Alvheim & Eide.
  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. Vries, Jan de. 1964-7. Altnordische Literaturgeschichte. 2 vols. 2nd edn. Grundriss der germanischen Philologie 15-16. Berlin: de Gruyter.
  5. ÓH 1941 = Johnsen, Oscar Albert and Jón Helgason, eds. 1941. Saga Óláfs konungs hins helga: Den store saga om Olav den hellige efter pergamenthåndskrift i Kungliga biblioteket i Stockholm nr. 2 4to med varianter fra andre håndskrifter. 2 vols. Det norske historiske kildeskriftfond skrifter 53. Oslo: Dybwad.
  6. LH = Finnur Jónsson. 1920-4. Den oldnorske og oldislandske litteraturs historie. 3 vols. 2nd edn. Copenhagen: Gad.
  7. ÍF 35 = Danakonunga sǫgur. Ed. Bjarni Guðnason. 1982.
  8. Hofmann, Dietrich. 1955. Nordisch-englische Lehnbeziehungen der Wikingerzeit. BA 14. Copenhagen: Munksgaard.
  9. Poole, Russell. 1987. ‘Skaldic Verse and Anglo-Saxon History: Some Aspects of the Period 1009-1016’. Speculum 62, 265-98.
  10. ASC [Anglo-Saxon Chronicle] = Plummer, Charles and John Earle, eds. 1892-9. Two of the Saxon Chronicles Parallel. 2 vols. Oxford: Clarendon. Rpt. 1952.
  11. Poole, Russell. 1980. ‘In Search of the Partar’. SS 52, 264-77.
  12. Poole, Russell. 1991. Viking Poems on War and Peace: A Study in Skaldic Narrative. Toronto Medieval Texts and Translations 8. Toronto, Buffalo and London: University of Toronto Press.
  13. Ashdown, Margaret. 1930. English and Norse Documents Relating to the Reign of Ethelred the Unready. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  14. Sigurður Nordal. 1914. Om Olav den helliges Saga. En kritisk undersøgelse. Copenhagen: Gad.
  15. Johnsen, Oscar Albert. 1916. Olav Haraldssons ungdom indtil slaget ved Nesjar. Kristiania [Oslo]: Dybwad.
  16. Albeck, Gustav. 1946. Knytlinga: Sagaerne om Danmarks Konger. Copenhagen: Nyt nordisk forlag.
  17. Hollister, C. Warren. 1962. Anglo-Saxon Military Institutions on the Eve of the Norman Conquest. Oxford: Clarendon.
  18. Holtsmark, Anne. 1954. ‘Olav den Hellige og “Seierskjorten”’. MM, 104-8.
  19. John, Eric. 1977. ‘War and Society in the Tenth Century: The Maldon Campaign’. Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 5 ser. 27, 173-95.
  20. Keynes, Simon. 1978. ‘The Declining Reputation of King Æthelred the Unready’. In Hill 1978, 227-53.
  21. Keynes, Simon. 1980. The Diplomas of King Æthelred ‘the Unready’ (978-1016): A Study in Their Use as Historical Evidence. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  22. Moberg, Ove. 1941. Olav Haraldsson, Knut den Store och Sverige: Studier i Olav den heliges förhållande till de nordiska grannländerna. Lund: Gleerup.
  23. Whitelock, Dorothy. 1941. ‘Scandinavian Personal Names in the Liber Vitae of Thorney Abbey’. SBVS 12, 127-53.
  24. Internal references
  25. Diana Whaley 2012, ‘The Legendary Saga of S. Óláfr / Helgisaga Óláfs konungs Haraldssonar (ÓHLeg)’ 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. clxxiii.
  26. Diana Whaley 2012, ‘Flateyjarbók (Flat)’ 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, pp. clxi-clxii.
  27. Russell Poole (ed.) 2012, ‘Óláfr inn helgi Haraldsson, Lausavísur 2’ 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. 518.
  28. Russell Poole (ed.) 2012, ‘Anonymous Poems, Liðsmannaflokkr 3’ 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. 1019.
  29. 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.
  30. Judith Jesch (ed.) 2012, ‘Sigvatr Þórðarson, Víkingarvísur 4’ 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. 539.
  31. Judith Jesch (ed.) 2012, ‘Sigvatr Þórðarson, Víkingarvísur 6’ 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. 541.

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