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Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages

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Lausavísa on Lawgiving — Anon LawVII

Anonymous Poems

Jonathan Grove 2007, ‘(Introduction to) Anonymous, Lausavísa on Lawgiving’ in Margaret Clunies Ross (ed.), Poetry on Christian Subjects. Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages 7. Turnhout: Brepols, pp. 965-6.


This simple end-rhymed st., Lausavísa on Lawgiving (Anon Law 1), describes the qualities esteemed in the lǫgmaðr ‘legal expert, lawman’. It also recalls the foundational Old Testament lawgiver Moses, through whom God conferred the Ten Commandments and other secular and religious laws upon the Israelites. The st. is preserved in GKS 3260 4° (3260), a C14th legal compendium containing the Gulaþing version of the Norw. national law code (Landslǫg) instituted by King Magnús lagabœtir in 1274-6, and a number of other legal texts. The poem is appended to a copy of a short recension of the municipal laws (Bæjarlǫg, or Bjarkeyjaréttr hinn nýi) of Bergen, instituted by Magnús in 1276 (Sørlie 1956; cf. Sandvik and Jón Viðar Sigurðsson 2005, 236). The main text of the Bæjarlǫg and the accompanying st. are written in a single hand of c. 1300-50, identified by Gustav Storm as Icel. (NGL IV, 399-400). The st.’s origin is unknown: it may derive from either Norway or Iceland, although on balance a Norw. provenance seems more likely. Because the scribe is likely to have been Icel., normalisation has been to C14th Icel. rather than Norw. While it is conceivably contemporary with the manuscript, the st. might well predate it. However, the simplicity of the verse, unadorned by kennings or heiti, and its use of end-rhyme, suggest a relatively late date of composition.

Before the late C14th, the term lǫgmaðr is primarily associated with Norway. It is uncertain whether the Norwegian lǫgmenn, the recognised authorities in all matters of law in the local assemblies, occupied any formal position before the late C12th, but with the consolidation of royal power under King Sverrir (1184-1203), lǫgmenn began to function as servants of the crown. By the C13th they were presiding over local assemblies, often serving as de facto judges, although this juridical role was not formalised before Magnús lagabœtir’s institution of the Landslǫg. Hákonar saga Hákonarsonar ch. 86 names eight lǫgmenn from different parts of Norway who were present at the great assembly of 1263 that confirmed the legitimacy of Hákon (1204-63) as king (Mundt 1977, 52-3). The introduction to the Frǫstuþingslǫg states that Hákon established a new code of law in 1260 with the help of various lǫgmenn (NGL I, 121), and laid down fines for anyone who ignored a lǫgmaðr’s official summons or legal decision (NGL I, 124). In the early C14th Norway was divided into legal districts supervised by the royal lǫgmenn (Tobiassen 1965; Helle 1974, 126-8; Sandvik and Jón Viðar Sigurðsson 2005, 234-5). In Iceland, with the introduction of the Járnsíða law-code in 1271, lǫgmenn answering to the Norw. crown replaced the traditional lǫgsǫgumaðr ‘lawspeaker’, who had previously presided at the Alþingi (Magnús Már Lárusson 1965). As in Norway, the term lǫgmaðr in the sense ‘expert in law’ may have been current in Iceland before this time, however: Grágás, which ostensibly transmits the law-codes of the Icel. commonwealth, states that the lǫgsǫgumaðr could if necessary consult five lǫgmenn at the Alþingi if he needed assistance (Grg Ia, 209).

The first helmingr encapsulates the traditional notion of the lǫgmaðr as a wise legal expert rather than a royal office-holder. Whether this construction represents contemporary expectation or anachronistic image-making is unclear. The reference to Moses, who, according to Exod. acted both as judge and divinely ordained legislator, dispensing secular and religious laws upon the Israelites, would certainly have suited the centralising tendencies of C13th and C14th Norw. kings in matters of law.


  1. Bibliography
  2. NGL = Keyser, R. et al., eds. 1846-95. Norges gamle love indtil 1387. 5 vols. Christiania (Oslo): Gröndahl.
  3. Grg = Grágás.
  4. Magnús Már Lárusson. 1965. ‘Lagman: Island’. KLNM 10, 162-3.
  5. Helle, Knut. 1974. Norge blir en stat 1130-1319. Handbok i Norges historie 3. Bergen, Oslo, Tromsø: Universitetsforlaget.
  6. Internal references
  7. Kari Ellen Gade 2009, ‘Hákonar saga Hákonarsonar (Hák)’ in Kari Ellen Gade (ed.), Poetry from the Kings’ Sagas 2: From c. 1035 to c. 1300. Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages 2. Turnhout: Brepols [check printed volume for citation].
  8. Jonathan Grove (ed.) 2007, ‘Anonymous Poems, Lausavísa on Lawgiving 1’ in Margaret Clunies Ross (ed.), Poetry on Christian Subjects. Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages 7. Turnhout: Brepols, p. 966.
  9. Not published: do not cite ()
  10. Not published: do not cite ()

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