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Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages

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GunnLeif Merl II 16VIII (Bret 16)

Russell Poole (ed.) 2017, ‘Breta saga 16 (Gunnlaugr Leifsson, Merlínusspá II 16)’ in Margaret Clunies Ross (ed.), Poetry in fornaldarsögur. Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages 8. Turnhout: Brepols, p. 149.

Gunnlaugr LeifssonMerlínusspá II

‘“Kom Kambría         með Kornbretum,
seg Vintóni:         ‘Vǫllr þik gleypir.
Fœr hirðis sjǫt         hinig, es leggja
lung at láði;         munu liðir allir
hǫfði fylgja;         þats hjǫlp guma.’

‘“Kom Kambría með Kornbretum, seg Vintóni: ‘Vǫllr gleypir þik. Fœr sjǫt hirðis hinig, es lung leggja at láði; allir liðir munu fylgja hǫfði; þats hjǫlp guma.’

‘“Come Cambria, along with the Cornish Britons, say to Winchester: ‘The plain will swallow you up. Move the shepherd’s settlement here, where ships make for the land; all limbs will follow the head; that is the salvation of men.’

Mss: Hb(49v) (Bret)

Readings: [1] Kambría: cimbria corrected from cambría during the process of refreshing Hb    [3] Vintóni: vontoni Hb    [4] gleypir: skýfir corrected from gleypir during the process of refreshing Hb    [6] leggja: lengra Hb

Editions: Skj AII, 13, Skj BII, 13, Skald II, 8; Bret 1848-9, II, 20 (Bret st. 16); Hb 1892-6, 273; Merl 2012, 81-2.

Notes: [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, 3, 5] kom … seg … fœr ‘come … say … move’: The extrametrical suffixed pronouns komþú (l. 1), segþú (l. 3) and fœrþú (l. 5) have been deleted in the present edn to reduce the hypermetrical lines that otherwise result. Skj B and Skald delete those in ll. 3 and 5. — [1] Kambría ‘Cambria’: Refreshed as ‘cimbria’, and reported thus in Bret 1848-9 and Skj A, but the a is visible beneath the refreshing. — [3] Vintóni ‘Winchester’: Emended in Bret 1848-9 (followed by all subsequent eds) from ms. ‘vontoni’ (refreshed). This form, without final –a, is irregular and perhaps used for metrical reasons, but might also be an artefact of the refreshing. — [4] gleypir ‘will swallow’: Refreshed as skýfir ‘will cut’, but the original reading is still partially visible, as noted by Scheving, who restored accordingly, followed by Bret 1848-9, Skj B and Skald. Merl 2012 retains skýfir, understood in the sense of verstosse ‘disown/expel’, but this scarcely makes sense in context and ignores the textual history. — [5] hirðis ‘the shepherd’s’: Rendering Lat. pastoris ‘of the shepherd’, a standard expression for ‘bishop’ (Smalley 1973, 34). See I 59 Note to [All]. — [7] leggja ‘make’: Emended by Scheving (followed by Bret 1848-9, Skj B and Skald) for ms. lengra (refreshed). Merl 2012 would retain lengra, translating in combination with lung as das lange Schiff ‘the long ship’, but this, besides ignoring the comp. degree of the adj., disregards the clear testimony of the Latin (naues applicant ‘ships make landfall’) and leaves the clause without a finite verb, which is supplied in the German translation in parentheses as kommt ‘comes’.


  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. Skald = Kock, Ernst Albin, ed. 1946-50. Den norsk-isländska skaldediktningen. 2 vols. Lund: Gleerup.
  5. Hb 1892-6 = Finnur Jónsson, ed. 1892-6. Hauksbók udgiven efter de Arnamagnæanske håndskrifter no. 371, 544 og 675, 4° samt forskellige papirshåndskrifter. Copenhagen: Det kongelige nordiske oldskrift-selskab.
  6. Bret 1848-9 = Jón Sigurðsson. 1848-9. ‘Trójumanna saga ok Breta sögur, efter Hauksbók, med dansk Oversættelse’. ÅNOH 1848, 3-215; 1849, 3-145.
  7. 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.
  8. Smalley, Beryl. 1973. The Becket Conflict and the Schools: A Study of Intellectuals in Politics. Oxford: Blackwell.
  9. Tatlock, J. S. P. 1950. The Legendary History of Britain. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
  10. Wright, Neil, ed. 1988. The Historia Regum Britannie of Geoffrey of Monmouth. II. The First Variant Version: A Critical Edition. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer.
  11. Poole, Austin Lane. 1955. From Domesday Book to Magna Carta, 1087-1216. 2nd edn. Oxford: Clarendon.
  12. Barrow, G. W. S. 1956. Feudal Britain: The Completion of the Medieval kingdoms 1066-1314. London: Edward Arnold.
  13. Brooke, Christopher. 1961. From Alfred to Henry III 871-1272. London: Nelson.
  14. Merl 2012 = Horst, Simone, ed. 2012. Merlínússpá. Merlins Prophezeiung. Munich: Herbert Utz Verlag.
  15. Perry, Ben Edwin, ed. and trans. 1984. Babrius: Aesopic Fables in Iambic Verse. Loeb Classical Library 436. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  16. Internal references
  17. 2017, ‘(Introduction to) Unattributed, Breta saga’ in Margaret Clunies Ross (ed.), Poetry in fornaldarsögur. Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages 8. Turnhout: Brepols, p. 38.

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