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Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages

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Vol. I. Poetry for Scandinavian Rulers 1: From Mythological Times to c. 1035

1. Defining and characterising the corpus

1.1. What is skaldic poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages? (MCR)
1.2. The skaldic corpus from the early Viking Age to the end of the fourteenth century (MCR)
1.3. The primary evidence for the skaldic corpus (MCR)
1.4. The division of the corpus in this edition (MCR)

(Vol. I. Poetry for Scandinavian Rulers 1: From Mythological Times to c. 1035 > 2. General Introduction > 1. Defining and characterising the corpus > 1.1. What is skaldic poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages?)

1.1. What is skaldic poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages? (MCR)

Skald kalla mik ‘they call me skald’ asserted the ninth-century Norwegian Bragi Boddason, when challenged by a troll-woman to identify himself ({Bragi TrollIII}). Bragi is thought to have been the first skaldic poet whose work has survived. What would he have meant by the term skald? And what do modern scholars mean? The English adjective ‘skaldic’ (or ‘scaldic’) is a modern term, though the noun skald (later skáld) ‘poet’ is medieval, as is the noun skáldskapr ‘poetry’. However, there is no Old Norse word corresponding to the adjective ‘skaldic’ as used here to define a kind of poetry, although the adjective skáldligr ‘poetical’ existed. According to his saga, the Icelandic poet Hallfreðr vandræðaskáld ‘Troublesome-poet’ Óttarsson used the term when expressing what he did not like about the move from a pagan to a Christian world-view that his Norwegian patron, King Óláfr Tryggvason (r. c. 995-c. 1000), was insisting he make: the new outlook was not more skáldligr, Hallfreðr claimed ({ÍF 8}, 155), than the old, presumably because traditional subjects and the diction used to express them were called into question by the new orthodoxy.

It is obvious from medieval texts that early Scandinavian skalds had a strong sense of their identity as poets and of the character of their art. However, what is not clear is whether they thought of early Scandinavian poetry in the contrastive sense that modern scholars do, and in particular whether they made a distinction that is almost universally made nowadays between ‘skaldic’ poetry and ‘eddic’ (or ‘eddaic’) poetry, as two major kinds of early Scandinavian verse. The present edition advertises itself as including all skaldic poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages, yet it could be argued on metrical grounds at least that it also contains poetry that could be termed ‘eddic’. The fact is that both ‘eddic’ and ‘skaldic’ are post-medieval terms, which have grown up in slightly different circumstances to describe early Scandinavian poetic texts that were almost certainly not distinguished sharply as either one or the other in medieval times.

In 1643 the Icelandic bishop Brynjólfur Sveinsson acquired a small manuscript of medieval poetry whose contents seemed partly familiar to him, because he had read similar verses in Snorri Sturluson’s Edda (c. 1225), a treatise on poetics that continued to be well known in Iceland after the Middle Ages. Brynjólfur surmised that the new manuscript must belong to an earlier collection than Snorri’s, and presumed that it had been compiled by the semi-legendary Icelandic historian Sæmundr Sigfússon (1056-1133). Thus he called his manuscript Edda Sæmundi multiscii ‘The Edda of Sæmundr the Very Wise’ and the name edda came to be applied to the type of poetry contained in it, although there is no evidence that Sæmundr had compiled such an anthology nor that such poetry was called edda in the Middle Ages. The manuscript, now usually referred to as the Codex Regius of the Poetic (or ‘Elder’) Edda ({GKS 2365 4°} of c. 1270), passed in 1662 into the Royal Library in Copenhagen and in 1971 was returned to Iceland. The circumstances surrounding the rediscovery of this unique manuscript go a good way towards explaining the origin of the modern idea that there is a distinct kind of early Norse poetry that can be called ‘eddic’. That idea is based fundamentally on the supposed uniqueness of the anthology on grounds of its subject matter and traditional metres.

The Poetic Edda is a collection of poems about the pre-Christian Norse gods and both Scandinavian and Germanic heroes in verse-forms that derive from the common Germanic alliterative metre, which we know to have been shared by all the Germanic peoples whose early medieval literatures were written down. The predominant Norse version of this metre came to be called fornyrðislag ‘old story metre’, a term we find applied to it in Snorri Sturluson’s {Háttatal} ‘List of Verse-forms’ ({SnE 2007}, 38), the final section of his Edda. Other metres found in the Poetic Edda collection are málaháttr ‘speeches’ form’ and ljóðaháttr ‘songs’ form’, both also exemplified in Háttatal ({SnE 2007}, 37, 39). Neither the subject matter nor the metre of the Poetic Edda anthology are unique to it. As far as subject matter is concerned, some of the poems in the codex are recorded in other manuscripts, while poems of similar type occur in other contexts, most notably in various prose fornaldarsögur ‘sagas of ancient time’. These legendary and heroic sagas, whose setting is usually in various parts of Scandinavia before the settlement of Iceland, incorporate a considerable quantity of poetry in the eddic verse-forms fornyrðislag, málaháttr and ljóðaháttr. This poetry is likely to be of widely varying age, some of it probably as old as the oldest poems of the Poetic Edda, some of it as late as the fourteenth century, to judge by its metrical irregularity. In addition, the Gesta Danorum (c. 1216) by the Dane Saxo Grammaticus almost certainly contains reworkings of a number of West Norse vernacular poems of both legendary and mythological type into Latin hexameters ({Friis-Jensen 1987}). The use of ‘eddic’ verse-forms outside the sources mentioned above was not confined to fornaldarsögur. While not as common as the major skaldic verse-form dróttkvætt, the eddic verse-forms, especially fornyrðislag, occur in significant numbers in the poetry usually deemed skaldic, including the poetry in runic inscriptions.

It can be seen from the discussion thus far that metre alone cannot be used to distinguish skaldic from eddic poetry, although it is perhaps the most important factor in defining what skaldic poetry is. Clearly, the major skaldic verse-forms dróttkvætt ‘court metre’ and hrynhent ‘flowing-rhymed’ are highly distinctive, and their development is one of the most important innovations that distinguished skaldic poetry from earlier forms (see §4 below). However, it is necessary to use a number of criteria to mark that difference and even then it is important to recognise that the dividing line between skaldic poetry and other categories is blurred, both from the standpoint of criteria that are valid from a medieval perspective and from the standpoint of the modern study of Old Norse poetry in its historical context.

The present edition is the heir to several centuries of study and several major editions of the corpus of early Scandinavian poetry. It has become conventional to edit the Poetic Edda anthology and eddic poetry regarded as closely related to it separately from the rest of the corpus. This has led to the production of a number of specialised editions, dictionaries and commentaries on the Poetic Edda and its adjuncts, which has had the effect of isolating them from the rest of the corpus and sometimes exaggerating their differences from it. The present editors have to some extent capitulated to tradition and refrained from editing the Poetic Edda corpus, while including all other Old Norse poetry up to the end of the fourteenth century. This edition also includes all Scandinavian runic inscriptions in poetic form as well as a small quantity of Latin or macaronic poetry in skaldic verse-forms. Both West Norse and East Norse (Danish and Swedish) vernacular texts appear among the inscriptions in SkP VI.

In order to define the character of Old Norse skaldic poetry more closely there are several different types of criteria that must be applied. These can be divided into internal and external factors. Internal criteria include metre, already discussed, subject matter and poetic language; external factors of importance are the context of the poetry’s preservation and the presumed social context of its composition, as far as the latter can be determined. The chronological development of the skaldic corpus over the whole period of its active life, to be reviewed in §1.2 below, is also an important external criterion.

The context of preservation of Old Norse poetry reveals medieval principles of textual classification at work. By far the largest part of the corpus has been preserved within prose texts, mostly sagas of various kinds, as a kind of prosimetrum. This circumstance is discussed in more detail in §1.3 below. By and large, the prose context and the poetic matter are related, as one might expect; thus kings’ sagas (konungasögur) contain predominantly encomiastic poetry about kings and other rulers in dróttkvætt metre; sagas of Icelanders (Íslendingasögur) also contain predominantly dróttkvætt poetry but its subject matter is usually not courtly; fornaldarsögur, as we have already seen, contain poetry that is predominantly in eddic metres dealing with a variety of subjects, including heroic material, but extending to occasional verse, gnomic and riddling poetry, biographical and semi-historical material. The fornaldarsaga corpus is largely eddic as far as verse-form is concerned, but in subject matter presents a mixture of skaldic and eddic features. Another genre of prose text, the treatise on poetics, of which there are three major examples in Old Icelandic, namely Snorri’s Edda, his nephew {Óláfr Þórðarson}’s {Third Grammatical Treatise} (c. 1250) and the anonymous Fourth Grammatical Treatise of about a century later, form another important category of prose texts that preserved skaldic poetry, mostly as examples of different kinds of poetic diction and rhetorical figures. While Snorri and Óláfr chose mostly dróttkvætt stanzas composed largely by Norwegian and Icelandic skalds of the ninth to early thirteenth centuries, the Fourth Grammarian included a good deal of Christian poetry, some of it probably of his own composition. It should be added that some of the manuscripts in which these poetic treatises have been transmitted contain poems that are not directly related to the treatises themselves; examples are Íslendingadrápa (HaukrV ÍsldrIV), Jómsvíkingadrápa (Bjbp JómsI) and Málshátta-kvæði (Anon MhkvIII).

Like the Poetic Edda collection, some skaldic poetry is preserved outside a prose context in poetic miscellanies or as apparently free-standing elements in compilations of historical material. It has already been mentioned (n. 3 above) that a version of the eddic poem Vǫluspá appears in Hauksbók. Another prophetic poem in fornyrðislag, with a different visionary agenda, is Merlínússpá (GunnLeif Merl I-IIVIII). This is an Icelandic version of a section of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s De gestis Britonum known as the Prophecies of Merlin, which appears within the prose Breta sǫgur, the Icelandic version of Geoffrey’s British history. The majority of poems outside prose contexts, however, are long poems of Christian devotion, usually in either dróttkvætt or hrynhent metre. Their contexts of preservation are discussed in more detail in the Introduction to SkP VII.

The social contexts in which skaldic poetry was composed, or purported to have been composed, distinguish it quite sharply from poetry in eddic metres, though here again exceptions can easily be found. This subject is treated in more detail below in §6. Here it suffices to say that skaldic poetry appears to have had its beginnings at the courts of Norwegian rulers in the ninth century and to have been largely a poetry of praise, sometimes of criticism, of rulers and their deeds, especially their military campaigns on sea and land and their conquests of rivals. Court poets were expected to accompany their patrons on these campaigns and to record what they saw or heard. A special sub-category of the encomium was the erfidrápa or memorial poem for a dead ruler. Away from a courtly setting, in Iceland, where skaldic poetry seems to have become a local speciality, poetry could still be encomiastic, but was also frequently occasional or celebratory of local events or individuals. After the Icelanders adopted Christianity, Christian encomia of apostles, saints and Biblical figures were added to the skaldic repertoire, and members of the clergy became accomplished skalds.

Both social context and subject matter, in combination, distinguish mainstream skaldic verse from the poetry of the Poetic Edda and its adjuncts. The latter deal with traditional lore, with mythological, heroic or sometimes gnomic subject matter that most people would be expected to know, whereas skaldic verse was usually composed for particular historical or semi-historical persons and about known events. This distinction of poetic mode is still observed in quite late Christian and certainly literate poetry, such as Hugsvinnsmál ‘Sayings of the Wise-minded One’ (Anon HsvVII) and Sólarljóð ‘Song of the Sun’ (Anon SólVII), two poems probably from the late thirteenth century, but still composed in the eddic metre ljóðaháttr because it was regarded as appropriate to gnomic subjects (see §4.1.2). In addition, the fact that many skalds were remembered by name and were often from known families also distinguished them from the composers of poetry in the mode of the Poetic Edda, who were anonymous. Again, however, this distinction is not watertight, for there are many anonymous skalds alongside men, and a few women, whose names are known.

In many ways, it is the diction of skaldic poetry, together with its distinctive metres, that offer the strongest criteria we can use in defining it. Although these subjects are discussed in detail in §§4 and 5, it can be claimed here that the special features of skaldic diction, including the use of heiti and the nominal circumlocutions we term kennings (for example hurðir Hǫgna ‘doors of Hǫgni <legendary hero> [shields]’) (Mberf Lv 3/7II), are virtually unique to this poetry, even though we find some poetry of the Poetic Edda that uses them sporadically. An additional distinguishing feature of skaldic style is the fractured word order adopted by many skalds. By the second half of the fourteenth century, some skalds, such as the poet of Lilja ‘Lily’, were repudiating the hulin fornyrðin ‘obscure archaisms’ (Anon Lil 98/3VII) of their predecessors, and composing in a less convoluted though still artful style.

On the etymology and cognates of skald, see AEW: skáld.

The Codex Wormianus (AM 242 fol, W) of the mid-fourteenth century contains an incomplete text of the poem Rígsþula ‘Rígr’s þula’, while AM 748 I a 4° (A), of c. 1325, contains five of the same poems as the Codex Regius of the Poetic Edda, plus one, Baldrs Draumar ‘Baldr’s Dreams’, that is unique to it. Two manuscripts of Snorri’s Edda contain the poem Grottasǫngr ‘The Song of Grotti [a magical hand-mill]’, while the poem Vǫluspá ‘The Prophecy of the Seeress’ is found in the early fourteenth-century Icelandic compilation known as Hauksbók (Hb) ‘The Book of Haukr [Erlendsson]’. The Gylfaginning section of Snorri’s Edda contains quotations from several of the Poetic Edda poems, especially Vǫluspá, Grímnismál ‘The Speech of Grímnir’ and Vafþrúðnismál ‘The Speech of Vafþrúðnir’. Snorri also mentions or quotes from some poems of eddic type that have not survived in the written record.

The standard edition of the Poetic Edda is NK, which also has an accompanying dictionary, translated into English and augmented as LT 1992. Edd. Min. includes a number of eddic poems not in the Codex Regius, many from fornaldarsögur. There are also two major German commentaries on the Edda poems, S-G and Kommentar.

However, again conventionally, this edition excludes rímur, even though the earliest ríma, Einarr Gilsson’s Óláfs ríma Haraldssonar, dates from the mid-fourteenth century.

There are some prose links and explanatory prose sections in the Codex Regius of the Poetic Edda, probably added by a commentator, but the manuscript is largely a poetic anthology.

Both versions of Skáldatal ‘Enumeration of Skalds’ (SnE 1848-87, III, 251, 259) claim that Starkaðr inn gamli ‘the Old’ was the first skald whose poetry people knew in the medieval period. Starkaðr is said to have composed for kings of the Danes.

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