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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 > 1.3. The primary evidence for the skaldic corpus)

1.3. The primary evidence for the skaldic corpus (MCR)

(subheadings only)

1.3.1. Poetry in runes

Runic poetry is characterised by its transmission – with one exception (the Canterbury formula, Run DR 419VI) – not in manuscripts, but in runic script on diverse portable objects and rune stones. Runologists distinguish two phases of runic writing: the period of use of the so-called Older Fuþark and that of the so-called Younger Fuþark. The Older Fuþark consists of twenty-four characters and was developed from a Latin alphabet between the first and second centuries A.D. The specific details of this process are controversial. This runic alphabet, named fuþark after its first six characters, was in use until c. 700. Afterwards, regionally different alphabets developed in Scandinavia, known collectively as the Younger Fuþark. Common to all these, at first, was a reduced inventory of just sixteen characters. But these fuþark alphabets were differentiated again relatively soon (starting in the tenth century) by the use of diacritical signs, usually dotting. In the medieval period, the alphabet was adapted to the Latin alphabet in its sequence of characters and use of additional runes for c and z.

The runic corpus can be divided chronologically into three periods: that of the Older Fuþark (c. 150-700), that of the Viking Age (c. 800-1100), and that of the medieval urban inscriptions, which extends into the fourteenth century and, in some isolated cases, even later. During the eighth century there was a transitional period from the Older to the Younger Fuþark in which only a few inscriptions are found, which already use some of the characters of the Younger Fuþark. In all three periods, some inscriptions were composed in metrical form, and it is these metrical inscriptions that are edited in SkP VI.

A. The older period (c. 150-700)

Here we find metrical inscriptions both on stones and on various portable artefacts. The most numerous group are the stone inscriptions, found predominantly in Norway. The inscriptions are arranged in various ways, including along the edge of the stone, horizontally or vertically running from bottom to top. Smaller objects with metrical inscriptions include weapons (a shield-boss), a buckle, a richly decorated gold horn, a bracteate (a gold medal, inspired by Roman coins) and a whetstone.

B. The Viking Age (c. 800-1100)

From this period we find numerous metrical inscriptions in the three Scandinavian countries, Denmark, Sweden and Norway. Here too, the stone inscriptions are the most numerous group. Sweden is distinguished not only by the number of its inscriptions, by far the largest, but also by a particular way of arranging them. Whereas the Danish inscriptions are arranged vertically or in a line following the edge of the stone, with few ornamental elements, inscriptions on Swedish stones are often integrated into a so-called rune animal, an animal-shaped band which forms loops on the stone.

C. The later Middle Ages (c. 1100-1500)

The custom of erecting rune stones was abandoned in the early Middle Ages. Runic inscriptions of the medieval period come predominantly from an urban cultural context (Bergen, Trondheim, Sigtuna, Lödöse near Göteborg and Schleswig). The majority of metrical inscriptions are found on so-called rune sticks. The number of rune sticks found in Bergen from this period is strikingly high, and one can infer from various subjects of the inscriptions that they were probably the standard means of written communication in the city, learned book culture excluded. Bergen, with its many rune stick finds, is also the source of a large number of metrical inscriptions. Artefacts such as amulets, small boxes, hafts of knives and other ordinary wooden objects bear metrical inscriptions. A special group of metrical inscriptions are those associated with churches; they are found on church portals and wooden pillars (Norway) and on church walls and tomb slabs (Sweden); one is found on a stone window frame (Denmark).

1.3.2. Poetry recorded in manuscripts and printed books

The earliest known skaldic poetry was composed in the predominantly non-literate and heathen society of Scandinavia before the end of the ninth century. A glimpse of this early skaldic activity is preserved on rune stones, but these are only short fragments or occasional stanzas. Long court poems and eulogies composed in association with courtly milieux were passed down orally over a long period of time until they were written down on vellum in the twelfth or thirteenth centuries. Most of this corpus suffered at the hands of the medieval writers. The court poems were dismembered and incorporated into written sagas in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and therefore only fragments of the early tradition are now preserved. Most of the poems have therefore had to be reconstructed by modern editors, as is explained in §3.1. Only a handful of court poems are preserved as whole entities outside a narrative context, particularly if these fell outside the domain of the royal chronicles, such as the mythological poems ÞórsdrápaDrápa of Þórr’ (Eil ÞdrIII) and Haustlǫng ‘Autumn-long’ (Þjóð HaustlIII), preserved as part of Skáldskaparmál in some of the manuscripts of Snorra Edda.

It is difficult to describe with any accuracy how skaldic verse came to be part of written medieval narrative, how poems were passed orally from one generation of poets to the next and ultimately how the preserved stanzas were plucked out of the original poems. The strict metrical straitjacket in which the verses were set would have helped to control the text in oral transmission. The encoding of the oral tradition was not, however, straightforward and indeed we must allow for changes in the encoding process. The author of the First Grammatical Treatise, writing c. 1125-75, does not refer to skaldic poetry as written texts; instead he uses variations in the technique of alliteration and above all hendingar to elucidate subtle differences in sound. It can be surmised that he was aware of the difficulty involved in transferring this deeply oral genre to vellum and was concerned at how its textualisation could be achieved (Guðrún Nordal 2009).

The earliest manuscript of a skaldic poem is AM 673b 4to, the manuscript of Plácitusdrápa (Anon PlVII), the metrical vita of Plácitus/Eustace, written c. 1200. This manuscript is a reminder that skaldic verse was not only important in the royal and aristocratic milieux of mainland Scandinavia, Orkney and Iceland, but was taken into the service of the learned Christian church in the twelfth century and possibly earlier. The earliest known kings’ saga to contain a skaldic stanza is Ágrip, the earliest surviving manuscript of which was written in the early thirteenth century. Its author was not concerned with the authenticity of the stanza he incorporates into the narrative, although authenticity was to become the yardstick by which poems were chosen in thirteenth-century compilations such as Morkinskinna and Heimskringla.

The making of manuscripts would only have been within the capacity of the wealthy and powerful in medieval society, either the ruling classes or the Church. Noted writers and most of the poets from the twelfth century onwards either belonged to the Church, as deacons, priests, bishops, monks or abbots, or belonged to, or served, the ruling class. The making of a manuscript required not only material wealth, as indicated by the acquisition of the vellum, the ink and colouring, but a skilled workforce of writers, scribes and illuminators as well as adequate facilities. The literary patrons were not necessarily involved themselves in the writing process but used the products of the textual culture as an expression of their social and cultural capital, to use Pierre Bourdieu’s widely-known term (Bourdieu 1986, 47).

Notwithstanding the origin of skaldic verse in Norway, this kind of poetry is almost exclusively contained in manuscripts of Icelandic origin. Icelanders were not only the creators of most of the preserved poetry from the tenth to the end of the fourteenth century, but also the makers of the manuscripts that preserved the verse from the twelfth century onwards. Manuscript culture in Iceland remained rich and varied from the twelfth well into the nineteenth century. It can be divided into three periods: c. 1200-1400, c. 1400-1600, and c. 1600-1900.

In the period c. 1200-1400 the audience of skaldic poetry was located in the West Nordic area, with the last royal patrons of skaldic poetry ruling c. 1300. The fourteenth century saw the production of many of the most imposing manuscripts containing kings’ sagas and Íslendingasögur, some of which were probably intended for Norwegian aristocratic milieux. This is the period during which skaldic poetry became an object of study in Iceland, as is evident from the manuscripts of Snorra Edda and their contents. In the period from c. 1400-1600 vellums continued to be produced but they mostly contain less imposing texts than those of the preceding century. In the third period (c. 1600-1900) manuscripts containing skaldic poetry are of paper rather than vellum. Paper was introduced to Iceland in the sixteenth century and paper manuscripts were produced there in considerable quantities from the late sixteenth to the end of the nineteenth century. However, printing on paper was largely reserved for copies of the Bible and other Christian literature rather than vernacular texts, which continued to be hand copied, so skaldic poetry is not found in any edition printed in Iceland until the late eighteenth century, even though there are many handwritten paper copies of texts containing skaldic poetry from this period.

With the advent of humanism in the late sixteenth century, an academic interest in the sources of the history of the Scandinavian kingdoms was reawakened, and an interest in skaldic poetry alongside it. Arngrímur Jónsson (c. 1558-1654) made use of skaldic poetry in his Crymogæa (1609). He can be shown to have used the Vatnshyrna manuscript containing sagas of Icelanders, which was destroyed in the Copenhagen fire of 1728, along with other manuscripts, such as the late thirteenth-century Kringla manuscript of Heimskringla. Magnús Jónsson of Laufás produced a new version of the Skáldskaparmál section of Snorra Edda in the early seventeenth century. The first printed texts of skaldic poetry are contained in Ole Worm’s (1588-1654) study of runes, Runer seu Danica literatura antiquissima (1636). Some of the earliest printed editions of texts containing skaldic poetry are treated in the present edition as equal in witness value to manuscripts, when the manuscripts that those early editors used are now lost, and variant readings are cited from them in these circumstances. This applies, for example, to Worm’s Runer, which contains texts of a number of poems, including Egill HflV and Anon KrmVIII as well as Anon RunVI. Another example of an early printed text that has independent value is Peder Claussøn Friis’s translation of Heimskringla, published in 1668, which is based on a manuscript that has since been lost. This translation thus has independent value for the study of the poetry in Heimskringla.

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