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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
 

1.3. The primary evidence for the skaldic corpus

 
1.3.1. Poetry in runes (EM)
1.3.2. Poetry recorded in manuscripts and printed books (GN)

(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 > 1.3.2. Poetry recorded in manuscripts and printed books)

1.3.2. Poetry recorded in manuscripts and printed books (GN)

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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