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Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages

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Vol. VII. Poetry on Christian Subjects

8. Introduction

1. Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages – a New Edition (MCR)
2. The Corpus of Medieval Icelandic Christian Skaldic Poetry (MCR)
3. Genres of Christian Skaldic Poetry (MCR)
4. Manuscripts (MCR)
5. Poets and their Audiences (MCR)
6. History of Scholarship and Reception of Christian Skaldic Poetry (MCR)
7. Verse-forms and Diction of Christian Skaldic Verse (MCR)
8. The Treatment of Foreign Learned Words and Foreign Personal Names in Skaldic Poetry (KEG)
9. Normalisation of Fourteenth-Century Poetry (KEG)
10. How to use this Edition (MCR)

(Vol. VII. Poetry on Christian Subjects > 8. Introduction > 2. The Corpus of Medieval Icelandic Christian Skaldic Poetry)

2. The Corpus of Medieval Icelandic Christian Skaldic Poetry (MCR)

Volume VII comprises the bulk of Icelandic skaldic poetry with Christian devotional subject-matter composed by poets between the mid-twelfth and the beginning of the fifteenth century. Almost all this verse is of Icelandic provenance, the sole probable exception being the single stanza, Lausavísa on Lawgiving (Anon Law), preserved in a manuscript of Norwegian legal documents. One distinguishing feature of much of the present corpus is the nature of its mode of preservation, which is generally in pre-Reformation compilations of religious devotional verse, outside a prose context. This feature, and other aspects of the manuscript record, are discussed in more detail below. Some medieval Icelandic Christian poetry, of considerable significance, also appears in Volume IV, Poetry on Icelandic History, especially a group of hagiographical poems which are likely to have been composed to support the case for the canonisation of Bishop Guðmundr Arason (1161-1237),[2] while other Christian verse is to be found in Volume III, Poetry from Treatises on Poetics,[3] and scattered throughout Volumes I and II, Poetry from the Kings’ Sagas 1 and 2.

Although the majority of Norwegian and Icelandic skaldic poems were composed – and certainly recorded in writing – after the introduction of Christianity to the West Norse area from c. 1000 AD, those poems that deal squarely with the common subjects of Christian doctrine and devotion do not occur in significant numbers before the middle of the twelfth century. There are several indicative fragments and poems, which date from the late tenth (if Hafgerðingadrápa ‘Tremendous Waves drápa’ (Anon HafgIV) can be so dated),[4] eleventh and early twelfth centuries, but the earliest skaldic poem that offers a sustained and direct treatment of a Christian subject is Einarr Skúlason’s Geisli ‘Light-beam’ (ESk Geisl), which can be firmly dated to the year 1153. This poem breaks new ground in the skaldic art in several ways: it is a completely preserved drápa (long poem with refrain) belonging to one of the highest traditional skaldic genres, the encomium of a dead ruler (erfidrápa), and yet it also adheres to the Christian genre of hagiography, its subject being the miracle-working royal saint, King Óláfr Haraldsson.[5] A common scholarly opinion is that Geisl was perceived in its own day as a model for contemporary or slightly later poets, to judge by verbal echoes in their works (Attwood 1996b).

The terminus ad quem for Christian skaldic poetry cannot be firmly drawn. A great deal of the poetry in this volume has been preserved in anthologies of late religious verse, made in the early sixteenth century, most likely in the north of Iceland, where resistance to the advent of Protestantism was strongest (Jón Helgason 1932; Stefán Karlsson 1970). These anthologies, which include AM 713 4° and AM 721 4°, contain religious poetry of varying date from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, possibly in one case from the thirteenth (see Introduction to BrúðkaupsvísurVísur about a Wedding’, Anon Brúðv). In deciding which poems to include in this volume, the editors have been guided by linguistic and metrical evidence, internal to the poems, which would place them before 1400, while acknowledging that in many cases dating remains uncertain. In large part our selection coincides with that of Finnur Jónsson in Skj, retained in E. A. Kock’s Den norsk-isländska skjaldediktningen (Skald), though there are three additional items here, Brúðv and two Stanzas addressed to Fellow Ecclesiastics (Anon Eccl 1 and 2), and the chronological order of individual poems varies somewhat from theirs. In addition, we have sought to adopt a more consistent representation of the sound changes characteristic of the fourteenth century than that found in Skj B and Skald (see Section 9 below). We have also adopted a more conservative and consistent approach to the treatment of foreign words, mainly from Latin, in this poetry, compared with Finnur’s tendency to Icelandicise them and disregard Latin quantity, stress and spelling (see Section 8 below).


[2]    These are three long poems by the lawman Einarr Gilsson: Guðmundarkvæði (‘Poem about Bishop Guðmundr’) EGils GuðkvIV; ‘Vísur about Bishop Guðmundr’, EGils GuðvIV and Selkolluvísur (‘Vísur about Seal Head’) EGils SelvIV; Abbot Arngrímur Brandsson’s Guðmundardrápa (‘Drápa about Bishop Guðmundr’) Arngr GdIV and his Guðmundarkvæði (‘Poem about Bishop Guðmundr’) Arngr GuðkvIV; together with Abbot Árni Jónsson’s Guðmundardrápa (‘Drápa about Bishop Guðmundr’) Arni GdIVand his Lausavísur (Árni Lv).

[3]    The following poems with Christian subjects, mostly fragmentary, and from the eleventh to the thirteenth centuries, are found among the stanzas cited in treatises on poetics: Eilífr kúlnasveinn, Kristsdrápa (‘Drápa about Christ’) (Ekúl KristdrIII); Markús Skeggjason, Fragments (Mark FragIII); Eilífr Goðrúnarson, Fragment (Eil FragIII); Skapti Þóroddsson, Fragment (Skapti FragIII); Arnórr Þórðarson jarlaskáld, Fragment (Arn Frag 1III); Níkulás Bergsson, Kristsdrápa (‘Drápa about Christ’) (Ník KristdrIII); Óláfr Leggsson svartaskáld, Kristsdrápa (‘Drápa about Christ’) (Ólsv KristdrIII); Óláfr Þórðarson hvítaskáld, Thomasdrápa (‘Drápa about S. Thomas Becket’ (Ólhv ThómdrIII); Þórbjǫrn dísarskáld, ‘Poem about a Saint’ (Þdís SaintIII); Anonymous, Morginsól (‘Morning Sun’) (Anon MorgIII); Anon (TGT) 24, 43, 46III; Anonymous, Bjúgarvísur (‘Bowing vísur’) (Anon BjúgvísIII), Anonymous, Máríuflokkr (‘Flokkr about Mary’) (Anon MflIII), Anonymous, Níkulásdrápa (‘Drápa about S. Nicholas’) (Anon NíkdrIII).

[4]    Jakob Benediktsson (1981) argued convincingly that a fragment of this hrynhent poem, quoted in versions of Landnámabók, and attributed there to a Hebridean Christian sailing to Greenland in an Icelandic boat, probably dates from the second half of C11th.

[5]    It is likely that Einarr was also conscious of the traditional skaldic role of critic of royal or aristocratic politics. Some of the barely veiled ad hominem and ad feminam criticism of deeds of the Norwegian royal house conveyed in Geisli’s miracle narratives strongly supports the impression that Einarr was continuing the tradition of plain speaking found in poems such as Sigvatr Þórðarson’s Bersǫglisvísur ‘Plain-speaking vísur’ (Sigv BervII).

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