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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 > 1.2. The skaldic corpus from the early Viking Age to the end of the fourteenth century)

1.2. The skaldic corpus from the early Viking Age to the end of the fourteenth century (MCR)


Skaldic poetry, as defined in the previous section, lasted as a productive literary genre for about five hundred years, which is an amazing length of time when one considers how esoteric a poetic form it was. However, as might be expected from a living tradition, there were many changes in the medium along the way, made in response to changing linguistic, social and religious circumstances, political and economic changes and regional differences within Scandinavia itself and among the Scandinavian diaspora in the originally Norwegian colonies of Iceland, the Faeroes, the Orkneys, the Hebrides and other parts of the British Isles. Although, as we have seen, skaldic poetry appears to have first manifested itself in Norway, it appears to have been adopted very quickly in Iceland after the settlement there (c. 870-930). While Norwegian skalds continued to maintain their command of the medium, Icelanders soon matched and even outdid them in poetic accomplishment, if we can believe the evidence of surviving prose texts, which are mainly Icelandic, and the ethnicities traditionally ascribed to skalds by modern editors. However, twentieth-century archaeological finds of runic sticks and other inscriptions in poetic form from the Hanseatic quarter of Bergen have greatly increased our knowledge of the kind of poetry that was composed in Norway during the twelfth to fourteenth centuries, and SkP VI of this edition goes some way towards filling in the blanks concerning the kind of Norwegian poetry that did not get recorded in manuscripts and was not part of the repertoire of the Norwegian court.

There is no doubt that Norwegian rulers from the tenth to the thirteenth centuries acted as major patrons of skaldic poetry, and many of the poems in the skaldic corpus can be attributed to the predominantly Norwegian and Icelandic skalds who served them. Volumes I and II of this edition record their work and reveal its diversity and literary excellence. Several of the kings, especially Haraldr harðráði ‘Hard-rule’ Sigurðarson (d. 1066), were no mean poets in their own right. Generally, evidence for the cultivation of the skaldic art outside the West Norse cultural area, including the Orkney Islands, is slight, and there is some indication that skalds from Iceland and Norway held a very scornful view of the intellectual powers of Danes and Englishmen when it came to appreciating skaldic poetry. This is voiced clearly by the eleventh-century Icelander Sneglu-Halli, who reported to King Haraldr harðráði on his return from a trip to England, where he had composed a poem for an unidentified English jarl, that this poem was technically very poor, so much so that it could not be worse than a drápa among the Danes (SnH Lv 7II;; cf. Gade 1991)!

The new society of Iceland produced a large number of skalds, some of whom travelled to Norway and served Norwegian kings, others of whom, if one believes the record of saga literature, remained at home in Iceland but were nevertheless accomplished poets composing outside a courtly environment. The complex social circumstances of poetic production in Iceland are discussed in greater detail in §6, but it is noteworthy, when reviewing the history of the skaldic art, that it lasted longer in Iceland than anywhere else in Scandinavia. This was probably largely due to the great strength of the traditional intellectual and literary arts in Iceland, and to the predominant position of poetry as an elite accomplishment in Icelandic society. Not only did skaldic poetry continue to be composed by and for the political and social elite of the island until at least the later part of the thirteenth century (Guðrún Nordal 2001), but Christian religious poetry in the skaldic mode reached its apogee in the fourteenth century and continued, in somewhat attenuated form, right up to the Reformation in the sixteenth century (Jón Þorkelsson 1888; ÍM).

The most significant external change to affect skaldic poetry and its poets was the religious conversion to Christianity that took place officially in Norway and Iceland around the year 1000. In all probability many Scandinavians, especially those who travelled abroad, had become familiar with at least some aspects of Christianity well before that time, and there was a not inconsiderable number of Christian settlers in Iceland who had migrated there from parts of the British Isles. We have seen in the previous section that initially the idea of composing poetry on Christian themes may not have seemed skáldligr ‘poetical’, at least as reported by considerably later texts. This attitude did not last long, however, as the missionary kings Óláfr Tryggvason and Óláfr Haraldsson and their successors, all of whom patronised skalds, were keen to have their poets compose in ways befitting the new religion, and many skaldic kennings, such as those for rulers and the sky, could be easily adapted to refer to the king of heaven and his dwelling above mankind. It is true that in eleventh-century poetry there was a rapid temporary decrease in the skalds’ use of kennings with pagan mythological allusions (Fidjestøl 1993b), but the change in religion did not otherwise have a dampening effect on the composition of skaldic verse, and by the year 1200 there was a reawakening of interest in the old mythological kennings with the work of Snorri Sturluson and other Icelandic poets and scholars.

The most remarkable innovation in this context was the adaptation of the skaldic encomium to Christian subjects. This seems to have been a purely Icelandic development and to have had no surviving counterpart in Norway. Beginning with poems in praise of King Óláfr Haraldsson, who came to be regarded as a saint shortly after his death in 1030, skalds of the eleventh and early twelfth centuries began to adapt the praise-poem to celebrate the powers of this king both in life and after death. By the time of the Icelandic priest Einarr Skúlason’s composition of Geisli ‘Light beam’ (ESk GeislVII), which he recited in Christ Church cathedral, Trondheim, in 1153 before a triumvirate of Norwegian kings and the newly consecrated archbishop Jón Birgisson, Óláfr appeared more powerful as a miracle-worker after death than he was as a warrior-king in life.

It was not until the second half of the twelfth century that Christian skalds in Iceland began to compose poetry on wholly religious subjects, and these were mostly either hagiographic or homiletic. Poems of hagiographic type, which used many of the resources of the traditional encomium, were largely narratives, based either on gospel texts (such as the lives of the apostles Peter and Andrew) or on existing Latin or vernacular prose saints’ lives. The earliest poem in this mode was PlácitusdrápaDrápa about Plácitus’ (Anon PlVII), a life of S. Eustace composed in the second half of the twelfth century, but there were numerous others on both male and female saints. An important group of hagiographic poems from the mid-fourteenth century was composed about the Icelandic bishop Guðmundr Arason, probably in support of a push to have him canonised. A special category of late skaldic poems comprises compositions in honour of the Virgin Mary, based either on existing lives of the Virgin, in Latin or the vernacular, or on miracle stories in which she plays the leading role. Another group of religious poems shows a strong affinity with the concerns of the pulpit and the medieval genre of the homily. Again, the earliest examples of this type come from the second half of the twelfth century, but it continued into the fourteenth century.

Skaldic poetry never really died out in Iceland. Late skaldic verse, from the late fourteenth and probably the early fifteenth centuries, is often metrically irregular, but poets continued to compose within recognisably skaldic paradigms of metre and diction. In addition, it can be seen that the newly evolving poetic form of the ríma, which seems to have begun in the fourteenth century, used many of the stylistic and metrical resources of skaldic verse and adapted them to a new poetic medium. At least two of the fourteenth-century skalds whose works are edited here (Einarr GílssonIV and Kálfr HallssonVII) are also credited with the composition of rímur, Einarr certainly and Kálfr probably.

Although there is good evidence to establish the ethnicity of some skalds, there are many who have been assigned an ethnicity (usually Icelandic) by earlier scholars without any hard evidence to support it. In most cases, later researchers have simply accepted Finnur Jónsson’s designation of poets in Skj as either Icelandic or Norwegian, but this edition has adopted a more sceptical stance in cases where there is no evidence to support one or the other. See further Gade 2000, 82-4 and Clunies Ross 2009a, as well as individual poet biographies in this edition.


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