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Tools of Literacy

Tools of Literacy: The Role of Skaldic Verse in Icelandic Textual Culture of the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries

Guðrún Nordal
Copyright Date: 2001
Pages: 432
  • Book Info
    Tools of Literacy
    Book Description:

    A thorough and ground-breaking examination of thirteenth-century skaldic verse, linking the poets of the time with leading families and with ecclesiastical and secular learning.

    eISBN: 978-1-4426-8266-5
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vii)
  3. List of Tables, Maps, and Figures
    (pp. viii-viii)
  4. Preface
    (pp. ix-2)
    Guðrún Nordal
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 3-16)

    For more than five hundred years, from the ninth century until the end of the fourteenth century, Icelandic poets composed in the distinctive metre calleddróttkvætt. The term alludes to the poetsʹ audience in the pre-Conversion period in Scandinavia, thedrótt(ʹcourtʹ) or the kingʹs or chieftainʹs band of retainers. The emergence of this type of poetry in Scandinavia is cloaked in uncertainty, but it seems to have ʹcoincide[d] with the strengthening of royal power in late ninth-century Norway.ʹ¹ The complexity of skaldic verse suggests its exclusiveness to the community that produced and appreciated it. It was probably taught and...


    • chapter one The Twelfth Century
      (pp. 19-40)

      Literacy was formally introduced into Iceland in the eleventh century with the establishment there of the Church about 1000, but no written documents exist from this period. An accurate appreciation of the degree of learning in Iceland in this early period is therefore impossible and there is no direct information about the teaching offered at the bishopʹs seat at Skálaholt or other places of learning, such as Haukadalr and Oddi, in the eleventh century (see Map).¹ Verse by eleventh-century skalds cited in sagas written after 1200 is the only testimony to the literature, in the form of oral composition, in...

    • chapter two Snorra Edda and the Study of Grammatica
      (pp. 41-72)

      Because of the poverty of our sources, the link between the study of skaldic verse-making and formal learning could only be tentatively suggested in our brief survey of intellectual life in Iceland in the twelfth century. In the thirteenth century, however, the documentation becomes fuller and the picture of literary activity clearer. Two works in particular bear witness to the paramount importance of skaldic verse in intellectual discourse among learned Icelanders in the thirteenth century: Snorri SturlusonʹsEddaand Óláfr ÞórðarsonʹsThird Grammatical Treatise. The sophisticated and smooth presentation of the skaldic evidence in the framework of these works of...


    • chapter three Sources of Skaldic Verse
      (pp. 75-116)

      Thirteenth-century skaldic verse is not preserved in the poetsʹ original copies but only in fourteenth-century transcripts. We find skaldic stanzas integrated in prose narratives, sagas, or grammatical treatises, or preserved as complete poems independent of the prose texts. Almost two hundred years, at the most, divide the date of composition and the time of the earliest manuscript, but in most cases the time difference is considerably narrower. The original circumstance of the composition of a stanza may be unknown, but the prose narratives and manuscripts containing the verse suggest the environment in which it was transmitted during the period immediately...

    • chapter four The Poetʹs Profession
      (pp. 117-143)

      The names of the saga writers of the thirteenth century are for the most part unknown. The anonymity of the authors is not limited to the Sagas of Icelanders or to the sagas of heroes of the distant past and of chivalry (fornaldarsǫgurandriddarasǫgur), but applies equally to many historical works, such as the sagas of the Norwegian kings, the sagas of the bishops, andSturlunga saga. The uncertainty about these writers has given rise to much speculation about their identity, family background, and social position. Scholarly discussion about the possible characterization of the saga authors has largely neglected...

    • excursus to chapter four The Thirteenth-Century Poet
      (pp. 144-196)

      Skaldic verse by thirty-eight thirteenth-century poets is cited in the sources. Nine of these are noted as court poets in the two versions ofSkáldatal. Both versions ofSkáldatallist a further twenty-seven court poets who composed verse for or in honour of thirteenth-century rulers in Scandinavia; twenty-five of these are merely named and are listed in the table 4.4, but the remaining two are known members of the Sturlungar family: Steinvǫr Sighvatsdóttir and Jón murti Egilsson (though none of their verse is preserved).

      Jón Sigurðsson sought in the notes to his edition ofSkáldatalto link some of these...


    • chapter five Theoretical Discussion of the Kenning
      (pp. 199-236)

      In this part of the book we will turn to the composition of the kenning. Much circumstantial evidence can be deduced about skaldic poetics from the most widely used thirteenth-century textbook on poetics, Snorri SturlusonʹsEdda, but also from the anonymousLitla Skáldaand theÞulurpreserved in conjunction withSkáldskaparmálin the manuscripts. These works, but primarily Snorri SturlusonʹsSkáldskaparmál, classify the poetic diction, kennings andheiti, according to subject categories, referring to their origin in myth and providing examples of traditional and established kenning-constructions following vernacular practices of the most important poets (hǫfuðskáld). Óláfr Þórðarson in his Third...

    • chapter six Theory and Practice in Skaldic Verse
      (pp. 237-268)

      The human body was dissected with ruthless skill in the poetic treatises.¹ This fragmentation of the body is prevalent in all the works relating to the theoretical presentation of skaldic imagery, such asSkáldskaparmálinSnorra EddaandLitla Skálda. The evolving characteristic of these works seems to reflect an active interest in and a real need for textbooks in the art of skaldic verse-making, but it is important to establish how far these books were studied by the poets themselves. In this chapter I will bring to light the interrelationship between theory and practice in thirteenth-century verse-making by focusing...


    • chapter seven Cosmology, Learning, and Body Imagery
      (pp. 271-308)

      We are now in a position to view the art of the thirteenth-century poet in a learned and social framework. At this point it is helpful to recapitulate some of the patterns that have been established during the investigation of learning and skaldic verse-making in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The discussion of the learned context in part I of this book and of the sources for skaldic verse and the identity of the thirteenth-century poet in part II have provided us with the necessary tools we can now use to analyse the art of the skaldic poet.

      Our study...

    • chapter eight Digging for Gold in Skaldic Verse
      (pp. 309-338)

      The selective examination of thirteenth-century skaldic diction in the last two chapters indicated that body imagery emulated prevalent thinking in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, such as the cosmological ideology of the Neoplatonists and Christian body symbolism. The human body was a popular image in political and religious writing and its manifestation in skaldic poetry was seen to indicate the imaginative adoption of popular symbolism in the poetic diction. By contrast, gold imagery, our topic of investigation in this chapter, grew out of the poetsʹ appreciation of the indigenous culture of the northern regions, which was indebted to a knowledge...

  10. Conclusion
    (pp. 339-346)

    One of the primary motivations behind this study has been to attempt a clarification of, to use Brian Stockʹs term, ʹthe implications of literacyʹ for skaldic verse-making in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.¹ I have sought to substantiate the hypothesis that not only was the introduction of literacy a prerequisite for the theorizing about the generic characteristics of skaldic verse, but, more important, in the hands of the twelfth-century learned community in Iceland skaldic verse became a crucial tool in forging an enduring link between the prevailing illiterate culture and the imported elements of Latin learning fundamental to the establishment...

  11. Genealogies
    (pp. 347-358)
  12. Notes
    (pp. 359-388)
  13. Abbreviations
    (pp. 389-392)
  14. Bibliography
    (pp. 393-410)
  15. Index
    (pp. 411-440)