Medieval Studies Rímur
Matthew James Driscoll
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 February 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 February 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0297


The Icelandic rímur (lit. ‘rhymes’) are long narrative poems in complex meters, normally comprising several cantos or fits, each of which is called a ríma; single-fit rímur are also found. The number of fits in one rímur cycle, also called a set, could vary from two or three to several dozen, with a clear tendency for rímur to get longer as time went on. The fits were in turn divided into stanzas, typically numbering between thirty and one hundred, although fits comprising up to two hundred stanzas were not unknown. The stanzas could be of two, three, or four lines, with four-line stanzas being the most common. Unlike other forms of narrative poetry, such as ballads and carols, rímur did not make use of refrains. Around seventy rímur survive from the medieval period, the majority of them anonymous, with the earliest examples dating from the second half of the 14th century. Rímur remained popular in Iceland until well into the modern age, and in all over one thousand rímur have survived. The most basic form of rímur meter is known as ferskeytla, or “square meter,” which consists of four-line stanzas rhyming abab. Internal rhyme was also common, both transversal, i.e., within the line, and longitudinal, i.e., between lines. In addition to rhyme, there is also alliteration, with two alliterating words in the odd lines, normally on the first and third or third and fourth stressed syllables, and one in the even lines, always on the first stressed syllable. The rímur thus combine metrical features derived from the native Germanic tradition (alliteration) with features from poetry in Latin and the romance vernacular languages (rhyme). In terms of their poetic diction, the rímur are characterized by their extensive use of kennings and heiti (poetic synonyms), both of which are known from skaldic poetry. Rímur were generally based on pre-existing prose narratives. Almost any story could be used, but the majority of rímur are based on romances of one kind or another, typically the mythical heroic sagas (fornaldarsögur) or chivalric romances (riddarasögur). In over a dozen cases the sagas on which medieval rímur were based have not survived, giving these rímur added importance as the only surviving witnesses to lost literary works. Rímur were intended to be recited aloud, intoned in a manner called að kveða, best described as something between singing and speaking. Several hundred rímur melodies have survived into the modern age, many of them clearly of some antiquity.

General Overviews

There is no good general introduction to the rímur available in any language. The few book-length treatments that exist are for the most part heavily scholarly and make difficult reading by modern standards. There are, however, a number of shorter treatments in encyclopedias and general literary histories which can be recommended. A comprehensive introduction to the rímur in English is still very much a desideratum, however.

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