Medieval Studies Skaldic Poetry
by
Margaret Clunies Ross
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 September 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 September 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0308

Introduction

Skaldic poetry was one of the most significant literary products of the Western Middle Ages and among the most complex. It probably originated among Scandinavian poets at the courts of Norwegian kings and jarls during the ninth century and was intended as a means of celebrating the highlights of the rulers’ careers in an oral poetic medium. The term skald (later skáld) was applied to such court poets. In the Middle Ages, from c. 1200, written prose texts incorporated some of the compositions of earlier skalds into their authors’ histories of the kings of Norway and the rulers of Denmark and Orkney. The earliest skalds were Norwegian, but the skaldic art was practiced in most of the Viking Age Norwegian colonies, particularly in Orkney and in Iceland. During the course of the eleventh century, Icelandic skalds came to dominate the field and their role as royal encomiasts continued until the later thirteenth century. Even though the Conversion to Christianity forced the originally pagan skalds to modify the diction of their poetry with its allusions to the old gods, skaldic verse came to be used in medieval Iceland in a wide range of literary settings. From the early thirteenth century, it was incorporated into the new prosimetrical saga genre, with its various subgenres, which included kings’ sagas, sagas of Icelanders (also called family sagas), contemporary sagas about Icelanders living in the thirteenth century, and bishops’ sagas. From the mid-twelfth century, skaldic meters and skaldic diction came to be used in Iceland for the poetry of Christian devotion and continued for this purpose until at least the end of the fourteenth century. The dominant skaldic meter was dróttkvætt (court meter), based on the Old Norse version of the common alliterative verse-form (termed fornyrðislag, or “old story meter”) used by all early medieval societies that spoke Germanic languages. Dróttkvætt offered a tight metrical frame within which each line of a normally eight-line stanza consisted of six syllables and six metrical positions, with the cadence of each line always comprising a long-stemmed stressed syllable that carried internal rhyme, followed by a short, enclitic unstressed syllable. Lines were linked in pairs by both internal rhyme and alliteration. In terms of diction and syntax, skaldic poetry has riddle-like qualities, suited to an elite audience. It makes use of a rich vocabulary of poetic near-synonyms, called heiti, and a store of conventional periphrastic noun phrases, or kennings, which refer to a subject indirectly by means of a set of substitute terms, as in meiðr hjaldrs (“the tree of battle,” [WARRIOR]). The kenning referent, here given in capitals, is to be understood by the audience from their knowledge of a set of conventional parallels, in this example between men and trees of masculine gender.

General Overview

A number of overviews of the enormous range and diversity of Old Norse skaldic poetry over its roughly five-hundred-year history exist in the main modern languages of scholarship on the subject, some of them directed at a student readership. In several of these surveys the authors include a discussion of poetry in “old story meter” (also called “eddic”), as well as skaldic verse. An excellent overview in Danish is Jón Helgason 1953, while more recent Icelandic surveys are Vésteinn Ólason 1992 and Vésteinn Ólason 1993, which divide the skaldic corpus into early and late poetry. Mundal 2013 offers an introduction in Norwegian to both eddic and skaldic poetry, while See 1980 is a short but elegant German introduction to skaldic verse. Overviews in English include Hallberg 1975, which deals with both eddic and skaldic poetry; Clunies Ross 2005; Frank 2005; and Whaley 2005. Gade 2000 reviews the changing significance of skaldic poetry in its Icelandic cultural environment.

  • Clunies Ross, Margaret. A History of Old Norse Poetry and Poetics. Cambridge, UK: D. S. Brewer, 2005.

    DOI: 10.1017/9781846154010

    Traces the development of poetry in early Scandinavia with an emphasis on skaldic verse, reviewing its several types and purposes as well as its underlying aesthetic. Also investigates the connection between poetic composition and several medieval Icelandic treatises on the poetic art. The final chapters are preliminary to a fuller study of late medieval skaldic verse.

  • Frank, Roberta. “Skaldic Poetry.” In Old Norse-Icelandic Literature: A Critical Guide. 2d ed. Edited by Carol J. Clover and John Lindow, 157–196. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005.

    Produced in association with the Medieval Academy of America. First published in 1985, Frank’s incisive survey with a copious bibliography of skaldic studies was the first review of the state of scholarship on the topic of skaldic poetry for many years. Although written before many of the most recent developments in the field, she accurately pinpointed what was needed, including a new edition of the corpus, to move skaldic studies onward.

  • Gade, Kari Ellen. “Poetry and Its Changing Importance in Medieval Icelandic Culture.” In Old Icelandic Literature and Society. Edited by Margaret Clunies Ross, 61–95. Cambridge Studies in Medieval Literature 42. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

    Documents the development of skaldic praise-poetry and the changing relations between Norwegian rulers and their skalds, both Norwegian and Icelandic, demonstrating the gradual dominance of Icelanders and the change in the status and function of skalds in Norway and Iceland in the thirteenth century.

  • Hallberg, Peter. Old Icelandic Poetry: Eddic Lay and Skaldic Verse. Translated by Paul Schach and Sonja Lindgrenson. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1975.

    Originally published in Swedish in 1962, this survey of both eddic and skaldic poetry is somewhat outdated, but still offers a sound introduction to the range of extant Old Norse verse.

  • Jón Helgason. “Norges og Islands digtning.” In Litteraturhistorie: Norge og Island. Edited by Sigurður Nordal, 3–179. Nordisk kultur 8B. Stockholm: Bonnier, 1953.

    Jón Helgason’s authoritative and learned account of Old Norse-Icelandic poetry is still as much worth reading as it was when first published.

  • Mundal, Else. “Edda- og skaldediktning.” In Handbok i Norrøn Filologi. 2d ed. Edited by Odd Einar Haugen, 356–416. Bergen, Norway: Fagbokforlaget, 2013.

    A clear and useful overview of both eddic and skaldic poetry, including a helpful discussion of the metrical system, heiti and kennings, and close analysis and commentary on a number of sample stanzas.

  • See, Klaus von. Skaldendichtung: Eine Einführung. Munich and Zürich, Switzerland: Artemis Verlag, 1980.

    Von See offers a short introduction to the skaldic art by means of the close literary and metrical analysis of a range of poetic examples.

  • Vésteinn Ólason. “‘Dróttkvæði’ and ‘Kristileg Trúarkvæði til Loka 13. Aldar.’” In Íslensk Bókmennta Saga. Vol. 1. Edited by Guðrún Nordal, Sverrir Tómasson and Vésteinn Ólason, 191–262, 481–516. Reykjavík, Iceland: Mál og Menning, 1992.

    The first section of this two-part survey is a balanced and informative overview of the origin and development of dróttkvætt, with a focus on Norwegian and Icelandic court poetry, as well as a more detailed treatment of particular topics, including the poetry of Egill Skallagrímsson, love poetry, and the Icelandic poetic treatises. The second section surveys skaldic poetry of Christian devotion up to the end of the thirteenth century.

  • Vésteinn Ólason. “Kveðskapur frá Síðmiðöldum.” In Íslensk Bókmennta Saga. Vol. 2. Edited by Böðvar Guðmundsson, Sverrir Tómasson, Torfi H. Tulinius, and Vésteinn Ólason, 283–378. Reykjavík, Iceland: Mál og Menning, 1993.

    This, a survey of Icelandic poetry from the late Middle Ages, is a welcome addition to the, so far, rather sparse available overviews of 14th- and 15th-century Icelandic verse. It includes late skaldic poetry in honor of saints and the Virgin Mary, as well as new poetic genres such as rímur and ballads.

  • Whaley, Diana. “Skaldic Poetry.” In A Companion to Old Norse-Icelandic Literature and Culture. Edited by Rory McTurk, 479–502. Malden, MA, and Oxford: Blackwell, 2005.

    A thorough introduction to all the key topics in skaldic studies: the skalds themselves; their status and social function; their subject matter, diction, syntax, and meter; and issues in skaldic editing. The chapter concludes with a small exemplificatory skaldic anthology.

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