The Medieval Review 17.10.16

Wolf, Kirsten and Natalie M. Van Deusen. The Saints in Old Norse and Early Modern Icelandic Poetry. Toronto Old Norse-Icelandic Series. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2017. pp. 380.

Reviewed by:

Kate Heslop
University of California, Berkeley

Like its companion volume, Kirsten Wolf's The Legends of the Saints in Old Norse-Icelandic Prose (University of Toronto Press, 2013), the present volume is a bibliography, listing manuscripts, editions, translations and secondary literature for the eighty-five saints who were the subjects of poetic compositions in the Old Norse and Icelandic languages from the eleventh century until the nineteenth (the latest poem I noted, "Sprundahrós" on Mary Magdalen, is dated to the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century, pushing the boundaries of "early modern" a little). Although the title may at first glance seem to promise more, the listing of poems and bibliographic information about them is the task its editors have set themselves, with the addition of only a short preface to the volume as a whole and very brief notes on the content, authorship (where known) and date of the individual poems at the head of each entry; there are no annotations of individual bibliographic items. The post-Reformation poetry that they list has, as they note, "received modest scholarly attention" (ix) and is mostly unedited. By combing diligently through catalogues, the authors have uncovered a very large number of manuscripts preserving this material and laid invaluable groundwork for any subsequent editor. Although they modestly decry any claim to be exhaustive (x), their manuscript lists appear to be very thorough, including, for instance, multiple sung versions of an eighteenth-century poem on St Agnes, "Agnesarkvæði" (these can be listened to online at

The volume begins with a preface explaining its scope (limited by practical considerations, so that passing mentions of the Virgin Mary and St Olaf are excluded, as is non-devotional poetry on Norway's saint-king, while surveys such as Meissner's Die Kenningar der Skalden are excluded from the lists of secondary literature), arrangement (alphabetical order for the eighty-five saints, date order--not always easy to determine!--for the poems in each saint's entry, alphabetical order for manuscript sigla), and chronological coverage (materials published up to January 2015). Three shorter lists of "Catalogues and Bibliographies," "Editions and Collections," and "General Works" follow. The main purpose of these lists is, of course, to enable the authors to use abbreviated references for oft-cited items in the alphabetical list of saints, but it would perhaps have been useful to their readers to include in the section on "General Works," alongside the literary histories, some reference works on relevant aspects of Christian religious culture in Iceland, such as church history, architecture, visual arts, music and liturgy, monasticism, and so on.

The main body of the book treats eighty-five saints from Agatha to Zachariah, including the Holy Cross, the Virgin Mary, and the Norwegian national saint and king, St Olaf. The poems have been sifted for references to particular saints, so we find out that, for example, St. Andrew appears not only as we might expect in "Andréasdrápa" and the three "Andréasdiktur," in "Allra postola minnisvísur," a late medieval poem on the apostles, and its early modern counterparts "Tólf postula kvæði," "Postulavísur," and "Postularaun," but also in stanza two of all three sets of "Máríuvísur" as well as in "Vitnisvísur af Máríu," in stanza eleven of "Pétrsdrápa," and in the sixteenth-century Marian poems "Rósa" and "Milska." The authors deserve abundant praise for their careful and thorough charting of, especially, the post-medieval tradition of West Norse poetry on the saints, and it would be impossible to read this book and not learn a great deal. The criticisms that follow canvas issues that potentially impact on the book's usefulness for scholars of Old Norse or Icelandic literature--the book's most likely audience, given the unedited state in which many of these poems languish--and focus on the medieval material, as this is where my own expertise lies.

Although the authors describe their attempts to avoid repetition in the preface, the fact that most poems mention more than one saint makes redundancy impossible to avoid, given the saint-by-saint organization. They deal with this to some extent by presenting their lists of manuscripts, editions and secondary literature in an abbreviated form in the entries for the saints who only have a bit part in a given poem, with cross-references to the entry under the "main" saint. This may make the book harder to use for someone who goes to it seeking information on a particular poem rather than a particular saint; to read the bibliography for "Allra postula minnisvísur," for instance, the reader first has to figure out that its main entry is under St Andrew. An index would perhaps have been helpful here. The introductory notes on each poem are curt, sometimes to the point of ambiguity, as when we are told that "Kristsbálkur," a poem on the life of Jesus, is "based on oral tradition" (26); a more expansive iteration of this phrase elsewhere in the book makes clear that it refers to the medium of transmission that is hypothesized to fill the gap between the putative date of composition of the poem and its earliest manuscript (106).

The "comprehensive" (x) ambitions of the authors, laudable in the case of the more obscure poetry they cover, become a stumbling-block when they get to the poems on St Olaf, with their vast literature. Here they have made the sensible decision to present selective lists of manuscripts and editions, although the editions still fill almost three pages even for the comparatively obscure "Róðudrápa." Economy of space should perhaps have persuaded them also to abandon here their practice of listing all the manuscripts used in each edition. Thanks to the many fragmentary witnesses and complex stemmatic relations among them, each of the twenty-eight verses of a poem such as Sigvatr's "Erfidrápa Óláfs helga" can, and often does, have a different paradosis. Wolf and van Deusen devote many pages to listing main and variant manuscripts for each verse of the "Erfidrápa," in Finnur Jónsson's Skjaldedigtning, Jesch's edition in Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages, and in Jón Skaptason's 1983 dissertation. The information presented is largely accurate, although Skjaldedigtning does not say st. two of the "Erfidrápa" is edited from Guðbrandur Vigfússon and Unger's nineteenth century edition of Flateyjarbók, but rather from the Flateyjarbók manuscript itself. However, it is questionable what the use of these lists is, especially as reordering them into alphabetical order loses the information encoded in the sequence in Skjaldedigtning, where the manuscripts are presented in groups according to Finnur's stemma, and merely duplicates the list of manuscripts in alphabetical order already presented at the top of the entry for the poem.

Staying for the moment with the "Erfidrápa," the list of secondary literature is extensive, but again, what is needed in this case is judicious selectivity. This is not entirely apparent, with encyclopedia entries on Óláfs saga helga, or "Christian Poetry," alongside early twentieth-century biographies of Sigvatr, studies of skaldic syntax, and single-page mentions in surveys such as Hans Kuhn's Das Dróttkvætt. Surely it would have been more useful to this volume's readership to limit the list to items which discuss the devotional aspects of the poem; or, if this is in practice difficult to do, then why prioritize single-page mentions in antiquated literary histories over contextualizing references, for example, discussions of the exotic meter of the early Olaf-poem "Glælognskviða," or the shrine of St Olaf, of which "Glælognskviða" is the earliest mention? [1]

Accuracy and comprehensiveness are key to a bibliography, and the authors' care, consistency and attention to detail is generally impressive. My spot checks uncovered a few patches of mistyped numbers, for example, in the poems on St John the Baptist, on p. 119, "stz. 19" (in "Gjörði í einu") should read stz. 29; on p. 120, the reference to the poem "Fyrirlát" in Jón Helgason's Íslenzk miðaldakvæði should include p. 269 (where stz. 3 is), and the reference to "Rósa" in the same work should be to p. 7, not 17; and on p. 122, the relevant page of Jón's edition of "Blómarós" is p. 81, not p. 80. I also checked the poems on the Holy Cross; here two references out of five to Jón's edition had slightly discrepant page numbers. Cross-references from one entry to another are very accurate, and almost all of the volume's few typographic errors are isolated and trivial ("poeetry" for poetry on p. 232, :"islandishe" and "legendarishe" in a couple of German titles, a conference dated to 1977 instead of 1997); the only repeated mistake I noted was "norrœna" for "norrœnæ: in the title of E. A. Kock's Notationes. As far as comprehensiveness goes, a contribution of my own on the medieval Cross allegory "Líknarbraut" has been missed ("Hjarta sjónir. Ekphrasis and medium in 'Líknarbraut'", 14th International Saga Conference, Uppsala, 9-15 August 2009), as has Régis Boyer's discussion of Kolbeinn Tumason's interesting contemporary verses on Guðmundur biskup ("Bishop Guðmundr, once more!," 12th International Saga Conference, Bonn, 28 July-3 August 2003)--both publications in conference proceedings, to be sure, but other papers from this series of conferences are included. Margaret Clunies Ross' 2009 article is a more serious omission [2], as it is one of the few studies of any length of this fascinating poem, the earliest representative of the long tradition of Marian poetry in Old Norse-Icelandic, which stretches, as this fine volume indicates, as far as the nineteenth century (cf. the entry on "Máríuvers," p. 222).

-------- Notes:

1. Kari Ellen Gade, "The Syntax of Old Norse Kviðuháttr Meter," Journal of Germanic Linguistics 17 (2005): 155-181; Øystein Ekroll, "The Shrine of St Olaf in Nidaros Cathedral," in The Medieval Cathedral of Trondheim: Architectural and Ritual Constructions in their European Context, eds. Margrete Syrstad Andås et al. (Turnhout: Brepols, 2007), 147-208.

2. Margaret Clunies Ross, "Mariuflokkr - an Icelandic pieta?," in Greppaminni: rit til heiðurs Vésteini Ólasyni sjötugum, ed. by Margrét Eggertsdóttir et al. (Reykjavik: Hið íslenska bókmenntafélag, 2009), 63-70.

Copyright (c) 2017 Kate Heslop

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