Gunnlaugr Leifsson

From Medieval

by Ásdís Egilsdóttir

Gunnlaugr Leifsson was a Benedictine monk of Thingeyrar (North-Iceland), d. 1218/19 (STORM 1988, IV, V, VII, VIII). Very little is known of his life but he seems to have been the most prolific Latin writer of the Middle Ages in Iceland and much admired and respected by his contemporaries for his learning (Biskupasögur I, 501; II, 31). In his Life of Bishop Guðmundur Arason, the fourteenth-century hagiographer Arngrímur Brandsson writes that Gunnlaugr was the most book-learned man in Iceland (Biskupasögur II, 31). His Latin works, however, are either lost or existing only in translations.


(1) Life of St. Jón Ögmundarson

St. Jón Ögmundsson was a confessor-bishop of Hólar (1052–1121, consecrated in 1106). The Latin original of The Life of St. Jón Ögmundsson (Jóns saga Ögmundarsonar) is lost, but a translation into the vernacular exists in three recensions. A fourteenth-century translation, possibly by the hagiographer Bergur Sokkason, states twice that Gunnlaugr Leifsson wrote the Latin original, once in his prologue and once in the saga proper (Biskupa sögur I, 215–16, 235). Another reliable indication of the existence of a Latin Life of St. Jón is an entry in the Monastery of Munkathverá inventory of 1429: jons saga holabiscups j latino. onnor i norræno (The Life of Jón, bishop of Hólar, in Latin. Another in Norse).

Editions (of medieval translation)

  • HELGASON, J. (ed.) 1950: Byskupa sögur. MS Perg. fol. No. 5 in the Royal Library of Stockholm (CCI 19), Copenhagen.
  • KARLSSON, S. (ed.) 1967: Sagas of Icelandic Bishops. Fragments of eight Manuscripts (Early Icelandic Manuscripts in Facsimile 7), Copenhagen.
  • • FOOTE, P. (ed.) 2003: “Jóns saga ins helga,” in Biskupa sögur I, Íslenzk fornrit XV:2, ed. S. Steingrímsson, Ó. Halldórsson, P. Foote, Reykjavík, 173–316.

Translations (from Icelandic into English)

  • VIGFÚSSON, G. & POWELL, F.Y. 1905: “The Life of S. John the Bishop,” in Origines Islandicae. A Collection of the More Important Sagas and Other Native Writings Relating to the Settlement and Early History of Iceland I–II. Oxford, 534–67 (Version A).
  • SIMPSON, J. 1965: The Northmen Talk. A Choice of Tales from Iceland, London, 65–76 (excerpts from Version B).

Date and Place

The Life of St. Jón was probably written in the Benedictine monastery of Thingeyrar, around 1200. The saint´s bones were translated and washed in 1198 and enshrined in 1200, and his cult was officially recognized by the Althing in the same year. Jón´s life and miracles were probably written in Latin soon after his cult was officially recognized. The miracles took place during the years 1198–1201.

Summary of contents

The Life tells of the bishop´s childhood and travels as a young man, to Rome, Denmark and Norway. While in Trondheim, he intervened on behalf of a young Icelandic poet, who had avenged his father by killing one of King Magnus Bareleg´s courtiers. The bishop-elect Jón went first to Lund for consecration. When it was discovered that Jón had been married twice, the Archbishop refused to consecrate him until he had received the dispensation of the Pope. In 1106, Jón returned to Iceland and his see of Hólar, where he built a new cathedral and established a school. The whole work contains many anecdotes and the miracles post mortem give a vivid picture of everyday life in twelfth-century Iceland. The Icelandic translations of Gunnlaugr´s lost Latin original, show great respect for schools and learning. The fourteenth century version B tells of the learned virgin Ingunn, who knew well Latin and grammatica. Versions A and B tell of the intelligent carpenter Thóroddur Gamlason, who learned grammatica as he heard the students being taught while he was building the Hólar cathedral. Version B explains further that grammatica means the art of Latin. Both versions also describe how bishop Jón caught a young schoolboy, Klængur Thorsteinsson (later bishop in Skálholt) reading Ovid's Epistulae (A) / de Arte (B) and forbade him to read such immoral books. It is not certain, however, whether these passages were originally in Gunnlaugr´s Life of St. Jón.

Literary models, purpose

It is difficult to say how true the Icelandic versions of the Life of St. Jón are to the original Latin version of Gunnlaugr. We can assume, however, that Gunnlaugr composed his Life according to the hagiographic tradition. Any confessor-bishop legend could have served as a literary model, particularly the Latin Legenda St. Thorlaci (Sanctus Thorlacus Thorhallson) which was written about the same time. As other hagiographic works, the Life of St. Jón was written for edifying purposes and its purpose was also to promote the new cult of St. Jón. He was the second recognized saint in Iceland, the first being St. Thorlákr, confessor bishop of Skálholt in the southern diocese.

Medieval reception and transmission

The oldest version of the Icelandic translation (A), from the thirteenth century, is probably an abridged translation of the Latin original. The fourteenth century version B is written in a florid style, typical of Icelandic fourteenth-century Benedictine writings. Since this version is fuller than version A, it is believed to be interpolated with material from Gunnlaugr´s Latin original. Another fourteenth-century version (C) is a compilation of A and B, based on a fuller version than the existing version B (cf. FOOTE 1993, 345) Version C has not yet been printed.

(2) History of King Olaf Tryggvason

Gunnlaugr Leifsson´s History of King Olaf Tryggvason (Ólafs saga Tryggvasonar) has not survived in full, neither in Latin nor in translations. Evidence for Gunnlaugr´s Latin original is to be found in Flateyjarbók (I, 516), which quotes Gunnlaugr several times. According to Flateyjarbók, Gunnlaugr submitted his book to the learned law-speaker Gizur Hallsson of Skálholt (d. 1206), who kept the book for two years. After that he returned it to Gunnlaugr who emended the book as Gizur had advised.

Editions (medieval translation)

  • VIGFÚSSON, G. & UNGER, C.R. (eds.) 1860–1868: Flateyjarbók 1–3, Christiania.
  • HALLDÓRSSON, Ó. (ed.) 1958–1961: Ólafs saga Tryggvasonar en mesta, 2 vols. (Editiones Arnamagnæanæ. ser. A, col. 1–2), Copenhagen (vol. 3 forthcoming).

Date and Place

Scholars have assumed that Gunnlaugr´s work was an amplified version on that of Oddur Snorrason. Gunnlaugr´s work was therefore written between 1200 and 1218/19, the terminus ante quem being the year when Gunnlaugr died.

Purpose and audience

Although not venerated as a saint, Olaf Tryggvason was much admired in Iceland as the missionary king who had laid the foundation of Christianity in Iceland. This is probably the main reason why two biographies were written at a relatively short interval.

Medieval reception and transmission

The Latin original was translated into Icelandic and long passages of the translation were incorporated into The Greatest Saga of Olaf Tryggvason (Ólafs saga Tryggvasonar en mesta) which survives in the fourteenth-century vellum Flateyjarbók and several other manuscripts. It has been tried to trace passages in The Greatest Saga of Olaf Tryggvason that can be ascribed to Gunnlaugr. He has probably expanded Oddur´s version with short narratives (Thættir) concerning Olaf Tryggvason´s missionary activities and speeches ascribed to the king. Of special interest are the chapters describing the king´s adventures after the battle of Svoldr. Gunnlaugr was in no doubt that the king had survived the battle and devotes several chapters to his life in the Holy land. He even tells of a book that the king gave English pilgrims he met in Jerusalem five years after the battle of Svoldr. The book relates the king´s adventures after the battle. Gunnlaugr also tells of a Norwegian pilgrim who meets the king as an old man living in disguise in a monastery near the Red Sea.

Gunnlaugr´s work is also believed to be one of the main sources of Kristni saga, which describes the conversion of Iceland in detail. The tale of Thorvaldur víðförli (Thorvalds Tháttr) is also derived from Gunnlaugr, and it may also have been one of the sources of Njáls saga.

(3) Nova historia St. Ambrosii

One more of Gunnlaugr´s lost works is mentioned in The Life of Guðmundur Arason by Arngrímr Brandsson (fourteenth century), called Nova historia sancti Ambrosii. Arngrímur writes: “When he [i.e. Gunnlaugr] had composed [diktat] novam historiam sancti Ambrosii, he went north to Hólar...” and he proceeds by telling that Gunnlaugr entered the cathedral of Hólar the night before Festum Ambrosii and started to recite this new composition [dikt] in the choir, without bishop Guðmundur´s permission. The bishop threatens him with excommunication and forbids him to introduce any novelties in the church without permission. He tells him that the “kompon” which the holy father, pope Gregory of Rome, composed, is much more praiseworthy and recommendable for the church (Biskupa sögur II, 77). According to this passage in Guðmundar saga, it seems that this lost Nova historia was a liturgical work, an officium in verse (BEKKER-NIELSEN 1958, 8–14).

(4) Translation of Prophetiae Merlini (Merlínusspá)

Gunnlaugr Leifsson also translated from Latin into Icelandic the Prophetiae Merlini from Geoffrey of Monmouth´s Historia regum Britanniae, Book 7. The Latin versions of the prophesies are in prose, but Gunnlaugr´s translation is in verse, using fornyrðislag, which was the meter generally used in Icelandic poems of prophecy, such as Völuspá. The translation follows the original closely, but Gunnlaugr also adds stanzas and half-stanzas which describe battles according to skaldic tradition, using traditional kennings for war and battle.


  • [JÓNSSON, E. & JÓNSSON, F. (eds.)] 1892–96: Hauksbók, Copenhagen, 272–83.
  • JÓNSSON, F. (ed.) 1912–15: Den no. isl. Skjaldedigtning, Copenhagen.
  • KOCK, E.A. (ed.) 1949: Den no.isl. skaldediktningen, Lund.


  • • AÐALBJARNARSON, B. 1937: Om de norske kongers sagaer (Skrifter utgitt av Det Norske Videnskaps-Akademi i Oslo, II. Hist.-filos. Kl., 1936, 4), Oslo, 55–135.
  • •BEKKER-NIELSEN, H. 1958: “Nova Historia Sancti Ambrosii. Et tabt rimofficium af Gunnlaugr Leifsson,” Maal og minne, 8–14.
  • ELLEHØJ, S. 1965: Studier over den ældste norrøne historieskrivning (Bibliotheca Arnamagnæana 26), Copenhagen.
  • EYSTEINSSON, J.S. 1953–1957: “The Relationship of Merlínússpá and Geoffrey of Monmouth´s Historia,” Saga-Book of the Viking Society 14, 95–112.
  • • FOOTE, P. 1993: “Jóns saga ens helga,” Medieval Scandinavia. An Encyclopedia, New York and London, 345 (Short, but very informative).
  • FOOTE, P. 2003: “Vita sancti Johannis eftir Gunnlaug Leifsson,” in Biskupa sögur I, Íslenzk fornrit XV:1, ed. S. Steingrímsson, Ó. Halldórsson, P. Foote, Reykjavík, cclxxxiii–ccxcii.
  • • HALLBERG, P. 1969: “Jóns saga helga,” Afmælisrit Jóns Helgasonar 30. júní 1969, 59–79 (On dating the Icelandic translations of The Life of St. Jón).
  • HALVORSEN, E.F. 1959: The Norse version of the Chanson de Roland, Copenhagen, 23.
  • JÓNSSON, F. 1930: Ólafs saga Tryggvasonar (hin meiri) (Aarbøger for nordisk oldkyndighed og Historie), 119–38.
  • KOPPENBERG, P. 1980: Hagiographische Studien zu den Biskupa sögur. Unter besonderer Berücksichtigung der Jóns saga helga (Scandia Wissenschaftliche Reihe 1), Bochum (Failed attempt to argue that the Latin Life of St. Jón never existed).
  • LEACH, H.G. 1921: Angevin Britain and Scandinavia, London, 137–39.
  • STORM, G. (ed.) 1888: Islandske annaler indtil 1578, Christiania.
  • TURVILLE-PETRE, G. 1953: Origins of Icelandic Literature, Oxford.