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  • Old Norse Women's Poetry: The Voices of Female Skalds
  • Jenny Jochens
Sandra Ballif Straubhaar . Old Norse Women's Poetry: The Voices of Female Skalds. Translated from the Old Norse. Library of Medieval Women. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2011. Pp. i-x1 + 146.

It is a pleasure to welcome this handsome volume, the first Old Norse contribution to the series of Medieval Women. In the Foreword Sandra Straubhaar states that her book is intended to give voice to "the real and legendary early Nordic women whose exploits, poetic or otherwise, were considered memorable enough to record in the Middle Ages, and who deserve to be considered equally memorable today" (vii) and she assures the reader that she has gathered together as many as she could find (viii). Nonetheless, in the Introduction she states that her goal is to provide a "selection of notable Old Norse ... poetry in which the voice of the speaking poet (skald, Icelandic skáld) is female" (1), and later on the same page [End Page 465] she claims that her book "represents the first published collection ... of all the poetry attributed to Old Norse women skalds." Further on she justifies that when she has not included the women-centered Eddic poems from the Codex Regius (with one exception) it "is entirely a matter of space, thematic balance, and the author's caprice" (6). If these pronouncements leave uncertainty about the scope and size of her corpus, she seems to prefer poetry articulated by named women skalds found within a prose narrative. The word "skald" in the title recalls skaldic poetry, a genre in which men excelled by reciting poems in praise of kings or chieftains at their courts in the difficult meter of dróttkvætt. More than 300 skalds are known by name, including a few poetesses, but poetry has not been preserved from all. A few women mastered the skaldic meter, but fortunately skalds could use other less demanding meters. In other words, a 'skald' was simply a word for a poet, and Straubhaar's title is therefore justified; she offers a selection of women skalds or poets (but not all), of whom a few compose in dróttkvætt but most in easier meters.

The author is well known from several articles concerning women's poetry in the Old Norse corpus; most used is undoubtedly her entry on Skáldkonur in Medieval Scandinavia: An Encyclopedia, 1993 (594-6). It is somewhat disconcerting, however, to discover that pages 2-3 of the brief introduction in her book is taken verbatim (without reference) from this article, in particular because the structure described in the article and repeated in the introduction does not fit the content of her book. In the article she operated with four groups of poetesses, whereas in the book she uses six, because she subdivides the fourth group of "shield-maidens, witches, and troll-women" into its constituent parts, thus obtaining a group of "legendary heroines," of "magic-workers, prophetesses, and alien maidens," and of "trollwomen." Furthermore, in the sequencing she moves the "visionary women" from the second to the third group. Among minor differences the introduction repeats from the article that the first group contains eight skáldkonur whereas it actually has nine, and the eight visionary women from Sturlunga saga are reduced to seven. A brief footnote (2, n. 4) attempts to guide the reader. These problems probably arise from the fact that in her initial culling of female poets from Finnur Jónsson's and Ernst Albin Kock's editions of the skaldic poetry she divided her harvest into four groups. Nonetheless, it would seem that an introduction should fit the content of the book and not the history of the author's research.

In the first section she treats nine poets calling the chapter "Real People, Real Poetry," in the second she has collected from the family sagas eleven poetesses she qualifies as "Quasi-Historical People and Poetry"; in the third she has located seven women from Sturlunga saga known for their [End Page 466] visions; in the fourth she concentrates on three legendary women who recited poetry; in the fifth she collects almost a dozen...


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