Friday, October 7, 2011


Today, I'm taking a real wide swing around my usual poetry to do a quick addition to the #occupythemiddleages twitter feed that Karl Steel put up at In The Middle.  There, Karl sees the Middle English poem, Gode speede the ploghe, as a veiled warning to the Church and the Landholders, the 1% of the times, to more closely value the peasants, the 99% of the time.

You see the same message in the poetry of the Kings' Sagas, most particularly in the Bersoglisvisur of Sigvatr Þórðarson.  In it, the skald berates the king for his ill-treatment of the farmers, and reminds him that
enn eru búendir seinir af, þvís minnir
the farmers are still slow to relinquish what they remember (verse 5)
He also gives a more direct warning of future dissent, when he says
Vasat á her, með hjorvi / hlið, þars stóðk i miðjum / hrösinn (skal með hrísi) hans flokki (við þjokkva)
There was no gap in the ranks where I stood proudly in the midst of his men with my sword; one must make the forest denser with brush. (verse 3)
Finally, in verse 12, the warning is more explicit yet:

Hætts þats allir ætlask / (áðr skal við því ráða) / hárir menn, es heyrik  / hót, skjǫldungi at móti; / greypt's þat, 's hǫfðum hnepta, / heldr, ok niðr í felda / (slegit hefr þǫgn á þegna) / þingmenn nǫsum stinga.
The threat is dangerous when all grey-haired men, as I hear, intend [to revolt] against the ruler; that must be prevented in advance.  It's rather grim when assembly members hand their heads and stick their noses into their cloaks; silence has descended on your followers.
That image, of the King's supporters, the farmers and common men keeping silent and choosing to "stick their noses in their cloaks is a powerful one.  It warns the King to respect the rights the farmers have enjoyed under his father, in order to be certain that the army will have their support, that "the brush will make the forest denser" and fill the lines.

King Magnús Óláfsson heeded the warning he was given.  I hope the 1% heeds the warning its receiving today.


(Sources for the poetry are

  • Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages, vol. 2: Poetry from the Kings' Sagas 2, pp. 11-30.

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