A mansǫngr (literally 'maiden-song'; plural mansǫngvar; modern Icelandic mansöngur, plural mansöngvar) is a form of erotic poetry in Iceland. In scholarly usage it has often been applied to medieval skaldic love-poetry; and it is used of lyric openings to rímur throughout the Icelandic literary tradition.
In high-medieval Iceland
In the Ljóðatal section of the Hávamál, charms 16 and 17 are explicitly love charms. However, Edith Marold and Bjarni Einarsson have argued that the term mansöngr has been over-used in medieval scholarship, being applied to love-poems which we have no evidence were actually viewed as mansöngvar.
The composing of mansöngvar for women is explicitly prohibited by the medieval Icelandic law-code Grágás, 'in the younger additions to Konungsbók (GKS 1157 fol) and Staðarhólsbók (AM 334 fol), where it is inserted into a passage bearing the title 'vm scaldscap' ('on poetry'), an exhaustive treatment of the different kinds of poetry and the various punishments for them'. But there is no clear explanation of what a mansöngr is. In the Konungsbók version, §238, the text reads
Ef maðr yrkir mansöng vm cono oc varðar scog gang. Kona a söc ef hon er xx. eða ellre. ef hon vill eigi søkia láta. oc a lavg raðande hennar sökena.
If a man composes mansǫngr about a woman he suffers full outlawry. The woman has to bring the case if she is twenty or older. If she will not have it prosecuted, then her legal administrator has to bring the case.
Apart from in the earliest rímur poems, which lack mansöngvar, each ríma customarily begins with a mansongr, often addressed to a woman but known as mansöngr even when it isn't. Traditionally, the author (usually male) would compose poetry about a woman he had fallen in love with (but generally not had reciprocated). Accordingly, mansöngvar are often sorrowful; but they latest changed and started to feature other topics, such as love for one's ancestral estate or complaints at how few people appreciate poetry.
One example of the content of a mansöngur is afforded by Craigie's summary of stanzas 1-17 of the third ríma of Skotlands rímur by séra Einar Guðmundsson:
Though the ring-decked maiden might wish for a love-song, I have but little poetry from Odin. Only a little scent of the fruit of song he gave me once: I have no need to be grateful for his generosity. Let those rejoice who have been more successful. Friendship is not shown to every man, and I was never good at winning favour of the great. True friendship is rare over all the land; most men look for some advantage and are envious of all others who get wealth or fame. Seek not, then, to be praised by the world: disgrace and loss may follow. He that sees in secret will reward you, and He will come one day to sit in judgement. May I be able to see Him with joy, though my works are not so good as they might be. I have not the mansöngs to speak about the fair maid, but I must try to give her the third ballad now!
- Theodor Möbius, 'Vom isl. mansöngr', Zeitschrift für deutsche Philologie: Ergänzungsband (1874), 42-61. The principal study of mansöngvar.
- T. M. Johnstone, 'Nasīb and Mansöngur', The Journal of Arabic Literature, 3 (1972), 90-95. Compares the parallel literary development of the mansöngur and the Arabic Nasīb (poetry).
- Edith Marold, ' Mansǫngr — a Phantom Genre?', trans. by Kate Heslop, in Learning and Understanding in the Old Norse World: Essays in Honour of Margaret Clunies Ross, ed. by Judy Quinn, Tarrin Wills, and Kate Heslop, Medieval Texts and Cultures of Northern Europe, 18 (Turnhout: Brepols, 2007), pp. 239-62; Bjarni Einarsson, ‘"Mansöngr" revisited’, Opuscula, 11 (2003) [=Bibliotheca Arnamagnæana, 42].
- Edith Marold, ' Mansǫngr — a Phantom Genre?', trans. by Kate Heslop, in Learning and Understanding in the Old Norse World: Essays in Honour of Margaret Clunies Ross, ed. by Judy Quinn, Tarrin Wills, and Kate Heslop, Medieval Texts and Cultures of Northern Europe, 18 (Turnhout: Brepols, 2007), pp. 239-62 (pp. 249-50).
- Text and translation quoted from Edith Marold, ' Mansǫngr — a Phantom Genre?', trans. by Kate Heslop, in Learning and Understanding in the Old Norse World: Essays in Honour of Margaret Clunies Ross, ed. by Judy Quinn, Tarrin Wills, and Kate Heslop, Medieval Texts and Cultures of Northern Europe, 18 (Turnhout: Brepols, 2007), pp. 239-62 (p. 249); she quotes the text from Grágás: Islændernes lovbog i fristatens tid, udg. efter det kongelige Bibliotheks Haanskrift, ed. and trans. by Vilhjálmur Finsen, 2 vols (Copenhagen: Berling, 1852), Ib, 184. For the Staðarhólsbók version see Grágás efter det Arnamagnæanske Haandskrift Nr. 334 fol., ed. and trans. by Vilhjálmur Finsen (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1879), p. 393 [§377).
- Vésteinn Ólason, 'Old Icelandic Poetry', in A History of Icelandic Literature, ed. by Daisy Nejmann, Histories of Scandinavian Literature, 5 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2006), pp. 1-63 (pp. 55-59).
- Skotlands rímur: Icelandic Ballads on the Gowrie Conspiracy, ed. by W. A. Craigie (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1908), p. 6; http://archive.org/details/skotlandsrmuric00craigoog.
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