The Rovers’ Rhymes by Reverend Guðmundur Erlendsson in Fell and European News Ballads

  • Þórunn Sigurðardóttir


News ballads are poems about recent events or the poets’ contemporaries that were printed on cheap paper and sold by street vendors or performed/sung in the squares and streets of towns and cities in Europe in the early modern period. This genre has not been studied in Icelandic literary history hitherto, since poems belonging to news ballads (or disaster ballads) have not been printed but only preserved in little-known manuscripts. We can see, however, from the book of poems by pastor Guðmundur Erlendsson (primarily in the manuscripts JS 232 4to and Lbs 1055 4to, preserved in the National Library of Iceland, Reykjavík) that seventeenth-century Icelandic poets knew of news ballads. Here I examine four of his poems belonging to this genre. One deals with an earthquake in Italy in 1627; the second describes the fall of the German city Magdeburg in 1631; the third describes the execution of King Charles I of England in grotesque and horrendous detail; and the fourth portrays the king himself, bidding farewell to his wife and children and to the crown. One may infer from the texts of Guðmundur’s poems that they were intended for performance and entertainment. They feature dramatic staging, an exciting plot, and a clear moral message addressed to the audience at the end. All the poems are based on real events that happened in the poet’s time; that is, natural disasters, disasters of war, and political execution. They are presumably translations of European ballads, but the poet places the events in the context of the reality of his audience in Iceland. The poems demonstrate that the genre of news ballads reached Iceland no later than the early seventeenth century, thus expanding the repertoire of early modern Icelandic poetry.
Also of note is the fact that Guðmundur Erlendsson’s Rover rhymes do not deal with ancient heroes or fictional characters from the distant past, as was the general rule for seventeenth-century rhyme cycles, but with tragic events from the poet’s own time, the so-called “Turkish Raid” of 1627. In the rhymes, the trail of the raiders is traced around the country; place names are mentioned to support the veracity of the narrative, as are the names of people assaulted or captured by the raiders. The narrative is dramatic and suspenseful, and descriptions of the pirates’ actions are presented in grotesque detail. The last rhyme contains a warning to the audience and a moral message. The terrible events happened because of the disobedience and immorality of Icelanders, and the poet urges his compatriots to obey the Lord and pray for peace in the country, just as he did in the ballads. Thus, the poet not only translated European news ballads into Icelandic, introducing the genre to his audience/readers, but he also used the genre’s characteristics and subject matter in an innovative way in a rhyme cycle on a contemporary event in Iceland. It is entirely possible that the influence of news ballads was more prevalent in Icelandic poetry of later centuries. That needs, however, further research.