OLAVUS PAUPER HETHLANDINUS, ‘Poor Olaf, the Shetlander’, the first known Shetlandic poet

In 1432, a boy called Olaf left Shetland for Orkney to become a student.  Many details of his life are frustratingly shrouded in mystery. When exactly was he born? What was his family background and where in Shetland were they living? Had he been educated before his departure and, if so, by whom? What subjects, if any, had he been taught? Who arranged for him to go to Orkney and was he competing against others for the privilege? Was this a regular occurrence or a ‘one off’? Who paid for his expenses – his family, a patron, the Catholic Church? Did he choose to go or was pressure put on him?  What were his career plans? Would he ultimately return to Shetland or stay in Orkney? Would he enter the service of the Church as a priest and perhaps become a teacher himself?

Some intelligent speculation is called for: that Olaf was a young man from a landowning family, who somehow came to the attention of the Archdeacon of Shetland based at Tingwall; that his demonstrated intelligence and intellectual curiosity marked him out for special treatment so that he, while still a ‘puer’ as he describes himself, ie. a boy not a young man, was chosen to travel to Kirkwall to attend the Church School, founded by Bishop Bjarni Kolbeinsson around 1200 and attached to St Magnus Cathedral; that he had the possible intention of ultimately forging a career in the Catholic Church – this was more than a century before the Reformation – by either progressing up the ladder of priestly posts in Orkney or returning to Shetland to work within the Archdeaconry.

Two years later, in 1434, Olaf decided to return to Shetland. We do not know whether it was to take an opportunity to visit his family or whether it was to embark upon his career in the local Church, but probably the former because he was still a very young man.

It is at this point that speculation becomes more grounded in fact, albeit limited. We know that Olaf left Orkney on a Friday – it was a strangely reassuring detail to have a precise day of the week supplied even without an actual date. He relates how he saw Shetland from his ship the following morning and his anticipation, although not stated, must have been great. Disaster however struck without warning. It was not the Sumburgh Roost which buffeted the boat and threatened to run it onto the rocks, which Shetlanders throughout the centuries who travel south of the Mainland by sea know all too well. A ferocious storm suddenly blew up and he could not get to a safe harbour or indeed to land at all. As the horrendous tempest raged with agonisingly sharp showers of hail and blankets of thick fog – one wonders if the weather in 1434 resembled the weather of today and might he have been travelling in May? – the ship that carried him was battered and flooded. His terror lasted four days.

Olaf was not one of the crew and gives us no details of how many there were and whether they were Shetlanders or Orcadians. He focuses only on his own reaction to the storm as gradually the ship is destroyed. It was obviously only meant to be a day’s journey – one might reasonably assume from Kirkwall to most probably Scalloway– and it sounds as if he was hitching a lift on a navigium, transporting trade goods from Orkney to Shetland. No preparations had been made for a crisis scenario and he relates how he had nothing to eat except raw pork, which made him feel ill. Equally there was no water on board and he was forced to drink salt water. His torment only ends when the wrecking of his ship finally lets him set foot on land once more – not in Orkney or on the Scottish Mainland or the Faroe Islands or the Norwegian coast. It had been a bitter West wind and had carried him beyond the bounds of logical prediction to Jutia ‘Jutland’ in Denmark.

At this point, the reader must be asking where any of this information has come from. In later life, Olaf himself wrote a lengthy work, 238 lines of elegiac poetry interspersed with 76 lines of prose, in Latin – not the predictable Medieval Latin of his day but Classical Latin – which has fortunately survived in three manuscripts. There are only very slight differences between them in content but each has been written by a different scribal hand, adding to the care required to decipher and compare them. As far as the writers of this article are aware, the text has not been translated into English before, and so has remained consigned to obscurity until recently. We knew nothing of its existence until Brian Smith, our Shetland archivist, sent us material he had collected about Olavus Pauper ‘Poor Olaf’ a few years ago. We have undertaken to study the manuscripts as a joint venture and it is still an on-going project, with Alexis, retired Principal Teacher of Classics at Wallace High School, Stirling and George Heriot’s School, Edinburgh, as translator and interpreter of literary context, and Andrew, UHI lecturer in the Institute for Northern Studies as interpreter of content and historical context.

The two oldest surviving manuscripts, both 15th century and one of which may well be in Olaf’s own handwriting, can be found today in Germany, one in the town of Wolfenbüttel, in the renowned Herzog August Library, the other in the Staats und Stadtbibliotek in Augsburg. The third has a more complicated history. The famous Icelandic scholar Árni Magnússon transcribed a copy for Professor Thomas Bartholin, the Danish Royal Antiquarian, from an original manuscript which seems to have been destroyed in the great Copenhagen fire of 1728. This version, unlike the two German manuscripts, has appeared in print three times as far as we are aware: firstly in 1802, in the annual Anniversaria published by Copenhagen University, with the full Latin text prepared and commented on in Latin by the leading Danish scholar of his day Erasmus Nyerup; secondly his edition of the poem appeared again in Denmark in the Scriptores Danicarum medii aevii Volume 8 in 1834. It remains a mystery as to what triggered Nyerup’s interest in a work by an obscure Shetlander, although he was reputed to take a keen interest in all things northern. The third publication fortuitously links the work to Scotland. W.C. Trevelyan visited Copenhagen University, read the manuscript and, with the help of a Professor Magnusen and reference to Nyerup’s edition, published a selected 66 of its 314 lines in the journal Archaeologica Scotica in 1831, making at least some of the poem available to a Latin literate Scottish audience. It would be gratifying to think that some educated Shetlanders of that time might have subscribed to this publication and enjoyed their first taste of Olaf’s work. Our only evidence of the impact of Trevelyan’s article is an anonymous letter in the Shetland Advertiser of 14thJuly, 1862, drawing attention to the fact that Olavus Pauper speculated about the name Hjaltland in the 15th century.

Towards the end of the work, Olaf tells us that he wrote his autobiographical poem on Michaelmas, 29th September, 1448, while he was in Erfurt, an illustrious German University town. So what on earth had happened to him in the fourteen years between trying to leave Orkney for Shetland and this very precise date?

Olaf’s description of the storm is extremely graphic: ‘a dreadful shaking strikes our hearts… the ropes are broken, the sails are torn by the winds, the mast is broken… this sailor groans, that one’s shouting cuts the air, this one is stiff with cold, that one is regretful … sometimes the ship appeared to be on the peaks of sea mountains with no hope of descent… then the ship was swallowed pitifully in the abyss.’

He relates how the sighting of land (Jutland) should have been a comfort to them but as they suffered shipwreck, landing did not give them sanctuary, rather it took safety from them: ‘While I suffered shipwreck at the will of God, I escaped the dangers of the sea but I did not escape the terrible dangers of land.’ It must strike a modern reader as strange that Olaf accepts his fate as decided by God but this was indeed the medieval view, that ships were wrecked because of the sins of the sailors on board. As a devout catholic he starts to confess as he ‘rehearses the horror of death’ before his eyes. He has no time to be glad to be alive since strangers arrive on the beach, and, as was the law of the time (the Ius Naufragii , not actually a law but an accepted ‘right’ ), claim the wreckage and contents of the ship as flotsam and therefore now their property, and take the crew as servants. We are not told if any had drowned. It is unlikely that any survivors were killed by the looters because they would be too useful. We might also reasonably assume Olaf would be especially desirable because of his youth, which would give a master long years of service. At this point, Olaf describes himself as like a sheep about to be sacrificed and that he, like the sheep, does not understand what is being said to him. This is rather surprising and extremely interesting. Being a Shetlander at a time when Shetland was still part of Norway – the Islands were not annexed to the Scottish Crown until 1472 – he would almost certainly have been a Norse speaker, and the inhabitants of Jutland, although they would have had a distinct dialect, should have been comprehensible to him. A possible explanation could be that he was captured by North Frisian speakers. At that time, North Frisland in South Jutland was part of the Danish kingdom.

Olaf gives us no information on the location of where he landed in Jutland, which is very frustrating for the scholar. He continues by telling us he was received by the ‘people of a Castle’, but again no details are supplied. There is a strong possibility that the Castle concerned was either Trøjborg or Schackenborg, both very near the west coast of Jutland, both built before 1434, and both owned by the Bishop of RIbe.

As a young boy, he was given work suitable for his age and energy. His first job was looking after pigs. His tone suggests that he had never had to do this when at home. The courtiers of the Castle ridiculed him, perhaps because he found their ceremonies absurd and may have shown this in his facial expression. He then became a cook where he was anxiously coping with smoky fires and miserably thinking about his education now wasted and how he no longer had any books. As a kitchen servant he had to sleep on a hard bench and never stopped being weary, hungry and in pain. Although a boy, stress made the hair on the top of his head turn white overnight. He was teased about his name Olavus sounding like ollas lavans ‘washing pots’.

At this point in his account, Olaf tells us his hereditary name is Hethlandinus, Shetlander. He believes the name Hieltland came from the piece of iron dividing the sword in the manner of a cross, ie the hilt. He recalls how he had learned from Veteres ‘Old Men’ that ‘between Norway and my native land Hetlandia there was once situated a rich land called Svertland, related to Shetland just like a sword to its hilt. But the ocean covered over that land with salt marshes, so that no area was henceforth left for human habitation.’ He states that ‘the destruction of this was a great indication of my future calamity.’ This is a fascinating folktale. Intriguingly, some geologists tell us that at the end of the last Ice Age there may well have been an island between Shetland and Norway, where the Viking Bank fishing grounds exist today. His tone proves he is very proud to be a Shetlander. He is being treated very violently by those around him and cannot fight back. He compares his extremely stressful situation to someone set to fight the beasts without a sword, not at all a Nordic image but perhaps from stories he has read about Christian martyrs. He wishes he had drowned in the storm. There is no escape and nowhere to flee to because he has no money to pay for his journey home to the land he loves.

Suddenly Olaf’s tale jumps into the future. The activities of the next few years are not described at all. He must have been rescued from the Castle and taken under the protection of a churchman. We learn that Jacob, Canon of Roskilde in Denmark, who worked for the Bishop of Roskilde, had become his master and been kind to him but had suddenly died. Olaf is full of grief and feels ‘a savage storm of fortune is still raging against me.’ No further details are supplied but one might reasonably assume that Jacob, and indeed his Bishop, had recognised academic talent in the young man and arranged for him to travel to Erfurt in Germany to become a student at the University there. 

In the midst of his lamentations, Olaf reveals in passing how well educated he has become by mentioning heroes of ancient literature, the Trojan Hector and Greek Achilles, just as earlier he had shown knowledge of Scylla and Charybdis and other Greek and Roman mythology. He compares himself to Boethius, a 5th-6th century Roman senator, whom he sees as a kindred spirit, and has obviously studied his Consolation of Philosophy, one of the most influential works in the Middle Ages. He likens his poverty to that of Codrus, mentioned in the Roman literature of Juvenal. He refers to the Labyrinthus, also known as De Miseriis Rectorum Scholarum, a critical treatise on poetry, by Eberhard of Bethune, a 13th century Flemish grammarian and a student’s standard Latin text in the fifteenth century. His most interesting comparison is with Henricus Pauper, otherwise known as Henry of Settimello, a late 12th century Italian poet, author of Diversitate fortunae et philosophiae consolatione, a long Latin poem in elegiac couplets. This is where he has derived a parallel title for his own work, Olavus Pauper, and studies of the text show some clear echoes of Henricus’ work. [It should be noted that ‘pauper’ means ‘poor’ in the sense of poverty stricken, and not ‘poor’ in the sense of unhappy, which would have been the Latin ‘miser’. It is poverty that unites him with the writers he relates to and which he appears to consider the worst aspect of his misfortune.] What is unclear is exactly where he had developed this breadth of learning. How much could he have acquired during his two years of study in Kirkwall? Because this was a Church School, it might seem unlikely that he would have had time to study much more than Christian texts and Latin grammar. We know that he wrote the work while at the University of Erfurt, so surely this must be where he had become such an accomplished scholar and so widely read. One of the most touching references is a quotation from the Labyrinthus, which he may indeed have used as a textbook in Kirkwall, where he says he has looked across the whole sky but cannot not find a guiding star sparkling sweetly for him.

The following section is a description of a lonely young man, weeping all night, exhausted in the morning, and paranoid about the fact that everything seems to be against him and there is no hope of betterness. He mentions how being an ‘alumnus’, ie. a student at Erfurt, had caused him even greater suffering which has made him timid. He feels ‘evil fate’ is raging and taking possession of him. He has no friend to show him compassion. His masters spurn him. One cannot help but speculate that, because he is neither German nor Danish but a northern foreigner from an unfamiliar and distant land, he simply does not fit in socially even if he is academically able.

Although Olaf’s constant complaining does become annoying for the reader, it is impossible not to feel tremendous sympathy for this young man torn from his family and his homeland with no hope of return. His kinsmen appear either not to know what has happened to him or, if they have found out, perhaps through Church links, to have made no attempt to get him returned to his home, and he feels they have deserted him. His dread of death during the storm at sea is constantly in his head. At this point, it seems appropriate to demonstrate the effectiveness of his Latin verse style.

                               221   Si mihi contingat noctu dormire periclis

                               222         Somnia per tetra conteror innumeris.

                               223   Nam videor ferri volitando per aera, flammis

                               224         Nunc coelum stridet, nunc ego mergor aquis.

                               225    Vertor & evertor lecto, suspiria ructo,

                               226          Et palmis plango, saepe iacens lacrymor.

These lines perfectly demonstrate Olaf’s elegiac couplets, alternating hexameter and pentameter, and some typical classical Latin stylistic features including alliteration, onomatopoeia and word play.

‘If I manage to sleep at night, I am terrorised by countless forbidding dangers. For I seem to be carried flying through the air. Now the sky crackles with flames, now I am submerged in the waters. I toss and turn in bed. I heave sighs and beat myself with my palms, often lying in tears.’

In modern terms, Olaf is suffering from Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, at a time when there would be no understanding of how to support him in his misery. Olaf tries to comfort himself with constant reminders that, despite everything, he has unshakeable Christian faith to carry him through: ’The greatest goodness of God has never left you’; ‘Christ, you have been my comfort when I sounded sad. Nor did you abandon me in woeful times.’

Suddenly, at line 246, two thirds of the way through the work and much to the reader’s surprise, Olaf reveals that, rather than writing a straightforward autobiography, he is, in fact, writing a praise poem to honour Bishop Jens Pederson Jernskæg of Roskilde, who has treated him not as a servant but as a foster son. Olaf apologises: ‘I will celebrate you in verse although I may not be worthy to depict you.’ As we will see when discussing the quality of his Latin and style, Olaf has no reason to apologise for anything!

Flattery is the key component of medieval praise poetry. Olaf starts by giving a ‘poetic’ explanation of the origin of the name Roskilde as ‘Fountain of Roses’ to explain why it was appropriate that Jens had chosen it as his title because ‘just as the rose is redder than other flowers, so the title of Bishop of Roskilde glows red gold before all others.’ He then picks out Bishop Jens’ key attributes: a brilliantly clever strategist; gentle to the wretched, harsh to the arrogant; incredibly generous with gifts; a cultivator of peace and of noble spirit; standing firm in adversity; honoured by kings and dukes; decorated by the army; Chancellor of the Kingdom of the Danes.

At this point, Olaf offers up a prayer of intercession that God should grant the Bishop a long life and, when he does eventually die, raise him up into ‘the eternal land’. He cannot resist once more apologising for what he humbly – with false modesty – feels is the poor quality of his eulogy: ‘in the year 1448 on the Festival of Michael I wrote these elegies, which I have spun with poor thread in Erfurt.’ Apart from the later section in praise of the Bishop, one has to ask how the Bishop would have reacted to the content of the much lengthier first section tracing Olaf’s earlier life and misfortunes. If indeed the Bishop treated Olaf as a foster son, he would surely have known this sad saga already. Surely he must be seeking to impress the Bishop, not with the storyline of the work but with his fluency in Classical Latin, particularly in the challenging construction of the verse form and several playful ‘language games’ for the reader incorporated into the text.

It seems almost unbelievable that, after this supreme effort in composing a splendid piece of work, fate would yet again strike cruelly at Olaf’s life. Although it must have taken considerable time to compose and refine the poem, Olaf makes it sound as if he had dashed it off in one day- an impossibility – rather than simply dispatched it from Erfurt to Roskilde on Michaelmas, the 29th September, 1448. The two 15th century manuscripts end at this point. The third, the 18th century Copenhagen copy, has a postscript, probably added later by another person: ‘In the year 1448 on the Ides of September (ie. the 13th) here were laid to rest the limbs of John (Jens) Priest of Roskilde, for whom may the clergy make prayers.’  It takes the reader’s breath away to realise that Olaf’s eulogy had been dispatched more than two weeks after his patron was buried and news had not reached him that Bishop Jens was ill let alone had died. One cannot even imagine the feelings of frustration that Olaf must have experienced, not only that his time and effort had been wasted but that he had lost his father figure and must now struggle on alone again.

It was suddenly imperative to try to discover if anything existed to show what happened to Olaf after this traumatic event. Was his misery and depression ever to end? He might even have felt suicidal at such a disappointment were it not that he was a devout catholic who would have to battle on, however wretched the future might turn out to be. With tremendous joy and relief, it was discovered from the records of Erfurt University that his name appeared on a list of graduates. We now know that, before the Bishop’s death, he had been awarded his Baccalaureus Artium in 1444 and his Master’s in 1447. Suddenly deprived of the support of his patron, these qualifications would at least have given Olaf the wherewithal to make a career for himself in the Church and therefore have a home and sustenance, albeit not where he would wish to be, in Shetland.

One further and final reference to Olaf has been found. A document shows that in 1472 Archbishop Olaf Trondsson of Trondheim sent Olaf a letter of thanks for looking after an expensive gift – 200 florins and a precious jewel – on his behalf to be given to Christian the First, King of Denmark and Norway. Olaf was given a valuable gold coin as a reward. This demonstrates that he must have been highly respected and trusted and indeed we note that he held the responsible post of Canon in Copenhagen. We have no further information about Olaf’s later years or death – there is no evidence that he ever did get back to his homeland – but at least he had achieved success and status in his Church career. How amazed he might well be that three copies of his work have survived and are now being studied and appreciated.

In conclusion, how should we evaluate the writer and his work?

The 19th century Danish scholar Nyerup criticised the language of the poetry for being rather harsh and the prose sections for using unfamiliar vocabulary but said this was a problem not of the author but of the age, in which literature had almost died out and ‘barbarism had flooded the lands far and wide!’ The writers of his article do not agree with this view and, apart from a surfeit of complaining, albeit justifiable in the harrowing circumstances described in his poem and causing his PTSD, and the incorporation of a few instances of brief grammar exercises, text reversals and other stylistic tricks fashionable in the 15th century, find the Latin smooth, accurate, sincere and compelling in its drama.

Olaf’s text is written in Classical not Medieval Latin: he might be considered an early writer of ‘Neo Latin’ which became fashionable soon after, when authors chose to use Classical Latin style and literary formats in preference to the Medieval. It is grammatically flawless. He composed his poem in elegiac couplets, the first line in hexameter and the second in pentameter, in the classical style. His expertise in Latin shows signs of the influence of the 6th century Latin grammarian Priscianus and his Institutes of Grammar which was another standard Latin textbook in the Middle Ages. His references to the Labyrinthus, to the works of Boethius and Henricus Pauper, and his confident use of Greek and Roman mythology are incorporated in his text to great effect. Undoubtedly Olaf was a very well educated, skilful poet with a talent for composing dramatic descriptions, and therefore he has certainly earned his place in the Shetland literary canon. As a final thought, in that this masterly piece of work deals only with his failures, might he not, in later life, have composed an account of his successes and might there not be another manuscript lying lost somewhere, yet to be discovered?

Originally published in The New Shetlander June 2021

Andrew Jennings and Alexis Jennings

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