History and Literature

Saxo Grammaticus and the Deeds of the Danes

This article has been reviewed in accordance with our editorial policy.

In March 2018 Kung­li­ga bib­lioteket, i.e. The Swedish Roy­al Library, bought a book for 2 mil­lion Swedish crowns – that is rough­ly 180.000 euro or 220.000 dol­lar. Lat­er on the book was on dis­play for three short days. Latini­tium was there to get a glimpse. 

(You can find a video in Latin here on our mem­ber­ship plat­tform Patreon.)

So what is this all about?! Why buy a book for that ridicu­lous amount of money?

Gesta Danorum: Source of Scandinavian History

The book in ques­tion was a copy of one of the most impor­tant sources to old Scan­di­na­vian, espe­cial­ly Dan­ish, his­to­ry, a book called Ges­ta Dano­rum.

Ges­ta Dano­rum, or Dano­rum Regum her­oumque His­to­ri­ae sti­lo ele­gan­ti a Sax­one Gram­mati­co natione Sia­landi­co nec­non Roskilden­sis eccle­si­ae prae­pos­i­to, abhinc supra tre­cen­tos annos con­scrip­tae et nunc pri­mum lit­er­aria serie illus­tratae ter­sis­simeque impres­sae, as the full impres­sive title reads, was writ­ten in the late 12th cen­tu­ry and begin­ning of the 13th.

Who Was Saxo Grammaticus?

The author, Saxo Gram­mati­cus, (Saxo the Learned) has been called the father of Dan­ish his­to­ry writ­ing, and lived ca 1150–1220. We know very lit­tle about him and what we do know are what he lets us know him­self via his book.

His father and his grand­fa­ther both served in Valde­mar the Great’s army, but instead of becom­ing a mil­i­tary him­self, Saxo was giv­en the task by the Arch­bish­op Absa­lon of Lund (then a Dan­ish town, now a Swedish one) to write the his­to­ry of Den­mark to match the his­to­ries of oth­er nations and make Den­mark a nation with author­i­ty, star­dom and depth.

Saxo might have been a clerk at the Cathe­dral of Lund, but we can­not know for sure.

Deeds Of The Danes

Ges­ta Dano­rum is as men­tioned one of the most impor­tant sources to old Dan­ish his­to­ry. It is a work of 16 books writ­ten in Latin. The first 9 books cov­er the his­to­ry of leg­ends and sagas, the last 7 books cov­er kings and events from Har­ald Blue­tooth up til 1185.

It begins with a descrip­tion of the ori­gins of Danes:

“Dan igi­tur et Angul, a quibus Dano­rum coepit ori­go, patre Hum­blo pro­creati non solum con­di­tores gen­tis nos­trae, verum eti­am rec­tores fuere. Quamquam Dudo, rerum Aqui­tani­carum scrip­tor, Danos a Danais ortos nun­cu­patosque recenseat. Hi licet faven­tibus patri­ae votis reg­ni dominio potiren­tur rerumque sum­mam ob egre­gia for­ti­tu­di­nis meri­ta assen­ti­en­tibus civi­um suf­fragi­is obtiner­ent, regii tamen nomin­is expertes dege­bant, cuius usum nul­la tunc tem­po­ris apud nos­tros con­sue­tudinum fre­quentabat auctoritas.”

— Saxo Gram­mati­cus, Ges­ta Dano­rum lib. 1.1.1

i.e. ”Now Dan and Angul, with whom the stock of the Danes begins, were begot­ten of Hum­ble, their father, and were the gov­er­nors and not only the founders of our race. (Yet Dudo, the his­to­ri­an of Nor­mandy, con­sid­ers that the Danes are sprung and named from the Danai.) And these two men, though by the wish and favor of their coun­try they gained the lord­ship of the realm, and, owing to the won­drous deserts of their brav­ery, got the supreme pow­er by the con­sent­ing voice of their coun­try­men, yet lived with­out the name of king: the usage where­of was not then com­mon­ly resort­ed to by any author­i­ty among our peo­ple.” (transl. Oliv­er Elton)

Angul, of course is the ances­tor of the Eng­lish, where­as Dan is the fore­fa­ther of the Danes.

Parchment showing the first page of Gesta Danorum.
Orig­i­nal Ges­ta Dano­rum parch­ment page. Page 1, front, of the so-called Angers frag­ment. Now locat­ed in the Roy­al Library of Copenhagen.

Saxo’s his­to­ry of the Danes set the tone for future his­to­ry writ­ers. He was the one to beat. So that when, for instance, the Swedish his­to­ry was to be writ­ten, Saxo was used as a rule and a source.

Impressing Erasmus

We do not know what kind of edu­ca­tion Saxo Gram­mati­cus was giv­en, we only know that he was edu­cat­ed. He wrote, as men­tioned, in Latin. But the Latin he wrote was very atyp­i­cal for his time. He did not write a medieval Latin, instead he tried to write as Roman as he could, or saw fit. 

Hun­dreds of years lat­er Eras­mus of Rot­ter­dam, the great human­ist, gave praise to Saxo’s Latin in his own work Cicero­ni­anus: Sive de opti­mo genere dicen­di, by putting these words into the mouth of one of his char­ac­ters:

“Probo vividum et ardens inge­ni­um, ora­tionem nusquam remis­sam aut dor­mi­tan­tem, tum miram ver­bo­rum copi­am, sen­ten­tias cre­bras, et fig­u­rarum admirabilem vari­etatem; ut satis admi­rari non queam, unde illa aetate homi­ni Dano tan­ta vis loquen­di sup­petier­it, sed vix ulla in illo Cicero­nis lin­ea­men­ta reperias.”

— Eras­mus, Cicero­ni­anus, p. 175–176

i.e. ”I admire so much his live­ly and burn­ing genius, his rapid, flow­ing speech, his won­der­ful wealth of words, his numer­ous apho­risms, his won­der­ful vari­ety of fig­ures that I can­not won­der enough where a Dane of that age got so great elo­quence; yet you will find scarce­ly a trace of Cicero in him.” (transl. Izo­ra Scott)

Please, read Vic­tor Frans’ excel­lent arti­cle about Saxo Gram­mati­cus’ Latin and writ­ing style to learn more. You can find the arti­cle here.

The First Printed Edition

There are no man­u­scripts left of Ges­ta Dano­rum, only a few fragments.

But, in 1514 the Dan­ish king, Chris­t­ian II, and the Arch­bish­op Lave Urne asked a man name Christiern Ped­er­sen who worked in Paris to pub­lish the work as a print­ed book. It has thence been print­ed numer­ous times and trans­lat­ed into sev­er­al lan­guages, includ­ing Dan­ish, Ger­man, French, Eng­lish, Span­ish, Ital­ian and Japanese.

Olaus and Johannes Magnus

One of the copies from that first print end­ed up in the hands of the Swedish his­to­ri­ans, Arch­bish­ops and broth­ers Olaus and Johannes Mag­nus. Both broth­ers were very inspired by Ges­ta Dano­rum as they wrote their own books. Olaus Mag­nus is most famous for His­to­ria de Gen­tibus Septen­tri­on­al­ibus and his broth­er for His­to­ria de omnibus Gotho­rum Sueon­umque regibus.

The broth­ers Mag­ni not only pos­sessed a copy of Ges­ta Dano­rum to read, they did what was quite com­mon among schol­ars of their time – they scrib­bled in it. They wrote in the mar­gins of the book. They wrote in Latin – which is excit­ing for us Latinists.

Gesta Danorum by Saxo Grammaticus with scribbles by Olaus Magnus about the bloodbath of Stockholm.
The scrib­bles of Olaus Mag­nus about the blood­bath of Stock­holm in his copy of Ges­ta Dano­rum by Saxo Gram­mati­cus, Kung­li­ga bib­lioteket, Stock­holm. Pho­to Amelie Rosen­gren, Latinitium.com.

The Bloodbath

Olaus and Johannes Mag­nus did not always com­ment just on the text itself, but of things com­plete­ly unre­lat­ed to the book: One of the scrib­bles made by Olaus Mag­nus con­cerns the Stock­holm blood­bath in Novem­ber 1520. Dur­ing this event the Dan­ish king Chris­t­ian II (the same one want­i­ng to print Ges­ta Dano­rum) had a huge part of the Swedish aris­toc­ra­cy, and their loy­al ser­vants, behead­ed (we call him Chris­t­ian the Tyrant in Swe­den still).

This scrib­ble is one of the first accounts of the blood­bath as Olaus Mag­nus was in Stock­holm at the time. Olaus Mag­nus lat­er on described the blood­bath in his own work. 

Two scenes from an uncolourised version of Blodbadsplanschen showing details from the bloodbath of Stockholm.
Detail from Blod­bad­stal­van or Blod­bad­splan­schen an engrav­ing by Padt-Brugge’s from 1676, based on a wood­cut by Kort Steinkamp and Hans Kruse from 1524 that was orig­i­nal­ly ordered by the Swedish King Gus­tav I (Vasa) after the Blood­bath of Stock­holm. In the scene to the left bish­op Vin­cens Hen­nings­son is being decap­i­tat­ed. Anoth­er bish­op, Mat­tias Gregers­son has already lost his head and is lying in the fore­ground. In the scene to the right, Sten Sture the Younger’s corpse is being exhumed by the dan­ish to be burnt with the decap­i­tat­ed bishops. 

Gesta Danorum Brought To Sweden

That first edi­tion of Ges­ta Dano­rum, in which Olaus Mag­nus added notes about the hor­ri­ble events in Stock­holm in 1520, is the very book bought by the Swedish Roy­al Library in March.

It was on dis­play for a few short days, and now it can be enjoyed for every­one in its dig­i­tal form online, thanks to a very swift word by the Roy­al Library. You can find it here.

Video In Latin

Daniel and I went to have a look at the book in per­son, and it was well worth it! To be in the same room as such his­to­ry is breath­tak­ing. We made a video about the vis­it and the book for our kind Patrons who sup­port us on Patre­on. All in Latin of course.

Learn more

Vic­tor Frans has writ­ten an arti­cle about Ges­ta Dano­rum and the Latin of Saxo Gram­mati­cus. You should read it! You can find it here.


Carl Fred­erik Bric­ka, ”Saxo”, Dan­sk biografisk Lexikon, 1900

“Saxo Gram­mati­cus”, Nordisk Famil­je­bok lib. 24, 1916

Oliv­er Elton, ”Intro­duc­tion”, The Dan­ish His­to­ry, books I‑IX by Saxo Gram­mati­cus, 1894

Saxo Gram­mati­cus, Ges­ta Danorum

Eras­mus, Cicero­ni­anus

Amelie Rosengren

Amelie Rosengren

Amelie Rosengren, M.A. and co-founder of Latinitium, is a published author, illustrator and historian. She specializes in daily life, has a soft spot for historic curiosities, and works as a museum educator at the world’s oldest open air museum, Skansen.
Written by Amelie Rosengren

Written by Amelie Rosengren

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