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. (Video in Latin at patreon.com/latinitium)

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.

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 could 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)

Parchment showing the first page of Gesta Danorum.
ORIGINAL GESTA DANORUM PARCHMENT PAGE. PAGE 1, FRONT, OF THE ANGERS FRAGMENT. NOW LOCATED IN THE ROYAL LIBRARY OF COPENHAGEN

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

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)

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Printing The Manuscript

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.

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 Grammatticus with scribbles by Olaus Magnus about the bloodbath of Stockholm.
SAXO GRAMMATICUS, GESTA DANORUM, KUNGLIGA BIBLIOTEKET STOCKHOLM. PHOTO AMELIE ROSENGREN, LATINITIUM.COM

The Bloodbath

They did not always com­ment just on the text itself: 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 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. 

Gesta Danorum Brought To Sweden

This copy of the first edi­tion of Ges­ta Dano­rum, is the 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.com/latinitium. All in Latin of course.

References

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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