History and Literature

The Latin of Saxo Grammaticus

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The Hunt for Saxo 

Short­ly after the year 1208, Saxo Gram­mati­cus put the fin­ish­ing touch­es to his great his­to­ry of Den­mark, Ges­ta Dano­rum, ‘The Deeds of the Danes’. This work, writ­ten in a beau­ti­ful but idio­syn­crat­ic Latin, offers an abun­dance of sto­ries about Dan­ish kings and heroes and, intrigu­ing­ly, trans­la­tions into Latin of Old Norse poet­ry – the orig­i­nals of which have almost all been lost.

Christiern Pedersen’s Search

By the ear­ly 16th cen­tu­ry, how­ev­er, man­u­scripts of this mon­u­men­tal work were hard to come by. The cler­ic and would-be-edi­tor Christiern Ped­er­sen put his frus­tra­tion into words.

“Bib­lio­the­cas omnes visi et revolvi; nec tamen Sax­onem blat­tis, tineis, situ et pul­vere obsi­tum eruere potui. Tam obsti­na­to ani­mo eius pos­ses­sores eum occluserant.”

‘I vis­it­ed and returned to every sin­gle library, and still could not root out Saxo from the moths, worms, mold and dust. So stub­born­ly had the own­ers hid­den him away.‘

At this time, Christiern Ped­er­sen was study­ing in Paris and had befriend­ed a few Parisian print­ers with the pur­pose of edit­ing var­i­ous Dan­ish his­tor­i­cal works. It was a Dan­ish bish­op, Lage Urne of Roskilde, Den­mark, who exhort­ed him in 1512 to make a print­ed edi­tion of Ges­ta Dano­rum. Saxo was well known, not least through an abbre­vi­at­ed and sim­pli­fied ver­sion called Com­pendi­um Sax­o­nis and as a source text for oth­er medieval writ­ings; Ges­ta Dano­rum itself, how­ev­er, was less easy to find, and the own­ers of its sur­viv­ing exem­plars were unwill­ing to part from them. The bish­op deplored the fact that the work had remained unavail­able for so long (“mul­tis … annis in obscuro deli­tuisse dole­mus”). Con­se­quent­ly, Christiern Ped­er­sen sent two mes­sen­gers to Den­mark in order to pro­cure a copy “at any price.” They did not suc­ceed. He went back him­self, but hav­ing searched through all the libraries of Den­mark was almost ready to give up, when Arch­bish­op Birg­er Gun­nersen of Lund announced to him that he had found an exem­plar, pos­si­bly dug up from the arch­dio­cese library or found in a local monastery.

The First Printed Edition of Gesta Danorum

Christiern Ped­er­sen made a tri­umphant return to Paris, where he set to work with the print­er Jodocus Badius in mak­ing a first edi­tion (edi­tio prin­ceps) of the Ges­ta. Jodocus Badius Ascen­sius (Josse van Asche) was a famous human­ist who edit­ed and pub­lished a num­ber of clas­si­cal works in his life­time, includ­ing Latin trans­la­tions of Hesiod’s Works and Days and of Plutarch, as well as sev­er­al works by Eras­mus. He him­self wrote sev­er­al com­men­taries: to Terence’s come­dies and to Vergil, Horace, Juve­nal and Persius.

Woodcut showing the 15-16th century printing house where Saxo Grammaticus' Gesta Danorum was first printed.
Pre­lum Ascen­sianum, the print­ing house found­ed by Jodocus Badius (1462–1535), pub­lish­er of the first edi­tion of Saxo’s Ges­ta Dano­rum.

It was a sub­stan­tial task to tran­scribe the man­u­script and pro­duce a cor­rect and emend­ed text. Final­ly, in 1514 the Ascen­sian press (Pre­lum Ascen­sianum) pub­lished the first edi­tion of Ges­ta Dano­rum

Gesta Danorum

Amleth, or Hamlet, That Is the Question.

To many peo­ple, Saxo’s his­to­ry is best known for hav­ing an ear­ly ver­sion of the sto­ry of Ham­let (or Amleth). The recent movie The North­man by direc­tor Robert Eggers is said to be based on Saxo’s ver­sion – but hav­ing watched it, I see few sim­i­lar­i­ties besides the names and the basic premise. This notwith­stand­ing, the movie is excel­lent, bru­tal and has stun­ning cin­e­matog­ra­phy, but I was sur­prised by how much its lat­ter half resem­bled the Ice­landic film When the Raven Flies (Hrafninn flýgur, 1984). Con­cern­ing Amleth, there is an allu­sion to this prince in an ear­ly Old Norse poem, which sug­gests that the mate­r­i­al is much old­er than the extant Dan­ish sources. 

A painted 17th century illustration of Amblett or Amleth whose story is found in Gesta Danorum and which Shakespeare's "Hamlet" is based.
Illus­tra­tion of Amblett, Amleth or the more Shake­spear­i­an “Ham­let”, from the man­u­script Icones Regum Dani­ae, from the 17th century.

Norse Gods, or Men

Oth­er famous sto­ries, such as the leg­end of William Tell, have fore­run­ners in Saxo’s work – though the hero in this case is named Toko (in Old Norse sources called Pál­nató­ki) and the king is Har­ald Blue­tooth. Indeed, the first half of the his­to­ry, con­cern­ing pagan times, is replete with giants, drag­ons and magi­cians – and myths of the Norse gods, who, in accor­dance with the so-called euhe­meris­tic tra­di­tion, are por­trayed as humans who have deceived the pop­u­lus into believ­ing them to be gods. The sec­ond half of the work is more con­cerned with his­tor­i­cal Dan­ish kings – from the con­ver­sion to Chris­tian­i­ty up until Saxo’s own time.

Manuscript fragment from around 1200, likely an early draft of Gesta Danorum in Saxo Grammaticus' own hand, or made by one of his scribes.
A man­u­script frag­ment from around 1200, which seems to be an ear­ly draft of Ges­ta Dano­rum, show­ing addi­tions in the mar­gin, most of which were lat­er incor­po­rat­ed into the text tra­di­tion. It is like­ly in Saxo’s own hand or that of a scribe in his employ. Køben­havn, Det Kon­gelige Bib­liotek, NKS 869 g 4° (‘Angers frag­ment’), parch­ment, 4 ff., 21 x 16 cm, ca 1200, 1r. Image: Nation­al Library of Denmark.

This is all relat­ed in a very dis­tinc­tive Latin, which will be described below. First, how­ev­er, let’s get one per­ti­nent ques­tion out of the way, that of his name.

The Name “Saxo Grammaticus”

So what is the mean­ing of our beloved author’s name? Saxo, as you might have guessed, is indeed a cog­nate with the Eng­lish seax (and like­ly with the eth­nonym Sax­on). Saxo is a Latiniza­tion of the Old Dan­ish Saksi/Saxi, ‘sword’, which was not an uncom­mon name in those days; indeed, we know of sev­er­al oth­er Sax­ones from the same era. 

Gram­mati­cus denotes some­one who knows let­ters, per­haps best trans­lat­ed as ‘schol­ar’ or ‘learned’ – dur­ing this era of course sig­ni­fy­ing a church­man with good knowl­edge of Latin. Saxo was described as such in recog­ni­tion of his learn­ing, and what start­ed as a descrip­tion, end­ed up as his cog­nomen. The pub­lish­er of the 1514 print­ed edi­tion, Jodocus Badius, pro­vides the fol­low­ing explanation: 

“Enimvero, auc­tore Sue­to­nio, gram­mati­cus est qui dili­gen­ter, acute, sci­en­terque norit aut dicere aut scribere. Quo nomine Cor­nelius Nepos appel­lan­dos cen­suit poet­arum ora­to­rumque inter­pretes, qui tan­tum auc­tori­tatis apud priscos praeripuerunt, ut cen­sores et judices essent scrip­to­rum omni­um soli.”

Jodocus Badius

‘Indeed, accord­ing to Sue­to­nius, a gram­mati­cus is one who knows how to either speak or write atten­tive­ly, dis­cern­ing­ly and intel­li­gent­ly. By this word Cor­nelius Nepos thought that inter­preters of poets and speak­ers should be des­ig­nat­ed, those who had such author­i­ty among the ancients that they alone were seen as crit­ics and judges of literature.’

Saxo the Latinist: A Classical Outlook 

The print­ed edi­tion of Saxo’s Ges­ta Dano­rum was to exert great influ­ence on Nordic his­to­ri­og­ra­phy, but it also gave rise to praise among human­ist schol­ars for its lan­guage and style. Eras­mus him­self got hold of a copy and, in the dia­logue Cicero­ni­anus (1528), has one of the char­ac­ters com­mend it in the fol­low­ing words: 

“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 1528: 174

‘I praise his live­ly and sharp intel­lect, the lan­guage, which is nev­er weary or heavy with sleep, and more­over his rich vocab­u­lary, many say­ings and admirable vari­ety of styl­is­tic fig­ures, to the extent that I can­not help but won­der, where a Dane of this age could acquire such pow­er of expres­sion; but one hard­ly finds any Ciceron­ian traits in him.’

It is no sur­prise that Eras­mus found Saxo’s Latin so appeal­ing. The lan­guage and style of Ges­ta Dano­rum is in fact remark­ably clas­si­cal – though being, as he states, far from Ciceronian. 

Golden Age Latin Models

Cer­tain­ly, Saxo’s poet­ic mod­els are main­ly Gold­en Age Latin. Vergil was his favourite, but he is also well-versed in the poet­ry of Horace, and draws inspi­ra­tion at sev­er­al points from lines by Juve­nal and Ovid, as well as by lat­er poets, such as Pru­den­tius and Mar­tianus Capel­la. The lat­ter might also part­ly have influ­enced Saxo in mak­ing a few books of the his­to­ry prosi­met­ric – a mix­ture of prose and verse. The poems are all insert­ed as speech­es or dia­logue between the characters. 

Saxo’s prose mod­els are per­haps more sur­pris­ing. Most of the par­al­lels and allu­sions in his work are to Valerius Max­imus’ Fac­ta et dic­ta mem­o­ra­bil­ia (‘Mem­o­rable Deeds and Say­ings’). This col­lec­tion of anec­dotes illus­trat­ing virtues and vices was emi­nent­ly suit­able to a his­to­ri­an, whose goal it often was to make moral lessons out of the leg­ends and lives of kings and heroes. Saxo has fur­ther­more read Quin­tus Cur­tius’ His­to­ry of Alexan­der the Great – a work which enjoyed greater pop­u­lar­i­ty in ear­li­er ages than in ours. This his­to­ry is full of enter­tain­ing speech­es, and it reads per­haps most as a his­tor­i­cal nov­el of all the Latin his­to­ries of antiq­ui­ty. (On a side note: Quin­tus Cur­tius is the author that I most warm­ly rec­om­mend to stu­dents after read­ing Cor­nelius Nepos; the lan­guage is fair­ly sim­ple and the con­tent var­ied. Also, as a Swede, I feel bound to add that the war­rior king Car­o­lus XII always car­ried a vol­ume of Quin­tus Cur­tius with him on campaign.)

Saxo’s famil­iar­i­ty with these writ­ers has great­ly affect­ed his use of the lan­guage. His Latin is con­scious­ly clas­si­cal, as if paint­ing Dan­ish his­to­ry with a Roman brush. 

Saxo’s Use of Vocabulary

Take his vocab­u­lary, to start with. He rou­tine­ly avoids the most typ­i­cal fea­tures of Medieval Latin. Chris­t­ian terms are replaced with clas­si­cal coun­ter­parts. Eccle­sia, ‘church’, is sim­ply called a tem­ple: tem­plum or aedes. A bish­op is a pon­tif­ex or anti­stes instead of epis­co­pus; like­wise the pope is titled max­imus pon­tif­ex but nev­er papa. Prayers are pre­ces, not ora­tiones, and Chris­tian­i­ty itself is termed pub­li­ca sacra or pub­li­ca reli­gio, pub­li­cus being pref­ered in place of the Greek-derived catholi­cus.

The same goes for his polit­i­cal vocab­u­lary. Dan­ish peas­ants are ‘ple­beians’, nobles opti­mates (or maiores, pro­ceres etc.) and the king’s men are comites or famil­iares, as, for instance, in Tac­i­tus. The medieval homag­ium (‘homage’, the vassal’s oath to his liege) is called obse­quium ‘alle­giance’ by Saxo. He has like­ly seen the word used in this sense by Justin, whose epit­o­me of Pom­peius Tro­gus’ Philip­pic His­to­ries was anoth­er source of inspi­ra­tion for Saxo. As it hap­pens, the very man­u­script that Saxo had access to is pre­served to this day (with the shelf­mark Køben­havn, Det kon­gelige Bib­liotek, GI. kgl. S. 450, 2°).

To see how clas­si­cal Saxo’s Latin tru­ly is, one need only com­pare with Com­pendi­um Sax­o­nis, the lat­er abbre­vi­at­ed ver­sion writ­ten in a more typ­i­cal Medieval Latin. Saxo’s bel­lum, indu­ti­ae and con­tio are revamped into guer­ra, treuga and plac­itum (‘war, truce and assembly/hearing’). 

The clas­si­ciz­ing effect is some­times com­i­cal, and often spills over into the events that he is depict­ing. Thus, in one instant, the sons of the viking king Rag­narr Loðbrók go to watch a play at the the­atre, and in two oth­er exam­ples cham­pi­ons are bestowed with the palms of vic­to­ry (Ges­ta Dano­rum II. 2. 8, III. 5. 3, IX. 5. 1). These com­po­nents of Roman cul­ture seem to have been adapt­ed with­out con­sid­er­ing whether they agreed with the Dan­ish setting. 

Saxo the Latinist: Silver Latin and Old Norse Poetry

Most read­ers of Latin could not under­stand Saxo with­out help – at least accord­ing to Anders Vedel, who lat­er in the 16th cen­tu­ry made a Dan­ish trans­la­tion of Saxo’s Ges­ta Dano­rum, set­ting forth the rea­sons for his undertaking:

“Although there have always been (praise be to God) splen­did­ly learned noble­men in the realm, who could under­stand, read, speak and write excel­lent Latin, still, they have bemoaned, just as many for­eign­ers have, that the Latin of Saxo is very heavy and abstruse, and that much time and atten­tion is need­ed when he is to be read, if one should want to under­stand him correctly.”

Vedel 1575: B 4 r; trans­lat­ed from Danish

Although Saxo’s clas­si­cal vocab­u­lary might have been unfa­mil­iar for medieval read­ers, Vedel was writ­ing in a time when renais­sance schol­ars were look­ing to antiq­ui­ty for their mod­els. What then could have seemed so dif­fi­cult about Saxo’s Latin in this peri­od? The quote from Eras­mus gives a hint as to the answer; he prais­es Saxo’s Latin, but asserts that it is in no way Ciceron­ian. In fact, Saxo’s ide­al was the Latin of Sil­ver Age lit­er­a­ture, the peri­od stretch­ing from the first to the ear­ly sec­ond cen­tu­ry AD. It is main­ly three writ­ers, the afore­men­tioned Valerius Max­imus, Justin and Quin­tus Cur­tius, whom Saxo seeks to emulate. 

The Language of the Silver Age

Saxo imi­tates the Sil­ver Age trait of using rare, archa­ic and poet­ic words in prose – where Gold­en Age writ­ers such as Cicero would have pref­ered a sim­pler and more rec­og­niz­able vocab­u­lary. The prose pas­sages of Ges­ta Dano­rum are filled with words lift­ed from his Sil­ver Age mod­els, as well as from the poet­ry of Vergil and Horace, and, to a less­er degree, Juve­nal and Ovid. There is a ten­den­cy for indulging in adjec­tives and impos­ing long and col­or­ful sim­i­les that would have been more fit­ting for poetry.

Most of all, Saxo embroi­ders his text with a vari­ety of styl­is­tic fig­ures – this too a Sil­ver Age trait. You will find not only sim­i­les, but metaphors, antithe­ses, anaphoras and many oth­er fig­ures of speech crowd­ing the com­plex sen­tences. A pas­sage such as the fol­low­ing is, to say the least, rhetor­i­cal­ly cramped; here, King Rag­narr Loðbrók is thrown into a snake pit by King Ælla of Northumbria: 

“Com­pre­hen­sus enim atque in carcerem coniec­tus nox­ios artus col­u­bris con­sumen­dos adver­tit atque ex vis­cerum suo­rum fib­ris tris­tem viperis alimo­ni­am prae­buit. Cuius adeso ioci­nore, cum cor ipsum funesti carnifi­cis loco col­u­ber obsideret, omnem ope­rum suo­rum cur­sum ani­mosa voce recen­suit, supe­ri­ori rerum con­tex­tui hanc adi­iciens clausu­lam: ‘Si sucu­lae ver­ris sup­pli­ci­um scis­sent, haud dubio irrup­tis haris afflic­tum absol­vere properarent.’”

Ges­ta Dano­rum IX. 4. 38

‘For he was cap­tured and thrown in prison, where he gave his guilty limbs to be con­sumed by ser­pents and to vipers held forth the gloomy sus­te­nance of his innards’ ten­drils. When his liv­er had been con­sumed, and the ser­pent in place of a death-deal­ing exe­cu­tion­er assailed the heart itself, he enu­mer­at­ed the deeds of his whole life in an undaunt­ed voice, fin­ish­ing his account with the fol­low­ing words: “If the piglets only knew of the suf­fer­ing of the boar, they would with­out fail hur­ry from the sty to free him from his torture.”’

Note­wor­thy here is Saxo’s use of par­al­lelism, describ­ing twice, but in dif­fer­ent words, how Ragnarr’s body will pro­vide food for the vipers. The ser­pent is, in the fol­low­ing sen­tence, likened to an exe­cu­tion­er, and the pas­sage ends with Ragnarr’s sen­ten­tious state­ment. Here, we also see Saxo’s above­men­tioned incli­na­tion for bur­den­ing the sen­tence with adjec­tives. (As a side note, iocur n. is an alter­na­tive form of iecur n. ‘liv­er’; sure enough, Saxo has lift­ed this from “adeso ioci­nore”, or in some man­u­scripts “adeso iocinere”, in Valerius Max­imus I. 6. 8.)

Saxo Alliterates

This lan­guage is also strik­ing for its lib­er­al use of allit­er­a­tion, as in compre­hen­sus … carcerem coniec­tus … colu­bris consumen­dos, and viscerum … viperis, as well as cum cor … carnifi­cis … colu­ber and sucu­lae … suppli­ci­um scis­sent. Allit­er­a­tion is of course found occa­sion­al­ly in clas­si­cal poet­ry and prose, but, with the pos­si­ble excep­tion of iso­lat­ed lines from Ennius (O Tite tute Tati tibi tan­ta tyranne tulisti; Rhetor­i­ca ad Heren­ni­um IV. 18), rev­el­ling in it to this degree was whol­ly alien to most Latin writ­ers, both clas­si­cal and medieval. Allit­er­a­tion was, how­ev­er, sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly used in Old Norse verse and a beloved styl­is­tic mean in its prose. As men­tioned, Saxo often incor­po­rates trans­la­tions of Norse poet­ry as dia­logue between the leg­endary per­son­ages of his work. A short epi­gram will suf­fice as an exam­ple. After the death of King Frotho III (Fróði), the Danes held a con­test to com­pose a stan­za to be carved into the memo­r­i­al stone (pre­sum­ably in runes). The win­ner was to be award­ed with the king­ship. The poet Hjarni recit­ed the fol­low­ing verses: 

Frothonem Dani, quem longum vivere vellent,
     Per sua defunctum rura tulere diu.
Principis hoc summi tumulatum caespite corpus
     Aethere sub liquido nuda recondit humus.
Gesta Danorum VI. 1. 1

‘The Danes long car­ried the dead Frotho, for whom they wished a longer life, through the coun­try­side. Naked earth con­ceals the great prince’s body, cov­ered with turf, under the bright heavens.’

Old Norse poets used allit­er­a­tion as a part of the meter, typ­i­cal­ly tying togeth­er two lines with allit­er­at­ing con­so­nants or vow­els. Although Saxo rarely uses it as reg­u­lar­ly, we see echoes of it in vivere vellent and caespite corpus (at least graph­i­cal­ly, in the lat­ter case). The two ele­giac cou­plets, besides being suit­able to an ancient funer­ary con­text, also cor­re­spond in length to an Old Norse poet­ic stan­za. This is true of sev­er­al oth­er poems, but in many cas­es, Saxo sim­ply remakes the stan­za­ic form into con­tin­u­ous (“stichic”) hexameters.

Thus com­bin­ing clas­si­cal dic­tion with a native poet­ic style, Saxo crafts a Latin lan­guage which is unique­ly his own, rec­og­niz­able and under­stand­able to schol­ars of Latin, but still giv­ing an inkling of the Old Norse tradition.

Front page of the first printed edition of Gesta Danorum from 1514 in black and red ink with a detailed illustration showing the king of Denmark with the words "Rex Danorum" at his feet, a sword in his hand behind him.
Fron­tispiece of Christiern Ped­er­sen’s 1514 edi­tion of Ges­ta Dano­rum.

Rome of the North 

Saxo’s clas­si­ciz­ing Latin is a clear sign that he, in the words of schol­ar Franz Blatt, “is look­ing at Dan­ish his­to­ry through Roman eyes.” What is more, he divides Ges­ta Dano­rum into six­teen books, like­ly, as Lars Boje Mortensen has sug­gest­ed, in imi­ta­tion of Paul the Deacon’s His­to­ria Romana, which dur­ing the Mid­dle Ages was a much-read sum­ma­ry of Roman his­to­ry. Inci­den­tal­ly, some man­u­scripts of this work give the mis­lead­ing title Ges­ta Romano­rum, but have noth­ing to do with the famous col­lec­tion of leg­ends with the same title. (It does, how­ev­er, pro­vide some clues as to where Saxo came up with the title Ges­ta Dano­rum; many oth­er his­to­ries of peo­ples were com­mon­ly called ges­ta.)

Denmark’s Past Outshines That of Rome

That Den­mark in some ways out­did ancient Rome is also implied by Saxo. First of all, Den­mark is more ancient: while the Romans had their Augus­tus, the Danes were already on the third king named Frotho. Sec­ond­ly, though the Romans might have held their poets in esteem, the Danes even award­ed the king­ship to Hjarni on account of a short poem. It is regret­table, writes Saxo, that the Danes did not have access to Latin to record their great deeds, but mere­ly had to make do with their songs and runic letters:

“Quan­tum por­ro ingenii illius homines his­to­ri­arum edi­tur­os pute­mus, si scriben­di sitim Latini­tatis peri­tia pavissent”

Ges­ta Dano­rum prae­fa­tio 1. 3

‘How many works of his­to­ry do we sup­pose that such inge­nious peo­ple would have pro­duced, if they had slaked their thirst for writ­ing with pro­fi­cien­cy in the Latin language’

Accord­ing­ly, Saxo seeks to rem­e­dy this short­com­ing by cast­ing the songs and sto­ries of the Dan­ish past into a pres­ti­gious Latin form. In this way, schol­ars both Dan­ish and for­eign would be impressed by the exploits and adven­tures of the ancient Danes. Their deeds would final­ly have a wor­thy chron­i­cler, who, to my mind, proved to be the great­est Latin­ist that the medieval North ever produced.

How Could a Dane Learn Latin So Well?

Just as Eras­mus expressed his “won­der, where a Dane of this age could acquire such pow­er of expres­sion,” many lat­er read­ers and lovers of Latin have been var­i­ous­ly enthralled and intim­i­dat­ed by Saxo’s use of lan­guage. Where did he learn it?

Though we know lit­tle of his life, it has long been assumed that Saxo stud­ied in France, like many of his com­pa­tri­ots. Giv­ing a fas­ci­nat­ing insight into the mobil­i­ty of medieval schol­ars, Arnold of Lübeck in his Chron­i­ca Sla­vo­rum (ear­ly 13th cen­tu­ry) makes the fol­low­ing com­ment on Danes trav­el­ing to France:

Sci­en­tia quoque lit­ter­ali non parum pro­fe­cerunt, quia nobil­iores ter­rae fil­ios suos non solum ad clerum pro­moven­dum, verum eti­am saec­u­laribus rebus instituen­dos Pari­sius mit­tunt. Ubi lit­ter­atu­ra simul et idio­mate lin­gua ter­rae illius imbu­ti, non solum in art­ibus, sed eti­am in the­olo­gia mul­tum invaluerunt.

Chron­i­ca Sla­vo­rum III. 5, ch. De hon­es­tate Danorum

‘Even in let­ters the Danes have made not insignif­i­cant progress; the noble­men of the coun­try send their sons to Paris not only to be trained as cler­ics but also to be taught in the world­ly sci­ences. There they become acquaint­ed with the lit­er­a­ture and lan­guage of this land, acquir­ing much skill not only in the arts but also in theology.’

Saxo’s poems, infused by Vergil and Horace, are met­ri­cal­ly some of the most flaw­less of his time, which makes France the most like­ly des­ti­na­tion for his stud­ies in verse com­po­si­tion. In the 12th cen­tu­ry this was where the best quan­ti­ta­tive verse was writ­ten and taught. 

The Latin of Paris, Orléans or Reims?

Most stu­dents went to Paris, but the study of clas­si­cal lit­er­a­ture also flour­ished in Orléans – mak­ing these two cities good con­tenders for Saxo’s years of study. A quote by Matthew of Vendôme comes to mind: “Pari­sius logi­cam sibi iac­titet, Aure­lia­n­is / auc­tores, ele­gos Vin­doci­nense solum” ‘Let Paris boast of log­ic, Orléans of the authors, Vendôme of its ele­gies.” (The auc­tores here denote the authors of clas­si­cal antiquity.)

Reims is anoth­er pos­si­bil­i­ty. The late Karsten Fri­is-Jensen, the fore­most schol­ar of Saxo in our time, point­ed out some note­wor­thy con­nec­tions between a Carthu­sian abbey in Reims and two Dan­ish arch­bish­ops active before and dur­ing Saxo’s pre­sumed peri­od in France. Fur­ther­more, in the 1170s when Saxo would have been busy with his stud­ies, Reims was the home of the most famous poet of the age, Wal­ter of Châtil­lon, who com­posed the Alexan­dreis, a verse epic on the life of Alexan­der the Great. This, in fact, is the only con­tem­po­rary Latin poem that Saxo bor­rows from. 

Is the Latin of Saxo Difficult?

It is often said that the pecu­liar­i­ties treat­ed above make Saxo one of the more dif­fi­cult writ­ers of the Mid­dle Ages. I’ll let any Latin­ists read­ing this judge by themselves! 

Arnold the Icelander

The fol­low­ing pas­sage describes events in the years 1167–1168, when King Valde­mar I of Den­mark togeth­er with Bish­op Absa­lon (lat­er arch­bish­op) were wag­ing war on the Slav­ic Wends. It gives a fas­ci­nat­ing depic­tion of a Norse skald, Arnold the Ice­lander, who seems to be iden­ti­cal with Arnal­dr (or Arn­hallr) Þor­valds­son, known in Old Ice­landic texts. Such skalds were like­ly impor­tant sources for Saxo’s history: 

Habebat autem in clien­tela Absa­lon Arnoldum Tylensem, qui sive ingenii acumine sive coniec­turarum sagac­i­tate saepenu­mero futu­ra ad sua uel ami­co­rum nego­tia per­ti­nen­tia raro prae­sa­gio dep­re­hen­de­bat. Nec minus antiq­ui­tatis quam div­ina­tio­n­is per­i­tus soller­ti his­to­ri­arum nar­ra­tione calle­bat. Qui cum Absa­loni delectan­di gra­tia supra­dic­tae expe­di­tio­n­is comes exis­teret, bre­vi eum manum cum piratis con­ser­tu­rum praedix­er­at, vehe­menter se mirari tes­ta­tus, quo pacto cer­t­a­mi­ni inter­futu­rus non sit, prae­ser­tim cum insep­a­ra­biliter eum comi­tari decrever­it. Cumque rege res ges­tas ex eo cognoscere cupi­ente disces­suro Absa­lone qui­escere rog­a­re­tur, per­ti­nacis­sime precibus obluc­ta­tus non prius roga­tui ces­sit, quam rex oper­am se datu­rum pol­licere­tur, ut eum post Absa­lonem pri­ma luce dimitteret. 

Ges­ta Dano­rum XIV. 36. 2
Painting by Laurits Tuxen, showing the Taking of Arkona in 1169 with King Valdemar of Denmark and Bishop Absalon.
Lau­rits Tux­en, The Tak­ing of Arkona in 1169, King Valde­mar and Bish­op Absa­lon (before 1890).

War Poetry, in Prose

War is of course an ever-present sub­ject, often described, as in the fol­low­ing bat­tle scene, with a poet­ic vig­or that is far from Caesar’s dry reports (I’m allowed to say this because I’ve taught Caesar): 

Deinde canen­tibus litu­is sum­ma utrimque vi con­ser­it­ur bel­lum. Cred­eres repente ter­ris ingruere caelum, sil­vas cam­posque sub­sidere, mis­ceri omnia, antiqu­um redi­isse chaos, div­ina parit­er et humana tumul­tu­osa tem­pes­tate con­fun­di, cunc­taque simul in per­ni­ciem trahi. Nam ubi ad teli iac­tum per­ven­tum, intol­er­a­bilis armo­rum stri­dor incred­i­bili cunc­ta fragore com­ple­vit. Vapor vul­nerum repenti­nam cae­lo neb­u­lam inten­de­bat, dies effusa telo­rum gran­dine tege­batur. Nec parum in acie fun­di­to­rum opera valuit. At ubi pila manu aut tor­men­tis excus­sa, com­mi­nus glad­i­is fer­ratisque clavis decer­ni­tur. Tum vero pluri­mum san­gui­nis per­i­cli­ta­tum est. Igi­tur fes­sis man­are sudor cor­poribus coepit, mucron­umque crepi­tac­u­la emi­nus exaudiebantur. 

Ges­ta Dano­rum VIII. 4. 4

Bjarkamál in Latin

To end with a few lines of poet­ry, this is an excerpt from Saxo’s hexa­m­e­ter ren­di­tion of the Old Norse Bjarkamál. This poem is believed to have been com­posed around the year 1000 and depicts the fall of King Hról­fr Kra­ki at Lejre, who was betrayed by an army of Swedes and Geats. The speak­er here is Hjalti, one of the king’s champions:

Ecce, furens equoque sui fidentior hostis 
ferro artus faciemque aurata casside tectus 
in medios fertur cuneos, ceu vincere certus 
intimidusque fuge et nullo superabilis ausu.
Suetica, me miserum, Danos fiducia spernit.
Ecce, truces oculis Gothi visuque feroces 
cristatis galeis hastisque sonantibus instant.
In nostro validam peragentes sanguine cladem 
distringunt gladios et acutas cote bipennes.
Quid te, Hiartve loquar? Quem Sculda nocente replevit
consilio tantaque dedit crudescere culpa?
Quid te, infande, canam, nostri discriminis auctor,
proditor eximii regis, quem saeva libido 
imperii tentare nefas furiisque citatum 
coniugis aeternam pepulit pretendere noxam?
Quis te error factum Danis dominoque nocentem 
praecipitavit in hoc caecum scelus? Unde subibat 
impietas tanto fraudis constructa paratu? 

Ges­ta Dano­rum II. 7. 8.


If you wish to read Ges­ta Dano­rum, the mod­ern text edi­tion is pub­lished by Oxford Medieval Texts and has a fac­ing Eng­lish trans­la­tion: Fri­is-Jensen, Karsten (ed.) & Peter Fish­er (transl.). 2015. Saxo Gram­mati­cus, Ges­ta Dano­rum: The His­to­ry of the Danes. Vol. I and Vol. II. Oxford: Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Press. Fri­is-Jensen also wrote the stan­dard work on Saxo’s poet­ry: Fri­is-Jensen, Karsten. 1987. Saxo Gram­mati­cus as Latin Poet: Stud­ies in the Verse Pas­sages of the Ges­ta Dano­rum. Diss. (Analec­ta Romana Insti­tu­ti Dani­ci. Sup­ple­men­ta, 14.) Rome: Bretschneider.

An acces­si­ble intro­duc­tion to Saxo by Fri­is-Jensen can be found in Medieval Nordic Lit­er­a­ture in Latin: A Web­site of Authors and Anony­mous Works c. 1100–1530

The let­ters by Christiern Ped­er­sen and Bish­op Lage Urne are cit­ed in the first print­ed edi­tion: Saxo Gram­mati­cus, Dano­rum regum her­oumque his­to­ri­ae. Christiern Ped­er­sen (ed.). 1514. Paris: Jodocus Badius Ascen­sius. See Archive.org, or, for a high-res ver­sion, the Nation­al Library of Swe­den, which has also pro­vid­ed the back­ground image for this arti­cle; the lat­ter is the copy once owned by broth­ers Olaus and Johannes Mag­nus, which is expound­ed upon in anoth­er piece on Saxo by Latinitium’s own Amelie Rosen­gren.

For more on Jodocus Badius see White, Paul. 2013. Jodocus Badius Ascen­sius: Com­men­tary, Com­merce and Print in the Renais­sance. Oxford: Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Press. A his­to­ry and cat­a­logue of the edi­tions of the Pre­lum Ascen­sianum can be found in Renouard, Philippe. 1908. Bib­li­ogra­phie des impres­sions et des oeu­vres de Josse Badius Ascen­sius, imprimeur et human­iste 1462–1535. Paris. (See BnF Gal­li­ca: vol. I, vol. II, vol. III.).

Franz Blatt has writ­ten on the lan­guage of Saxo, part­ly in the pref­ace to his dic­tio­nary to Ges­ta Dano­rum (in Dan­ish and in Latin) and part­ly in a brief arti­cle (in Dan­ish): Blatt, Franz (ed.). 1957. Saxo Gram­mati­cus, Ges­ta Dano­rum. Tomus II: Index ver­bo­rum. Copen­hagen: Det Danske Sprog- og Lit­ter­atursel­skab; and: Blatt, Franz. 1975. Saxo, En Repræsen­tant for det 12. Århun­dredes Renæs­sance. In: I. Boserup (ed.), Sax­os­tudi­er. (Opus­cu­la Graeco­lati­na, 2.) Copen­hagen: Muse­um Tus­cu­lanum, pp. 11–19.

Vedel’s words on the dif­fi­cul­ty of Saxo’s Latin is to be found in the pref­ace of his trans­la­tion of Ges­ta Dano­rum: Vedel, Anders (transl.). 1575. Den danske krønicke som Saxo Gram­mati­cus scr­eff, halfffierde hun­drede Aar forleden: Nu først aff Lati­nen udsæt, flit­telige offuerseet oc forbedret. Copen­hagen, B 4 r.

The sug­ges­tion that the divi­sion of Ges­ta Dano­rum into six­teen books was inspired by Paul the Deacon’s His­to­ria Romana is found in: Mortensen, Lars Boje. 1987. Saxo Gram­mati­cus’ View of the Ori­gin of the Danes and his His­to­ri­o­graph­i­cal Mod­els. Cahiers de l’In­sti­tut du Moyen Âge Grec et Latin, vol. 55, pp. 169–183.

You can read Arnold of Lübeck’s descrip­tion of Dan­ish stu­dents going to Paris in Johannes M. Lap­pen­berg & Georg Hein­rich Pertz (ed.). 1868. Arnol­di Chron­i­ca Sla­vo­rum. Scrip­tores rerum Ger­mani­carum in usum schol­arum recusi, p. 77.

The quote by Matthew of Vendôme appears in the pro­logue to his let­ters in ele­giac cou­plets, edit­ed by Munari, Fran­co. 1982. Math­ei Vin­doci­nen­sis opera. Vol. II. Pira­mus et Tis­be; Milo; Epis­tule; Tobias. Roma: Edi­zioni di sto­ria e let­ter­atu­ra, p. 76.

Victor Frans

Victor Frans

Victor Frans is currently writing his dissertation on Saxo Grammaticus. He holds a BA in Latin from Stockholm University and an MA in Medieval Studies from the University of Oslo. He has worked in the Swedish National Archives and on a project on St. Birgitta of Sweden (14th century).
Written by Victor Frans

Written by Victor Frans

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