Saxo Grammaticus

From Medieval

by Karsten Friis-Jensen

Saxo Grammaticus (Old Danish: Saxi), historiographer, c. 1200, author of the most important literary monument of medieval Denmark, the Gesta Danorum, in which he shows himself an interesting representative of the classicising intellectual movement of Western Europe often labelled the `Renaissance of the twelfth century'.


Although the narrator of the Gesta Danorum regularly uses the first person singular about himself, he does not mention his name in the text of the work. The author's name was no doubt mentioned in the incipit and explicit formulae of the medieval manuscripts, as in those of the editio princeps. Unfortunately the latter have clearly been revised by the editor, Christiern Pedersøn (Title below). However, the unanimous traditional ascription of the work to Saxo begins with the Vetus Chronicon Sialandie of c. 1300 (see Title below), and it allows us to identify the author of the Gesta Danorum with the Saxo mentioned c. 1190 by the historiographer Sven Aggesøn (hist. 10): Quorum [i. Suenonis filiorum] gesta plenarie superfluum duxi recolere, ... cum illustri archipresule Absolone referente contubernalis meus Saxo elegantiori stilo omnium gesta executus prolixius insudabat, "Their [i. Sven Estridsøn's sons'] achievements I have found it superfluous to treat fully, ... for, according to the illustrious Archbishop Absalon, my colleague Saxo exerted himself for a long time writing a history of all those in an elegant style". Saxo's traditional surname Grammaticus is not known until the late fifteenth century, but it may owe its origin to the characterisation in the Compendium Saxonis (c. 1345) of Saxo as quidam egregius grammaticus, "an excellent Latin scholar".

No sources shed light on the years of Saxo's birth and death, whereas the Gesta Danorum can be approximately dated by circumstantial evidence to a period from before 1190 to not long after 1208 (see Date and place below). That would date Saxo's birth to c. 1160 or earlier, and his death to after 1208.

Besides naming Saxo and characterising his literary talents, Sven's above-mentioned statement also squares with the single most important fact known about Saxo, namely his close relations to Absalon, archbishop of Lund 1178-1201. Absalon was Saxo's employer and patron, and the man who originally commissioned his history of Denmark, as Saxo claims in his Preface (1,1,1): Danorum maximus pontifex Absalon ... mihi comitum suorum extremo ... res Danicas in historiam conferendi negotium intorsit, "Absalon, Archbishop of Denmark, ... placed the labour of compiling a history of the Danes ... upon me, the least of his entourage". Most likely Saxo was a secular ecclesiastic (pace C. Weibull 1915 and others), a member of the archbishop's household, and perhaps even identical with the Saxo who was canon of the cathedral chapter of Lund in Absalon's days and who witnessed one of Absalon's charters (DD I,3 no. 96, c. 1180-1201, cf. FRIIS-JENSEN 1989b).

The editio princeps follows a late-medieval tradition, located to Roskilde on Zeeland, which identifies the historiographer Saxo with an older contemporary of the same name who was provost of the cathedral of Roskilde (see Title below). Absalon mentions Saxo in his last will, calling him his clerk or secretary (DD I,4 no. 32, 1201): Saxoni clerico suo duas marcas argenti et dimidiam concesserat [-cessit trad.], quas sibi donauit - Saxo debet duos libros, quos archiepiscopus ei concesserat, ad monasterium de Sora referre, "He had entrusted his clerk Saxo with two and a half marks of silver; those he presented him with - Saxo must restore the two books with which the Archbishop had entrusted him, to the monastery of Sorø". The two books can be identified with manuscripts of the Roman classics Valerius Maximus and Justinus which Absalon had donated to the library of Sorø Abbey, both authors being among Saxo's favourite stylistic models.

Saxo belonged to the church, but his family background was the king's men, as he informs us in an address (praef. 1,6,7) to one of the dedicatees of his work, king Valdemar II (1202-41): Ceterum prisco atque hereditario obsequendi iure saltem ingenii uiribus tibi militare constitui, cuius clarissimi patris castrensem militiam parens auusque meus fidissimis bellici laboris operibus coluisse noscuntur, "Now, following the ancient right of hereditary service, I am resolved, with the forces of my mind at least, to soldier for you like those loyal, energetic fighters, my father and grandfather, who were recognized frequenters of your renowned sire's war camp". Saxo's father and grandfather had served king Valdemar I (1157-82) as members of the royal hird, and therefore the family probably belonged to the land-owning aristocracy. However, Saxo himself cannot bear arms, presumably because he is an ecclesiastic, but he can soldier with the forces of his mind, that is, he can write patriotic history.

Gesta Danorum

The Gesta Danorum, "The deeds of the Danes", is a history of the Danes and their kings from their first origins up to the author's own time, and thus a representative of the genre origo gentis, "origin of a people", such as Paul the Deacon's Historia Langobardorum or Dudo of St Quentin's Norman history, but in this case told in such breadth and narrative detail, and with such enthusiasm and literary ambition that it seems to transcend the standards set by other works in the genre.


The medieval title of Saxo's work is Gesta Danorum, and it is probably original. This title is met for the first time c. 1300 in the Vetus Chronicon Sialandie (a. 1103 GERTZ 1917-22 II p. 27): ut refert in Gestis Danorum Saxo, cognomine Longus, mire et urbane eloquentie clericus, "as Saxo, nicknamed the Tall, a clerk of astonishing and polished eloquence, tells in his Gesta Danorum". It has been pointed out that the word gesta (neuter plural) is un-Saxonian, since Saxo would use the more classical synonym res gestae. But the word gesta in fact occurs once in Saxo (15,1,6 gestorum nuntium), and besides, there is a wide-spread tradition in the Middle Ages for similar titles which Saxo may have wanted to follow: for instance, some of the manuscripts of Dudo's Norman history in fact give it the title Gesta Normannorum (HUISMAN 1983 122). The editio princeps of Saxo carries on its title page the title Danorum Regum heroumque Historie, "A history of the Danish kings and heroes", which is typically humanist Latin. However, the very first incipit formula or heading in the editio princeps actually uses the traditional title: Doctissimi et eloquentissimi Saxonis Grammatici Sialandici, Insignis Ecclesiæ cathedralis Roskildensis olim Pr@positi, In Gesta Danorum Præfatio, "The preface to the Gesta Danorum by the most learned and eloquent Saxo Grammaticus, a native of Zealand and sometime Provost of the famous Cathedral of Roskilde"; the editor, Christiern Pedersøn, probably intervened in the original phrasing by loading Saxo with superlatives and titles, and, not least, in making Saxo a canon of Roskilde (see Biography above).


Cum cetere nationes rerum suarum titulis gloriari ...;


... quantos fructus Rugianis constantis erga Danos amicitie custodia peperisset.


The first half of the Gesta Danorum is a prosimetrum, a mixture of prose and verse. Saxo uses twenty-four different quantitative, unrhymed metres, an unusually ambitious range of metrical variety. Among those metres, seventeen consist of one repeated (stichic) line, the dactylic hexameter not surprisingly being the most frequently-used among them, whereas five consist of a repeated two-line system, such as the elegiac distich, and two consist of a repeated four-line system, one of which is the sapphic stanza and the other an otherwise unparalleled combination of known lines. Among Saxo's models for metrical variety, Martianus Capella and Horace are the most important. Saxo's metres have often been described: in KNABE 1901 489-92, BENDZ 1975 98, FRIIS-JENSEN 1987 180-91, and PABST 1994 1086a, and in the edition by FRIIS-JENSEN/ZEEBERG 2005 II 546-9.


In the latest edition the Latin text of Saxo comprises 580 pages, each being about the size of two standard pages. In this text the poems make a total of 1715 lines.


  • PEDERSØN, C. (ed.) 1514: Danorum Regum heroumque Historiæ ... a Saxone Grammatico ... conscriptæ, Paris [LN 240].
  • OPORINUS, J. (ed.) 1534: Saxonis Grammatici Danorum Historiae Libri XVI, Basel [LN 241].
  • LONICER, P. (ed.) 1576: Danica Historia Libris XVI ... conscripta. Auctore Saxone Grammatico, Frankfurt a.M. [LN 1450].
  • STEPHANIUS, S.J. (ed.) 1644: Saxonis Grammatici Historiæ Danicæ libri XVI, Sorø [published with STEPHANIUS 1645].
  • KLOTZ, C.A. (ed.) 1771: Saxonis Grammatici Historiae Danicae libri XVI, Leipzig.
  • MÜLLER, P.E. & VELSCHOW, H.M. (ed. comm.) 1839-58: Saxonis Grammatici Historia Danica, vols. 1-3, Copenhagen.
  • BRUUN, C. (ed.), 1879: Angers-Fragmentet af et Haandskrift af Saxo Grammaticus. Med en Indledning (Lykønskningsskrift til Kjøbenhavns Universitet), Copenhagen [edition of the Angers Fragment].
  • HOLDER, A. (ed.) 1886: Saxonis Grammatici Gesta Danorum, Strassburg.
  • OLRIK, J. & RÆDER, H. (eds.) 1931: Saxonis Gesta Danorum. Primum a C. Knabe et P. Herrmann recensita, vol. 1: Textus, Copenhagen.
  • FRIIS-JENSEN, K. & ZEEBERG, P. (ed. transl.) 2005: Saxo Grammaticus. Gesta Danorum. Danmarkshistorien, vols. 1-2, Copenhagen.

Electronic text

The text of OLRIK/RÆDER 1931 is available on the website of the Royal Library, Copenhagen:


BLATT, F. 1957: Saxonis Gesta Danorum, vol. 2: Index verborum, Copenhagen.

Translations and commentaries

  • VEDEL, A.S. (trans. Danish) 1575: Den Danske Krønicke som Saxo Grammaticus screff, Copenhagen [new editions 1610, 1851; reprint 1966].
  • STEPHANIUS, S.J. (comm.) 1645: Notæ uberiores in Historiam Danicam Saxonis Grammatici, Sorø [published with the edition of STEPHANIUS 1644; reprint 1978].
  • SCHOUSBØLLE, S. (transl. Danish) 1752: Saxonis Grammatici Historia Danica paa Dansk, Copenhagen [the poems translated by Laurits Thura].
  • GRUNDTVIG, N.F.S. (transl. Danish) 1818-22: Danmarks Krønike af Saxo Grammaticus, vols. 1-3, Copenhagen [new editions 1854-55, 1878, 1886, and often in the 20th cent.].
  • ELTON, O. & POWELL, F.Y. (transl. English, comm.) 1894: The first nine books of the Danish history of Saxo Grammaticus, London [new edition 1905; reprint 1967].
  • WINKEL HORN, F. (transl. Danish) 1898: Saxo Grammaticus. Danmarks Krønike, Copenhagen & Kristiania [new editions 1907, 1911, 1913; reprint 1975, and often since].
  • JANTZEN, H. (transl. German): Saxo Grammaticus. Die ersten neun Bücher der dänischen Geschichte, Berlin.
  • HERRMANN, P. (transl. German, comm.) 1901-22: Erläuterungen zu den ersten neun Büchern der Dänischen Geschichte des Saxo Grammaticus, vol. 1: Übersetzung, vol. 2: Kommentar, Leipzig.
  • OLRIK, J. (transl. Danish), 1908-12: Sakses Danesaga, vols. 1-2, Copenhagen [new editions 1925, 1970 (reprint 1981)].
  • FISHER, P. & DAVIDSON, H.E. (transl. English, comm.) 1979-80: Saxo Grammaticus. The History of the Danes. Books I-IX, vols. 1-2, Cambridge [reprint 1996 and later].
  • CHRISTIANSEN, E. (transl. English, comm.) 1980-81: Saxo Grammaticus. Danorum regum heroumque historia. Books X-XVI, vols. 1-3, Oxford.
  • KOCH, L. & CIPOLLA, M.A. [et al.] (transl. Italian) 1993: Sassone Grammatico. Gesta dei re e degli eroi danesi [Books I-IX], Torino.
  • TANIGUCHI, Y. (transl. Japanese) 1993: [Saxo Grammaticus. Gesta Danorum. Books I-IX], Tokyo.
  • TROADEC, J.-P. (transl. French) 1995: Saxo Grammaticus. La Geste des Danois. Livres I-IX, Paris.
  • IBÁÑEZ, S.L. (transl. Spanish) 1999: Saxo Gramático. Historia Danesa, vol. 1: Libros I-IV, vol. 2: Libros V-IX, Valencia.
  • ZEEBERG, P. (transl. Danish) 2000: Saxos Danmarkshistorie, vols. 1-2, Copenhagen [several reprints; with Latin text in FRIIS-JENSEN/ZEEBERG 2005].

Date and place

The approximate time of composition of the Gesta Danorum may be inferred from a number of passages in the work itself, and from the statement quoted above from Sven Aggeson's history of Denmark (see above Biography). This evidence points to a period beginning before c. 1190 and ending not long after 1208. Sven's mentioning of Saxo as already fully immersed in the writing of Books XI-XIII (the reigns of Sven Estridson's sons) constitutes a terminus ante quem for the initial phase of the work. However, the dating of Sven's work to c. 1190 is not certain (Sueno Aggonis), whereas it is likely, but not certain, that Saxo worked on Books I-X simultaneously with, or even after, the rest of the work. Saxo ends his narrative in the year 1185. With the exception of the Preface, the only references to later events occur at 11,14,16 (Birgerum, qui et nunc extat, Sueti@ ducem, "Birger [Brosa, d. 1202], Earl of Sweden, who is still alive"), and at 16,8,10 (the death of duke Bugislav of Pomerania in 1187).

The Preface was probably written, or revised, as the last part of the work. In it Saxo dedicates the Gesta Danorum to archbishop Anders Suneson (1201-23) and king Valdemar II (1202-41), which means that he finished his work between 1202 and 1223. However, it is unlikely that Saxo would have allowed Valdemar's conquest of Estonia in 1219 to go unmentioned, whereas the military campaign by the king that he actually mentions, may be identified with Valdemar's activities in northern Germany in 1208, or less likely, in 1216. Saxo says (praef. 1,6 Siquidem ... Albie ... reciprocos fluctus propagate dominationis labore complexus, haut mediocre claritatis momentum celeberrimis laudis tue titulis adiecisti. Ita ... ne Romani quidem imperii partes armis intentatas liquisti, "By ... encompassing in the toil of extensive conquest the ebbing and flowing waters of the Elbe, you have added no mean element of glory to the distinguished register of your fame. Thus ... you made armed warfare even on parts of the Roman Empire". The reference to the River Elbe, admittedly rather obscure, but very dominant in the context, points to the campaign of 1208. In the summer of 1208 Valdemar built a bridge over the Elbe and fortified Harburg on the western bank of the river. This bridge-building was spectacular enough to earn a mentioning in an almost contemporary source, Arnold of Lübeck's Chronicon Slavorum (7,11; summer of 1208): Porro rex Waldemarus pontem ultra Albiam sterni fecit, ita ut plaustra et equites libere transirent, "Besides, King Valdemar let build a bridge over the River Elbe, so that waggons and horse-men could pass the river freely" (cp. Ann. Waldem. a. 1208 pons ultra Albiam factus est, "A bridge was built over the River Elbe").

It follows from Saxo's position as a member of Absalon's retinue that he probably spent most of his time at the archbishop's court in Lund. Lund was an important centre of secular and ecclesiastical power, and also of Latin learning. Besides housing the archbishop's large staff and the cathedral chapter comprising at least eighteen canons with servants and sometimes also family, the king and his entourage often sojourned in the royal residence of Lund. Envoys from abroad regularly visited the royal and archiepiscopal courts, and for instance in the 1190s the Norwegian archbishop and several of his bishops lived for years in exile in Lund. The chapter library of the cathedral was unusually well-stocked, in particular with historical literature. This environment offered excellent opportunities for an author like Saxo, who in his work combined classical and medieval book-learning with Danish and Norse oral traditions. Moreover, if the historiographer Saxo was also a canon of the chapter of Lund cathedral (see above Biography), it explains why he dedicated his work to Absalon's successor as archbishop, Anders, without declaring himself a member of Anders's retinue: his canonry would make him financially independent. Lund is thus the most likely place for Saxo in which to have written the Gesta Danorum.

The Cistercian Abbey of Sorø in Zealand, favoured by Absalon and his enormously wealthy family, and in possession of a library, has been mentioned as another possible working-place for Saxo. However, the fact that Saxo borrowed two manuscripts from Sorø (see above Biography), makes this supposition less likely. The third possibility mentioned as a working-place for Saxo is the chapter of the cathedral of Roskilde, which also possessed a library. Second in importance to Lund alone, Roskilde must be seriously considered, also because Absalon began his career as bishop of Roskilde and obtained the pope's permission to retain the seat after he became archbishop; he did not resign until c. 1192. But nothing concrete points to Roskilde, as soon as Provost Saxo has been eliminated as a possible identity for the historiographer (see above Biography), and a small thing speaks against it: Saxo seems to be a bit confused about the hierarchy of dignitaries in the chapter of Roskilde (C.A. CHRISTENSEN 1952).

Summary of contents

The text of the Gesta Danorum is organised in a Preface and sixteen books, a division that must be original (cp. KNUDSEN 1994 39-43). Book XIV is disproportionately long, making up more than a quarter of the entire work. This odd feature speaks in favour of the supposition that Saxo himself was the master of the book division, and suggests that he had a compositional plan that was also related to the subject matter.

The Preface shows Saxo's ambitions by its length. The first part has three sections. Saxo begins with the dedication to Archbishop Anders Suneson, he continues with a - rather idealised - discussion of his sources, and ends with the second dedication, that to king Valdemar II. The second, and longest, part consists of a geographical description of the nordic countries. Highlights are of the mirabilia type, including the strange rune-like signs on a rock in Blekinge, now known as Runamo, the many unusual natural phenomena in Iceland such as gletchers, geysers and volcanos, and the skiing skills of the inhabitants of the North called Skritfinns, that is, the Laplanders. At the very end of the Preface Saxo returns to Denmark, claiming that its dolmens or burial mounds built of huge stones must be relics of a gigantic race.

In the following summary particular emphasis is given to features that support the models of composition discussed below (-> Composition and style), to the exclusion of many other aspects of the rich subject matter. The division of the work into halves and quarters is the result of modern interpretations of the work. The first half (Books I-VIII) could be called the legendary part, since a great deal of the subject matter, in prose and verse, has its origins in euhemeristic interpretations of Scandinavian mythology and in heroic legend. However, the transition to historiography, in a more modern sense of the word, in part two is fluid. Saxo himself never refers to exact years of the Christian era, and seldom to external chronology, in the first half of the work only twice.

The first half of the work deals with events before c. 800 of the Christian era. In the first quarter of the work (Books I-IV), only Books I-II are prosimetric.

Book I begins with the first Danish regents Dan and Angul, Dan giving his name to Denmark and Angul to Anglia in Schleswig, and hence to England. Dan's son Humbli bears the title of king as the first in Denmark. Dan's grandson Skjold becomes the eponym of the Danish royal line, the Skjoldunger or Scyldings. The main figure of the book is king Hadding, whose eventful life as a viking is told in great detail. Several features of his story makes it likely that behind Hadding the Scandinavian god Njord hides, as DUMÉZIL claimed in Du mythe au roman (1970).

The great hero of Book II is king Rolf Kraki. His last fight and death and the destruction of his residence Lejre are the subject matter of the Bjarkamál, a vernacular dialogue poem between two of Rolf's warriors which Saxo translates into a 298-line Latin poem and inserts towards the end of the book.

Book III begins with the dramatic story of the god Balder's protracted fight with king Høder over the favours of the beautiful princess Nanna, and Balder's subsequent deadly wound inflicted by Høder - Saxo's version of Balder's death is rather different from the one told by Snorri Sturluson. In the sequence Balder's father Odin uses shameful tricks against a Russian princess in order to beget a son who shall avenge Balder. The last part of the book tells the story of Amleth, prince of Jutland, who avenges his father's murder by playing the fool until an occasion to fulfill his revenge arises.

In the first part of Book IV Amleth, who has survived murdering his uncle and his entourage, becomes under-king in Jutland and continues to display his wit and eloquence. Towards the end of the book another narrative highlight stands out, the story of the seemingly retarded prince Uffo, who in the hour of danger shows unexpected fighting skills and rescues his father Vermund's throne and the entire country by winning a duel against a Saxon prince, in the presence of the Danish and Saxon armies. Saxo deplores that he knows very little about Uffo's subsequent reign, and continues (4,5,1): Quod si patriam hanc fortuna Latino quondam sermone donasset, innumera Danicorum operum uolumina tererentur, "If Fate had granted the Latin language to this country of ours in early days, we should be thumbing countless volumes of Danish exploits".

In the second quarter of the work, all books (V-VIII) are prosimetric.

Book V covers the long reign of Frotho, whom other medieval texts give the surname Peacemaker. In Saxo he is a great conqueror and founder of an empire, a legislator, and also a peacemaker. Towards the end of Frotho's reign Saxo informs us (5,15,3) that at that time Christ was born, and he refers indirectly to the emperor Augustus and his pax Augusta as coinciding with Frotho's peace. This first reference in the work to external chronology sheds light not only on the approximate date of Frotho's reign, but also on the relative chronology of the four preceding books as dealing with events in an era before the birth of Christ and the reign of Augustus. In comparison the -> Chronicon Lethrense (c. 1170) dates king Dan to the days of "the first emperor Augustus" (GERTZ SM I p. 44,17 Augusti, primi Cesaris).

Book VI, if any, is Saxo's book of poetry and its power. As an introduction we hear about the poet Hjarni who composed a verse epitaph on the dead king Frotho and received his kingdom as remuneration. Later the old warrior and poet-singer Starkad recites two of his large poems. In the first one he rejoices over having recalled princess Helga to her duties by breaking off her relationship with a social inferior, a goldsmith. In a second scene at the end of the book, Starkad recites his long Lay of Ingeld in the presence of Helga's brother, king Ingeld, in order to persuade him to avenge his father by killing his father's murderers and rejecting his own wife: Ingeld had married the sister of his father's murderers, a German princess, and in fact entertains his brothers-in-law at his own - deplorably sumptuous - table. Starkad succeeds in awakening Ingeld's manly and filial spirit, and Ingeld's revenge follows promptly.

Book VII contains three love stories, of which the middle one is the tragic tale of the star-crossed lovers Hagbard and Signe, who defied the bitter enmity between their families and paid with their lives. In moments of the highest emotions the dialogue is expressed in a polymetric sequence of poems.

Book VIII marks the approaching end of the heathen era. The old king Harald Wartooth wants to die fighting, and prepares for a gigantic battle with his nephew king Ring of Sweden. The resulting Battle of Brávellir, in which the most famous warriors from all Scandinavia participate, is described in epic breadth as the largest and most fierce battle of nordic antiquity. The text opens with a long catalogue of names of the warriors on both sides, in prose, but according to Saxo based on a vernacular poem by Starkad, who also participated. Harald dies, abandoned by his protector Odin who has taught the Swedes, too, to form the deadly boar's head formation of their army. Starkad had been granted a life-span three times the normal, but now he is decrepit with old age. In order to avoid dying shamefully in the straw he persuades a young man of good family to decapitate him. The dialogue, dominated by the old man who also reminisces freely, forms the so-called Starkad's Death Lay, the last poem of the Gesta Danorum. Towards the end of the book, king Gorm and his advisor Thorkil organise two naval expeditions to the far north, in order to ask the supernatural beings who live there about life after death. They learn that the power of those beings is now completely broken. Thorkil, who undertook the second expedition alone, realises in a moment of danger that there is only one god of the universe, and when his ship reaches Germany on his way home he is baptised: Christianity is being introduced in Denmark. The book ends with wars between king Gøtrik and Charlemagne on the southern border of Denmark towards Saxonia, only suspended for a time when Charlemagne is called to Rome by pope Leo to help him (8,16,5). This is Saxo's second reference to external chronology: it was well known that Leo's call resulted in the crowning of Charlemagne as emperor in December 800.

The second part of the Gesta Danorum (Books IX-XVI) describes the period c. 800-1185. They are written entirely in prose.

Book IX tells about a multitude of competing viking kings, among which were Regner Lothbrok and his sons, and the Harald who was baptised at the court of Louis the Pious in order to secure help from the emperor. The last king to be mentioned is Gorm the Old, the last Danish king who lived and died a heathen, and also the founder of a royal dynasty to which the Valdemars belonged.

The major part of Book X describes the reigns of Gorm's son Harald Bluetooth, his grandson Sven Forkbeard and his great-grandson Knud (Cnut) the Great. Unhistorically, Saxo allows Gorm's wife Thyra to survive her husband and build a huge fortification along the southern border of Denmark, the Dannevirke, in order to prevent German invasions. Harald is baptised as part of a peace settlement with the emperor, and builds churches. His last years are dominated by fights with his son, Sven, and his seditious followers, who, among other things, oppose Harald's efforts to introduce Christianity. After becoming king Sven must endure a series of hardships before he finally accepts Christianity, and the Danish people follows him of its own will, persuaded in a general assembly by the missionary Poppo who carries glowing iron. Sven dies shortly after having invaded England. Knud manages to re-conquer England and keep it, and he forms an empire including Norway, which earns him Saxo's praise. Knud gives statutes for his large military retinue that Saxo refers in detail, the so-called Military Law or Vederlov. At the end of the book Saxo tells about Knud's successors in England and Denmark, and he closes with the Norwegian Magnus the Good's death as king of Denmark.

Book XI (covering the years c. 1047-86) describes the reign of Knud's sister's son Sven Estrithson, and that of his two oldest sons, Harald the Whetstone and St Knud. Sven finishes the ecclesiastical organisation of Denmark, whereas Knud is the first king to make a serious attempt to introduce tithes. People resent this, and also Knud's badly-organised preparations for a naval expedition to re-conquer England: he is killed by seditious warriors in St Alban's church at Odense, but soon miracles prove his sanctity and martyrdom.

Book XII (covering the years 1086-1104) tells about the reigns of Sven Estrithson's third and fourth sons, Oluf the Famine and Erik Evergood. Oluf and his subjects pay for Knud's murder with ten years of famine, and only Oluf's death puts an end to it. Under his successor, Erik, everything prospers again. Erik obtains papal permission to elevate one of the Danish sees into an archbishopric. A papal legate chooses Lund as metropolis of Denmark, and Saxo eulogises the event (12,6,6). Before that happens, Erik has undertaken a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and is honourably received by the Greek emperor in Constantinoble. However, Erik and his wife die on their pilgrimage, leaving a small son in tutelage in Denmark, namely Knud Lavard, the ancestor of the Valdemar line of the royal family. Three younger sons of Sven Estrithson are still alive, but one dies on his way to the election assembly, one refuses to succeed to the throne, so that only the youngest, Niels, is left. On this note the third quarter of the Gesta Danorum ends.

Book XIII (covering the years 1104-34) coincides roughly with the pontificate of archbishop Asser. It begins with Niels's succession, and ends with his murder many years later. Saxo's history of Niels's reign is interwoven with the story of Knud Lavard. Knud becomes Danish duke of Schleswig and the emperor's ruler of the neighbouring Slavs, and he thus manages to create peace on Denmark's southern border. Niels's son Magnus is afraid that his cousin Knud has ambitions of succeeding Niels, and murders him. A week later Knud's wife bears him a son, Valdemar. Knud's relatives seek revenge for the murder, and a civil war arises. In the battle of Fodevig in Scania Magnus is killed, but his father escapes, only to meet his end by the hands of the burghers of Schleswig.

The very long Book XIV (covering the years 1134-78) coincides roughly with the pontificate of archbishop Eskil, Asser's nephew. Niels is succeeded by two descendants of Erik Evergood, first by a natural son, Erik ??Emune, and then, after his murder, by a daughter's son, Erik the Lamb. The latter abdicates, and the country is divided between Erik Emune's son Sven Grathe and Magnus's son Knud, later joined by Valdemar as a third co-regent. Civil wars follow, in which Valdemar is the one to survive and become sole king. Valdemar manages to get his foster-brother and chief advisor Absalon elected as bishop of Roskilde. Against Absalon's advice Valdemar pays homage to emperor Frederick Barbarossa. For many summers Valdemar leads naval expeditions on the southern coast of the Baltic Sea against the Slavs who had raided Denmark successfully during the civil wars. Valdemar's relations with duke Henry the Lion are mostly strained, but a marriage alliance is formed with the betrothal of the king's elder son and the duke's daughter. A political and narrative highlight is the capture of the centre of heathendom on Rügen, Arkona, the christening of all Rugians and the subsequent inclusion of Rügen in the diocese of Roskilde. Another highlight at the end of the book is the abdication of archbishop Eskil and the election of Absalon as his successor, seemingly against his will. The book closes with the news that the great schism between pope and emperor is over, and with the journey of the papal legate coming to invest Absalon with the archiepiscopal pallium.

Book XV comprises the last years of Valdemar's reign (1178-82). A major event is the rebellion of the Scanians, who in equal measures resent royal taxes, tithes and the new Zealander archbishop. Only the threat of a large military operation forces them into submission. Emperor Frederick Barbarossa arranges a meeting with Valdemar at Lübeck in order to form an alliance against Henry the Lion, and Saxo manages to set off the king as the more majestic of the two. The book closes with a short but highly-polished description of Valdemar's death and his burial, at which Absalon officiates.

Book XVI (covering the years 1182-85) describes the first part of the reign of Knud Valdemarson, during which Absalon acts as his supporter and advisor. The Scanians renew their rebellion and even find a pretender to the throne. They are once again defeated, this time with active help from Absalon. The emperor demands that Knud pay homage to him, as Knud's father had done, but on the advice of Absalon Knud refuses. The book closes with a final war against the Slavs under Knud's and Absalon's leadership, and with duke Bugislav of Pomerania paying homage to the victorious Knud as his liege-lord, and not to the emperor.


In an important paper, Inge SKOVGAARD-PETERSEN (1969) suggested that, contrary to the general opinion at that time among scholars, Saxo has in fact written the Gesta Danorum following a careful compositional model: the sixteen books are structured in halves and quarters in accordance with categories belonging to universal history, Books I-IV covering the heathen period before the birth of Christ, Books V-VIII the heathen period before the advent of Christianity to Scandinavia, Books IX-XII the missionary period and the period in which Christian Denmark belonged to the archdiocese of Hamburg-Bremen, and finally Books XIII-XVI covering the years of the independent Danish archdiocese of Lund.

This hypothesis matches so many important features of the text that there can be no doubt about its fundamental soundness. The best independent evidence of a fourfold structure is the way the poems are distributed. But at least two other features stand out: the character of Book VIII as the swan-song, as it were, of Scandinavian heathendom (cp. SKOVGAARD-PETERSEN 1969 70, 1987 186-90 and see Summary of contents above), and Skovgaard-Petersen's later discovery (1987 195ff) that Saxo's way of announcing the birth of Christ is influenced by the corresponding section of Paulus Orosius's universal history. However, one oddity remains to be explained: why is the birth of Christ announced at the very end of Book V, which covers Frotho's long reign, if the main incision is the book division between Books IV and V?

According to FRIIS-JENSEN (1992 & 1993, partly prepared by MORTENSEN 1987), this epochal structure of the Gesta Danorum, based on important events in the development of Christianity, must be combined with one based on the history of the Roman Empire, as Orosius did in late antiquity, and for instance his disciple in the writing of universal history, Otto of Freising, did in the twelfth century. Orosius phrases his plan thus (1,1,14): dicturus igitur ab orbe condito usque ad Urbem conditam, dehinc usque ad Caesaris principatum natiuitatemque Christi ... uel etiam usque ad dies nostros, "I shall talk about the time from the creation of the world to the foundation of Rome, then until the principate of Caesar [Augustus] and the birth of Christ ... and finally until our own days". Otto of Freising uses this principle in the book division of his Chronica, so that for instance Book I covers the time from Adam up to the last Latin kings of Alba Longa, Book II begins with the foundation of Rome and ends with the death of Julius Caesar, whereas Book III begins with Augustus' principate and ends with the persecutions before Constantine the Great's succession as sole ruler.

The corresponding Roman re-interpretation of Skovgaard-Petersen's hypothesis for the Gesta Danorum was inspired by the many Roman elements in the work discussed below, and the main differences can be summarised in the following way. The first quarter of the work begins with the brothers Dan and Angul, who lived and reigned more than twenty generations before the birth of Christ, that is, a considerable number of centuries before the beginning of the Christian era. They may be seen as the Danish equivalents of the brothers Romulus and Remus, of which Romulus founded the city of Rome and gave his name to it, just as Dan gave his name to Denmark. King Frotho of Book V, empire-builder, legislator and eponym of Frotho's Peace, is clearly an equivalent of emperor Augustus, as generally accepted by scholars. Therefore Saxo's Books I-IV covers a period roughly contemporary with the part of Roman history beginning with Romulus and ending with Augustus's predecessor as a ruler, Julius Caesar.

The second quarter of the Gesta Danorum thus begins at the time when Augustus became the first Roman emperor, as the Middle Ages considered him to be, the earthly ruler during whose principate Christ chose to be born as man. It ends in the days when the founder of the Carolingian empire, Charlemagne, was crowned emperor by the pope in Rome, brought Christianity to the borders of Denmark in his war against the heathen Saxons, and began the first military conflict of the empire with the Danes. The Carolingian and German emperors often claimed that they were successors to Augustus and Constantine the Great. In Saxo's time Frederick Barbarossa and his chancellors were the most ardent spokesmen of this continuity between the Roman empire and the later Frankish or Italo-German empires, and the emperor's uncle, Otto of Freising, based his universal chronicle on the concept. However, Saxo clearly also accepted the idea, for instance by referring to the Italo-German empire as Romanum imperium, cp. the quotation from his Preface (1,6) above in Date and place and the quotation from Book XVI (16,3,3) in Purpose and audience below.

In the second half of the Gesta Danorum Skovgaard-Petersen's focus on ecclesiastical dependence already comprises the Roman aspect, as soon as one accepts imperial continuity. Besides, it cannot be ruled out that secondary criteria play a role, as for instance the succession of generations in the Valdemar line of the royal family.

It is a sign of Saxo's ambitions, for himself as a writer and for the Danes as a people, that he combines the historiographical genre of the origo gentis with important elements from the genre of universal history in Romano-Christian terms. The driving force behind the project must have been a wish to demonstrate that the history of Denmark was as old and honourable as that of the Roman Empire and that the Danes had always defended and secured their political independence from the Empire; finally that when the Danes of their own free will had chosen to become Christians, and thus join the community representing the spiritual heritage of the Christian Roman Empire, they had after a time managed to free the Danish church from subservience to the emperors' church.

Saxo's backdating of the traditional legendary past of Denmark left him a great deal of space for creativity. Many features of the first half of the Gesta Danorum may be understood as Saxo's projection backwards in time of important contemporary issues, but in a form that makes them match the history of the Roman Empire.

Independence means in the first half of the work normally independence from the Saxons and other German peoples on the southern border of Denmark, as in the episode of Vermund and Uffo in Book IV. But sometimes Saxo describes the old Germans in terms that make them both like Romans and like the later Germans belonging to the medieval Roman Empire. King Ingeld, from Book VI, and therefore a contemporary of the early Roman emperors, is an example: his wife is German, and she has corrupted her husband by introducing German luxury and gourmet cooking at his court, to the extent that he forgets to revenge his father's murder. This luxury living is described negatively in a way that reminds the reader of the Roman satirists Horace and Juvenal, and one gets the impression that the old Germans themselves have been corrupted from Rome. Interestingly enough, the whole situation returns in Book XIV (14,9,1ff), when Saxo accuses king Sven Grathe of being corrupted by German luxury and refinement; however, Saxo does not share the common opinion that Sven's Saxon wife is the cause of his excesses.

The heathen Danes of the first part are a bellicose people who with equal force and courage fight to defend their country or defeat adversaries at home or abroad - in this they resemble both the ancient Romans and Saxo's Danes of the second half of the work. It follows that civil wars are a recurring feature of Danish history, but also for instance empire-building, such as Frotho's empire in Book V and Knud the Great's North Sea empire in Book X - the viking-type navy that made such vast and scattered territorial entities possible, was in Saxo's understanding as old as Denmark itself.

To codify laws is a sign of civilisation, and therefore also a recurring feature of Saxo's Denmark (cp. KNUDSEN 2006). Moreover, because of renewed twelfth-century interest in Justinian's codification of Roman civil law, the Corpus iuris ciuilis, the ancient Romans in particular had achieved a - not unjustified - fame as great legislators. King Frotho of Saxo's Book V is the most prominent legislator of the heathen period, with altogether three law codes to his credit. The most thoroughly-summarised law code in Saxo is Knud the Great's Military Law in Book X.

Saxo's indirect references to the ancient Romans may seem to be particularly frequent in an area one could broadly define as cultural history. Saxo's poems are perhaps the most obvious example, and in any case the point of departure for the Roman interpretation of the Gesta Danorum (FRIIS-JENSEN 1987). In fact, the only explicit reference in Saxo to historical Roman individuals has to do with poetry (6,1,2): the Danes who held poetry in such esteem that they rewarded the poet Hjarni's epitaph with the sceptre of Denmark, compare favourably with Scipio Africanus and Julius Caesar and their rewards to the poets who had sung their praise. However, Saxo's avowed project to translate old Danish poems into Latin and insert them in his history, invites to a comparison with original Roman poetry, not least when one considers Saxo's whole way of realising it. Saxo chooses to use the classical quantitative and unrhymed metres, not the rhythmical and rhymed poetry that had become so popular in his own time, although that would probably have been simpler. The reason for his choice is easily explained as a consequence of his general classicising attitude to Latin, cp. below Language and style. But he also decides to make his metres as varied as possible, and to surpass at least two of his models in metrical variety, namely Horace and Martianus Capella. Moreover, Saxo seems to try to relate his own poems to a wide variety of classical genres, and even to specific Roman poets. Saxo's Bjarkamál in Book II can be interpreted as a small-scale epic in dactylic hexameters, and, more specifically, as a Danish counterpart to Vergil's description of the fall of Troy in Aeneid II. Similarly, Starkad of Books VI and VIII is a Scandinavian virtuoso poet-singer whose Lay of Ingellus in seventy sapphic stanzas may be seen as an equivalent of a series of Horatian odes with civic, moral and satirical content, and perhaps even as a counterpart to Horace's Roman Odes (carm. 3,1-6).

MORTENSEN (1987 179-82) argues that Saxo may have been inspired to compose his Gesta Danorum in precisely sixteen books, an unusual number in historiography or poetry, by the example of Paul the Deacon's widely-read Historia Romana: the first ten books contain his revised version of Eutropius's Breviarium ab urbe condita, whereas the last six are Paul's own continuation. The hypothesis is plausible and adds a fresh element to the Roman interpretation of Saxo.

Language and style

Saxo's Latin language is unusually well-documented, thanks to BLATT 1957, a dictionary of the entire text of the Gesta Danorum, with a fine introduction. Saxo's vocabulary is large, and it includes many late-antique words and a small number of medieval neologisms. The dictionary also documents syntactical features that are characteristic seen from the view-point of the single entries. In this field of syntax Saxo largely adheres to classical norms, in a broad sense of the word that includes Silver Latin and the fourth-century revival, but not the Vulgate. More comprehensive surveys of Saxo's syntax have not been undertaken.

On one point in his imitation of a classical Roman vocabulary Saxo makes a particular choice that may give a hint about the purpose of his efforts: he escews all the normal Christian technical terms such as ecclesia and episcopus, and substitutes for them originally pagan words such as templum or aedes and pontifex or antistes (BLATT 1957 viii); Saxo, like Widukind, uses the idiom maximus pontifex for archbishop (or pope). Similarly Saxo avoids all technical terms from the secular sphere of society that are medieval neologisms, such as homagium (`homage', `oath of fealty', etc.), instead of which Saxo may use the classical obsequium (cp. BLATT 1957 549,15). This systematic substitution of classical words for specific Christian or medieval terms is the most tangible evidence of a large-scale interpretatio Romana present on several levels in the Gesta Danorum, as we have already seen. Blatt himself phrases it thus (p. vii): "Saxo ... looked on his own age with the eyes of a Roman".

Saxo is one of the last medieval historiographers who consciously imitate classical models, as for instance Einhard, Widukind and the author of the Vita Henrici Quarti did before him (cp. Southern 1970). Saxo's prose is saturated with numerous unacknowledged borrowings from Valerius Maximus, Curtius Rufus, Justinus and Sallustius, but also rare words from for instance Martianus Capella have been integrated. In a similar manner Saxo's verse passages are dominated by the common poetical language of antiquity which found its main form in Vergil, Ovid and Lucan. Besides, conscious but unacknowledged borrowings from for instance Vergil, Horace, Lucan and Prudentius occur, predominantly in verse passages. In his language Saxo is thus a typical representative of the classicising trend in medieval Latin (cp. BLATT 1957 x). However, Saxo's extensive imitation of classical models does not prevent him from developing a very characteristic personal prose style, in which features such as gnomic phrasing (sententiae), antithesis and parallelism are combined with the typically medieval use of rhytmic cadences based on stressed syllables, the so-called cursus technique (cp. AXELSON 1936, BENDZ 1975, FRIIS-JENSEN 1989a). Systematic prose rhyme is on the other hand only used incidentally by Saxo. Certain parallels to Saxo's mannerist style may be found in contemporary and older Latin prose, but so far it has not been possible to point to any specific medieval models for Saxo.

Even the short quotations from Saxo in the present article should give a good impression of Saxo's prose style, cp. in particular the quotes in Purpose and audience below. His verse style is less complex, an example being one of the Sapphic stanzas of the Lay of Ingeld in which Starkad pours scorn on king Ingeld (6,9,15):

Cum pauor mentem gelidus repigret, Et patris uindex fieri timescas, Degener plane parilisque serui Ritibus extas. As long as chill terror retards your mind and you fear to become your sire's avenger, you are plainly degenerate, nothing more than a slave in your habits.

Saxo's expression cum pauor mentem gelidus repigret is probably a borrowing from Lucan (1,246) gelidus pauor occupat artus, "chill terror seizes their limbs".


Axel OLRIK (1892-94) claimed that the sources of Saxo's early history may be divided into a Danish and a Norse tradition, and Curt WEIBULL (1915) considerably upgraded the importance of written Latin sources in the second part of the Gesta Danorum, to the disregard of oral tradition. These two issues have since been central to the discussion of Saxo's sources. In his Preface, Saxo presents his sources in a suggestive, but far from exhaustive, analysis. He claims that he has used three different types of material, namely old Danish poems, the tales of Icelanders and the communications of archbishop Absalon. Saxo's rather obscure hints that he may have read vernacular poetry on stones with runic inscriptions, should probably not be taken too literally. Saxo shows knowledge of vernacular poetry, and translates some vernacular poems into Latin, but their provenance is much-debated. The Brávallaþula, which Saxo translates into prose in Book VIII, was probably written down in Norway (cp. SEIP 1929, HALD 1975), and other verse models no doubt belong to Icelandic tradition. On the other hand it is very uncertain whether alliterative poetry was still cultivated in Denmark in Saxo's days. However, this possibility cannot be completely excluded.

In a similar way, Saxo had access to Norse prose stories and prosimetric narratives, probably including early versions of what was later to become the Old Norse fornaldarsaga. Absalon's housecarl Arnoldus Tylensis, that is, from Iceland, was well-versed in ancient lore (Saxo 14,36,2) and may have been among Saxo's informants, which also goes for the Norwegian bishops and their men who in the 1190s were in exile at Absalon's court because of king Sverri's conflict with the church.

Absalon himself was undoubtedly an informant for much subject matter, as claimed by Saxo. Among other things, the broad narratives concerning the expeditions against the Slavs, lead by Valdemar the Great and Knud Valdemarson, often seem to be observed from Absalon's point of view. As already mentioned, many other informants may have been accessible in Lund, the metropolis of Denmark.

The group of sources most conspicuously absent from Saxo's survey is the substantial written tradition of Latin chronicles, annals and charters which we know with certainty that Saxo has used. In his text Saxo only refers to three authors, the Venerable Bede, Paul the Deacon and Dudo of St Quentin, and among them Paul seems to be the only source of more substantial material, about the exodus of the Lombards from Scandinavia (Saxo 8,13). However, other authors such as Adam of Bremen and Sven Aggeson are fundamental for parts of the Gesta Danorum, but always rephrased and reinterpreted to conform with Saxo's own ideology and stylistic ideals. Sven is for instance Saxo's primary or only source for three important passages, the Vermund and Uffo episode (Book IV), Queen Thyra's building of the Danevirke and Knud's Military Law (both Book X). By including an extensive geographic survey in his Preface, Saxo follows an ambitious historiographical tradition that comprises for instance Orosius and Bede, but he also indicates the importance of Danish history by extending his description of scenes of his narrative to the entire Scandinavian peninsula and to Iceland.

Literary models

It seems difficult to point to any specific medieval Latin literary model for the Gesta Danorum, and we should not forget that vernacular tradition is likely to have made some inpact. However, it is possible to say something about the general background. R.W. SOUTHERN (1970) rightly claims that there is a particular "classical tradition" in medieval Latin historical writing from Einhard in the ninth century to Geoffrey of Monmouth in the mid-twelfth century, and he also admits that there are "a few late-comers, of whom much the most important was Saxo Grammaticus" (p. 196). These authors share an interest in form and rhetorical writing to an extent that they believe "that history is a branch of literature, and that he who aspires to write history must aim at producing works of art that are rich in colour, distinctive in diction, and perfect in shape" (p. 178). Ultimately these ideals are classical, and the only Roman historiographer belonging to the medieval school canon, Sallustius, must have been seen as their most obvious classical exponent, even if for instance Einhard chose Suetonius' Lives of the Caesars as his main model for the Life of Charlemagne.

Southern's characterisation certainly fits Saxo and his Gesta Danorum. However, what these medieval writers of the classical tradition have in common is of such a general nature that one understands why one may not always find any specific medieval model for their writings, as seems to be the case for Saxo. In their endeavour to write works that were rich in colour, distinctive in diction, and perfect in shape, the medieval writers looked to a variety of ancient Roman models of style that were available, including the poets, and then made their individual choices. Thus the fact that these classicising historiographers share an ideal does not necessarily uniform their final products.

Two of the authors discussed by Southern are of special interest in connection with the Gesta Danorum. Saxo knew - and mentions (1,1,1) - Dudo of St Quentin and his Norman history (c. 1015), a metrically very ambitious prosimetrum that belongs to the genre of the origo gentis. Saxo's main interest in Dudo probably lies in the circumstance that Dudo describes the Normans as descended from the Danes. Dudo's prose style is as mannerist as Saxo's, but quite different, and Dudo's verse style perhaps even more mannered, in contrast to that of Saxo. Dudo is therefore at least indirectly a literary model for Saxo (cp. FRIIS-JENSEN 1995). Saxo probably also knew Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia regum Britanniae, another example of an origo gentis, which in this case goes even further back in time than Saxo's work, namely to the eponym of Britannia, Brutus, Aeneas's great-grandson; it ends with the Anglo-Saxon conquest of England. Geoffrey may well have been Saxo's model for an ambitiously detailed legendary history, but very few concrete parallels between the two works can be pointed out (LUKMAN 1942-44).

Saxo's prosimetrical technique may be seen as a compromise between the conventions of the Latin and the Old Norse prosimetrical traditions. In the vernacular prosimetrum, poems either function as direct speech put into the mouth of the protagonists of the story, or they are quoted by the narrator as evidence of events described in the story; in both cases the poems are supposed to be composed and transmitted independent of their prose context. The medieval Latin prosimetrical tradition had its origin in late-antique encyclopedic and philosophical works by Martianus Capella and Boethius, but it blossomed in several medieval genres, including historiography and hagiography. The poems are almost always written by the author of the prosimetrical work in question, and they function in a multitude of ways: as dialogue between the protagonists, lyrical intermezzi, outburst on the part of the narrator, etc. However, Saxo's poems all function as dialogue put into the mouth of protagonists of his narrative, and he claims that they are all translations of pre-existing poetry, thereby stressing their status as source material. He thus limits himself to the function which is common to the Latin and Old Norse traditions (FRIIS-JENSEN 1987 56), whereas the process of translation leaves him ample opportunities to vent his literary ambitions.

Purpose and audience

Several programmatic or highly emphatic statements in the Gesta Danorum shed light on Saxo's purpose and the intended audience of his work. There is no doubt that his reasons for writing were complex and related to both Danish and European affairs. In a Danish perspective his main causes seem to be to advocate loyalty towards the king, acceptance of ecclesiastical rights, and national unity, besides glorifying his original patron Absalon and his family. In an international perspective Saxo wants to provide dynastic legitimacy for the ruling family of Denmark and political and cultural legitimacy for the country in general: he wishes the Christian nations of Europe to accept Denmark as an equal partner and recognise its historical right to lead an expansive foreign policy in the Baltic.

Several aspects of Saxo's purpose are indicated in the very first sentence of his Preface:

Saxo praef. 1,1: Cum cetere nationes rerum suarum titulis gloriari uoluptatemque ex maiorum recordatione percipere soleant, Danorum maximus pontifex Absalon patriam nostram, cuius illustrande maxima semper cupiditate flagrabat, eo claritatis et monumenti genere fraudari non passus mihi comitum suorum extremo ceteris operam abnuentibus res Danicas in historiam conferendi negocium intorsit. Because other nations are in the habit of vaunting the fame of their achievements, and joy in recollecting their ancestors, Absalon, archbishop of Denmark, had always been fired with a passionate zeal to glorify our fatherland; he would not allow it to go without some noble document of this kind and, since everyone else refused the task, the work of compiling a history of the Danes was thrown upon me, the least of his entourage.

Saxo's endeavour to characterise Absalon as an ardent patriot is perhaps the most immediately conspicuous feature of this stately opening, but other aspects of the sentence are relevant for a discussion of Saxo's purpose. It seems that other nations possess a written history, and enjoy reading about their own glorious past. It follows that the Danish history which Saxo has written on Absalon's request may serve a similar purpose, namely to help the Danes remember and enjoy glorious Danish deeds of the past and the ancestors who achieved them. However, Saxo has also introduced the idea of some sort of competition between nations about possessing a national written history, and he has thus placed his own work on a par with for instance the three writers of national history that he himself mentions, Bede, Paul the Deacon and Dudo, each representing a Germanic nation or people that for several centuries have been fully assimilated with Christian Europe.

A sentence from Saxo's dedication of his work to king Valdemar II highlights other aspects of Saxo's purpose:

Saxo praef. 1,6: Te ergo, salutaris princeps ac parens noster, cuius illustrissimam a priscis temporibus prosapiam dicturus sum, clarissima lux patrie, Waldemare, dubium laboris huius progressum fauore prosequi rogo, quia propositi pondere constrictus uereor, ne magis imperitie mee habitum ingeniique debilitatem patefaciam quam tuam, sicut par est, originem representem. So, my gracious lord and father of us all, brilliant light of our country, Valdemar, whose illustrious descent from early times I shall be describing, I beg you to look kindly on the wavering course of this labour; for I fear that I shall be shackled by the weight of my subject and, far from properly depicting your lineage, I shall sooner reveal my lack of aptitude and meagre talents.

In this sentence Saxo pays his particular kind of homage to the king, and asks for his support. It seems that among the performers of glorious deeds in the past, the present royal family and its lineage, stretching far back into ancient times, hold a very special and honourable position. Without going into offensive detail, Saxo thus manages to convey the impression that his long series of Danish kings belongs to one family and has excelled to a degree that matches the brilliance of their descendant, the present reigning monarch. In this way the legitimacy of the Valdemars and their branch of the royal family as rulers of Denmark is rammed home.

Even if Denmark had been a political unity since at least Gorm the Old's time, the civil wars in the middle of the twelfth century that resulted in a division of the realm between three kings, demonstrated that disruptive forces were constantly lurking. Saxo's own views on Danish unity are clear, namely that the country has been united from the days of the very first Danish kings; lapses into fragmentation have occured occasionally as the result of civil wars, but the normal state of unity was quickly restored. Thus Saxo does not gloss over the division that took place under the kings Sven, Knud and Valdemar; but Saxo welcomes Valdemar's victory and sole rule with a dry historiographer's formula of transition (14,20,1), His ita compositis, "After matters had been settled in this fashion". The Scanian rebellion towards the end of Valdemar's reign, renewed at the beginning of Knud's reign, was a serious threat to national unity. The Scanians resented that Valdemar had appointed non-Scanians as his officials in Scania, and they were against the newly-enforced collection of tithes. Since the appointment of the new and ambitious archbishop, Absalon, was part of the reasons for their rebellion, Saxo feels doubly indignant. Even if Saxo now and then throws suspicion on the loyalty towards the king of other groups of inhabitants of Denmark such as the Jutlanders and the Falstrians, his denigration of the Scanians is in this case particularly virulent. Its emotional highlight is a thoroughly rhetorical apostrophe to the Scanians en bloc, exclusively centered on their relations to the archbishop:

Saxo 15,4,15: O ingrata Scaniensium gens, que pleno temeritatis furore tot commodorum tuorum auctori iniuriam pro gratia rependere rubori non ducis! Pastoris parentisque tui nauigium improbissimis euecta furiis finibus tuis prohibere conaris, cuius beneficio tibi piraticam toties seuitiam experte tuta late nauigatio patet. Illi presentem littoris aditum negas, cuius bellica uirtus, ne tu pridem hac littoris sede pellerere, perfecit. Desine ergo optimis amplissimi integerrimique uiri meritis quasi grauissimis insultare delictis, erroremque iniquo animorum iudicio contractum ueloci poenitentie studio redime! O thankless race of Scanians, who in your thoughtless insanity do not blush to repay him who donated so many of your benefits with insults instead of gratitude! Swept away by the most shameful passions, you endeavour to ban from your territories the ship of your pastor and parent, to whose aid you owe it that, after all the times you have suffered the barbarity of pirates, you can now sail far and wide without peril. You are now denying someone access to your shore whose warlike courage made sure that you yourselves were not evicted long ago from your homes on this same shore. Therefore you must stop reviling the magnificent favours of this great and honest man as if they were so many grievous crimes, and by a speedy inclination to repentance redress an error caused by your imperfect judgments!

In Saxo's eyes, Absalon seems to be the real hero of the successful campaigns against the Slav pirates which removed a serious threat to the lives of all Danes, including the Scanians. It is therefore base ingratitude to deny this man access to the shores of Scania, as had happened during the rebellion. Saxo's priorities are here laid bare to an almost embarrassing degree, even if loyalty towards king and country is the general tenor of his description of the rebellion.

There can be no doubt that part of Saxo's purpose was to give foreigners a clear picture of Denmark's status as an independent Christian country in Europe. From Saxo's point of view, it was wrong of Valdemar to succumb to Frederic Barbarossa's promises of special honours and do homage to him, as the other kings in the Danish civil wars had done. However, the international political situation was different after Knud's succession in 1182, and that allowed him to refuse a similar request, according to Saxo on Absalon's advice - Absalon in fact acts as the young king's spokesman in the meeting with the emperor's envoy:

Saxo 16,3,3: A quo [Kanuto] ita Cesaris amicitiam expeti uelit [Absalon], ut proprie eius maiestatis decus incolume seruaretur. Nam et Waldemarum Frederici partes amicitiamque secutum nihil fide eius aut promissione fallacius repperisse. Proinde Syfridum nosse debere Kanuto Cesarique equum regnandi ius esse neque minore cum libertate hunc Danici regni quam illum Romani imperii gubernacula continere. [Absalon replied that ...] he wished the king to seek friendly relations with the Emperor, provided his personal dignity and sovereignty were preserved intact. Valdemar, as a matter of fact, had given his allegiance and amity to Frederick and discovered that nothing could be more deceptive than his word and promises. Consequently Siegfried should understand that both Knud and the Emperor had an equal right to rule, and that the former controlled the helm of the Danish kingdom under no more restraint than the latter held that of the Roman Empire.

Absalon here advocates the legal principle that became known later as the formula "the king is emperor in his own realm", Rex est imperator in regno suo. Absalon's words are indeed a rather bold programmatic declaration of Danish independence of the Holy Roman Empire, and circumstances allowed the statement to stand unchallenged. The logical sequence to this principle of independence of the Roman Empire Saxo brings in his Preface (1,6), namely his praise of Valdemar II because he has "made armed warfare even on parts of the Roman Empire" (cp. above Date and place).

There is thus good reason to believe that Saxo intended his work to be read and used both by his own countrymen and by people outside Denmark. He must on the other hand have known that the choices he made for his work in regard to language and literary form, would limit the number of readers to the best-educated part of the minority that could read at all. Here other considerations undoubtedly played a role: the choice of a classicising Latin language and corresponding literary form was part of the message. Saxo made that choice because he thought it fitted his conception of Denmark as an old and culturally pre-eminent nation, and believed that a work written according to these ideals would carry prestige among the political elite of Europe. Moreover, there are many ways of acquiring knowledge about the contents of a difficult text, since the few who can read it may act as interpreters or translators to those who cannot, as long as they believe that it is worthwhile doing so.

Medieval reception and transmission

Despite its length and difficult language, Saxo's Gesta Danorum clearly had a wide impact on Danish historical writing during the Middle Ages. However, apart from the presence of a medieval manuscript in Northern Germany, probably Hamburg, that was used c. 1500 by Albert Krantz, and of a manuscript in Sweden, Saxo never seems to have obtained the international public which he surely wanted, at least not until the publication of the editio princeps in 1514 in Paris.

The medieval Danish interest in Saxo's Gesta Danorum can be measured in various ways, for example through those who use him or through the evidence of the manuscripts of the work. As already mentioned (see Biography and Title above) the old part of Chronica Sialandie from c. 1300 is the first text to mention Saxo's name and his work with the title Gesta Danorum, as an introduction to four substantial quotations from Saxo. Two of the most influential Danish historical texts from the later Middle Ages are based on excerpts from the Gesta Danorum, namely the Annales Ryenses from c. 1300, and the Compendium Saxonis & Chronica Jutensis from c. 1345; the latter is a systematic paraphrase of Saxo, in which his text has been condensed to about a quarter of its original size, the poems omitted, and his language re-phrased in standard medieval Latin. The popularity of the Compendium Saxonis may well be a sign of reduced interest in the original Saxo. However, the original was still read, as we may for instance deduce from a passage in the first grammar printed in Denmark (1493): its metrical rules are recommended, because without them Boethius's and Saxo Grammaticus's poems cannot be understood (DAL/PINBORG 1979 176 & 245f.)

There are only preserved fragments of medieval manuscripts of the Gesta Danorum, but we have evidence of other manuscripts which are now completely lost (cp. FRIIS-JENSEN/ZEEBERG 2005 16, BOSERUP 1981, OLRIK/RÆDER 1931 XXXIV). Three manuscripts are attested by physical fragments, one of which probably belonged to Saxo's own working copy, whereas the other fragments are remnants of two large parchment manuscripts from c. 1300. Besides there is certain evidence of four other medieval manuscripts, supplemented by three mentioned in documents, of which at least one may refer to a manuscript already counted. This total of at least seven to eight manuscripts also points to a substantial medieval interest in the Gesta Danorum, considering the length of the work.

The Hamburg humanist Albert Krantz wrote a History of the nordic kingdoms c. 1500, in which he used Saxo as his main source for the period before 1185. His quotations and paraphrases are very substantial, and show that he had access to a manuscript, and one that was different from the exemplar of the editio princeps from 1514. Krantz's manuscript has disappeared, but it contributes to the number of lost manuscripts counted above. Morever, since the editio princeps is the only complete copy of the Gesta Danorum, and like all copies of long texts contains accumulated errors and misprints, Krantz's extracts from Saxo become important for the editors of Saxo, who have used them to emend some of the errors and misprints of the editio princeps. The paraphrases of Saxo in the Compendium Saxonis have a similar and equally important status in Saxonian textual criticism.

Krantz himself is a figure of transition between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. He is enough of a Renaissance humanist to appreciate and praise Saxo's classicising Latin, but at the same time enough of a medieval historiographer to accept large parts of Saxo's legendary history as historical truth. Krantz's younger contemporary, the famous humanist Erasmus of Rotterdam, likewise praises Saxo's style in his dialogue the Ciceronianus (1528). Erasmus's eulogy is quoted on the title page of the 1534 Basel edition of Saxo, and surely helped to establish a modest fame for Saxo's history of Denmark in sixteenth-century Europe.


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