There is hardly anywhere left on Earth today that doesn’t harbour lengthy shadows of its past. Every community values its history; it is both a guiding light and a forewarning of disaster. Our past is a critical part of our identity, for our communities and the individuals who inhabit them. Denmark, the smallest of the Scandinavian countries, is no exception to this rule.
The end of the 12th century saw the dawn of a new era that changed the course of Danish history. It was during this time that Absalon, the archbishop of Lund and the foremost adviser to Valdemar I of Denmark, assigned the monumental task of officially recording the history of Denmark for the first time to one of his secretaries, Saxo Grammaticus. Some scholars believe that Saxo was only chosen after various others refused to embark on such a herculean task. The sum of Saxo’s efforts was to become known as ‘Gesta Danorum’ – the deeds of the Danes.
There is very little or no reliable information available about Saxo, the man who gave the Danes the first official documentation of their heroic past. Today, whatever little information we have about Saxo Grammaticus, also known as Saxo Cognomine Longus (the tall), is mainly attributed to the preface written by him in Gesta Danorum, which perhaps was the only major and significant work of literature in his life.
In this preface, Saxo tells us that he came from a warrior class, and that his father and grandfather regularly participated in the war campaigns of Valdemar I. In the book, Saxo expresses his wish to serve Valdemar II, but more in a spiritual sense. He goes on to mention, albeit with a lot of humility, that it was with great confidence that the Archbishop had placed on his feeble shoulders that he embarked on this humongous project. Apart from this very specific mention, there is nothing else documented about Saxo anywhere else.
Sven Aggesen, a Danish nobleman and contemporary of Saxo, claimed that Saxo had been his ‘contubernalis’ (tent comrade), indicating that the two were part of the royal guard serving under Valdemar I of Denmark. In fact Sven had produced an earlier version of Denmark’s history, and it is believed that he might have helped Saxo with his writing of Gesta Danorum.
Saxo’s elegant command of Latin and Roman in Gesta Danorum makes it quite certain that he acquired an education outside Denmark. This location could have been Paris as it was common in those days for the sons of the elite classes to choose that city for academic studies.
The main idea behind Gesta Danorum, as Saxo described it, was “to glorify our fatherland”. The need for this level of glorification came from the fact that Scandinavia was constantly at war during Saxo’s time. The nation’s neighbours, such as Norway and Iceland, had already created and documented quite a robust account of their ancestry. Denmark, unfortunately, had no such equivalent. This troubled the archbishop who wanted to ensure that something concrete and official was done in this matter in the event that a calamity befell the land. It was this critical need that led to the archbishop appointing Saxo.
Gesta Danorum is divided into 16 books, of which the first nine books focus mainly on the mythology and pre-Christian era of Denmark. Saxo heavily relied upon oral traditions including Absalon’s own reports, the old Danish poems and Norwegian-Icelandic sagas. Saxo also referred to runic inscriptions and other historical materials available to him at the time.
He appears to have been inspired by Vergil and his work ‘The Aeneid’ in the way that the characters in the first nine books of Gesta Danorum are so very larger than life. This is evident in the way Saxo describes the feats and adventures of the Norse mythology characters in this collection, which include Balder, Hother, and Amleth, the source for Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It is only in the ninth book that he moves from fiction to fact with the record of a king: Gorm the Old.
The next seven books then cover the historical events leading up to Saxo’s time. They include the story of ninth century hero Palnatoki, who was made to shoot an apple off his son’s head by King Harald – which is possibly the real-life inspiration for the Swiss legend of William Tell, although the arrow-apple episode does appear in other Germanic stories.
It is believed that Saxo wrote the histories prior to the first nine books. Historians believe that Saxo wanted to strengthen his writing muscles by documenting his country’s known history first, after which he conjured up an imaginative past, and then stitched them together in a way that the mythology could neatly connect with real history.
Christiern Pedersen, a 16th century publisher, is credited with giving Saxo the appellation ‘Grammaticus’ (Latin for ‘teacher of letters’) after being profoundly impressed by Saxo’s use of words. It was Pedersen, over 200 years after Saxo wrote his work, who republished Gesta Danorum on 15 May 1514, entitled ‘Danorum Regum heroumque Historiae’.
‘Jyske Krønike’, a Danish historical work of the mid-14th century, states that Saxo was born in Zealand. However, there is a dispute over the years he lived. Some historians speculate that he was born in around 1150 and that his death occurred in around 1220.
Gesta Danorum stands out as an extremely important piece of literature for Denmark. It not only highlights the past of the Danes, but also does so by beautifully combining mythology and history.
Today only four fragments of an original copy of Gesta Danorum exist – all four can be seen at the Danish Royal Library. However, had Pedersen not acted when he did, it’s extremely likely that the text would have disappeared forever. It took Pedersen two years to track down a copy of the work, although you have to question how hard he looked as he eventually found it in the collection of Birger Gunnersen, the archbishop of Lund, a successor of the very same cleric who commissioned the original work.