This article is part of an ongoing series of short biographies of medieval scribes.
Scribe: Saxo Grammaticus
Lived c. 1150 – 1220
Location: Lund, Denmark (modern Sweden/Scania)
Gesta Danorum – a history of Denmark from pre-history to the late 12th c.
Saxo Grammaticus was a Danish historian working at the same time as Snorri Sturluson (who we have already covered in this series). While his life was not the roller-coaster of political intrigue of Snorri’s, Saxo still hobnobbed with the elites and wrote history under some significant pressure from these patrons. Indeed, Saxo was in the employ of the archbishop of Lund, Absalon (apparently as his secretary according to Absalon’s will), and important enough to have appeared in a witness list on one of Absalon’s charters.
Now this might not sound like much – a secretary to an archbishop – but Absalon was an important figure in the Danish political landscape of the late twelfth-century. Absalon was a member of the wealthy family from Zealand (a part of the Hvide clan), his father was known as Asser ‘the rich’ and governed Kalundborg castle. So, not starting out from a bad place! We have reason to believe that Saxo was also a Zealander, whether they knew each other in youth, or if Absalon felt more comfortable having a compatriot as one of his closest aids, we do not know. Lund was also the ecclesiastical centre of Denmark, so appointment as archbishop there was a powerful promotion and you would be safe to assume Absalon had a helping hand to the top position. That King Valdemar I ‘the Great’ was raised alongside Absalon at Kalundborg likely helped, as did his kinship to the serving archbishop of Lund Eskil. Plus Absalon was likely at Valdemar’s side during the treachery at the dramatically named Blood Feast of Roskilde, and that sort of thing will put you in a future-king’s good books. So on Eskil’s retirement, he named Absalon his successor with papal blessing, and Absalon moreover retained his familial power in Zealand and (quite un-canonically) was also allowed to retain the bishopric of Roskilde, a position in which he had been performing for over decade. So, with an archbishopric, a bishopric, regional control in Zealand, and the ear of the king, Absalon was the second most powerful man in late twelfth-century Denmark. And Saxo was his secretary.
With this all in mind, it may come as little surprise that the Gesta Danorum is often characterised as somewhat jingoistic, relentlessly promoting Danish exceptionalism and the heroism of both Absalon and Valdemar. After all, Absalon was the man who commissioned Saxo’s magnum opus. But I can’t really give you much more information on the life of Saxo himself – Saxo was writing of Absalon’s life, but no one was writing Saxo’s biography! The evidence of the text is that his family had a military background. However, Saxo was born in the midst of civil war with an active crusade just up the Baltic coast – most families likely had some exposure to the military life. As to his education, we can only speculate. He is, however, an excellent writer of Latin, to the extent that his most recent biographer (the, sadly, deceased Karsten Friis-Jensen – himself a master of Latin), speculated it was unlikely he gained this knowledge in Denmark. Numerous Danish clerics of the time were known to have attended universities in Paris, Bologna, Oxford, and Hildesheim, and it seems likely Saxo also took this route before returning home.
But most of what we do know about Saxo comes from his own work, so let’s take a closer look at Gesta Danorum. Until quite recently, English language readers could not access the entire text, with only the first nine books published in translation. This was rectified in 2015, but the two-volume Oxford Medieval Texts critical edition is (though fantastic) prohibitively expensive. I would imagine that, in large part, the reason Saxo is somewhat less well known than Snorri even today comes down to accessibility – it is quite easy to pick up a copy of the Prose Edda or even Heimskringla in a host of languages, but not so Gesta Danorum.
But I digress. We will deal with Gesta Danorum in two parts. You see, the reason the first nine books have garnered so much attention outside of Scandinavia relates to their content, as these books primarily deal with Germanic mythology – always a popular topic. After a geographical description of Scandinavia, Saxo begins his history in earnest with Denmark’s founding king, Dan, whose brother Angel gave rise to the English. No, it’s not particularly subtle, but he does reference Bede to try give his narrative a bit of legitimacy! There is, however, no chronological grounding for any of this material until book 8 and Charlemagne’s campaigns against the Saxons, so everything that occurs before the late eighth century is floating in a hypothetical timeline. In these nine books we follow generations of kings and heroes ending with Gorm the Old, the earliest historically verifiable King of the Danes. As a whole, it is too massive and complex to summarise, but Saxo makes sure to stop by some of the greatest hits of Norse mythology, and so shall we!
Early on we meet an euhemerised Odin (euhemerism is the process of re-composition of mythology as a history). So here Odin is some guy who hangs about in Uppsala and was ‘believed throughout Europe, though falsely, to be a god.’ Odin enjoys the worship, makes a fantastic gold effigy that can speak at human touch but, with everything looking just grand, his lustful wife Frigg sleeps with a servant and steals the gold from the effigy for her own pleasures. ‘Such a god deserved such a wife,’ Saxo gleefully tells us (as Odin and Frigg presumably prepare to prosecute him for libel). Saxo isn’t done though and four books later he informs us that Odin, Thor and their ilk were charlatans who fooled the people of Denmark, Sweden and Norway into worshipping them. He does not put the effort into his euhemerism that Snorri does (who tells us the Æsire were migrants from Asia), but Saxo is intent on portraying the pagan gods in the worst possible light. Considering the patronage of Absalon, this shouldn’t be a surprise though.
Now let’s see if you recognise this one: Amleth. He’s a young prince who is out for revenge on his father-killing, mother-marrying uncle. Along the way we have an ingenuous foster-sister, a slain eavesdropper in his mother’s room, and Amleth spends a bit of time acting as a madman to avoid his father’s fate. Yes, here we have the progenitor of the Hamlet narrative.
Ragnar Lothbrock makes also an appearance, gaining that Lothbrock – ‘shaggy pants’ sobriquet. He dresses in some rather inelegant woollen pants, intentionally freezes them in the ocean, and then fights two giant snakes, safe in the knowledge that his hardened, woolly pants would repel their bites and their venom. He wins, and in response, the King of Sweden teases him and calls him Lothbrock. There’s gratitude. There are other Lothbrock tales, but let’s leave him there in his discomfort. A similar thing happens earlier to a King Harald Wartooth, who goes to face his enemies dressed only in his royal robes, trusting to fortune. He, like Ragnar, cannot be wounded despite his somewhat ridiculous battle garb, and has the victory, claiming he sought only renown, not money.
In the interest of this not becoming another one of my incredibly long articles, I’ll leave the first nine books there. It is notable though that legendary Danish heroes are being described here as powerful, heroic, and humble – all desire attributes in a Christian king, which prompts us to keep in mind that Saxo was a cleric, and something of a Danish patriot. But this is most evident as we go on for, while these books are certainly interesting and no doubt preserve something of cultural memory, practice, belief, and story-telling, for most historians it is books 10-16 that are most valuable. Here Saxo performs as historian and, the closer we get to his own lifetime, the more faith we can put in his historical record – no longer obscured by the passage of time or muddled lines of transmission. His political concerns do play large though, so let’s take a very quick glance at these books.
Here we start with Harald Bluetooth (958-986) and go through to Cnut IV (1080-1086). We’re in historical territory. Books 10-13 sometimes get a little lost in the mix as books 14-16 are those most contemporary to Saxo and so have the most details and greatest historicity. Personally, as someone primarily dealing with tenth and eleventh century Anglo-Scandinavian history, I spend most of my time in and around book ten, where we find Æthelstan, Æthelred, and Cnut the Great all hanging out. England does feature throughout the Gesta Danorum, but it is certainly not a focus, so we do not get a great deal of information about the Anglo-Saxon kings. Indeed, Æthelstan and Æthelred are among the only ones who have a clear role within the history being told (and a quite inaccurate one at that), but then this makes sense – they both had clear links to Scandinavian culture (one as the foster-father to a Norwegian King, the other as a unwilling donator of large sums of money and land) and their names at least would have been known to Saxo. Edward the Confessor and Edward the Martyr also make brief appearances, suggesting something of an ecclesiastical transmission of knowledge (given that both Edwards were canonised).
Books 14-16 in many ways are what Saxo was being commissioned to write. There is a strong biographical focus on both Absalon and Valdemar, and Saxo does not stint on the praise. Indeed, in his introduction he suggests that he is recording the tales as told by Absalon, so do not for a moment think we are dealing with impartial history. But history it is, nonetheless, just keep the bias in mind. It does, however, mean that stories like to Bloodfeast were probably not so dramatic, with less heroic protagonists and less villainous antagonists. The incursions by the Wends during the civil wars were likely not so devastating as portrayed, and the crusades for which Saxo uses this as legitimisation were unlikely to have been quite so righteous (ie. it was something of a land-grab and a power-play with the Duke of Saxony). Nonetheless, Saxo is a key source for our knowledge of the earliest campaigns of the Northern Crusades and absolutely critical to our understanding of the politics at play around the Baltic Sea in the late twelfth century.
And with that praise ringing in his ears, I’ll leave Saxo there. Next time we return to this series, I think we’ll have a little chat about Adam of Bremen. Thanks for your patience between articles.
- Feature image: Hamburg Bible, 1255, Denmark, The Royal Library, MS GKS 4 2°, vol. III..
- Andre Muceniecks, Saxo Grammaticus: Hierocratical Conceptions and Danish Hegemony in the Thirteenth Century. Kalamazoo: ARC Humanities Press, 2017.
- Saxo Grammaticus. Gesta Danorum.Edited by Karsten Friis-Jensen and translated by Peter Fisher. 2 vols. Vol. 1. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2015.
- Snorri Sturluson, Heimskringla, translated by Alison Finlay and Anthony Faulkes, 3 vols, vol.1, London: Viking Society for Northern Research, 2011 – 2014
- Waldemar Westergaard, ‘Danish History and Danish Historians’, The Journal of Modern History 24 (1952): 167–180
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