Saxo Grammaticus c. 1150-c. 1220
Saxo is considered the first important Danish historian. In his Gesta Danorum (c. 1185-c. 1220), which is translated variously as Danish History, Danish Chronicles, or Story of the Danes, Saxo dramatized Danish history and incorporated Scandinavian myths and legends that are not preserved in any other source. One of the stories Saxo recorded formed the basis of William Shakespeare's The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark; another, the story of Toke the Archer, was the basis for the Swiss legend of William Tell. Although no complete manuscript of it is extant today, the Gesta Danorum has inspired many Danish and other writers and is admired by scholars as one of the great medieval European histories.
Little is known of Saxo's life beyond his own statements in the Gesta Danorum. Because Saxo shows some partiality to Zealand, some scholars speculate that he was born there. In the preface he calls himself the least among Absalon's followers, but scholars suggest that he was being modest. It was Absalon, Archbishop of Lund, who first suggested that Saxo write a Danish history that would rank that nation among other European countries and that would counter medieval accounts of Vikings as barbarians. While Saxo's position in relation to Absalon is unknown, historians surmise that it must have been relatively significant in order for Saxo to be entrusted with such an important task. Absalon died in 1201, before Saxo had completed the Gesta Danorum; his successor, Anders Sunesen, served as Archbishop until 1222 and Saxo addresses him in and dedicates the work to him. Saxo's talent and his elegant “Silver Age” style of Latin earned him the title “Grammaticus,” or lettered one, in the fifteenth century.
Scholars do not know exactly when Saxo began composing the Gesta Danorum, but the chronicler Swen Aggeson, in his 1185 work entitled Short History of the Danish Kings, mentions that the book is planned. Written in a difficult and ornate Latin, the Gesta Danorum comprises sixteen books of prose interspersed with poetry. The first eight books present a history of pagan Denmark, while the last eight document the introduction of Christianity in the country. The work begins before history proper, with myths and legends, commencing with King Dan and his victory over Emperor Augustus. Saxo relates these tales without commenting on whether or not they describe real occurrences. The books present the exploits of some sixty legendary kings and are based in part on ancient Danish poems, runes, and Viking sagas. Saxo's adaptations of these ancient texts, in many instances, now constitute the only extant renditions of them. The last seven books, believed to have been written first, are historical, with Absalon's oral descriptions serving as their main source of information. Historians consider this part of the history more accurate than the rest since the events described here happened close to 1187, the year in which Saxo ends his history. The Gesta Danorum was first printed in 1514 in Paris.
Prior to the Paris edition, the influence of Saxo's work was limited to Scandinavia and Northern Germany, but it became more familiar to Europeans in the sixteenth century. Much modern interest in Saxo stems from scholarly investigation of Shakespeare's works and sources. The Gesta Danorum is now considered a primary source for the plot of Shakespeare's Hamlet: Saxo presents Amleth, or Hamlet, feigning stupidity while plotting revenge against his uncle (and later stepfather) for the murder of his father. By closely studying parallels and divergences between the two Hamlet texts, Theresa Suriano Ormsby-Lennon examines the issue of whether Shakespeare learned of the tale directly from Saxo's Latin version, from a sixteenth-century anthology edited by Remigio Nannini, from the sixteenth-century French writer François de Belleforest (who reworked and significantly enlarged Saxo's story), or from a combination of these sources. Michael Srigley also examines Saxo and Belleforest in order to better understand Shakespeare's characterization of Hamlet, especially his melancholy humor and powers of divination. While Shakespearean studies dominate scholarly interest in Saxo, there is also interest in examining his work in its own right as history. Ruth Mazo Karras offers a comparative study of three thirteenth-century works, including the Gesta Danorum, and their respective descriptions of paganism and Christianity. K. Friis-Jensen examines the structure of the Gesta Danorum and describes how its tales served as inspiration for numerous authors, notably Danish playwrights Johannes Ewald and Adam Oehlenschäger.
Gesta Danorum (history) c. 1185-c. 1220
Saxo Grammaticus: The History of the Danes: Books I-IX. 2 vols. [translated by Peter Fisher] 1979
*Saxo Grammaticus and the Life of Hamlet: A Translation, History, and Commentary [edited by William F. Hansen] 1983
*This edition contains a translation of the Gesta Danorum from Book 3, Chapter 6 to Book 6, Chapter 4.
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SOURCE: Amory, Frederic. “The Medieval Hamlet: A Lesson in the Use and Abuse of a Myth.” Deutsche Vierteljahrsschrift für Literaturwissenschaft und Geistesgeschichte 51, no. 3 (September 1977): 357-95.
[In the following essay, Amory explains how myths may be transformed by the very act of being studied and searches for the historic Hamlet, in part, in Saxo's Gesta Danorum.]
HAMLET'S MILL: A MYTH OF MYTHOGRAPHY
It is significant that in common critical parlance one cannot really distinguish terminologically between the making of myths and the study and analysis of them in speaking of mythology, or mythography. In English as in other languages they are terms which do not exclude the imaginative, and incautious, habit of myth-making, even when they are applied to the so-called “science of myth.” Perhaps this disconcerting confusion of terms stems from the fact that while the making of myths is as old as Eden, the sober study and understanding of them may not be older than the eighteenth century at the most, beginning with the publication of Giambattista Vico's Princìpi di una Scienza Nuova (1st version, 1725; 2nd, 1744). Some would say that comparative mythology began with Friedrich Creuzer's Symbolik und Mythologie der alten Völker (1810-12) and went out with the school of Max Müller at the end of the nineteenth century, to be...
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SOURCE: Ormsby-Lennon, Theresa Suriano. “Piccolo, Ma Con Gran Vagghezza: A New Source for Hamlet?” Library Chronicle 41 (1977): 119-48.
[In the following essay, Ormsby-Lennon explores the question of whether Shakespeare read Saxo's account of Hamlet directly or in an edited and translated version made by Remigio Nannini, a sixteenth-century Dominican.]
Tutta volta … si debbe ricordare, che talhora un piccolo adornamento, dà gran vagghezza a una pittura, per se stessa bellissima; & oltre á ciò deve havere á memoria, che la lancia d'Achille, non harebbe sparso molto sangue, se la penna d'Omero non havesse versato molto inchiostro. Dico questo, non perche io voglia [sic] fare queste comparationi, lequali non si potrebbon fare senza adulatione e temerità, ma solamente per mostrare, che ancor che i meriti d'un' huomo sieno grandi, tutta volta eglino possono esser fatti piu chiari, & illustri da' semplici scritti di coloro, che hanno voglia di non parer d'esser nati al mondo per far numero & ombra.
Remigio Nannini, Orationi militari, Dedicatory Preface, 1560.
Amleto, figliastro di Fengone Re di Datia havea finto molt'anni d'esser pazzo, ma non era creduto pazzo da senno, ma che fingesse la pazzia per qualche suo...
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SOURCE: Srigley, Michael. “Hamlet's Prophetic Soul.” Studia Neophilologica 58, no. 2 (1986): 205-14.
[In the following essay, Srigley analyzes Hamlet's melancholy in light of Saxo's description of his powers of divination.]
For over two hundred years the nature and extent of Hamlet's madness has been discussed. It has been suggested that he was mad but pretending to be sane or, at the other extreme, that he was sane but feigning madness. In between there are various permutations on T. S. Eliot's statement that Hamlet was “less than mad, and more than feigning”. It now seems to be generally agreed that Hamlet's state lies somewhere in this no-man's-land between sanity and madness. Dover Wilson gives one account of this state:
Shakespeare wishes us to feel that Hamlet assumes madness because he cannot help it. The tragic burden has done its work, and he is conscious that he no longer retains control over himself. What more natural than that he should conceal his nervous breakdown behind a mask which would enable him to let himself go when the fit is upon him.1
Bradley follows somewhat the same line, arguing that the “antic disposition” put on by Hamlet merges with bouts of real melancholy which nevertheless stops short of true madness.2 In a recent, fascinating study of the play, Roland Mushat Frye makes a...
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SOURCE: Pandit, Lalita. “Language in the Textual Unconscious: Shakespeare, Ovid, and Saxo Grammaticus.” In Criticism and Lacan: Essays and Dialogue on Language, Structure, and the Unconscious, edited by Patrick Colm Hogan and Lalita Pandit, pp. 248-67. Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1990.
[In the following essay, Pandit explores how Shakespeare's characterization of Hamlet builds upon his memory of various sources, including Saxo's, as well as upon his audience's familiarity with the playwright's life and other works.]
It is, however, precisely with that private mythology that any examination of the stranger in Shakespeare must begin, though obviously the communal mythology which he inherited from his sources, along with plot structures and casts of characters, must also be taken into account. Especially important is the body of myth implicit in those fairy tales, fabliaux, and novelle to which he turned constantly in search of story material and most especially, the Metamorphoses, which possessed his imagination from the time of his school days, making him in the profoundest sense, as his contemporaries already surmised, another Ovid, Ovid reborn an Englishman.
—Leslie A. Fiedler The Stranger in Shakespeare
In the following pages, I should like to focus on the theme of authorial subjectivity in...
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SOURCE: Kuhn, Hans. “Saxo Grammaticus.” Scandinavian Studies, 68, no. 2 (spring 1996): 242-50.
[In the following essay, Kuhn reviews the wide range of papers submitted to the international Saxo conference held in Bologna, Italy, in September 1990 and collected in Saxo Grammaticus: Tra storiografia e litteratura.]
Saxo Grammaticus: Tra storiografia e letteratura. Bevagna, 27-29 settembre 1990. A cura di Carlo Santini. Roma: Il Calamo, 1992 (I Convegni di Classiconorroena, 1). Pp. 441. 100,000 lire.
Saxo, the late twelfth-century cleric who, at the behest of bishop Absalon, provided the expanding Danish kingdom of the Valdemars with a heroic account of the country's history, has had a European presence ever since his Gesta Danorum were printed in Paris in 1514, notably after one of his princes, Amlethus, had become the protagonist of Shakespeare's best-known play. Saxo was an inspiration for the Danish and Scandinavian national revival of the nineteenth century with Grundtvig's 1818-23 translation as a typical expression. The critical edition of 1931 by Olrik and Raeder with its sumptuous layout marked the end of that period, and for half a century Saxo played a somewhat subdued role in the discourse of scholarship. But the last two decades have seen a renewed interest in the author, with major contributions by Kurt Johannesson...
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SOURCE: Karras, Ruth Mazo. “God and Man in Medieval Scandinavia: Writing—and Gendering—the Conversion.” In Varieties of Religious Conversion in the Middle Ages, edited by James Muldoon, pp. 100-14. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1997.
[In the following essay, Karras examines how three thirteenth-century works—the Gesta Danorum, the Heimskringla of Snorri Sturluson, and Njal's Saga—differ in their accounts of the history of paganism and the advent of Christianity.]
Stories of individual conversions are usually written by the subjects themselves. Such accounts tell us what they experienced and how they interpreted that experience—at least as much of it as they choose to reveal. Stories of the conversions of peoples, however, cannot be written by their subjects. Even if one member of the group in question writes the story, that one person is interpreting the experiences of others. More usually the writer is a contemporary outsider—the missionary rather than the converted—or a group member from a later generation, who has not personally undergone the conversion. These stories do not recount the experiences of their subjects but rather their retellers' visions of those experiences. This pattern is particularly apparent in the spread of Christianity across Europe. Many of the converted peoples did not acquire writing until after their conversion and integration...
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SOURCE: Friis-Jensen, K. “Saxo Grammaticus (1140-1206).” In History of European Literature, edited by Annick Benoit-Dusausoy and Guy Fontaine, translated by Michael Woolf, pp. 80-83. New York: Routledge, 2000.
[In the following essay, Friis-Jensen offers background information on the Gesta Danorum, summarizes its books, and discusses the development of Saxo's popularity in Europe.]
I prefer to go to Denmark which has given us Saxo Grammaticus, the man who was able to bring to life the history of his people in all its splendour and magnificence.
An idealised and dramatised version of Danish history, the Gesta Danorum (Chronicle of the Danish People, c. 1200) by Saxo Grammaticus is one of the founding texts of Danish literature. Saxo restored the tales, myths and legends handed down from pagan times in Scandinavian countries with the consummate art of a storyteller, and its fame spread beyond Denmark's frontiers. Since the Renaissance, his tales have been a source of inspiration for poets from all over Europe: Shakespeare's tragedy Hamlet, Prince of Denmark is the most celebrated example.
Saxo sided with the international literary culture of his time and wrote in Latin a history of Denmark which made of the Danish and the Danish royal line a people as...
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Davidson, Hilda Ellis, ed. The History of the Danes: Volume I: English Text by Saxo Grammaticus, translated by Peter Fisher, edited by Hilda Ellis Davidson. Cambridge, Eng.: D. S. Brewer, 1979, 297 p.
Introductory remarks to the preface and first nine books.
Drachman, A. G. “To Saxo Grammaticus: Gesta Danorum, 4: 4: 9-10 on Vermund and Uffe.” Classica et Mediaevalia 25 (1964): 241-43.
Analysis of a a fight description by Saxo which is not known to exist in any Icelandic text
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