Article abstract: Saxo Grammaticus, who wrote one of the earliest chronicles of Danish legend and history, was Denmark’s most prominent medieval scholar. The only great writer of Latin prose in Denmark before the Reformation and acclaimed as that country’s first national historian, Saxo is the most important source of information about early Danish literature and history.
The meager details known of Saxo Grammaticus’ life have been gleaned from his own history and from the writings of others. Since the accuracy of the external accounts is questionable, however, Saxo himself remains a scholarly mystery.
Based on careful research, scholars have concluded that Saxo was born in about 1150 into a noble family on the island of Zealand in Denmark. If the thirteenth century Zealand chronicle’s mention of a Saxo Longus (the Tall) alludes to the historian, height is the only physical characteristic known about him. Saxo himself tells his readers that his grandfather and father served as soldiers in the army of Valdemar I, who reigned from 1157 to 1182.
It is from other, much later, sources that the name Grammaticus (the Lettered) arises. The fourteenth century Jutland chronicle is the first to assign Saxo the title. The writer of his epitome (1431) and the first edition of his work both retain the reference. This surname apparently refers to Saxo’s conspicuous scholarship and elaborate style of Latin composition.
Saxo’s complex Latin sentences have led scholars to conjecture that his education must have been meticulous, for in his day Latin was the language of the learned. Saxo was no doubt educated in the three major areas of grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric. His stories, literary allusions, and themes suggest that he studied the classics and Vergil’s poetry, as well as such authors as Livy, Martianus Capella, Plato, Cicero, Boethius, and Valerius Maximus. He may also have had formal training in law. He seems to have been slightly familiar with spoken Icelandic and marginally acquainted with German. He may have gone to Paris to complete his education, or perhaps to Germany or England.
Scholars have also debated Saxo’s profession. Saxo describes himself as one of the retinue of Absalon, Archbishop of Lund from 1179 to 1201, but fails to say what services he actually performed, no doubt assuming that his readers would understand. Sven Aggesen, a slightly older contemporary, mentions Saxo as his contubernalis (literally, tent mate), but Sven’s exact meaning is unclear, since he may have meant anything from a military comrade to a fellow member of Absalon’s retinue. In his will Absalon mentions a clerk by the name of Saxo, but even if this reference is to Saxo Grammaticus (and it has been debated), scholars are uncertain whether this designation was applied to clerics or to laymen. To add to the confusion, the first edition of Saxo’s work lists him as “sometime Head” of the cathedral church at Roskilde. One scholar has even suggested that he may have been Absalon’s official historian. Such uncertainty has divided scholars; some believe that he was a monk serving as the archbishop’s secretary and some argue that he was a secular clerk. What is certain, and what Saxo himself tells his readers, is that his patron, Absalon, encouraged him to record in Latin the history of Denmark, the work for which Saxo is famous.
In Gesta Danorum (1514; The History of the Danes, 1894, 1980-1981), sometimes called Historia Danica, Saxo traces the lives of the Danes and their kings from their eponymous founder, Dan, to 1187 and Gorm III. The composition of the text occupied him from about 1185 until 1208; he spent from about 1208 until his death revising it and writing the preface.
Saxo had many reasons for composing The History of the Danes. His primary purpose, stated in the first sentence of his preface, was to glorify his country, then approaching the zenith of its political influence. Aware of Vergil’s glorification of Rome, Saxo was eager to present his countrymen with a similar monument to their own great past and recent accomplishments. Furthermore, the appearance of his history some fifty years after Denmark’s civil war (1147-1157) was designed to reconcile peoples only lately reunified. Comments on his fellow Danes reveal that he also hoped to civilize his country and to provide evidence of its rich culture to the rest of the world.
Saxo did not use only one source for his history. He drew upon ancient epic poems, folk tales, popular tradition, inscriptions, lists of Danish kings, and oral lays of Denmark. He also borrowed from Icelandic sagas and Norse mythology. Some scholars have even recognized borrowings from Russian stories in the early books. For contemporary history, Saxo’s chief source was probably his mentor, Absalon. Saxo also borrowed from foreign colleagues, directly quoting Dudo, the Saint Bede the Venerable, and Paul the Deacon, all medieval historians. He may also have known of Jordanes, Gregory of Tours, Wittekind, Helmold, Giraldus Cambrensis (Gerald de Barri), and Geoffrey of Monmouth. It is clear that Saxo reworked everything he borrowed in order to shed greater glory on Denmark.
In literary style Saxo again made use of others, this time pagan Latin authors of the Silver Age and of late antiquity. Justin and Curtius Rufus were important to him. Martianus Capella provided the Latin meters he used. His favorite author, however, was Valerius Maximus. Saxo’s writing, characterized by moralizing and artificial cleverness, imitates the pointed style of...
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