(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Saxo Grammaticus c. 1150-c. 1220

Danish historian.

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.