Gesta Danorum

From Academic Kids

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Bishop Asgar, etching by the Danish-Norwegian illustrator Louis Moe (1857—1945)

Gesta Danorum ("Deeds of the Danes") is a work of Danish history, by 12th century author Saxo Grammaticus ("Saxo the Grammarian"). It is the most ambitious literary undertaking of medieval Denmark.

Contents

Gesta Danorum

In sixteen books, written in Latin on the invitation of Archbishop Absalon, it describes Danish history and to some degree Nordic history in general, from roughly 600 BC to the late 12th century. It is the most ambitious literary undertaking of medieval Denmark, told in a sparkling and entertaining language, that reads as well today as it did back then.

The sixteen books can be categorized into two parts, book 1-9 being what is known as the Old Norse part and Book 10-16 being medieval history. Book 9 ends with Gorm the Old, the first factual documented King of Denmark.

Since the work itself contains not a single date of any kind, neither for events nor to identify when it was written it can be problematic dating some persons and events of the Old Norse part. The only timeframe is the mention of Jesus' birth during Frode III reign, in book 5. This single fixed point established the dating of persons and events contained in the first 9 books. By counting back the number of generations told of by Saxo, one arrives roughly at 600 BC for the start of the work.

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Angers Fragment, page 1, front

Chronology

When the book was written, and in what order the books were written, is a matter of historical interpretation.

When exactly it was written is the subject of numerous books, however it is generally agreed that it was not finished before 1208. The last event described in the last book (Book 16) is King Canute VI of Denmark subduing Vendenland in Pomerania under Duke Bogislaw I, in 1186. However the preface of the work, dictated to Archbishop Anders Sunesen, mentions the Danish conquest of the areas north of the Elbe in 1208.

Book 14, comprising nearly one-quarter of the text of the entire work, ends with Absalon's appointment to Archbishop in 1178. This comparably large book and the fact Absalom takes up a much more predominating position than King Valdemar I in this Book, makes it likely that this book is written first and comprised a work on its own. Saxo would then later enlarge it with Book 15 and 16, telling the story of King Valdemar I last years and King Canute VI first years.

It is then believed that Saxo wrote Book 11, 12 and 13. We know from Svend Aagesen's history of Denmark, Brevis Historia Regum Dacie, ca 1186, were it is stated that Saxo had decided to write about ‘The king-father and his sons’ which would be King Sweyn Estridson, which is book 11, 12, 13. He would then later add the 10 first books. This would also explain the 22 years between that last event described in the last book (Book 16) and the 1208 event described in the preface.

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Front page of Christiern Pedersen's Saxo version, Paris 1514

Manuscripts

The original manuscripts of the work are lost, except four fragments known as the Angers Fragment, Lassen Fragment, Kall-Rasmussen Fragment and Plesner Fragment. The Angers Fragment, the biggest fragment and the only one attested to be on Saxo’ own handwriting. The other ones are copies from ca. 1275. They now all reside in the Royal Library in Copenhagen.

We do have the text, however. In 1510-1512, Christiern Pedersen, a Danish translator working in Paris, searched Denmark high and low for an existing copy of Saxo’s works, which by that time was nearly all but lost. By that time most knowledge of Saxo’s work came from a summary located in Chronica Jutensis, of ca. 1342, called Compendium Saxonis. It is also in this summary the name Gesta Danorum is found. We do not know the title Saxo himself used.

Christiern Pedersen finally found a copy with Archbishop Birger Gunnersen of Lund, which he gladly lent him. With the help of Josse Bades, they refined and printed it, so that the first printed press publication and the oldest known version of Saxo’s works, is Christiern Pedersen's Latin version, printed and published by Jodocus Badius Ascensius, Paris, 15th May 1514.

Translations

The source of all existing translations and new versions today can be found in Christiern Pedersen's Latin version Danorum Regum heroumque Historiae. There exist a number different translations today, some whole some partly.

Latin versions

Danish translations

English translations

  • Oliver Elton, published 1894, title: The First Nine Books of the Danish History of Saxo Grammaticus
  • Peter Fisher, published 1979-1980, title: Saxo Grammaticus: The History of the Danes
  • Eric Christiansen, published 1980-1981, title: Saxo Grammaticus: Danorum regum heroumque historia, books X-XVI
  • William F. Hansen, published 1983, title: Saxo Grammaticus and the life of Hamlet

German, Spanish, Italien, and Japanese translations

It is also translated partly to other English, French and German releases.

Influences

Certain aspects of Gesta Danorum formed the basis for William Shakespeare's play, Hamlet. It is thought that Shakespeare never read Gesta Danorum, and instead had access to an auxiliary version of the tale describing the downfall of the Prince of Denmark, whose real name - Amleth - was used in anagram by Shakespeare for Hamlet. Saxo’s version, told of in Book 3 and 4, is very similar to that of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In Saxo's version, two brothers, Orvendil and Fengi are given the rule over Jutland by King Rorik of the Danes. Soon after, Orvendil marries King Rorik’s daughter, Geruth (Gertrude in Hamlet). Amleth is their first and only child. Fengi becomes resentful of his brother’s marriage, and also wants sole leadership of Jutland, so therefore murders Orvendil. After a very brief period of mourning, Fengi marries Geruth, and declares himself sole leader of Jutland. Eventually, Amleth avenges his father’s murder and plans the murder of his uncle, making him the new and rightful king of Jutland.

References

  • Hilda Ellis Davidson, Peter Fisher (trans), Saxo Grammaticus: The History of the Danes, Books I-IX : I. English Text; II. Commentary, modern English translation, 2002, ISBN 0859915026
  • Saxo Grammaticus, Gesta Danorum (http://sunsite.berkeley.edu/OMACL/DanishHistory/), Books I-IX, translated to English by Oliver Elton 1905.
  • Saxo Grammaticus, Gesta Danorum (http://www.kb.dk/elib/lit/dan/saxo/lat/or.dsr/), from the Royal Library in Copenhagen, Danish and Latin.
  • Helle Stangerup, Saxo Hans værk – Hans verden, Høst & Søn forlag 2004, ISBN 87-14-29949-6
  • Apoteker Sibbernsens Saxobog, C. A. Reitzels Forlag, Copenhagen, 1927
  • Frederik Winkel Horn, Saxo Grammaticus: Danmarks Krønike, Chr. Flors Boghandel, Copenhangen 1911.
  • Jørgen Olrik & H Ræder, Saxonis Gesta Danorum, Levin & Munkesgaard, Copenhagen, 1931
  • Anders Sørensen Vedel, Den Danske Krønicke Saxo-oversættelse 1575 udgivet i facimile af Det danske Sprog- og Litteraturselskab, G. E. C Gad, Copenhagen, 1967da:Gesta Danorum

pl:Gesta Danorum sv:Gesta Danorum

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