Gesta Danorum3 min read

Manuscripts, Material Culture, The Archive

The Gesta Danorum is a manuscript written in Latin between 1185 and 1222 by Saxo Grammaticus.

Angers fragment of Gesta Danorum (Wikipedia).

It records the ‘Deeds of the Danes’ or more particular the Danish kings, from prehistory until 1185, in sixteen volumes.1

Viking Age Relevance

In Scandinavia, the Gesta Danorum, like the Old Norse Heimskringla, is considered a famous and very important medieval work. It is unique in more ways than one.

The complete work is written in Latin. Saxo was an educated, clergyman with an excellent command of Latin, using both poetry and prose. Yet he did not use the ‘daily’ Latin of his time but used an older style from authors in the Roman empire.2

In terms of sources, Saxo used ancient texts and poetry no longer available to us today and we would not have known about them but for the Gesta Danorum. He did not incorporate them into their original language but went as far as to translate them into Latin poetry.3 And in the case of Amleth, it seems that the Gesta itself was a source and must have reached William Shakespeare in one way or the other inspiring him to write Hamlet as the characters and events in both are strikingly similar.4

The content of the Gesta Danorum can be roughly divided in a mythical and ‘pagan’ part that ends in book nine with Gorm the Old who is considered Denmark’s first historical king.5 The tenth book starts with the reign of Gorm’s son Harald Bluetooth who claimed to have Christianised Denmark and had a rune stone made to commemorate this feat.6 Toward the end, Saxo takes enough time to describe the life and times of his patron, Absalon the Archbishop of Lund. Absalon indeed had an impressive life as a religious leader, military man and politician. He was a close advisor to Valdemar the Great and Cnut VI. Both kings were under pressure from the Holy Roman Emperor Frederic Barbarossa to become his vassal. Valdemar did eventually swear fealty, but Cnut refused until his last breath.3 To Absalon, the Gesta Danorum was undoubtedly a cultural and political confirmation and legitimization of Denmark as a strong and stable kingdom in its own right with a royal line that could be traced back to the legendary kings of old.

Further Reading

Arkiv for Dansk Litteratur – The most comprehensive overview of the text and its author (Danish).
The Danish Royal Library – Latin Edition, 16 volumes
Sacred – English Translation from 1905, 9 volumes
The Online and Medieval Classical Library – Same edition as Sacred Texts.
Project Runeberg – Danish edition and useful links

Saxo Grammaticus | Danish historian |
Friis-Jensen K, Fisher P. Gesta Danorum. Oxford University Press; 2015.
Skovgaard-Petersen I. Amled’s Role in Saxo’s History of the Danes. Historisk Tidsskrift / Copyright © by Den danske historiske Forening.

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