Gesta Danorum

The other chronicle to consult for the Viking Age. Period.

Last Updated 02 May 2018.

Description

The Gesta Danorum is a manuscript written in Latin between 1185 and 1222 by the scribe Saxo Grammaticus. It records the Deeds of the Danes or rather the Danish kings from prehistory until 1185, in sixteen volumes.[1]

Viking Age Relevance

Angers fragment of the Gesta Danorum (Source: Wikipedia).

As one of the most famous texts of medieval Scandinavia, the Gesta Danorum stands out for its language. The author completed the work in Latin. Perhaps this is not so remarkable, considering Saxo was an educated clergyman. However, he chose to use a style used during the Roman empire when he could have used the ‘daily’ Latin of his day.[2] Another reason the Gesta stands out is that it includes ancient texts and poetry that would otherwise have been lost to us. Again, Saxo makes a surprise turn. Instead of incorporating these in their original language, he translates them into Latin poetry.[3] Lastly, scholars are more and more convinced that the story of Amleth as it appears in the Gesta must have been the source or at least inspiration for William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The characters and events are too similar.[4]

The Content

The text itself is divided into sixteen volumes. Its content splits roughly in a mythical and pagan part, and a historical part. Book nine ends with Gorm ‘the Old’ who is considered Denmark’s first historical king.[5] The tenth book starts with the reign of Harald Bluetooth who raised a rune stone to commemorate his success in converting Denmark.[6] And toward the last volumes, Saxo takes his time to describe the life and times of his patron. Absalon, the Archbishop of Lund, had an impressive life as a religious leader, a military man and politician. He was a close advisor to Valdemar the Great and Cnut VI when these kings were under pressure from Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa to become his vassal. Valdemar eventually swore fealty, but Cnut refused until his dying breath.[7]

The Gesta was Absalon’s life’s work, intended to confirm and legitimise Denmark as a strong and stable kingdom with its own royal line that could be traced 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 Texts.com – English Translation by Oliver Elton (1905), 9 volumes.

The Online and Medieval Classical Library – Same edition as Sacred Texts.

Project Runeberg – Danish edition with useful links.

References


  1. The Editors of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, ‘Saxo Grammaticus.’ Britannica.com Last Accessed 02 February 2016. http://www.britannica.com/biography/Saxo-Grammaticus ↩
  2. Karsten Friis-Jensen and Peter Fisher, Gesta Danorum. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), pp. xlvii, li.  ↩
  3. Kaspar Andersen Holdgaard, ‘Saxo Grammaticus og Gesta Danorum.’ Danmarks Historien. Last Accessed 02 February 2016. http://danmarkshistorien.dk/leksikon-og-kilder/vis/materiale/saxo-grammaticus-og-gesta-danorum/ ↩
  4. Inge Skovgaard-Petersen, ‘Amled’s Role in Saxo’s History of the Danes.’ Historisk Tidsskrift Volume 104.1 (2004), summary [pp. 1–28].  ↩
  5. National Museum of Denmark, ‘Gorm the Old, Harald Bluetooth and Svein Forkbeard.’ Last Accessed 02 February 2016. http://en.natmus.dk/historical-knowledge/denmark/prehistoric-period-until–1050-ad/the-viking-age/the-monuments-at-jelling/gorm-the-old-harald-bluetooth-and-svein-forkbeard/ ↩
  6. National Museum of Denmark, ‘Jelling and the New Faith.’ Last Accessed 02 February 2016. http://en.natmus.dk/historical-knowledge/denmark/prehistoric-period-until–1050-ad/the-viking-age/the-monuments-at-jelling/jelling-and-the-new-faith/ ↩
  7. Kaspar Andersen Holdgaard, ‘Saxo Grammaticus og Gesta Danorum.’ Danmarks Historien. Last Accessed 02 February 2016. http://danmarkshistorien.dk/leksikon-og-kilder/vis/materiale/saxo-grammaticus-og-gesta-danorum/ ↩

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