1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Saxo Grammaticus

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SAXO GRAMMATICUS (c. 1150 - c. 1206), Danish historian and poet, belonged to a family of warriors, his father and grandfather having served under Valdemar I., king of Denmark (d. 1182). Brought up for the clerical profession, Saxo entered the service of Archbishop Absalon about 1180, and remained in that capacity until the death of Absalon in 1201. It was at the archbishop's instigation that he began, about 1185, to write the history of the Danish Christian kings from the time of Sweyn Astridson (d. 1076), but later Absalon prevailed on him to write also the history of the earlier heathen times, and to combine both into a great work, Gesta Danorum, or Historia Danica. The archbishop died before the work was finished, and therefore the preface, written about 1208, dedicates the work to his successor Archbishop Andreas, and to King Valdemar II. Nothing else is known about Saxo's life and person; a chronicle of 1265 calls him “mirae et urbanae eloquentiae clericus”; and an epitome of his work from about 1340 describes him as “egregius grammaticus, origine Sialandicus.” That he was a native of Zealand is probably correct, inasmuch as, whereas he often criticizes the Jutlanders and the Scanians, he frequently praises the Zealanders. The surname of “Grammaticus” is probably of later origin, scarcely earlier than 1500, apparently owing to a mistake. The title of “provost of Röskilde,” given him in the 16th century, is also probably incorrect, the historian being confounded with an older contemporary, the provost of the same name. Saxo, from his apprenticeship as the archbishop's secretary, had acquired a brilliant but somewhat euphuistic Latin style, and wrote fine Latin verses, but otherwise he does not seem to have had any very great learning or extensive reading. His models of style were Valerius Maximus, Justin and Martianus Capella, especially the last. Occasionally he mentions Bede, Dudo of St Quentin and Paulus Diaconus, but he does not seem to have studied them or any other historical works thoroughly. His sources are partly Danish traditions and songs, partly the statements of Archbishop Absalon, partly the accounts of Icelanders and, lastly, some few earlier sources, lists of Danish kings and short chronicles, which furnished him with some reliable chronological facts. He considered traditions as history, and therefore made it his chief business to recount and arrange these, and his work is a loosely connected series of biographies of Danish kings and heroes.

The first nine books of the Gesta Danorum comprise traditions of kings and heroes of the half-mythical time up to about 950. Here we have traditions about Fredfrode, about Amleth (Hamlet) and Fenge, about Hrolfr Kraki, Hadding, the giant Starkather, Harald Hildetann and Ragnarr Lodbrok. In this earlier history Saxo has also embodied myths of national gods who in tradition had become Danish kings, for instance, Balder and Hother, and of foreign heroes, likewise incorporated in Danish history, as the Gothic Jarmunrik (A.S. Eormenríc), the Anglian Vermund (A.S. Gármund) and Uffe (A.S. Offa), the German Hedin and Hild, and others. Frequently the narrative is interrupted by translations of poems, which Saxo has used as authentic sources, although they are often only a few generations older than himself. In the later books (x.-xvi.) of his work he follows to a greater extent historical accounts, and the more he approaches his own time the fuller and the more trustworthy his relation becomes; especially brilliant is his treatment of the history of King Valdemar and of Absalon. But his patriotism often makes him partial to his countrymen, and his want of critical sense often blinds him to the historical truth.

Saxo's work was widely read during the middle ages, and several extracts of it were made for smaller chronicles. It was published for the first time, from a MS. afterwards lost, in Paris, 1514, by the Danish humanist Christiern Pedersen; this edition was reprinted at Basel, 1534, and at Frankfort, 1576. Of later editions may be mentioned that of Stephen Stephanius (Soro, 1644), the second volume of which contains the little-known, but valuable, Stephanii notae uberiores in historiam Danicam Saxonis Grammatici, and which was reproduced, though without the notes, by C. A. Klotz (Leipzig, 1771); and that of P. E. Müller completed by J. M. Velschow (Copenhagen, 1839-1858). The last complete edition is that of Alfred Holder (Strassburg, 1886), while a large part was edited by G. Waitz in the Mon. Germ. historica, xxix. pp. 43-161 (1892). No complete MS. any longer exists; yet of late small fragments have been found of three MSS. The most remarkable of these is the fragment found at Angers, in France, written in the later part of the 13th century. It is now in the library of Copenhagen.

There are Danish translations by A. G. Vedel (Copenhagen, 1575, and again 1851), and by F. Winkel-Horn (1896-1898). There is an English translation by O. Elton and F. Y. Powell (London, 1894).

See A. Potthast, Bibliotheca historica medii aevi (Berlin, 1896), where full references will be found.