The first official census of Denmark (1769) reckoned its population at 825,000 souls, with another 727,600 in Norway, which remained till 1814 under the Danish kings. Nearly all the peasants in Norway owned their lands, and were as proud as Vikings. In Denmark half the peasantry were serfs, and the other half were subject to feudal dues. The kings labored to check this feudalism, but they were financially dependent upon the magnates, and serfdom continued till 1787. In this regime little encouragement was given to commerce or industry; no significant middle class developed; and the opening of the Kiel Canal (1783) benefited English and Dutch traders rather than the Danes. In 1792 Denmark was the first European power to abolish the slave trade in its dominions.
As the nobles ruled the state, so the Lucheran Church ruled the pulpit, the press, and, hopefully, the mind. A severe censorship, maintained from 1537 to 1849, outlawed all print or speech not in accord with Lutheran orthodoxy, and many nontheological books, like Goethe’s Werther, were proscribed as imperiling public morality. The development of literature was further hampered by the use of German at court, Latin at the universities, and French in belles-lettres—of which there was almost none. To have inaugurated Danish literature by writing in the vernacular, and to have brought some rays of the Enlightenment into Denmark, were among the accomplishments of the most brilliant Dane of the eighteenth century.
Norway as well as Denmark can claim Ludvig von Holberg, for he was born in Bergen (December 3, 1684). After studying at the local Latin school, he crossed the water to enter the University of Copenhagen. Soon his funds ran short; he returned to Norway and served as tutor in the family of a country parson. Having saved sixty thalers, he set out to see the world. In 1704 he was in Holland; in 1706-8 he was educating himself in the libraries of Oxford. Back in Copenhagen, he gave lectures which brought him little more than self-instruction; meanwhile he lived by tutoring, and fed on ambition. In 1714 the university appointed him to a professorship, without pay, but a private gift enabled him to wander through Italy and France for two years, mostly on foot. Returning from this grandest of grand tours, he was made professor of metaphysics, which he hated, then of Latin and rhetoric, at last (1730) of history and geography, which he loved.
In his leisure moments he created Danish literature. Till his time there had been, in Danish, hardly anything but ballads, farces, hymns, and works of popular piety. Holberg produced a small library of poems, satires, novels, and treatises in Danish on politics, law, history, science, and philosophy. Only Voltaire rivaled him in versatility. Like Voltaire he used laughter as a scourge of pompous professors worshiping the classics, lawyers hobbling justice with technicalities, clergymen scrambling for money and place, physicians easing patients into eternity. Nearly all these pillars of society were pilloried in his first major work, a mock epic, Peder Paars (1719). Some great Danes felt the sting, and urged King Frederick IV to suppress the book as offensive to morals and making fun of priests; the King had the first canto read to him, and judged it “a harmless, amusing work”; but the royal council informed Holberg that it would have been better if the poem had never been written.26
So he turned to the stage. In 1720 a French actor, Étienne Capion, opened in Copenhagen the first Danish theater. Finding no Danish plays meriting production, he imported dramas from France and Germany. He saw from Peder Paars that Holberg had the materials and talent for comedy; he appealed to him to provide the new theater with vernacular plays; within a year Holberg composed five, within eight years twenty, and all so rich in pictures of local mores that his great successor, Adam Oehlenschläger, said of him: “He knew how to paint the bourgeois life of his Copenhagen so faithfully that if this city were to be swallowed up, and if after two hundred years the comedies of Holberg were rediscovered, one would be able to reconstruct the epoch from them, just as from Pompeii and Herculaneum we know the times of ancient Rome.”27
Holberg took forms and ideas from Plautus, Terence, Moliere, and the Commedia dell’ Arte, which he had seen in Italy. Some of his comedies are one-act trivialities that have lost their thrust, like Sganarel’s Journey to the Land of the Philosophers;28 some still have force, like Jeppe of the Hill, from which we learn that peasants, when they acquire power, are more brutal than their lords. Some are full-length plays, like Rasmus Montanus; this is a rollicking satire of scholastic pedantry, theological dogmatism, and popular ignorance, with a sly touch of rural candor, as when Lisbed, hearing that her fiancé is returning from university, tells her father, “Then my dream has come true.... I dreamed that I slept with him last night.”29 Despite these lively comedies, the Copenhagen theater closed in 1727 for lack of public support. The final performance was Holberg’s The Funeral of Danish Comedy.
He had shocked his university confreres by writing for the stage; now he mollified them with historical works presenting to Danish readers the results of West-European scholarship. A Description of Denmark and Norway (1729), A History of Denmark (1732-35), a Universal Church History (1727-47), and A History of the Jews were compilations, but they were well done. From these labors Holberg sought relief in his masterpiece—Nicolai Klimii Iter suhterraneum (1741). He wrote it in Latin prose to reach a European audience; it did, but through translations: Jens Baggesen turned it into Danish, in which it ran through three editions; in German it had ten, in Swedish, Dutch, and English, three, in French and Russian two, in Hungarian one. It was this Subterranean Journey of Niels Klim that made Holberg the Swift as well as the Voltaire of Denmark.
The noises from a cave rouse Niels’s curiosity; he resolves to investigate; his friends lower him by a rope, which breaks; “with amazing velocity I was hurried down into the abyss.”30 Within the crust of the earth he finds an open space or firmament, containing a sun, its planets, and many stars. Falling toward one of these planets, he becomes its satellite, and revolves around it helplessly; but he catches hold of an eagle and is carried with it to make a soft landing on the planet Potu (“Utop[ia]” reversed). Here the trees are the ruling species, rich in sapient sap; unfortunately “that very tree which I climbed upon … was the wife of the sheriff.”31 Potu has some excellent laws. People who “dispute publicly about the qualities and essence of the Supreme Being are looked upon as slightly insane”; they are treated by bloodletting to reduce their fever, and then are kept in confinement until they “emerge from this delirium.”32 Mothers in Potu nurse their infants—twenty-one years before Rousseau’s appeal to maternal breasts. In the province of Cocklecu (Cuckoldy) the women govern the state, the men keep house or become prostitutes, the Queen has a harem of three hundred handsome youths. The philosophers in Cocklecu spend their time trying to get to the sun, and pay little attention to earthly affairs. In the province of Mikolac all the people are atheists, and “do whatever evil they can conceal from the police.”33 Niels comes upon a book entitled Tanian’s Journey to the Superterranean World, which describes Europe and its strange customs: heads covered with enormous wigs, hats worn under the arm (as among the nobles of France), “little cakes or wafers that are carried about the streets, and which the priests say are gods; the very men who baked them … will take their oaths that these wafers created the world.”34
The Iter subterraneum contained some satires of Christian dogma, and called for freedom of worship for all sects; but it recommended belief in God, heaven, and hell as necessary supports for a moral code continually battered by the demands of the ego and the flesh.35 King Frederick V made the reformed reformer a baron in 1747; Holberg had the pleasure of rebellion in his youth and of acceptance in old age, which ended in 1754. He remains to this day the dominating figure in the literature of Denmark.
Some would give that place rather to Johannes Ewald, whose career matched those of Byron, Keats, and Shelley in adventure, suffering, and brevity. Born in Copenhagen in 1743, son of a Lutheran minister, he rebelled against his puritanic elders, fell in love at sixteen with Arense Hulegaard, abandoned a theological career as too tardy in its rewards, enlisted in the Prussian and then the Austrian army, resolved to win the wealth and glory that would make Arense his bride. But privations and disease destroyed his health; he returned to Copenhagen and theology; Arense married a prompter fortune, and Ewald poured out his heart in poetry and prose. He wrote the first original Danish tragedy, Rolf Krage (1770), and reached the zenith of Danish poetry in the eighteenth century withBalder’s Death (1773), an heroic drama in verse. His work brought him hardly enough bread to live on; he retired to rural solitude, nursed a succession of ailments, and was at last revived by a pension from the government. He rewarded it with a play, The Fishers(1779), containing the patriotic ballad “King Christian Stood by the Lofty Mast,” which became the favorite national song of the Danes.36 It was Ewald’s call to glory and his farewell to life; he died after a long and painful illness in 1781, aged thirty-eight. Scandinavians rank him as “one of the greatest lyric poets of the North, perhaps the very greatest.”37
As the eighteenth century progressed, the political history of Denmark became part of the unending modern drama between tradition and experiment. Christian VI (r. 1730-46) mingled the opposed forces. He and his ministers advanced economic development by importing weavers and spinners to establish a textile industry, by forming national companies to trade with Asia and America, and by opening the Bank of Copenhagen (1736). They brought Greenland under the Danish crown (1744). They spread primary and secondary schools, and founded academies for the promotion of letters and learning. However, they renewed an old ordinance requiring Sunday attendance at Lutheran services; they closed all theaters and dance halls, banished actors, forbade masquerades.
Christian’s son Frederick V (r. 1746-66) allowed these laws to stand, but softened them by his genial spirit and sensual life. In 1751 he secured from Hanover Johann Hartwig Ernst von Bernstorff, who, as chief minister, raised the honesty and competence of administration, restored the army and navy, kept them out of the Seven Years’ War, and stirred the still waters of Danish culture by importing professors, poets, artists, and scientists; we have seen Klopstock accepting such an invitation. In 1767 Count von Bernstorff crowned his pacific foreign policy by persuading Catherine the Great to sign an agreement releasing Holstein-Gottorp to Denmark.
Frederick V, worn out with pleasure, died at forty-three (1766). His son Christian VII (r. 1766-1808) was hurried into marriage at the age of seventeen with Caroline Matilda, sister of England’s George III; she brightened the social life of the capital, but her half-insane husband neglected her for a life of profligacy, and Caroline slipped into a tragic amour with the court physician, Johann Friedrich Struensee. Son of a theology professor at Halle, Struensee studied medicine there, and, like most physicians, lost his religious faith. He owed his influence with the King to his skill in treating the clinical results of royal amours, and with the Queen to his success in bringing Christian VII sufficiently to her bed to beget an heir. As the King’s mind sank into apathetic gloom, the Queen’s power in the government grew; and as she allowed her physician to direct her policies as well as to enjoy her favors, he became (1770) the real ruler of the state. Orders went out from the royal palace signed by Struensee in the name of the non-composmentis King. Bernstorff” was dismissed, and retired peacefully to his estates in Germany.
Struensee had read the philosophes, and on their principles he proposed to remodel Danish life. He abolished the abuses of noble privilege, ended censorship of the press, established schools, cleansed the civil service of corruption and jobbery, emancipated the serfs, forbade judicial torture, proclaimed toleration for all religions, encouraged literature and art, reformed the law and the courts, the police, the university, the finances, municipal sanitation … To reduce the public debt he canceled many pensions, and appropriated the revenues of pious foundations to public ends.
The nobles plotted his fall, and used the freedom of the press to sap his popularity. Pious Danes resented religious toleration as atheism, and spoke of Struensee as a foreigner whose sole source of authority was the bed of the Queen. On January 17, 1772, a group of army officers persuaded the King that Struensee and the Queen were planning to kill him. He signed an order for their arrest. Caroline was deported to Hamlet’s Castle of Kronborg; Struensee was cast into a dungeon, and, after five weeks of suffering, confessed adultery with the Queen. On April 28, 1772, he was hacked to pieces on a scaffold in the presence of an approving multitude. Caroline, on the insistence of George III, was allowed to retire to Celle in Hanover, where she died on May 10, 1775, aged twenty-four.
The successful conspirators raised to power Ove Guldberg, tutor of Prince Frederick. During twelve years of rule Guldberg led a patriotic reaction against foreign influence in government, language, and education, opened office to commoners, restored serfdom, judicial torture, the supremacy of the Lutheran Church, and the religious orientation of the university. Count von Bernstorff’s nephew and protégé Andreas Peter von Bernstorff was put in charge of foreign affairs. When Prince Frederick made himself regent (1784) Guldberg was dismissed; Andreas von Bernstorff became chief minister, and remained so till his death. Under his prudent guidance serfdom was again abolished (1787), the slave trade was ended in Danish dominions, economic enterprise was freed. When Bernstorff died (1797) Denmark had been set firmly on the road to that peaceful prosperity which made her the envy of the world.