Post-classical history

Saxo Grammaticus

Author of the Gesta Danorum, a great Latin chronicle telling the history of the Danes from mythical times up to the final submission of Pomerania in 1185 during the reign of King Knud VI (1182-1202).

Saxo was born on Sjælland around 1150 into a noble family and studied at one of the schools in northern France. He probably became a canon at the cathedral in Lund, where Archbishop Absalon(1178-1201) commissioned him to write his work. He began it around 1190 at the latest but probably did not finish until shortly after 1208. It is dedicated to Absalon’s successor as archbishop, Anders Sunesen (1201-1228), and to King Valdemar II of Denmark (1202-1241). Saxo is thought to have died around 1220.

The style and composition of the Gesta Danorum are based on those of classical authors. One of the most important purposes behind the chronicle was to show that Denmark was an independent nation as old as and equal to the Roman Empire. Saxo wrote his work during a time of Danish expansion in the Baltic area that began in the reign of King Valdemar I (1157-1182) and culminated with the conquest of Estonia in 1219 by Valdemar II. This expansion must be viewed as part of the crusades of the twelfth century, as Saxo also clearly indicates. Archbishop Absalon is described as a pater patriae (“father of his country”) and as the main mover behind the expansion and extension of the faith to the heathen peoples living on the southern coast of the Baltic Sea collectively called the Wends. One of the high points of the chronicle is the account of the capture by Absalon and Valdemar I of the strong fortress of Arkona on the island of Rügen in 1168-1169 and the destruction of the great wooden statue of the heathen god Svantevit that was venerated there. However, the conflict itself is presented as a centuries-old, sharp antagonism between Danes and Wends. The Wends are heathen pirates, often described as inhuman beings who have always attacked the Danish kingdom; the war against them is therefore depicted as just. The Danes are described as fighting for peace and out of a burning love for their homeland: anyone attacking the Danes ought therefore to burn in hell forever.

The picture of an age-old conflict served to legitimize the wars of the Danish kings and church against the heathen Wends as being just and as crusades. The most frequent term used in the chronicle to describe the Danish expeditions (almost exclusively so for the period after 1100) is expeditio, one of the standard terms for crusade in the period. The work of Saxo must be seen in the same context as similar constructions of national history based on creations of age- old conflicts and diabolic images of the enemy in other frontier zones of Latin Christendom.

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