On this day in 1514, the eminent Parisian printer, Jodocus Badius, printed Denmark’s seminal historical text, Gesta Danorum. The book, written by the great Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus (c. 1150-1220), was published by Christiern Pedersen, whose persistence in gathering the book’s lost text was considerable. Gesta Danorum, or “The Deeds of the Danes,” is written in a beautifully ornate Latin and its accounts of Denmark’s great kings are said to have influenced endless Danish writers, and Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
The Gesta Danorum was commissioned by the 12th century archbishop Absalon and records much of Danish and Scandinavian history from its early days to the late 12th century. The author, Saxo Grammaticus, is thought to have been a clerk in Absalon’s service. His eloquent Latin text is pulled from ancient sagas and accounts and describes the incredible mythology, kings, heroes, wars, conquests, tribes, tragedies and feuds of Denmark and its neighbours.
By the 16th century, Saxo’s original text was thought to have been lost, and most were familiar with it only via summaries. Christiern Pedersen, a Danish translator living in Paris, was determined to find the text and he wrote to every possible source before traveling to Denmark’s libraries and monasteries, searching in vain. Eventually, a letter arrived from an archbishop from the same city as Absalon, with information about the text’s existence.
The scholars Badius, whose printing shop was one of the most eminent in the world at the time, and Pedersen, were critical to the publication of the Gesta Danorum, and some suggest that they may have had a hand in bringing forth the brilliant Latin prose. Regardless, the text’s influence on Danish history and culture is unrivalled. Gesta Danorum has been re-published and translated into a variety of languages, including Danish, over the past five centuries, and continues to be today.
Many consider Shakespeare’s tragic character Hamlet to be based on Amleth, who, according to Gesta Danorum, lived in the 6th century. The story of Amleth is, of course, one of tragedy in which he is forced to undergo much strife in order to regain his throne.
The Gesta Danorum remains today one of the Northern Europe’s most significant and influential texts. Saxo’s work is appreciated for both its historical significance and its fictional magnificence. Pedersen is remembered as one of the first people to discover Denmark’s literary and historical heritage.