Saxo, etching by the Danish-Norwegian illustrator Louis Moe (1857 – 1945)
Saxo Grammaticus (estimated. 1150 - 1220) was a Danish medieval historian of whose life practically nothing is known. The sixteen books of Danish history of this time, known as the Gesta Danorum, are attributed to him, and also contribute our principal evidence of his own existence.
We know he was a "follower" of Archbishop Absalon, which probably means he worked in the Archbishop’s administration; his exact status is not determined. He might have been a clerk.
In Absalon’s will, one clericus named Saxo is forgiven a debt of two and a half silver marks and is enjoined to return two manuscripts he has borrowed, to Sorø monastery. From a dozen Saxos or comments on Saxo, found in Danish sources from this timeframe or later, this is the only Saxo comment to be generally accepted to be about the Saxo Grammaticus. However there is no evidence that definitely proves that this comment in Absalon’s will is about our Saxo Grammaticus.
We read in the preface of Gesta Danorum Saxo’s own words that his father and grandfather both served under King Valdemar I as warriors and that he himself would like to serve King Valdemar II, though in a more spiritual way. These few lines just listed are the only concrete information that exists about Saxo Grammaticus.
It is thought he was born on Zealand, as later sources claim. His elegant Latin and Roman knowledge, used in Gesta Danorum, makes it nearly certain that he was educated outside of Denmark, maybe in one of the big church-schools in France.
Saxo Grammaticus was not his real name. He received the appellation Grammaticus, the Latin word for a teacher of letters, in the Compendium Saxonis of Chronica Jutensis, around 1342, to express delight in his use of words. With the printed press publication of Christiern Pedersen's version of Gesta Danorum, the term Grammaticus has stuck to Saxo as being part of his name.
The only name given to him is found in the Chronica Sialandie (Danish: Ældre Sjællandske Krønike), under the year 1103 (see the chronicle for details why this year), which names him Saxo, cognomine Longus, translating roughly to something like Saxo, named (or called) the long.
Saxo is the source for the semi-legendary Hamlet, whose tale has been adapted by several playwrights - most notably William Shakespeare.
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