by Stephen J. Gertz
Stop me if this sounds familiar:
A king is murdered by his brother, who marries the widow and succeeds to the throne. The son of the murdered king feigns madness, whereupon he is suspected and tried, first by entangling him in the love of a maiden, and second by an interview with his mother during which he discovers and kills a spy. The king sends him to Britain with two attendants. He returns to Denmark, he slays the king.
It’s the story of Amleth, a saga first set down by Danish national historian Saxo Grammaticus (Saxo the Learned) in books three and four in his sixteen-book Danish History (aka Gesta Danorum - Deeds of the Danes) between 1185 - 1215, first printed in 1514 and reprinted twenty years later in the edition under notice. Sixty-six years after that, the story was adapted for the stage, and the rest is Hamlet, Shakespeare’s great tragedy, which introduced to the world one of the most complex and celebrated characters in all literature, and posed the essential human existential question in a simple declaration that has yet to be improved upon.
But first, back-o to Saxo, a common name in medieval Denmark. He was born in Zealand c. 1150. Well-educated, he was secretary-clerk to Absalon, Archbishop of Lund, foremost advisor to Valdemar I, King of Denmark, during a particularly turbulent period in its history. The first writer of any note to emerge from that Scandinavian land, “Saxo was to Denmark what Geoffrey of Monmouth was to Britain. He drew on Latin histories such as Bede and Adam of Bremen, on Icelandic and Danish manuscripts and on oral traditions” (Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare). His Danish History was the most ambitious literary undertaking of medieval Denmark and remains the essential source for the nation's distant past.
This edition of Saxo is blessed with a first leaf of text printed within elaborate historiated borders, the horizontal by Hans Holbein the Younger, the vertical border by Jakob Faber, aka Master I.F. (his block signature).
And what of Amleth, Prince of Denmark, who crossed all borders to inspire world literature?
“The Amleth saga belongs to a common type of revenge story in which the hero feigns insanity or stupidity to save his life and gain an opportunity for a coup” (Bullough). By the time Shakespeare got around to adapting the work, “at some stage, the saga, already somewhat modernized by Belleforest, was brought into line with Renaissance manners and current tales of court-murders and revenge. This involved changing the ending by having Hamlet achieve his vengeance during a fencing match. It also meant altering the way in which Old Hamlet was killed, and the Ghost’s part was made important by substituting the Italianate secret way of poison for open murder at a banquet...Neither in Saxo or Belleforest did the wicked uncle show any sign of remorse, and the introduction of the prayer scene indicates that the play had religious implications not present in the old saga” (ibid.).
Beyond its content and artful borders this edition is noteworthy for possessing a five-line commendation by Erasmus; whether solicited by the publisher or taken from Erasmus' correspondence remains unclear. What is clear, however, is that by this note Erasmus enters the hall of early blurb fame:
"In Danium navigare malo, quae nobis dedit Saxonem Grammaticum, qui suae gentis historiam splendide magnificeque contexuit. Probo vividum ardens ingenium..."
A few words jump off the page and you don't need to know Latin to get a sense that Erasmus is over the moon about the book. "If you wish to navigate Denmark, seek what is known and surrender to Saxo Grammaticus, and his unique, splendid and magnificent historical construction. It demonstrates vivid, glowing natural character."
But for a few surviving fragments, the original manuscripts of Danorum Historiae are lost. Printed editions are all that remain, and this, save for the first printed edition of 1514, is the earliest. It is certainly the most beautiful, a typographical joy.
SAXO GRAMMATICUS. [ERASMUS]. Danorum historiae libri XVI: trecentis abhinc annis conscripti, tanta dictionis elegantia, rerumque gestarum varietate, ut cum omni vetustate contendere optimo videri possint... Des. Erasmi Roterodami de Saxone censura... Basileae: Apud Io. Bebelium, 1534. Second edition. Folio. , 189, [1, blank] pp. Roman letter, ruled in red throughout, printer’s device on title and verso to last leaf. First leaf with an elaborate border of metal-cut ornament, the horizontal borders by Hans Holbein the Younger, the vertical borders by the Jacob Faber aka Master I.F.
Images courtesy of Bernard Quaritch Ltd, with our thanks, and a tip o' the hat to their cataloger. Collectors may inquire here.
With apologies for the rough and mangled English translation of Ersamus.