Anders Leegaard Knudsen: Interessen for den danske fortid omkring 1300. En middelalderlig dansk nationalisme


  • Anders Leegaard Knudsen


Danish Interest in the Past c. 1300: Mediaeval Danish NationalismThe object of this study is to clarify two questions: When did nationalism clearly manifest itself in Mediaeval Denmark? And where was it sited? In the debate on whether the concept of nationalism is appropriate in Mediaeval studies the present author sides with the Mediaevalists who accept its viability. Following widespread usage the term nationalism is used here to designate a self-aggrandising and xenophobic feeling of national identity.There are no extant Mediaeval literary sources, whether personal letters and notes, or pamphlets, that cast light on the subject. The only available sources are historical works: chronicles, annals, and royal genealogies. Nationalism is reflected mainly in the sources that treat Danish history from the origins of the people, i.e., not merely from the beginnings of Christendom, but also back to the heathen kings. This phenomenon begins in the 1260s, when the so-called Chronicon Lethrense was incorporated into the Annales Lundenses. The Chronicon Lethrense may have been written about that time, but more probably it originates from the 1170s. In any case, it seems to have been generally unknown before appearing in the Annales Lundenses. Subsequently, however, it was widely used as source material in historical writing. The Gesta Danorum of Saxo Grammaticus (around 1200) was nevertheless the work that left an enduring mark on the ensuing Middle Ages. Interest in this work was so great in the last quarter of the Thirteenth Century that it may rightly be designated as the period of Saxo's breakthrough. Interest centered not only on the original work, to which extant manuscript fragments bear witness, but also on various abridged editions, which were copied into annals, chronicles and royal genealogies, often woven into material from the Chronicon Lethrense. Most of these sources date from the end of the Thirteenth Century and the first quarter of the Fourteenth.However, not all Danish historical writing in the High Middle Ages or Late Mediaeval times was nationalistic, and this supports the view that nationalistic historical writing was a conscious choice. Nationalism was self-conscious rather than an unreflected prolongation of the Chronicon Lethrense and Gesta Danorum tradition. These works, whose original diffusion and impact are unknown to us, had their breakthrough long after they were written. There can be little doubt that the nationalist works were produced in clerical institutions, but it is unlikely that diffusion was limited to their confines. The old distinctions between oral and written culture has been convincingly laid to rest by recent international research, which has demonstrated an extensive interaction between written and oral communication in the Middle Ages. If one looks, on the basis of anticipated response, for the most likely target group of the nationalistic interpretation of Denmark's history, two possibilities present themselves: the royal power and the nobility, although they need not be mutually exclusive. It is not very probable, however, that the royalty would have been behind Danish nationalism. For one thing, it was devoid of the themes central to the usual royal propaganda, and for another, the royal house had strong family ties to the German princes, with whom they were allied in the dynastic struggles with other branches of the royal lineage. It is more probable that nationalism was sited among the nobles who could identify with the Danish realm and at the same time were wary of the German princes' and nobility's influence in Denmark. Yet in this regard the Danish nobility had marriage ties German noble families, and a number of these had taken up residence in Denmark. These German-Danish circles among the high nobility were on good terms with the monarchy and formed an essential element of its power base. Danish nationalism was therefore most likely a reaction to this situation, motivated by envy and xenophobia, not unlike the reaction in England to Henry III's Poitevin and Savoyard favourites. King Henry had to send his favourites out of the country. It never came to that in Denmark, where the most extreme result of nationalism was the stipulation in the Charter of 1320 barring Germans from office in the royal administration. The subsequent Charter of 1326, which in other respects is identical with that of 1320, omitted the prohibition. Nationalism thus left no notable mark on constitutional development in Mediaeval Denmark. Nor did it inhibit the sizable influx of German nobility in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries. These immigrant nobles seem, in fact, to have had no problem meshing with the Danish nobility. Indeed, historical writing in the Late Middle Ages exhibits a declining nationalism. Although it never entirely disappeared (nationalistic texts were still being copied in the Fifteenth Century), nationalism had lost the importance it had previously possessed in political discourse from the 1260s to the 1320s.Translated by Michael Wolfe


Anders Leegaard Knudsen





Leegaard Knudsen, A. (2013). Anders Leegaard Knudsen: Interessen for den danske fortid omkring 1300. En middelalderlig dansk nationalisme. Historisk Tidsskrift, 100(1). Hentet fra