Monday, January 7, 2008

Rescuing History

Danish History was almost lost in the early 1500s.

This is the story of two rescuers. One man was Knute, a resistance fighter in Denmark during the World II. The other man was Christian Pederson, a Danish clergyman in the 1500s, who rescued an endangered medieval manuscript that contained history available nowhere else, and managed to get it printed for posterity,

The World War II hero, Knute, helped smuggle Danish Jews out of Nazi-occupied Denmark to Sweden. When I met him forty years later, Knute had just retired as a printer and he was living on a waterway with a rowboat tied up at the dock behind his house. He explained that he wanted a history written of "the real Hamlet" also known as Amleth of Juteland (pronounced “yute-land”). It bothered Knute that the most famous Dane in history was this melancholy guy, lounging around feeling sorry for himself in Shakespeare's play, Hamlet.

The story of Amleth was one of many legendary tales told in The Danish History, the primary source of Danish lore, written in the twelfth century by Saxo Grammaticus. Unlike Shakespeare's Hamlet, Amleth was never undecided, although he did pretend to be mentally incompetent to mask his true intentions of revenging his father's death and taking over the throne. Hamlet sources.

But Amleth's story and all the others in The Danish History were nearly lost to us. Like all medieval books, Saxo's History was copied by hand by monks. Each manuscript was incredibly valuable and increasingly rare. About 300 years after Saxo's death, when Gutenberg's moveable type press became available to print books in large numbers, it was almost impossible to find a copy of the History.

Christian Pederson, the Canon of Lund, made repeated efforts to get a copy to take to Paris, an early publishing center, but it seemed hopeless "I twice sent a messenger … to buy a faithful copy at any cost, and bring it back to me," Pederson wrote. At that point it may have seemed that the work was lost forever.

Pedersen personally searched all over Denmark. "I visited and turned over all the libraries, but still could not pull out a Saxo, even covered with beetles, bookworms, mould, and dust. So stubbornly had all the owners locked it away." Those who might have a copy were not about to risk lending it for fear of losing the irreplaceable book.

At last, the Archbishop of Lund managed to find a copy, which King Christian the Second allowed to be taken to Paris on condition of its being wrought "by an instructed and skilled graver (printer)."

The first edition came out in 1511. After that it became distributed widely and was translated out of the original Latin into many languages including the 1905 English translation I read.

Flash forward to the 20th century, I wrote a book proposal about Saxo, how his History was almost lost and how Amleth of Juteland became Shakespeare's Hamlet, but Knute decided not to use what I had written. It was still a valuable lesson for me about rescue. Human life is fragile, and sometimes heroes like Knute will stand up to save lives when murderous evil threatens. Knute also wanted to rescue the reputation of Amleth/Hamlet as a legendary Dane. While, back in the 1500s, Christian Pederson rescued the very book itself.

Books can be extinguished, just as human lives can, the light they shed can be lost forever. As technology changes, books need to be rescued again and again. The ebook English translation of Saxo's The Danish History is now available online at the Gutenberg Project and also at Danish History for future generations to enjoy.


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