Breaking with Saxo

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Portrait of Thormodus Torfæus, held at the Museum of National History, Frederiksborg Castle.

Probably as a result of his work on the translation of Old Norse sagas into Danish, the young Torfæus noticed that the royal Danish genealogies presented in Icelandic sources diverge from the established succession presented by Saxo Grammaticus in his Gesta Danorum.

According to Saxo Grammaticus, the Danish royal lineage could be traced back to the legendary king Dan, while, according to Icelandic tradition, it was traced back to the legendary king Skjöld. This did not escape the attention of the meticulous Torfæus, who mentioned these discrepancies to King Frederick III. The king ordered him to compile an account of the genealogies based on Icelandic sources.

This enterprise resulted in the Series dynastarum et regum Daniæ ('Succession of rulers and kings of Denmark'), the first printed publication which openly broke with the Danish royal lineage established by Saxo Grammaticus. 

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Title page of the first printed version of the Series dynastarum, published in Copenhagen in 1702. This copy is held at the Museum of National History, Frederiksborg Castle.

The Series dynastarum's long way to print

It was not until 1702 that a highly revised version of the treatise was printed in Copenhagen. We can only speculate as to whether the controversial contents of this volume, breaking with the traditional succession of Danish rulers established by Saxo, had anything to do with the almost forty-year delay between the completion of the work and its publication. For almost a half century the Series dynastarum  circulated exclusively in manuscript form, with at least four known manuscripts preserving this work in its 1664 state held in Danish repositories.

Thanks to the preserved correspondence between Torfæus and Árni Magnússon, the famous Icelandic book collector, we know that in around 1690 – following Árni Magnússon's encouragement – Torfæus took up the task of preparing the Series dynastarum for print. The collaboration between the two men resulted in extensive differences between the printed version of 1702 and Torfæus' original work completed in 1664. The scale of the revisions can be judged from a letter Torfæus wrote to Árni Magnússon, in which he stated that he could barely recognize his own work.

Torfæus' other publications

During his long career in service of Danish monarchs, Torfæus published a number of books based on Old Norse-Icelandic sources, Commentatio historica de rebus gestis Færeyansium seu Færøensium (1695), Orcades seu rerum Orcadensium historiae (1697), Historia Vinlandiæ antiquæ (1705), Historia Hrolfi Krakii (1705), Gronlandia antiquæ (1706), Trifolium historicum (1707), and his monumental Historia rerum Norvegicarum (1711), which gave him the title of the father of Norwegian historiography.