Gesta Danorum and the Wendish Crusade

Gesta Danorum and the Wendish Crusade

By Mihai Dragnea

wendish crusade map

The Christianization of Balto-Slavic and Finno-Ugric populations from the Baltic region took place between the 12th and 14th centuries. During this interval were converted Polabian Slavs, Finns, Livonians, Estonians, Semigallians, Old Prussians and Lithuanians.

In the Middle Ages, Polabian Slavs are known as Wends. The term comes from the Scandinavian wender, ethnonym referring to Slavic populations who live on the southern shore of the Baltic Sea. The Polabian Slavs, also been known as “Elbe Slavs” were split between several tribes such as Liuticii (between the rivers Warnow and Mildenitz), Obotrites (Wismar Bay to the Schwerin Lake), Sorbs (Lusatia), Wagrians (Wagria), Milceni (Upper Lusatia), Warnabi (on Warnow river), Polabians proper (between the Trave and the Elbe), Drevani (on Elbe, in the area of Lüchow-Dannenberg district and the northern Altmark), Circipanes (between the Recknitz, Trebel, and Peene Rivers), Kessinians (along the lower Warnow and Rostock), Redarii (south and east of the Tollensesee on the upper Havel), Rani (island of Rugia), Ukrani (along the Ucker), Morici (along the Müritz), Nelětici, Liezizi, Zemzizi, Smeldingi and Bethenici (along the lower Havel and near the confluence of the Elbe and the Havel), Hevelli (the middle Havel region and the Havelland), Colodici and Glomaci  (along the upper Elbe), Chutici (near Saale), Leubuzzi (on the middle Oder) and Pomeranians (between the mouths of the Oder and Vistula Rivers).


The Wendish Crusade from 1147 marks the beginning of ‘Holy Wars’ fought against the Balto-Slavic and Finno-Ugric populations from the Baltic See. Regarding the Wendish Crusade, those who volunteered to fight against the Slavs were primarily Saxons, Danes and Poles, although there were also some Bohemians. This military action was legitimized on 13 April by pope Eugenius III (1145-1153), who issued a papal bull known as the Divina dispensatione. If for the Saxon Dukes, the political stakes were to collect a tribute from Wends and to expand their domains, for Danes it was a punitive expedition against the Rani from Rugia who were raiding the Danish coasts. For Poland, the military action against the Wends it was the best time to intimidate the pagan Prussians and to expanding to the west, beyond Oder.

The war against Wends continued after 1147. In 1168, the pagan fortress of Arkona from Rugia island fell, and the Rani surrendered to the Danes, who destroyed the pagan idols and temples, robbing the local population. In this military action, the Danes were led by the Archbishop of Lund, Absalon, who was a spiritual leader for the Crusade. After the destruction of Arkona, the Rani were subjugated and forced to pay tribute to the Danes. The rulers of the Rani became vassals of the Danish king Valdemar I ‘the Great’ (1157-1182), and the population from Rugia was gradually Christianized. While the island of Rugia was incorporated into the Danish Diocese of Roskilde, led by Absalon the mainland portion was incorporated into the Saxon Bishopric of Schwerin as a compensation for the Duchy of Saxony’s aid in the conquest of Rugia. The region became the Danish Principality of Rugia (1168–1325), which was governed by a local dynasty of princes from the House of Wizlaw dynasty.

wendish tribesGesta Danorum, written by the Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus (1150-1220) contains informations about participating of Denmark in the crusade against the Wends. The original manuscripts of the work were written in Latin at the beginning of 13th century, on the invitation of Archbishop Absalon of Lund, Absalon (1178-1201). In his work, Saxo praised Denmark’s participation in the crusade together with Saxons. The main “actors” of the work are the Danish king Valdemar I and his most important advisor, Archbishop Absalon, glorified because of their success against heathens. Being an outstanding Classicist, Saxo expresses his interest in Christianization of Wends and political regeneration of Denmark. In his opinion, this “regeneration” is possible only through the conversion of the heathens. The succes in this holy mission is attributed to the divine will. Unlike the 12th century chronicler Helmold from Bosau, who criticised the Crusade armies, Saxo belives that the war against Wends was a mission of “divine calling”.


The Danish chronicle also contains references about the Wendish paganism and a detailed description of the temple of Svantevit from Arkona. The description of Saxo Grammaticus is based on the stories of Archbishop Absalon, who participated in the Crusade. Beside the struggle between Danes and Wends, the author describe some deities such as Suantovitus (Svantevit), Rugiaevithus (Rujevit), Porevithum (Porevit) sau Porenutius (Porenut).

In Saxo’s writing style we can notice the concept of Greco-Roman world towards “barbarians”. After they became Christians, Danes were integrated into the Latin world, represented by the Cathoolic Church. In this case, the “barbarians” were identified with pagans who live outside of Latin Christendom. For Saxo Grammaticus, the Wends were “barbarians” that the Danes were forced to convert and bring them to Latin civilization, through the Christian religion.

Regarding the writing style of the Danish author, it contains influences from Latin writers such as Valerius Maximus (1st century A.D.) and Martianus Capella (5th century), who represent the “Silver Age” of the Latin literature. The Latin Classicism coincides with the period of the Principality, when, historians and literary critics agree, the literary aesthetic reaches it’s peak. If the Principality era is described as a “Golden Age” of the Latin literature, the period that follows it was long described as the “Silver Age”, which indicates a decrease of value (decay, degeneration). The Imperial period, which extends, in fact, until the end of Antiquity, involves more steps and that is why it is natural the alternation of regression and recovery periods. Influenced by these ideas, Saxo Grammaticus has deemed it necessary to restore his people through the Divine Will. In order to evolve spiritually and materially, the Danes were forced to convert the heathens, thus fulfilling the divinity’s desire.


Saxo Grammaticus was not a stranger of scholasticism, which emphasized the importance of the divine grace in the process of redress of the sinner. The Neoplatonic ideas of Augustine’s writings will influence both the canons regular and the medieval scholasticism, who used the Aristotelian formula of the relationship between the matter (the Baptism water) and form (the Baptism formula), on Augustine’s theory. Through the sacrament of the Baptism, the unbeliever receives the divine grace and thus obtains salvation. In order for the sinner to receive the divine grace, it is necessary the devil to be cast out of the pagan’s body. After the devil’s physical defeat, the unbeliever’s spirit must receive the divine grace through the sacrament of the Baptism. This judgment is important because based on it, the idea of the necessity of a “holy war” will enter into the collective mindset of the Danes.

Saxo Grammaticus believed that the involvement of his people in the war with the Wends occurred because of two fair reasons. The first reason was the revenge against the Slavs, who often organized raids on the coasts of Denmark. Following these raids, the local population was murdered or robbed, and the attackers got rich. The second reason was the desire to expand the Danish borders and the control over the southern Baltic Sea.

The Danish imperialism experienced it’s peak only in the next century, when the competition between the Saxons and the Danes for possession the territory between Elbe and Vistula will be won by the Danes. Later on, Denmark will become a dominant power in the western Baltic Sea, occupying the town of Lübeck in 1201. A year later, the new Danish king Valdemar II (1202-1241) will recognize the future emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Frederick II, as Lord Protector. In compensation, Frederick will offer to the Danish king a Golden Bull in 1214, which recognized him as “King of the Danes and Slavs”.


Gesta Danorum is divided into 16 books. In the books I-VIII, Saxo offers us information about the ethnogenesis of the Danes. There are mentioned the first kings since antiquity, their legendary ancestors and the pre-Christian beliefs of the Vikings. Further, the author presents news about the introduction of Christianity in Denmark. Books IX-XVI contains information about the influence of Christianity in the Danish society, the foundation of the first Archdioceses and Denmark’s foreign policy.  In the last books, XIV-XVI, we can find information about the military campaign of King Valdemar I in Rugia, which resulted in the destruction of Arkona and forcing local people to adopt Christianity. Here, the author provides us an unique description of the famous temple of Svantevit from Arkona. The last event mentioned in Gesta Danorum we can find in the foreword, written at the end. There is mentioned the Danish conquest of some territories from the northern part of the river Elbe, in 1208.

Denmark under Valdemar II

The original manuscript of the work has been lost, although some fragments have survived from Angers (1200), Lassen (1275), Kall-Rasmussen (1275) and Plesner (1275). The largest one of these fragments is from Angers, which is considered to have been written by  the Danish historian himself. The other fragments are copies made later and are to be found currently at the Royal Library in Copenhagen (Det Kongelige Bibliotek). The text of Saxo Grammaticus survived in the summary called Compendium Saxonis from the paper entitled Chronica Jutensis, written in 1342. The name of the chronicle attributed to Saxo Grammaticus (Gesta Danorum) is first mentioned in the Compendium Saxonis, the original title of the work being still unknown.

The first edition published in Latin belongs to Christiern Pedersen and was published in 1514 in Paris by Jodocus Badius, entitled Danorum Regumat heroumque Historiae. Other editions in Latin were made in 1534 (Johannes Oporinus), 1576 (Philip Lonicer), 1645 (Stephan Hansen Stephanius), 1771 (Christian Adolph Klotz), 1839 (Peter Erasmus Müller), 1886 (Alfred Holder), 1931 (Jørgen Olrik Hans Raeder) and 2005 (Karsten Friis-Jensen). The first Danish editions were made in 1540 (Christiern Pedersen) and 1555 (Jon Tursons), still both lost. The oldest surviving edition in Danish dates from 1575 and belongs to the priest Anders Sørensen Vedel (Den Danske Kronick). The first English translation dates from 1894 and belongs to Oliver Elton. In German, Gesta Danorum was translated and published for the first time in 1900 by Hermann Jantzen.


Sign up for our weekly email newsletter!