By Michael Slicker
Johannes Magnus, Sweden’s last Catholic archbishop, got caught up in the politics of the Reformation but escaped to Italy, where he found time to write a book about the history of the Scandinavian people.
Some scholars, Danes in particular, don’t think much of Magnus’ history, though. Magnus was decidedly a Swedish nationalist and didn’t treat the Danish people very kindly in his book. In fact, he suggested that Danes were actually descendants of Swedish criminals who were exiled south of Sweden.
His book, Gothorum Sueonumque Historia, ex probatis Anriquorum Monumentis Colleta, & in xxiiij. libros redacta, naturally sparked loud Danish protests, and spate of Danish books refuting Magnus’ conclusions.
Magnus was the son of a political official in Sweden. He was born Johan Mansson in 1488. Magnus is a Latin translation of his name. He became a theologian as did his brother Olaus.
King Gustav I of Sweden appointed him Archbishop of Uppsala, the ranking bishop in Sweden, replacing Archbishop Gustav Trolle, who had fallen in disfavor in Sweden after getting into an argument with the Swedish regent, Sten Sture the Younger.
Just as Magnus was about to leave for Rome to be ordained, word came that Archbishop Trolle was to be reinstated. King Gustav, caught up in the fervor of the Reformation, decided to defy the Pope’s authority and installed Magnus without papal approval.
It wasn’t long, though, before Magnus stirred the pot even more by declaring the Lutheran teachings wrong. The king promptly sent Magnus to Russia as a diplomat, and five years later installed Laurentius Petri as Archbishop of Uppsala. Magnus figured his chances of becoming archbishop again were pretty slim so he went to Rome, where his brother had gone to explain to Pope Clement VII why Archbishop Trolle ought to be removed.
By 1533, after finishing his investigation of Archibishop Trolle, the Pope agreed that Trolle should go and decided to name Magnus to the post. But by then Sweden had broken completely with the Vatican and installing Johannes Magnus was out of the question.
The brothers Johannes and Olaus remained in Italy. Johannes wrote his history of Sweden, Norway, Finland and Denmark. He died in 1544 and his brother had the book published 10 years later. A subsequent edition, published in 1558, contains two chapters by Olaus. A copy of that edition is in the rare book collection at Lighthouse Books, ABAA.
Johannes Magnus relied on the work of Jordanes, a sixth century Roman official who wrote a history of the Gothic people, to argue the venerable age of the Swedish nation and the inferiority of the Danish. Naturally the Danes took exception to his conclusions and there ensued a series of rebuttals and counterattacks over many generations.
Johannes’ brother, Olaus, was a talented illustrator and cartographer. He is considered one of the most important geographers of the Renaissance. He produced a massive map of the Scandinavian countries that was published in Venice in 1539. It was considered lost for a long time and was found in the National Library in Munich in 1886.
(Posted on the Lighthouse Books Blog, presented here by permission of the author.)