15 February 2017

Chronicon Skibyense - Contemporary history from the time of the Danish Reformation

Manuscript of the Month, Reformation

The 2017 Reformation Anniversary has been kicked off and is celebrated worldwide. One of the treasures of the Arnamagnæan Manuscript Collection is an important source of early Reformation movement’s history in Denmark written down by the Carmelite monk Poul Helgesen.

Note on the front endleaf on the finding of the manuscript in the wall of the church of Skibby. (Click on the picture for a larger version.)

In 1650, a manuscript was found by chance sealed within a hollow space in the choir wall behind the altar at the church of Skibby in Zealand. The autograph manuscript contained a history of Denmark in Latin by the Catholic reformer, theologian and provincial of the order of Carmelites in Scandinavia, Poul Helgesen (c. 1485–1534), known as Paulus Helie in Latin. Named Chronicon Skibyense after the place where it was found, the chronicle relates political and ecclesiastical events from 1448 to the autumn of 1534, where the record ends in the middle of a sentence: ”Dum hec aguntur …” (While these things happened …).

Martin Luther’s writings in Danish

Poul Helgesen worked on propagating the theological path of Christian humanism, represented by Erasmus of Rotterdam, and at the same time introduced some of Martin Luther’s early works in Denmark. He translated´Erasmus’s Institutio principis christiani (1516) into Danish in 1522 as En kristen fyrstes undervisning og lære, although it was only published in a revised edition in 1534, and his translation of Luther’s instructional prayer book Betbüchlein (1522), En kristelig undervisning, was printed in 1526.

Harsh criticism of the Lutheran reformers in Denmark

Poul Helgesen wrote both in Danish and Latin. His theological works in Danish were all printed in his lifetime, while his historical writings in Latin are only preserved in handwritten form. In the Chronicon he gives a very frank and personal account of the events leading up to the Reformation in Denmark and of the movement’s main actors. Frederik I (king from 1523 to 1533) is described with the epithet sacrilegus, an ungodly despoiler of churches. Under the year 1529, the author tells of how the king summoned the Reformation leader and preacher Hans Tausen (1494–1561) from Viborg to Copenhagen “ut pestifera sua predicatione Haffniam seduceret” (in order to seduce Copenhagen with his pestilential sermons); this is echoed in a note in the margin: “Ioannes Taussøn apostata fit seductor Haffnensium” (Hans Tausen the apostate becomes the seducer of Copenhagen).

Author’s further fate is unknown

The entries for the year 1534 are the last we have from Poul Helgesen. Perhaps he went into hiding because of his views, or he may have left the country in 1537 when King Christian III forbade the activities of mendicant orders in Denmark. Poul Helgesen fought neither for the reformers nor for the reactionaries. He wished for a third option, where “that which is Christian and honest must be upheld, become constant and have power”. On 29 October 1534 his last work was published: En kristelig forligelse, a revised translation of Erasmus’s Liber de sarcienda ecclesiæ Concordia (1533), an attempt at maintaining the unity of the Christian faith.

The mystery: Manuscript hidden inside a church wall

After 1534, the manuscript of the Chronicon remained in Roskilde for a time. Peder Olsen (Petrus Olai), a former Franciscan, used it as a source for his own historical works, and in that connection he also added a few marginal notes in the manuscript. When and why the manuscript was hidden behind the choir wall in the church in Skibby is unknown, and it is also unclear how Árni Magnússon acquired it. It is a possibility that Arne Magnusson got the manuscript as gift from another book collector, the Copenhagen bishop Christen Worm (1672-1737). In a catalogue from 1714 of Worm’s manuscript collection an item is registered as “a Danish historical chronicle (…) found in Zealand in the wall of the church of Skibby behind the altar, bricked-in with numerous other letters”. Christen Worm gave Árni Magnússon several important manuscripts, among others our main source for Nordic mythology, Codex Wormianus (AM 242 fol.) from the middle of the 14th century. The manuscript is now in a full parchment binding from Árni Magnússon’s time with laced-in single endband supports.

The leaves 45v-46r / p. 90-91. (Click on the picture for a larger version.)