Nothing is stranger than that a work of such force and genius, unique in Danish letters, should have been forgotten for three hundred years, and have survived only in an epitome and in exceedingly few manuscripts. The history of the book is worth recording. Doubtless its very merits, its “marvellous vocabulary, thickly-studded maxims, and excellent variety of images,” which Erasmus admired long afterwards, sealed it to the vulgar. A man needed some Latin to appreciate it, and Erasmus’ natural wonder “how a Dane at that day could have such a force of eloquence” is a measure of the rarity both of the gift and of a public that could appraise it. The epitome (made about 1430) shows that Saxo was felt to be difficult, its author saying: “Since Saxo’s work is in many places diffuse, and many things are said more for ornament than for historical truth, and moreover his style is too obscure on account of the number of terms ("plurima vocabula”) and sundry poems, which are unfamiliar to modern times, this opuscle puts in clear words the more notable of the deeds there related, with the addition of some that happened after Saxo’s death.” A Low-German version of this epitome, which appeared in 1485, had a considerable vogue, and the two together “helped to drive the history out of our libraries, and explains why the annalists and geographers of the Middle Ages so seldom quoted it.” This neglect appears to have been greatest of all in Denmark, and to have lasted until the appearance of the “First Edition” in 1511.
The first impulse towards this work by which Saxo was saved, is found in a letter from the Bishop of Roskild, Lave Urne, dated May 1512, to Christian Pederson, Canon of Lund, whom he compliments as a lover of letters, antiquary, and patriot, and urges to edit and publish “tam divinum latinae eruditionis culmen et splendorem Saxonem nostrum”. Nearly two years afterwards Christian Pederson sent Lave Urne a copy of the first edition, now all printed, with an account of its history. “I do not think that any mortal was more inclined and ready for” the task. “When living at Paris, and paying heed to good literature, I twice sent a messenger at my own charges to buy a faithful copy at any cost, and bring it back to me. Effecting nothing thus, I went back to my country for this purpose; 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.” A worthy prior, in compassion offered to get a copy and transcribe it with his own hand, but Christian, in respect for the prior’s rank, absurdly declined. At last Birger, the Archbishop of Lund, by some strategy, got a copy, which King Christian the Second allowed to be taken to Paris on condition of its being wrought at “by an instructed and skilled graver (printer).” Such a person was found in Jodocus Badius Ascenshls,