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Olaus Magnus' 16th-Century Map of Scandinavia

The Historia



Olaus Magnus p. 76

Olaus Magnus, p. 76

Olaus Magnus wrote the earliest comprehensive history of Scandinavia, first published in 1555. His book is titled Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus, “A Treatise concerning the Northern Peoples.” He wrote about the book: "A work that, as it is diverse and packed with knowledge of a great many facts illustrated with examples from abroad and pictures representing domestic matters, so it is filled with enjoyment and pleasure, readily instilling into the reader’s mind the utmost delight." The Historia is indispensable for understanding Olaus' map of Scandinavia.

In the subtitle, the author says that in writing about northern peoples he will describe "Their different positions, customs, habits, ways of life, superstitions, methods of instruction, activities, government, food, wars, buildings, implements, metal mines, and marvels, together with almost all the living creatures that dwell in the North, and their characteristics."

Olaus Magnus p. 126

Olaus Magnus, p. 126

He comments on Scandinavian history, geography, warfare, natural history, religion, government. He describes housing and building, law, education, social life, leisure activities including festivals and tournaments, acting, chess, dancing, musical instruments; he writes about hunting, fishing, and agriculture. All of this is contained in twenty-two "books" (or sections), divided into 778 chapters.

The Historia must be used carefully, as some of the text is simply reprinted from older writers, a not uncommon practice in the sixteenth century. The Historia is very special because it gives the author’s own experiences in addition to what he has read, providing a view of Scandinavia in the sixteenth century not available anywhere else. It is indispensable for understanding the map, because it gives us a look into the lives of the people and creatures that inhabit the map.