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by Jacob Isager and Aidan Conti

Ailnothus (Ælnoth) was the author of the earliest known attempt to write an account of the history of Denmark, "The Deeds of King Svend Magnus and his Sons and the Passion of the Most Glorious Knud, King and Martyr" (Gesta Swenomagni Regis et filiorum eius et passio gloriosissimi Canuti Regis et martyris). The work depicts the adoption of Christianity in Denmark and emphasizes the role of Svend Estridsen and his sons in consolidating the new religion in the land. The central figure in this process, and the person to whom the overwhelming focus of the work is devoted, is St Knud, who ruled Denmark from 1080 until he was martyred in Odense in 1086.

All that is known about Ælnoth is derived principally from his own work. He states that he is originally from Canterbury and has resided in Denmark for almost twenty-four years (Ailnothus, Cancia Anglorum metropolitana urbe editus, iam uero Daciæ partibus quatuor quinquennijs et bis fere binis annis demoratus). Although Ælnoth refers to himself as the "lowest of the ministers of the divine office" (diuini officii ministrorum infimus) in the prologue and "the lowest of priests" (sacerdotum infimus) in the epilogue, the elasticity of Latin terms for ecclesiastical and monastic titles during the period in general renders Ælnoth's position speculative; he was likely connected to the monastic cathedral of St Knud (NYBERG 2000, 56), or the church of St Mary and St Alban and St Knud in Odense. It is possible that he was one of a group of Benedictines that Erik Ejegod brought from Evesham to tend the martyr's shrine in 1095/96 or that he migrated to Denmark after Erik Ejegod's meeting with Anselm, archbishop of Canterbury, at the Synod of Bari in 1098. Whenever his arrival in Denmark, Ælnoth's work mentions two former chaplains of the court now serving as bishops, Gerold of Ribe and Arnold of Roskilde (tunc quidem regalis curię capellanis, nunc autem pontificibus uenerandis, Geroldo scilicet et Arnoldo), the latter of whom died in 1124, thereby offering a terminus ante quem for the work. A date of ca. 1122 was advocated by the work's editor, Gertz, and translator, Olrik. However, an earlier and more specific dating seems likely. Ælnoth's exhortation to Niels to show generosity to Knud's resting place likely predates Pope Paschal II's confirmation in 1117 of Niels' privilege to the church in Odense. Moreover, Ælnoth refers to the episcopal dignity of Gerold (Jerald). According to the early thirteenth-century Chronicle of the Church of Ribe, this bishop sold the possessions of his church and fled; he was probably in Germany by April 1113. It is unlikely that Ælnoth would have referred to Jerald in flattering terms after this point. In this case, Ælnoth would have written his work between 1110 and 1113, probably 1111/12 (see GELTING 2011, 38-39).



The present title for the work derives from the head of the proem in the two surviving manuscripts (AB; see manuscripts): Incipit proemium in gestis Swegnomagni Regis et filiorum eius et passione gloriosissimi Canuti regis et martyris. In B, the complete work begins with a heading to the dedication to King Niels: Epistola Ailnothi ad regem Dacie Nicolaum de passione gloriosissimi Canuti Regis et martyris. Other titles have been assigned by editors as indicated below.


Epistola Ailnothi ad regem Dacie Nicolaum de passione gloriosissimi Canuti regis et martyris


Illi cum patre et coeterno pneumate benedictio, honor, laus et gratiarum actio sempiterno maneat et accrescat tempore! Amen.


59 printed pages


  • HUITFELDT, A. (?) 1602: Historia S.Canuti regis et martyris, Othoniæ sepulti, per Ælnothum Anglicum ante 400 (!) annos conscripta, Hafniæ.
  • MEURSIUS, J. 1631: Ælnothus Monachus Cantuariensis, de Vita & Passione S. Canuti Regis Daniæ. Joannes Meursius ex Codice Bibliothecæ Hafniensis descripsit, edidit & notas addidit, Hafniæ.
  • v. WESTPHALEN, E. J. 1745: M. Thomae Broderi Bircherodii Annotationes in libellum, quem Ælnothus, monachus Cantuariensis, de vita, et passione S.Canuti, regis Daniæ et martyris conscripsit, Monumenta inedita Rerum Germanicarum, Tom. IV, Lipsiae, pp.1377-1440. The text is that of Meursius.
  • SOLLERIUS, J. B. 1723: 'Historia Vitæ et Passionis (S. Canuti Regis et Martyris) Auctore Ælnotho Monacho Cantuarensi. Ex Ms. Thosano, collato cum editione Meursii', in Acta Sanctorum mensis Julii, Tom. III, pp. 127-43, Antverpiæ.
  • LANGEBEK, J. 1774: Ælnothi Monachi Historia ortus, vitæ & passionis S. Canuti Regis Daniae, Scriptores rerum Danicarum medii ævi, Tom. III, pp. 327-90, Hafniae.
  • •GERTZ, M. CL. 1908-1912: Vitæ Sanctorum Danorum, pp. 38-53 & 76-147, København.


  • (Danish) OLRIK, H. 1893-94: Danske Helgeners Levned, pp. 19-105, København. (Repr. Selskabet til Historiske Kildeskrifters Oversættelse, 1968).
  • (Danish) ALBRECTSEN, E. 1984: Ælnoths Krønike, Odense. (Repr. in Knuds-bogen 1986: Studier over Knud den Hellige, Odense, 1986, pp. 25-52).

The Danish translation by J. S. Jacobsen (København 1874) is described as most inadequate (GERTZ 1908-12, 51).

Contents, sources and style

Ælnoth's work opens with a dedication to King Niels (rg. 1104-34), followed by a proem (I-IV) relating the propagation of Christianity in the north and the reigns of Svend Estridsen and Harald Hen ("the Whetstone"). The bulk of the work (V-XXXVI) is dedicated to Knud's activities as king, the gesta, and his martyrdom, the passio. His reign is characterized by his piety, his support for the church and his concern for the poor. After he abandons a planned expedition to reclaim the English throne, an uprising in northern Jutland leads to his death on the 10th of July, 1086 at the hands of rebels in the church of St Mary and St Alban in Odense. Subsequent chapters relate miracles at his tomb, the elevatio of his remains, the process of obtaining papal approval for canonization and the translatio of his relics thereafter. Ælnoth's concluding prayer addresses Knud and asks the saint to intercede on his behalf.

In chronicling events, Ælnoth takes pains to relate Danish history to the narrative typology of the Bible. The details of Knud's martyrdom evoke Jesus's passion: Knud is depicted before the alter of St Alban's with his arms outstreched in the form of a cross and receives a lance-wound in his side; the murderous Danes are compared to the Jews; Pipero (who corresponds to Eivind Bifra in Knýtlinga saga and Blakke in Saxo) plays the Judas-like figure of betrayer. Other comparisons are prevalent, such as Knud to the martyrs Stephen and Sebastian, and both Knud and Svend to David. Consequently, the work "inserts the history of the kingdom of Denmark into the universal history of Christianity and anchors it as part of God's plan" (SØRENSEN 1984, 124).

In addition to the Bible, suggested models for Ælnoth's work include the hagiography of Anglo-Saxon kings such as Abbo of Fleury's Passio St Eadmundi (HOFFMANN 1975). It has also been suggested that the work serves as a continuation of the Encomium Emmae (LUKMAN 1947-49, 494-96), but Ælnoth's work differs in scope and purpose too much to serve as a direct prolongation of the Encomium.

Ælnoth also proves himself well-versed in the Graeco-Roman past. Among others, he refers to Hannibal, Pompey, Nero and the fall of Troy. However, his direct use of antique sources is limited to two commonplace sentiments derived from Horace:

Sed quid in humanis est omni parte beatum? (II; cf Carmina, 2. 16. 27) Monumentum ęre perhennius exegi (Epilogue; cf. Carmina, 3. 30. 1)

Indeed, in his dedicatory letter to King Niels, Ælnoth dismisses the importance of the ancient world to his narrative and insists on first-hand accounts:

Neque enim ego Danaum classes Dardanis excidium inferentes edissero, non acies Hectoreas Mirmidonum armis umbonibus obiectis insigniter obuiantes commemoro; sed quę de gestis religiosi principis et deo dilecti martyris probabilibus personis utriusque sexus et ordinis referentibus agnoui, religiosi habitus uiris, Ihesu Christo ibidem insignique triumphatori deseruientibus, obnixe suffragantibus posterorum memorię reseruanda apicibus contradidi…

I do not relate the ships of the Greeks bringing the destruction of Troy, nor do I recount the Hectorean battle-lines famously meeting the arms of the Mirmidons with their out-thrust shields. But those things I know concerning the acts of the religious prince and martyr beloved by God just as upstanding persons of either sex and order relate them, men of religious habit, serving in the same place Jesus Christ and the renowned conqueror, I have strenuously set these out in favorable words to be saved for the memory of coming generations… (Preface, § 7)

Not surprisingly, Ælnoth's work relates to the following pieces of Odense literature of the period:

The Tabula Othiniensis, a copper tablet inscribed with the oldest known account of the death of St Knud; placed in the stone sarcophagus in connection with the elevatio of the body of St Knud in 1095 and later moved to the shrine in 1100; recovered in 1582, but lost soon after (edited in WORM 1626 & 1643, lib. I, cap. IX and in GERTZ 1908-12, 60-62).

The Epitaphium S.Canuti, an inscription consisting of nine Leonine verses, transmitted together with the Tabula; considered by Olrik to be part of the Tabula (OLRIK 1892-94, 219-21, but viewed as a separate text by Gertz, who took Ælnoth to be the author (GERTZ 1907, 81-83 & 1908-12, 38-42; edited in GERTZ 1908-12, 76).

The Passio sancti Kanuti regis et martyris, "The Passion of King Knud the Martyr" composed between 1095 and 1100 by an unknown author (see Sanctus Kanutus rex). Ælnoth's most recent editor characterizes the style as artificial and tumid (GERTZ 1908-12, 43). Elsewhere, the florid style and prosimetrum has been said to recall Martianus Capella (OLRIK 1892-94, 213), and its rhythmical and rhyming prose described as Anglo-Saxon in manner (OLRIK 1905). The verses that adorn the work are hexameters (mostly Leonine) and written by Ælnoth himself.

Purpose and audience

The specific contemporary audience for Ælnoth's work is uncertain. Ælnoth's translations and explanations of Danish names, such as Roskilde id est: fons Roi, may suggest an audience outside Odense and Denmark (GERTZ 1908-12, 497). Yet, the practice may be stylistic; it is mirrored in the Encomium Emmae and elsewhere. Moreover, Ælnoth also provides significations for the latinized form of Knud (seu propter sensus caniciem uel uite sinceritatem et candorem seu pro hoc, quod eum in canone sanctorum connumerandum decernebat, Canutum censeri) and the meaning of his wife's name (Ethela (id est: nobilis)), hinting at a predilection for etymologies regardless of the audience. As has been noted, Ælnoth puts the history of Denmark within the framework of biblical history. The people in the work are explicity linked to biblical figures, but the framework is loose so that multiple contemporary figures can be compared to a single biblical figure and in turn a single contemporary figure can be compared to several figures in the Bible. Within this frame, the martyrdom of Knud establishes Denmark within the broader history of Western Christendom. In this light, Ælnoth appears to have been writing for posterity as much as for any contemporary audience.

Although his native land is not his primary focus, Ælnoth's disposition towards Norman rule impinges on questions of his audience. Ælnoth furthers the idea that the English considered recognizing Knud as the only way of restoring their pristine liberty (XI). Therefrom, it has been suggested that his distance from England may have afforded him more candor in expressing his hostility towards the conquest (THOMAS 2003). Indeed, although Knud's aborted raid traditionally marks the end of Scandinavian claims in England, Ælnoth's portrayal, together with that found in other pieces commemorating Knud, has been used to suggest support for the continued conceptualization of England within a larger Scandinavian kingdom a half century after the conquest (VAN HOUTS 1995).

Ælnoth's work leaves little impact on subsequent historical writing in medieval Denmark. The dedication to Niels may have circumscribed the potential future audience in light of the fact that after Niels' death (1134), during the civil strife that followed the murder of Knud Lavard (1131) at the hands of Niels' son, Magnus, the succession of the Danish throne passed through Niels' adversaries, the descendents of Erik Ejegod.

Extracts of Ælnoth's work, referred to as Nota de martyrizatione sancti Kanuti regis, are found in a sixteenth century manuscript (Copenhagen, AM 107 8vo, fols 8b-9a; edited GERTZ 1908-12, 137-40) owned by Peder Olsen (d. 1570), a Franciscan of Roskilde (OLRIK 1892-94, 221-22; GERTZ 1908-12, 33). The initial compilation of the extracted details may have occurred earlier at an unknown date (GERTZ 1908-12, 51-52).

Medieval reception and transmission

There is evidence of several Danish MSS and some of them seem to exhibit readings close to that of A and B. They are lost, perhaps because of the circulation of many excerpts (see GERTZ 1908-12, 51-54). The only known complete Danish manuscript, codex Huitfeldius (H) belonged to Arild Huitfeldt, but burned with the University Library in 1728; it has been traced back to the monastery of Herrisvad in Skåne.

The only extant manuscripts are of Flemish origin and can be dated to the early thirteenth century. As such, they attest to medieval reception of this work:

  • A St Omer, Bibliothèque municipale, 716, vol. 2, fols 60r-70r; originally belonged to a convent near St Omer, the Abbaye de Clairmarais (St. Mariæ de Claro Marisco).
  • B Brugge, Openbare Bibliotheek, 403, fols. 76r-85r; originally belonged to the convent of Ter Doest (B. Mariæ de Thosano).

Both manuscripts are part of the multi-volume Legendarium Flandrense (see DOLBEAU 1981). Therein Ælnoth's work is not found where it would celebrate the day of his martyrdom (10 July), but rather precedes the story of Knud and Adela's son, Charles the Good, count of Flanders from 1119 until his murder in Brugge (Bruges) in 1127 (2 March); like his father he was regarded as a martyr and saint (but not officially canonized until 1884). This placement suggests that in this context Knud's importance was primarily as a saintly father to Charles.

After the Middle Ages, Ælnoth's work played a prominent role in early modern Danish historiography. One of its early editors, Meursius, was also an important early modern historian in the court of Christian IV of Denmark (SKOVGAARD-PETERSEN 2002) .


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