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Olaus Petri and Josephus Flavius: A Comparison | posted October 12, 2020

Andrey Scheglov (Institute of World History, Russian Academy of Sciences)

Editors’ Note: This article is an expansion upon Scheglov’s previous Polaris contribution ‘Olaus Petri: A Protestant reformer who approved of dissection’, posted in August 2018.

Abstract

Olaus Petri’s A Swedish Chronicle (En Svensk krönika) was a pioneer work in Swedish historiography. In modern scholarship, attention has been paid to the question of which ancient historians could have served as examples for Olaus Petri. Olle Ferm has pointed to the fact that A Swedish Chronicle has parallels with ancient historical writings, especially with the works by Polybius.[1] This article demonstrates that there are parallels between Olaus Petri and another ancient classic, Josephus Flavius.

Introduction

[1] Alongside his activities as a theologian, Olaus Petri wrote an historical work which he called A Swedish Chronicle.[2] After the death of Olaus, King Gustav Vasa read the chronicle and was displeased. The king blamed the author for a lack of patriotism and declared that Olaus had betrayed the course of the Reformation. The king stated that Olaus expressed too much respect for the rulers of foreign origin and for the Roman Catholic clergy. Gustav Vasa ordered to confiscate Olaus Petri’s library, as well as the manuscripts of his chronicle. A Swedish Chronicle remained unpublished until the nineteenth century. However, handwritten copies of the work circulated in Sweden, Finland and Denmark. As a result, Olaus Petri’s chronicle was read and appreciated by many North European authors of the Early Modern Age.

Modern scholarship on Olaus Petri’s chronicle

[2] Since the end of the eighteenth century, A Swedish Chronicle became an object of scholarly studies. Specialists concluded that Olaus Petri’s chronicle was partly based on the work Chronica regni gothorum written by Ericus Olai, the Swedish historian who lived in the fifteenth century.[3] It was ascertained that Olaus verified and complemented Ericus Olai’s data with the help of other sources. Many parts of A Swedish Chronicle must be regarded an independent work by Olaus Petri.[4]

[3] Analyzing Olaus Petri’s thoughts concerning history, Olle Ferm detects common features between Olaus Petri and Polybius. Both Polybius and Olaus stress that historical works must be studied due to their practical usefulness. Both Polybius and Olaus Petri thought that a historian must pay attention to the causes of events. Both stated that historical works must be truthful: otherwise, they are but useless fables. Polybius and Olaus were convinced that a historian must be objective. Both authors were strict in their selection of sources and refused to rely on oral tradition.[5]

[4] However, Ferm remarks that similar ideas were expressed by ancient historians other than Polybius. In this context, it is interesting to study the parallels between Olaus Petri and an ancient classic whom Ferm does not mention in his monograph – Josephus Flavius.

Why precisely Flavius?

[5] As we all know, Flavius was one of the most respected historians in Late Antiquity, the Middle Ages and the Renaissance Age. His works were also known in Sweden. One historical work by Flavius is mentioned among the books which King Gustav Vasa ordered for the education of his sons – princes Erik and Johan.[6] Flavius’ works could be useful for Olaus Petri in a number of ways: firstly, as a sample, due to the fact that their subject was the history of a people, historia gentis. Consequently, they could inspire Olaus and provide him with ideas, because he focused on the history of the Swedes.

[6] Flavius’ historical works could also be useful due to their didactic character. Flavius attempted to demonstrate that God punishes the evil and rewards the good, a feature which is also present in Olaus Petri’s chronicle. There is an evidence of Olaus Petri’s acquaintance with a work by Flavius. In a theological treatise, A Useful Teaching (Een nyttwgh wnderwijsning) Olaus reminds how God punishes people for the sin, quoting the Old Testament and two historical works – The Ecclesiastical History by Eusebius and The Jewish Antiquities by Flavius.[7] The idea that Flavius could have influenced A Swedish Chronicle can be supported with the help of a comparison of the chronicle mentioned and Flavius’ works.

A Swedish Chronicle and The Jewish Antiquities

[7] There are a number of similarities between Olaus Petri’s chronicle and Josephus work The Jewish Antiquities. To begin with, both authors stress the usefulness of history:

The Jewish Antiquities A Swedish Chronicle
Those who essay to write histories are actuated, I observe […] by many widely different motives […] Many have been induced by prevailing ignorance of important affairs of general utility to publish a history of them for the public benefit. Of the aforesaid motives the two last apply for myself.[8] God who created all things for the use and benefit of the people has […] ordained and arranged that the lives and the deeds of those who lived in the world in the past shall be described for the instruction and warning of their descendants […][9]

 

And because this Chronicle is written for the sake of those who are simple-minded, so that they derive some instruction from it, therefore it contains not only stories and accidents; but alongside with them, when appropriate, some special teaching is included, so that one could draw a certain moral […][10]

Both historians, Josephus and Olaus, claim that their predecessors wrote historical works in a wrong way:

The Jewish Antiquities A Swedish Chronicle
For, having known by experience the war which the Jews waged against the Romans […] I was constrained to narrate in detail in order to refute those who in their writings were doing outrage to the truth.[11] But there were many of those who wrote chronicles, yet there were few who did it in an appropriate way.[12]

Both declare that chronicles should educate by demonstrating how God rewards the righteous and punishes the sinners:

The Jewish Antiquities A Swedish Chronicle
But, speaking generally, the main lesson to be learnt from this history by any who care to peruse it is that men who conform to the will of God, and do not venture to transgress laws that have been excellently laid down, prosper in all things beyond belief, and for their reward are offered by God felicity, whereas in proportion as they depart from the strict observance of their laws, things (else) practicable become impracticable, and whatever imaginary good thing they strive to do ends in irretrievable disasters.[13] In the same way, God who taught people that the events of the past must be written down, did not mean that such writings should be read only for leisure and entertainment. His intention was that people should see the flow, the vanity and the instability of this world […] Also, we […] must realize that although the devil plants all kind of evil […], God often reduces his malice to nothing and drives everything to a better end […] This is the main thing which we, being Christians, must observe in all historical works, both pagan and Christian. And if they are read in such a way, people benefit from them, and history is used in an appropriate manner.[14]

[8] In connection with this understanding of history writing, both authors reject myths as a historical source. Flavius advises the readers “to fix their thoughts on God, and to test whether our lawgiver has had a worthy conception of his nature and has always assigned to Him such actions as befit His power, keeping his words concerning him pure of that unseemly mythology current among others”.[15] Olaus, too, criticizes historians who rely on myths: “As a rule, the things which are not written down but transferred orally from one to another, are not perfectly reliable”.[16]

[9] At the same time, both historians stress the modesty of their work, implementing the so-called humility topos.[17] Flavius confesses that he experienced doubt regarding his ability to accomplish such a monumental work:

[…] as time went on, as it wont to happen to those who design to attack large tasks, there was hesitation and delay on my part in rendering so vast a subject into a foreign and unfamiliar tongue […][18]

In the case with Olaus Petri, the humility topos is implemented in the following way: the author presents his chronicle as small and secondary (“But presently also I have taken up the task of compiling one small chronicle from the others”) [19], while in fact it is a large and in many respects independent work.

A Swedish Chronicle and The Jewish Wars

[10] The similarities between Josephus’ other important work, The Jewish wars, and Olaus Petri’s chronicle are even more striking. In both works, the authors declare that the previous historical works were written in a wrong way. Both explain the nature of the predecessors’ errors, firstly that they based their chronicles on rumours; and secondly that they hated alien peoples:

The Jewish Wars A Swedish Chronicle
The war of the Jews against the Romans […] has not lacked its historians. Of these, however, some, having taken no part in the action, have collected from hearsay casual and contradictory stories which they have then edited in a rhetorical style, while others, who witnessed the events, have, either from flattery of the Romans or from hatred of the Jews misinterpreted the facts, their writings exhibiting alternatively invective and encomium, but nowhere historical accuracy.[20] And much was written by biased people. Such people extolled those whose side they took, and treated their opponents with contempt, and they did not count with verity at all. This can be clearly seen in Swedish and Danish chronicles: the Danes boast with the outstanding deeds which their rulers committed in Sweden, and the Swedes evaluate high their heroic deeds performed in Denmark. Thus, presently, it is but impossible to learn the truth from Danish and Swedish chronicles, even if one has the desire and the necessity to do so.[21]

Both authors expand on the issue:

The Jewish Wars A Swedish Chronicle
Though the writers in question presume to give their works the title of histories, yet […] they seem, in my opinion, to miss their own mark. They desire to represent the Romans as a great nation, and yet they continually depreciate and disparage the action of the Jews […][22] Since the ancient times (let God improve that!) there has been a concealed and, probably, natural hostility between the Danes and the Swedes: they look down on each other, and none of them wants to concede. That is why the chronicles which we have now are similar to the thoughts of those who wrote them. For this reason, the Swedish chronicles do not agree with the Danish, and neither part writes anything good about the other; therefore, it is not even worth trying to derive any benefit from these chronicles.[23]

In both historians’ opinion the predecessors did not try to understand the causes of wars. Both think that a historian must ascertain the origin of wars:

The Jewish Wars A Swedish Chronicle
…Parthians and Babylonians and the most remote tribes of Arabia with our countrymen beyond the Euphrates and the inhabitants of Adiabene were, through my assiduity, accurately acquainted with the origin of the war.[24] It is not enough to know that wars occurred frequently in this world; one must know the origins of them […]

 

They all write about wars; yet why these wars occurred, and on which side the justice was, concerning these matters too little is said; that is why the descendants cannot derive the necessary benefit from the history of their ancestors.[25]

Feeling sympathy with compatriots, both historians, however, refuse to exaggerate their deeds:

The Jewish Wars A Swedish Chronicle
I have no intention of rivalling those who extol the Romans by exaggerating the deeds of my compatriots.[26] Our Swedish chronicles laud the Swedes immensely for the fact that the Goths who, according to the writers of the chronicles, came from Sweden, performed so many deeds in alien lands. But, judging fairly, there is little honour in these deeds.[27]

They declare that they strive for objectiveness and truth:

The Jewish Wars A Swedish Chronicle
I shall faithfully recount the actions of both combatants…[28] …And I included the things which I found most plausible, for I wish to write what is true…[29]

Both authors criticize foreign historians for lack of objectiveness. Josephus blames Greek historians. Olaus expresses a sceptic attitude towards Danish and German chronicle writers:

The Jewish Wars A Swedish Chronicle
Let us at least hold historical truth in honour, since by the Greeks it is disregarded.[30] Also, the accounts of Sweden which the foreign chronicle writers – the Danes and the Germans – included in their chronicles, are not reliable, because these writers based their chronicles on bare rumours.[31]

[11] Declaring the wish to be objective, both authors express respect for certain foreign rulers who governed their country. Flavius mentions the good deeds of Emperor Titus – “how often Titus, in his anxiety to save the city and the temple, invited the rival parties to come to terms with him”.[32] Olaus acknowledges the merits of King Hans, the Danish monarch who ruled Denmark, Sweden and Norway: “King Hans ruled well…”. Although this motif – the good rule of King Hans – was apparently borrowed from an earlier source, the Chronicle of the Sture Regents (Sturekrönikan), Olaus, by quoting it, shows that he shares the view of King Hans as a good ruler.

Conclusion

[12] A Swedish Chronicle has clear parallels with The Jewish Antiquities and The Jewish Wars. We can conclude that the parallels between A Swedish Chronicle and The Jewish Wars are especially distinct. Flavius’ intention to depict the Jews’ interaction with the Romans, and his desire to be objective when describing his compatriots and their opponents likely inspired Olaus to implement similar principles in his description of the Swedes’ cooperation and rivalry with the Danes.  The present article provides new arguments proving that the impact of the Renaissance on Olaus Petri has been underrated by some modern specialists. Olaus Petri took a scholarly interest in ancient thought, and he shared antique and Renaissance ideas concerning history writing. As I have demonstrated in my earlier research, he also shared Renaisssance thoughts regarding war and peace, as well as humanist views concerning dignity and virtue.[33] In these respects, he was a scholar influenced by Renaissance thought.

Notes

[1] Olle Ferm, Olaus Petri och Heliga Birgitta: Synpunkter på ett nytt sätt att skriva historia i 1500-talets Sverige, Stockholm 2007.

[2] See Andrey Scheglov ‘Olaus Petri: A Protestant reformer who approved of dissection’, Polaris, August 2018. Consulted 22 September 2020.

[3] See Louis Félix Guinement de Keralio, Notice d’un manuscrit suédois de la Bibliothèque du roi, Paris 1787; Gustav Löw, Sveriges forntid i svensk historieskrivning, Stockholm 1908; Gunnar T. Westin, Historieskrivaren Olaus Petri: Svenska krönikans källor och krönikeskrivarens metod, Lund 1946.

[4] See Westin 1946, passim.

[5] See Ferm 2007, p. 101–153.

[6] See Westin 1946, p. 182.

[7] OPSS I, p. 10.

[8] Josephus / With an English translation by H. St. J. Thackeray. Cambridge (Mass.), 1961. Vol. IV, p. 3.

[9] OPSS IV, p. 1. Translated from Early Modern Swedish by Andrey Scheglov.

[10] OPSS IV, p. 15. Translation by Andrey Scheglov.

[11] Josephus, Vol. IV, p. 3. Translation by H. St. J. Thackeray.

[12] OPSS, IV, p. 2. Translation by Andrey Scheglov.

[13] Josephus, Vol. IV, p. 9. Translation by H. St. J. Thackeray.

[14] OPSS IV, p. 15. Translation by Andrey Scheglov.

[15] Josephus, Works, Vol. IV, p. 9. Translation by H. St. J. Thackeray.

[16] OPSS IV, p. 6. Translation by Andrey Scheglov.

[17] Ancient, medieval and early modern writers often presented their works as small and insignificant, though in fact these works were voluminous and fundamental. This motif, humility topos (Bescheideheitstopos) was especially frequent in the Middle Ages.

[18] Josephus, Vol. IV, p. 5. Translation by H. St. J. Thackeray.

[19] OPSS IV, p. 2. Translation by Andrey Scheglov.

[20] Josephus, Vol. II, p. 3. Translation by H. St. J. Thackeray.

[21] OPSS IV, p. 2. Translation by Andrey Scheglov.

[22] Josephus, Vol. II, p. 7. Translation by H. St. J. Thackeray.

[23] OPSS IV, p. 2. Translation by Andrey Scheglov.

[24] Josephus, Vol. II, p. 5. Translation by H. St. J. Thackeray.

[25] OPSS IV, p. 2. Translation by Andrey Scheglov.

[26] Josephus, Vol. II, p. 7. Translation by H. St. J. Thackeray.

[27] OPSS IV, p. 9. Translation by Andrey Scheglov.

[28] Josephus, Vol. II, p. 7. Translation by H. St. J. Thackeray.

[29] OPSS IV, p. 2–3. Translation by Andrey Scheglov.

[30] Josephus, Vol. II, p. 11. Translation by H. St. J. Thackeray.

[31] OPSS IV, p. 6. Translation by Andrey Scheglov.

[32] Josephus, Vol. II, p. 17.

[33] See Andrey Scheglov, ““THEN FRIDH MAN FÅÅR VTAN ÖRLIGH” – Tankar om krig och fred i Olaus Petris verk En svensk krönika”, in Historisk tidskrift 139:3, p.553–566; Scheglov, ”” Men om Finland är clart noogh…” Erik den helige och hans korståg till Finland i Olaus Petris krönika, in Finsk tidskrift 5/2019, p. 7–25.

Works Cited

Ferm, Olle. Olaus Petri och Heliga Birgitta: Synpunkter på ett nytt sätt att skriva historia i 1500-talets Sverige. Stockholm, 2007.

Gunnar T. Westin. Historieskrivaren Olaus Petri: Svenska krönikans källor och krönikeskrivarens metod. Lund, 1946.

Josephus / With an English translation by H. St. J. Thackeray. Cambridge (Mass.), 1956–1961. Vol. II–IV.

Keralio, Louis Félix G. Notice d’un manuscrit suédois de la Bibliothèque du roi. Paris, 1787.

Löw, Gustav. Sveriges forntid i svensk historieskrivning. Stockholm, 1908.

Petri, Olaus. Samlade skrifter, vol. 1–4. Uppsala, 1914–1917.

Scheglov, Andrey. ““THEN FRIDH MAN FÅÅR VTAN ÖRLIGH” – Tankar om krig och fred i Olaus Petris verk En svensk krönika”, in Historisk tidskrift 139:3, p.553–566.

Scheglov, Andrey. ““Men om Finland är clart noogh…” Erik den helige och hans korståg till Finland i Olaus Petris krönika”, in Finsk tidskrift 5/2019, p. 7–25.

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