Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus

  • Country in which the text is set
    Sweden, the Baltic Sea, Lapland, northern Finland
  • Featured locations

    Öland, Gotland, Östergötlands Skärgård, Gulf of Bothnia

  • Impact

    When Olaus Magnus decided to devote his period of exile in Poland and later Italy to the production of a comprehensive description of the homeland he had lost, his aim was not merely a scholarly one. To be sure, at a time when the “discovery” of Africa and the Americas was in full swing, he wanted to spread and propagate knowledge of the northern regions of Europe. But in doing so he also wanted to draw the attention of the Catholic Church to northern Europe and encourage it to make every possible effort to regain the territories lost to Protestantism. His attempts to do so—particularly during the counter-reformatory Council of Trent, which began in 1545—met with little success at a time when Catholicism in many regions found itself under pressure from the increasingly successful Reformation movement.

    Despite the popularity it acquired among readers of Latin as a source of information about Europe’s northern regions, the book was only translated into Swedish, the language of Magnus’ homeland, in the first half of the 20th century. The main reason for this historic delay was its author’s unwavering adherence to his Catholic faith, which in Sweden made him a suspect figure for a long time. Nevertheless, a close reading of his work reveals that, in writing from the distant vantage point of the exile, he develops an attentive and thoughtful affection for his country and increasingly emerges as a patriot, one who, when describing the ships, weapons, resoluteness and strength of his Swedish compatriots, repeatedly emphasizes their invincibility, intelligence and vigilance when defending their coastline—for example, by using the skerries on Sweden’s eastern coast as a labyrinthine trap for their enemies (see the fourth passage in the selection made for the Baltic Sea Library).

    Olaus Magnus’ work instigated a growing interest among the learned and reading public of his time in the geographical and cultural aspects of Europe’s northern countries. Following its first publication in 1555, the Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus became something of a bestseller. It was widely translated into many European languages during the following decades and for almost two hundred years served as the main source of information about Europe’s northern regions.

  • Balticness

    Olaus Magnus’ “Description of the Northern Peoples” is a substantial and extremely significant work that describes the whole Baltic sphere in a degree of detail that was unprecedented at the time it was written.

    Reinhard Kaiser

  • Bibliographic information

    Olaus Magnus, Die Wunder des Nordens. Erschlossen von Elena Balzamo und Reinhard Kaiser. Mit 174 Abbildungen und einem Nachdruck der Carta marina von 1539 als Beigabe. Frankfurt am Main: Eichborn 2006. Die Andere Bibliothek, Bd. 261. The selection of 162 chapters from Olaus Magnus' Historia in this edition is based on the translation into German by Israel Achatius printed in 1567 in Strasbourg by Theodosius Rihel: Beschreibung allerley Gelegenheyte, Sitten, Gebräuchen und Gewohnheyten der mitnächtigen Völcker in Sueden, Ost- und Westgothen, Norwegen und andern gegen dem eussersten Meer daselbst hinein weiter gelegenen Landen. A complete reprint of the Latin edition originally published in Rome in 1555 as Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibuswas published in 1972 by Rosenkilde and Bagger in Copenhagen and includes an introduction by John Granlund.


  • Translations
    Language Year Translator
    English 1658 ? (abr.)
    English 1996-98 Peter Fisher & Humphrey Higgins
    Finnish 1973 Kaarle Hirvonen
    Finnish 2002 Kimmo Linnilä et al.
    German 1567 Israel Achatius
    German 1567 Heinrich Petri
    Swedish 1909-25 (1951) John Granlund
  • Year of first publication
  • Place of first publication
  • Link

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