Johannes Magnus and the Composition of Truth

University dissertation from Lund University

Abstract: Johannes Magnus (1488–1544) was the last Catholic archbishop of Uppsala to hold residence in Sweden. He was also a historian and wrote a work in Latin about Swedish history that was to gain an unparalleled importance. The work is entitled Historia de omnibus Gothorum Sueonumque regibus, the ‘History of all the Kings of the Goths and the Swedes’. It is arranged as a series of biographies of over 200 kings, from the grandsons of Noah to Gustavus Vasa, and was first published posthumously in Rome in 1554, and followed by three reprints.
Its potential for propaganda purposes was obvious to the new Swedish royal dynasty of the Vasas soon after the publication of the work. In the 17th century, when King Gustavus II Adolphus and his successors expanded the Swedish dominions through continuous wars on the continent, Johannes’ work gained even more in importance. It became the ideological basis for Swedish patriotism and was translated into Swedish by royal order.
The work began however to be questioned, and historians quite early started to query its factual accuracy. This scepticism grew as history developed into an academic discipline and new criteria for how it should be written were formulated, most importantly the systematic and critical evaluation of sources. Johannes’ work did not meet the new criteria, but was seen to be filled with figments of his imagination.
However if a work of history must be explained in such a manner when it is measured against a certain notion of truth, it might be that the notion is at fault, and not the work. In the present study, I have investigated the Historia de regibus in the light of its contemporary ideas about history and historiography in order to define Johannes’ notion of truth. I use his explicit intentions with the work as a point of departure, and study his methods (in a broad sense that involves literary aspects too) which are demonstrable through an analysis of the text.
I study the monarchs, both good kings and tyrants, as examples of Johannes’ methods. I chose them because their role is highly prominent in the work, as seen from its title. The investigation of the kings is divided into two parts, one chapter that connects character traits, actions and important themes to Renaissance ideas of kingship through a comparison with contemporary material (Erasmus’ mirror for princes, the Institutio principis Christiani, from 1516) and one chapter that contains close studies of Johannes’ depictions of a few particularly interesting monarchs.
My study has enabled me to show that Johannes Magnus consistently demonstrates that themes that were important in his era are also found in Gothic history, and that he accomplishes this mainly through his literary practices. He thus describes the past in a way that benefits the present by showing the relevance and applicability of the past for people of his own time, answering to the then central educational purpose of history – in other words, he composes truth.

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