Ludvig Holberg

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Ludvig Holberg

Scandinavian playwright, writer, historian, and philosopher Ludvig Holberg (1684-1754) is considered the father of Danish and Norwegian literature, as well as the founder of drama for all of Scandinavia.

Born on December 3, 1684, in Bergen, Norway, Ludvig Holberg was the youngest of twelve children born to Lieutenant Colonel Christian Nielsen Holberg and his wife, Karen Lem. From a family of farmers and himself a member of the Norwegian army, Lieutenant Colonel Holberg was 25 years older than his wife, who was from a merchant family. The family had been wealthy, but were considered poor by the time the playwright was two years old. Tragically, of the couple's 12 children, 6 had died as infants. Their bad luck continued with the death of Holberg's father in 1688; the family was further impoverished by one of Bergen's fires that same year. Holberg suffered another loss eight years later when his mother died, and he and his siblings were sent to live with relatives.

For the first three years after the death of his parents, Holberg lived with a pastor in Norway's Gudbrand Valley, where his interest in literature and language was noticed and somewhat supported. Unfortunately, he did not do well in school because he did not get along well with his teacher, with the result that he was sent to live with his uncle Peder Lem in Bergen. There, Holberg was educated at the Bergen Grammar School.

Desired to See World

When he was 18 years old, Holberg entered the University of Copenhagen and took his degree in theology-philosophy within two years after spending a year working as a tutor in Norway. By the time he graduated Holberg was determined to see the world and traveled to Holland in 1704. His travels were short lived, however, after he became ill in the city of Aachen. Because of a lack of funds he had to return home on foot in 1705.

Again living in Bergen, Holberg saved money by working as a French tutor and supplemented this income by teaching other languages in Kristianland, a city located in the south of Norway. Holberg amassed enough funds to resume his travels and further his education. From 1706 to 1708, he lived in England, primarily in London.

Attended Oxford University

While in England, Holberg spent two years at the Bodeleian Library at Oxford University. He studied history, languages, and literature and was exposed to the ideas of the Enlightenment. Holberg was especially captivated by the works of Jonathan Swift, among other English authors, and Swift influenced his development as a writer. To fund his stay in England, Holberg worked as a teacher of flute and violin. Before returning to Denmark, he also studied in Leipzig in late 1708 and early 1709, then moved to Copenhagen. There he became a fellow of Borch's Kollegium, which supported scholars who had no money so they could continue to study. Holberg had already begun a book while he was living in England, Introduction til de Fornemste Europeiske Rigers Historier (Introduction to the History of Leading European Nations), which he published in 1711. The success of this volume led to Holberg being given a royal grant that allowed him to continue his education and travel. He also continued to tutor as well as lecture at the University of Copenhagen on the current European thought of the day.

In 1714 Holberg traveled to major cities in France, Italy, and the Netherlands using his preferred method of travel: by foot. The two years he spent walking to these cities affected his development as a writer very deeply, for he witnessed intellectual developments first hand and was exposed to the works of such writers as Moliére and theatrical genres like the commedia dell'arte.

Became Professor

When Holberg returned to Denmark in 1716 he published Introduction til naturensog Copenhagen, a book about natural law and natural rights. The following year he was awarded a professorship at the University of Copenhagen that gave him financial security. However, he was now required to teach metaphysics, a subject he disliked, and he avoided lecturing as much as possible. Nonetheless, in 1720 he was promoted to the University's chair of public eloquence and began teaching Latin literature and rhetoric.

While a professor, Holberg came into his own as a writer and had what he called a poetic rapture. His first work of significance was Peder Paars, published under the pen name Hans Mikkelsen in 1719-1720. It was the beginning of his own brand of humorous literature and the first classic in the Danish language. Pedar Paars, a 6,000-line epic poem, is a parody of Virgil's Aeneid that mocks Danish society and the social conditions of its author's day.

Wrote for First Theater in Copenhagen

In 1722 the first Danish-language theater opened in Copenhagen on Lille GrØnnedgrade. Holberg wrote 25 plays for the theater, mostly comedies and satire, and many were successful. Many of Holberg's plays used Danish manners, pretensions, words, and class differences as a target of satire, using stock and stereotypical characters. Among his best plays were Den politiske KandestØber (The Political Tinker); Den Vaegelsindede (The Weathervane); Jean de France; Jeppe paa Bjerget (Jeppe of the Hill); Ulysses von Itacia; Den Bundeslose (The Fidget); and Erasmus Montanus.

The first play by Holberg performed there was Den politiske KanderstØber (The Political Tinker, 1722). The central character in this play, Herman von Breman, wants to become the mayor of Hamburg though he had no political experience. He becomes mayor for a day and the complexities of the office distract him.

Two other plays of significance were written by Holberg in 1722, Jeppe of the Hill and Jean de France. The former play's title character is a cuckolded peasant who gets himself so drunk that he believes he is a baron, has died, and has gone to heaven, whereupon he condemns to death those who had been his bosses. Jeppe of the Hill is considered by many to be Holberg's best known comedy. Jean de France is about a Francophile Dane who goes to Paris and tries to be French. At the same time, his fiancée Elsebet is in love with someone else, and he is gotten rid of by her servants.

Wrote Erasmus Montanus

In 1723 Holberg wrote Erasmus Montanus, another social comedy. The title character in this play is the son of a farmer who gets a college education and becomes a menace to his family and neighbors with all he has learned. Though his real name is Rasmus Berg, when he returns from school the farmer's son re-names himself Montanus and Latinizes his speech.

While Holberg was establishing himself as a successful playwright he also continued to travel. In 1725-1726, he went to Paris, and many of his plays of this period were influenced by Moliére because both playwrights used the dramatic devise of the central character being confused and his confusion driving the drama of the play. Some critics maintain that Holberg is more effective at this than Moliére because his comic characters are imbued with more human qualities than those of the French playwright.

Another significant play in this genre by Holberg was Den stundeslØse (The Fussy Man or The Fidget), (1726). At the center of this work is an idealistic main character, Vielgeschrey, who makes much out of the minutiae of life. He tries to marry his daughter to a man she does not want to marry, a bookkeeper because the bookkeeper has agreed to help Vielgeschrey in return. The play was very modern in its approach.

Holberg wrote several plays that were influenced by the Italian commedia dell'arte in that they are centered more on the plot or pageantry than on examining educational or moral ideas. These plays included Henrik og Pernille (Henry and Pernilla) and Mascarade (Masquerades).

In 1727 the theater on Lille GrØnnedgrade closed because of funding problems. Holberg wrote a play to commemorate its closing, Funeral of Danish Comedy, and continued to write plays for other venues. In 1731 he published all his performed plays plus ten new plays, then took a break from playwriting until late in life. Much of Holberg's writing output now focused on history, an interest that he would follow for about a decade.

In the early 1730s Holberg began to teach history at the university, and during the years 1732 to 1735 he authored the three volume-work Dannemarks Riges Historie (History of Denmark). In this work he underscored the cultural development of Denmark; he would later supplement it with a history of the navy of Denmark and Norway. Holberg also wrote about historical subjects outside of Denmark, in 1738 publishing the two-volume Almindelig Kirkehistorie (University History of the Church), a history of Christianity through Martin Luther's reformation. In 1742 he published Den Jodiske Historie (History of the Jews) in two volumes.

By the mid-1730s Holberg was considered a leading figure at the University of Copenhagen, although he mostly worked as an administrator. From 1735 to 1736, he was a rector of the university, and from 1737 until 1751 he served as its bursar. As Holberg's work responsibilities changed, so did the subject of his writing. After 1740 much of his work focused on morals and ethics in both fiction and nonfiction.

Published Novel

In 1741 Holberg published a political and social satire titled Nicolai Klimii iter Subterraneum (The Journey of Niels Klim to the World Underground). An early science fiction novel written in Latin that focuses on a man, Klim, who falls into the center of the earth and finds a utopia where women are the dominant sex. Holberg's most popular book in Europe, Nicolai Klimii iter Subterraneum was translated into several languages and was enjoyed by fans of Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726). However, when the book was first released in Denmark, it was considered dangerous because of some of the ideas Holberg advanced.

Less controversial was Holberg's 1744 publication Moralske Tanker (Moral Thoughts) . In it Holberg outlined his philosophy, both moral and religious, and, in doing so, made a statement about the Danish Enlightenment. He revealed more about himself in the five volumes of Epistler (1748-1754), which contains several hundred letters and essays on various subjects, including dogmas and metaphysical ideas of the day. In 1751 he wrote Moralske Fabler (Moral Fables) . These 200 pieces were influenced by Ovid's Metamorphoses and are more cynical and negative than Holberg's previous works.

Named Baron

In 1747 Holberg was given the title of baron by the king of Denmark. He had become a very wealthy man over his lifetime, having invested the money he made from teaching and publishing on land rather than in living a lavish lifestyle. He had a number of country estates that he took care of in his old age. Holberg was particularly fond of TerslØsegaard in central Zeeland.

The year Holberg was named a baron, the new Danish National Theater was founded. He wrote six more plays for the company, but they were not as good as his previous works; while they were considered very intelligent they lacked the strong characters of his previous works.

Holberg died on January 28, 1754, in Copenhagen, Denmark. After his death, his will left his estate to the SorØ Academy to fund the teaching of modern subjects. The University of Copenhagen was not happy that he did not leave his money to them.

Long after his death, Holberg's plays in Danish were still being performed. There was critical debate over his work, though he was generally considered the father of Danish and Norwegian literature. He greatly influenced another Scandinavian playwright, Henrik Ibsen. Statues of him are located in both Norway and Denmark, at the National Theatre of Øslo and Royal Theatre of Copenhagen respectively.

As S. C. Hammer wrote in his book, Ludvig Holberg, "wherever you go in Denmark and Norway Holberg's name is familiar. Words and sayings of his live on the lips of both nations as colloquial terms. He sits in bronze in an armchair outside the main entrance of the Royal Theatre at Copenhagen; his noble sepulchre is at SorØ, a dreaming little site of learning in Zeeland … [H]e is the pride of his townsmen, who cherish his memory."


Hammer, S. C., Ludvig Holberg: The Founder of Norwegian Literature and an Oxford Student, Blackwell, 1920.

Kunitz, Stanley J., and Vineta Colby, editors, European Authors 1000-1900: A Biographical Dictionary of European Literature, H. W. Wilson, 1967.

Zuck, Virpi, editor, Dictionary of Scandinavian Literature, Greenwood Press, 1990.


Financial Times, April 29, 1994. □

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