Olaus Magnus

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(b. Linköping, Sweden, October 1490; d. Rome, Italy, 1557)

geography, ethnology.

Olaus Magnus was born to a middle-class family. He attended school in Linköping and in 1510 traveled abroad to prepare himself for a career in the Swedish church. With the support of a canonry he studied for almost seven years on the Continent, among other places at the University of Rostock, where, probably in 1513, he received his baccalaureate. Upon his return to Sweden, Olaus became in 1518 a deputy to Arcimboldi, the papal seller of indulgences; and in that capacity he traversed the wilderness of Norrland and the high mountains of Norway. He may have reached Lofoten and southern Finnmark before returning to Sweden and proceeding south via Tornea (Tornio, Finland). Later he was a vicar in Stockholm and cathedral dean in Strängnäs. In 1523 the Church ordered him to Rome and he never returned to Sweden. The Lutheran Reformation erupted in Sweden, but Olaus, together with his brother, Archbishop Johannes Magnus, remained loyal to the Catholic faith. Both brothers spent several years as refugees in Danzig, but in 1537 they traveled to Italy, where with gusto they took part in the game of church politics. In 1544, after his brother’s death, Olaus was appointed archbishop of Sweden and in that capacity attended some of the meetings of the Council of Trent. He continued to live in Rome for the rest of his life.

During his long exile Olaus Magnus published two scientific works which give him a pioneering position in the geographic research of Scandinavia. The first was the monumental map of the Scandinavian countries, Carta marina (Venice, 1539), of which only two copies are extant. It is executed in woodcut and also shows the Atlantic Ocean with its islands from Scotland to Iceland and Greenland. It was the first fairly reliable map of northern Europe and was based on older maps (Claudius Clavus, Ziegler) and Olaus’ own notes—and perhaps also on some no longer extant nautical charts. Olaus used a few astronomical latitude determinations. His vivid illustrations of wild animals, skiing Lapps, and tumbling sea monsters gave the Carta marina life and movement.

In 1555, at Rome, Olaus published his great description of the Scandinavian peoples, Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus. Originally this work was planned as a detailed description of the more noteworthy features of the map. Olaus dealt with nature and the life of the people in Scandinavia—especially Sweden—the Lapps and Finns, the climate and physical geography, agriculture and mining, the wild animals, and the Swedish people in their daily occupations. The work has to be used with care, since large parts were simply copied from older European literature. But he also builds upon his own memories and experiences in this description of an entire country at the beginning of a new period. The basic thread is primitivistic, and Olaus Magnus, a warm patriot, praises the freezing winter cold and the harsh Scandinavian virtues.

Both of Olaus’ works were of great influence. The Carta marina was indispensable for later cartographers; and the historical work, which was published in many editions, for generations informed the educated European about Scandinavia.


I. Original Works. The Carta marina has been published in many facs. eds., including Lychnosbibliotek, XI, 1 (Malmö, 1949). A copperplate engraving on a reduced scale was produced by Antonio Lafreri (Rome, 1572). The Historia is available in Latin, French, Italian, Dutch, and German; facs. ed. (Copenhagen, 1972). A modern Swedish trans., Historia om de nordiska folken 4 vols. (Uppsala, 1909–1925), has a vol. of commentary by John Granlund (Uppsala, 1951).

II. Secondary Literature. The most recent biography is Hjalmar Grape, Olaus Magnus (Stockholm, 1970), in Swedish. A basic work is Herman Richter, Olaus Magnus Carta marina 1539, Lychnosbibliotek, XI, 2 (Lund, 1967). See also Karl Ahlenius, Olaus Magnus och hans fromställning af Nordens geografi (Uppsala, 1895).

Sten Lindroth