Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

Visiting the Nordic Past: Domestic Travels in Early Nineteenth-Century Denmark

Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

Visiting the Nordic Past: Domestic Travels in Early Nineteenth-Century Denmark

Article excerpt

Throughout the eighteenth century, the Grand Tour still held sway as the most important journey a prosperous Dane could undertake for his cultural education and edification. The first substantial Danish travel account to be published was the literary writer Jens Baggesen's Labyrinten eller Reisegiennem Tydskland, Sehweiz og Frankerig (1792-1793; The Labyrinth or Journey through Germany, Switzerland, and France). Baggesen's recommendation to his readers is to "reis bestandig mod Syden saa langt du kan" (1829, 355) [always travel south as far as you can], that is, he was promoting a traditional movement out and away from Denmark for improvement. (1) In contrast to this advice, the beginning of the nineteenth century saw a number of Danish writers turning their attention to domestic travels around rural Denmark. In terms of educating oneself in cultural history, megalithic monuments from the Nordic past now began to gain traction as an alternative to the Forum in Rome.

Travelogues published at the beginning of the nineteenth century begin to describe landmarks and monuments that provide both spatial and temporal coordinates for symbolizing a national past. This article will discuss the form and function of travel narratives written by Adam Oehlenschlager, Rasmus Nyerup, Christian Molbech, and N. F. S. Grundtvig--who were all among the foremost writers in Danish cultural life. My focus will be on their descriptions of dolmens, barrows, and passage graves of prehistoric times. It is not the purpose to discuss the actual provenance or archaeology of the sites that they visited, or whether the observations they made were accurate; rather, I aim to show how their accounts formed part of an emerging nationalist-patriotic discourse. Their travelogues range across both documentary and literary registers, often without any watertight division between these two modes of writing. As we shall see, there was some internal disagreement as to the right balance between the two modes, but common to all the accounts is that the subjective experiencing of objects was deemed more important than simply registering location and measurements. If Grand Tour travelers had also recorded their personal excitement and elevations at sites in southern climes, the development that I will track is the use of the personal responses to build up a register of new patriotic sensibility. In a recurrent metaphor, the journeys to the Danish countryside are described as the undertaking of a "pilgrimage," the purpose of which was to eulogize and sanctify the remnants of the Danish past (and the legendary history they represented) for the glory of the national present. I will argue that the travel narratives approach the prehistoric monuments in two overlapping ways: they become coordinates on a physical map of Denmark, that is, they are new topographical landmarks of an ancestral past that had not previously been a focus for the traveler's attention, and they become landmarks on a spiritual journey that transforms not just the traveler but also the whole nation.

PATRIOTISM AND ANCIENT MONUMENTS

To prepare the ground for a discussion of how the prehistoric monuments were rediscovered in the beginning of nineteenth century, it is useful to begin by looking at how the interest in the ancient past galvanized in Denmark. It is not that the late eighteenth century saw the advent of Danish antiquarianism; this had firm roots in seventeenth-century works by antiquarians Ole Worm and Thomas Bartholin. But what emerged was an intensification and popularization of antiquarian interest in support of patriotic discourses. This intensification constituted what the theorist on cultural memory Jan Assmann has called "the birth of the past," that is, a willful attempt at establishing a sense of continuity, legitimacy, and authority through recourse to bygone ages (2011, 15-69). In 1772, Johann Friedrich Struensee, the German physician to the mentally ill Christian VII, was arrested and executed for having usurped royal power (acting as de facto ruler). …

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