Academic journal article Cervantes: Bulletin of the Cervantes Society of America

Olaus Magnus, Cervantes, and a World of Marvels

Academic journal article Cervantes: Bulletin of the Cervantes Society of America

Olaus Magnus, Cervantes, and a World of Marvels

Article excerpt

When Cervantes scholars cite geographic and proto-anthropological sources for Los trabajos de Persiles y Sigismunda, they often mention Olaus Magnus and his Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus (A Description of the Northern Peoples) from 1555. (1) Because the Swedish archbishop was one of the foremost authorities on the subject during Cervantes's time, it is easy to see why he continues to be repeatedly cited by modern scholars. As an avid reader of many distinct genres, Cervantes gleefully mixed sources together in his literary creations, and modern references to Olaus Magnus are mostly used to signal the blending of perceived fact with more fantastic elements that beggar belief. Cervantistas often imply that the archbishop's accounts are employed to draw a fictional setting out of the realm of pure fantasy. In their references to the source, the Spanish author makes his move towards verisimilitude by replacing classical references whose veracity have been questioned over the centuries. In this way, Cervantes places the septentrion into a more believable space that will not run afoul of his readers' potential fact-checking habits, which were driven by a steady stream of firsthand accounts and were the product of the burgeoning age of exploration.

While it is reasonable for us to treat Olaus Magnus mostly as a storehouse of facts, doing so has the potential to diminish the Swede's role as a literary influence and likewise play down the possibility that Cervantes appreciated both fantasy and realism in the same source material. Assuming that Cervantes did read A Description of the Northern Peoples in some form, and because Olaus Magnus's work contains so much marvel and magic, so many monsters and superhuman heroes, Cervantes must have detected some similarity with his beloved books of chivalry, albeit with a exotic northern twist. This study aims to demonstrate the value of including Olaus Magnus in discussions about the literary influences underlying Los trabajos de Persiles y Sigismunda. The aim here is not to trace instances in which a Swedish source supersedes its Mediterranean counterparts, but rather argue a more general point while laying the foundation for future study: a humanist author from the North is no less likely than his Southern colleagues to be a wellspring of marvelous narrative writing and romance. These aspects must be reckoned with when we cite Olaus Magnus as an inspiration, among many, for Cervantes's novel. It essential that we avoid isolating the archbishop within the generic confines of travel writing and miscellanies, lest we minimize his penchant for the marvelous, the very thing that both authors associate so heavily with the septentrion and which forms such a strong link between them.

Olaus Magnus (in Swedish, Olof Mansson) was a Catholic priest who, with the advent of the Reformation, was exiled from Sweden with his brother Johannes and eventually found refuge in Italy, spending most of his time between Rome and Venice. After his brother's death in 1544, Olaus was named archbishop of Uppsala while in exile, and he never returned to his now permanently Protestant homeland. Through their writings, both brothers became known as chief authorities on the history, geography, and ethnography of any country north of Denmark that was not England, Ireland, or Russia. Olaus's 1555 A Description of the Northern Peoples is really a commentary on his Carta Marina, a large wall map that was first printed as a woodcut sixteen years earlier in 1539. As Leena Miekkavaara explains, "With his map, Olaus Magnus wanted to rectify the faulty representation of the earlier--especially the widespread Ptolemaic--maps, and he also wanted to show the Catholic Church the extent of the area which had been lost to Lutheranism. But, above all, he wanted to describe his dear native country as accurately and impressively as possible" (5). The original woodcut of the map (with only two known surviving copies) also exists in a copperplate edition from 1572 that is equally detailed, although smaller in size (Miekkavaara 4). …

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