Theodoricus Monachus

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by Lars Boje Mortensen

Theodoricus (i.e. Þórir, Tore, also latinized as Theodericus, Theodricus, and Therrichus, KRAGGERUD 2000, 265-68 & SYRETT 2002, 88) is known as the author of a brief history of Norway, Historia de antiquitate regum Norwagiensium, dedicated to Archbishop Eystein Erlendsson of Nidaros (1161-1188). From the text it can be inferred that Theodoricus was a Norwegian, that he was familiar with Trondheim and Bergen, that he had studied in northern France (with good evidence for St. Victor, Paris, see Sources), and that he wrote after 1177.


His epithet monachus cannot be traced further back than incipits and explicits of seventeenth-century manuscripts. In the heading to the dedication he only describes himself as a humble sinner (Theodricus humilis peccator). If he was a monk, the Benedictine abbey of Nidarholm would head the list of possible home institutions, not least because the author in ch. 31 delves into particulars when narrating its foundation around 1100: “...Sigvard Ullstreng who later founded the famous monastery in honour of St. Benedict and the most precious and invincible martyr in Christ Laurentius on a small island close to the archiepiscopal city of Nidaros.” But given the scarcity of local people going to France for a higher education, it is highly probable that the author is identical with one of two Norwegian ecclesiastics mentioned in the oldest existing obituary of St. Victor: “item obiit Theodoricus Hamarensis episcopus noster canonicus”, and “item obiit domnus Theodoricus Norvegiensis archiepiscopus frater noster”, i.e. he was either Tore, bishop of Hamar (1189/90-1196) or Tore, archbishop of Nidaros (1206-1214). If either of these identifications is accepted we have to question his traditional status as monk: a move from regular canon (and “frater” would here mean the same) to bishop or archbishop makes perfect sense, whereas any intermediate status as monk would be more irregular, though not excluded. The identification with one of these two is furthermore supported by strong evidence that Theodoricus was a high-ranking cleric in Trondheim engaged in the 1170s and 1180s in the formulation of official views, e.g. on the baptism of St. Olav (MORTENSEN 2000b). Furthermore, we know that the later Archbishop Tore had been a canon in Oslo and that a house for regular canons had been established by archbishop Eystein in Nidaros by 1183 at the latest. This community, Elgeseter, acted as cathedral chapter and would be the obvious home for a Victorine. Finally, “monachus” was not a common medieval Latin epithet for authors (but used at least twice in Old Norse); it is easier to imagine post-Reform scholars applying the distinction to any medieval member of a religious house, or perhaps even to accept it as a local medieval habit of calling regular canons “monks” as one contemporary source does. (cf. DAAE 1895, JOHNSEN 1939, 84-94 & BAGGE 1989, 114-15 with no definite conclusions but full references; FOOTE 1998, IX-X is in favour of Theodoricus’s status as a monk, MORTENSEN 2000a opposes those arguments).

Taken together, the evidence points to a member of the Norwegian elite, who became a learned Victorine canon working closely with Archbishop Eystein (who was also a Victorine) after having returned from Paris; he was perhaps engaged in the founding of Elgeseter, the organisation of the cathedral chapter etc., and a key player in the forging of local literary and ideological traditions, of which the Historia is one result.

Historia de antiquitate regum Norwagiensium

The History of the old Norwegian kings is in size as well as style a fairly modest narrative covering Norwegian history from the accession of Harald Hårfagre (“Finehair”) (852 according to Theodoricus, but probably between ca. 860 and 880) to the death of Sigurd Jorsalfar (“Crusader”) in 1130.


The title is only known from 17th century copies (see below), but may have been the same in the medieval exemplar


Domino et patri suo, viro reverendissimo Augustino...


... quod quia hactenus non contigit, me malui quam neminem.


35 pages.


  • KIRCHMANN, B.C. 1684: Commentarii historici duo hactenus inediti, alter de regibus vetustis Norvagicis, alter de profectione Danorum in terram sanctam, circa annum MCLXXXV susceptam, eodem tempore ab incerto autore conscriptus, cura olim et opera viri clarissimi Johannis Kirchmanni, Lubec., nunc primum editi ab hujus nepote Bernh. Casp. Kirchmanno J.U.D, Amsterdam.
  • SUHM, P.F. 1783: “Theodorici monachi Historia de antiquitate regum Norwagiensium,” in SRD 5, Copenhagen, 311-41.
  • • STORM, G. 1880: “Theodrici monachi Historia de antiquitate regum Norwagiensium,” in MHN, Kristiania [Oslo], 1-68.
  • KRAGGERUD, E. forthc.: Theodoricus. Historia de antiquitate regum Norwagiensium (with transl. by P. Fisher), Copenhagen.


  • (Norwegian, bokmål) SALVESEN, A. 1969: Norges historie. Theodricus Munk: Historien om de gamle norske kongene. Historien om danenes ferd til Jerusalem, Oslo. [With brief notes.]
  • (Norwegian, nynorsk) SKARD, E. 1932: Soga um dei gamle norske kongane, Oslo.
  • (English) MCDOUGALL, D. & MCDOUGALL, I. 1998: Theodoricus Monachus, Historia de antiquitate regum Norwagiensium. An Account of the Ancient History of the Norwegian Kings. Translated and annotated by D. and I. McDougall, with an introduction by P. Foote, London.
  • (English, chapters 4-14) ANDERSSON 2003 (see Bibliography below), 151-58.
  • (English) FISHER, in KRAGGERUD forthcoming (see Editions above).


  • (Norwegian on ch. 19) KRAGGERUD, E. 1993: Et pensum i middelalderlatin. II: Kommentarer, Oslo, 124-30.
  • MCDOUGALL & MCDOUGALL 1998 (see Translations above).

Date and place

In his narrative Theodoricus deliberately left out the most recent 50 years of history, full of civil strife as they were (ch. 34). But there is one specific reference to contemporary history, namely in ch. 31 where we are told that the wretched tyrant Eystein (Møyla, d. 1177) took Nidaros. This event took place in late 1176, but 1177 is usually given as terminus post quem because scholars have had difficulties imagining such harsh words about Eystein if he was still alive. Without dispute the terminus ante quem is 1188, when the dedicatee died. Attempts to date the work more precisely have not been successful; e.g. placing it before or during the archbishop’s English exile between 1180 and 1183 occasioned by differences between the clergy and King Sverre (1177-1202). The writing of the history hardly required more than a couple of years, but Theodoricus, of course, need not have worked continuously on the history. It is likely that he researched the work in Norway (interviews) as well as in France (library studies) (see Sources) and it is probable that he finished it in Norway where its audience was (see Purpose).

Summary of contents

After a prologue (see Sources and Purpose) and a list of the 34 chapter headings, the narrative opens with Harald “Finehair”’s unification of Norway, an event Theodoricus dates, with some reservation, to 852 (ch. 1, cf. SKÅNLAND 1966). In chapters 1-6 Theodoricus deals briefly with pre-Christian kings from Harald to Håkon Jarl (ca. 865-995). One chapter (3) is a digression on the discovery of Iceland, and three chapters (4-6) are devoted to the struggles between Håkon Jarl and the sons of the wicked Gunnhild (widow after Erik Bloodaxe).

Chapters 7-14 are dominated by Olaf Tryggvason (995-1000), traditionally seen as the missionary king of Iceland and Norway, who died at the legendary battle of Svoldr. He is described as zealous in the Christian cause from the very beginning of his insurrection against the ungodly Håkon, and in a long digression Theodoricus compares him to the Roman emperor Jovian who also refused to lead an army of pagans (for the treatment of Olaf Tryggvason see BAGGE forthcoming). The reign of the earls Erik and Sven (1000-1015) is mentioned very briefly.

Olaf Haraldsson (1015-1030), the later saint, is introduced already in chapter 13 (conflicting opinions on his baptism); but he is at the centre of the narrative in chapters 15-20. The king is depicted as divinely guided all the way from his accession, through his ousting by Knud the Great of Denmark, his Russian exile, to his attempt at regaining power at the battle of Stiklestad where he suffered his saintly death. The story elicits several substantial digressions: on the gorge Charybdis (near the Orkney islands!), on the ever decreasing size of human beings, and – occasioned by Theodoricus’s uncertainty about the date of Olaf’s death – on the age of the world.

After mentioning the brief interlude of Danish domination, Theodoricus tells in chapters 21-28 about the reigns of Magnus Olafsson (“the Good”, 1035-1047) and his uncle Harald “Hardruler” (1046-1066). Both these close relatives of St. Olaf (son and half-brother) are judged positively by Theodoricus, and their peaceful division of the kingdom reminds the author of a similar deal between Charlemagne and his brother (Carloman).

The adventurous viking life of Harald contrasts with that of his son Olaf Kyrre (1066-1093), about whose long peaceful reign Theodoricus has little to say except to single it out as the happiest ever in Norwegian history (ch. 29). There is more about Olaf Kyrre’s son Magnus “Bareleg” (1093-1103) and his sons, Eystein Magnusson (1103-1123), and Sigurd “Crusader” (1103-1130). We hear of Magnus’s attempt to conquer Ireland (ch. 31) and of Sigurd’s pilgrimage to Jerusalem (1108-1111) (ch. 33). Eystein is praised as a lover of peace and as a great builder, qualities which earn him a comparison with Augustus (ch. 32). The final chapter laments the violent and confused times following the death of Sigurd. With a quotation from Lucan Theodoricus compares the Norwegian civil wars with that of Pompey and Caesar. He rounds off with concluding remarks on his work (see Sources and Purpose).

Composition and style

The Historia belongs to the common type of medieval national history which is structured around the succession of rulers and their reigns (KERSKEN 1995, 403-7 & 432-34). Furthermore, it evolves around the Christianization of Norway and its main hero, St. Olaf (cf. BAGGE 1989, MORTENSEN & MUNDAL 2003, 368-71). He occupies the centre of the narrative and a significant cluster of digressions are embedded in his story. These, and other digressions, deal with matters such as geography, chronology, philosophy, Roman history, political morality, Christianity etc. Digressions of this sort are not uncommon in medieval historians, but Theodoricus’s proportioning of digression and narrative is extraordinary: more than one third of the work provides learned backdrop for the history proper (DAMSGAARD OLSEN 1965, BAGGE 1989, see Purpose and Literary models). Another noticeable feature is his abstention from geographical and mythical introductions (cf. Historia Norwegie, >Saxo Grammaticus etc.)

Theodoricus’s style has often been characterized as simple, but no thorough investigations have been carried out. In fact it seems to be at least two-layered. Moreover, he had a clear sense of variatio sermonis as appears if one for instance lists some of his phrases for “died” (cf. HANSSEN 1945, 177): “diem obiit” (2), “vitam finivit” (14), “occubuit” (19), “obiit” (29), “ex hac luce subtractus est” (33), “hominem exuit” (34). At his simplest Theodoricus sounds entirely annalistic (ch. 4):

Hocon nutricius Halstani, filius Haraldi, regnavit annis viginti quinque. Hic fuit aspectu pulcher, viribus corporis robustus, animi virtute præstans, omni populo gratissimus. Hic regnavit in pace annis decem et novem. (Håkon [the Good, ca. 945-960], protegé of Athelstan and son of Harald, ruled for 25 years. He was handsome, strong, courageous, and popular. He ruled in peace for 19 years.)

The recurrent hic and regnavit as well as the stereotyped phrases about Håkon’s qualities indicate the level of the language and perhaps the nature of Theodoricus’s source (here probably the Catalogus). However, there is no reason to think that he was unable to change the style if he wanted to. The simple narrative sometimes displays a little more art (ch. 32):

Onustis itaque navibus plurima præda rex Magnus in Norwagiam revertitur. Paucis deinde interpositis annis iterum classem parat, solita mentis inquietudine Hyberniam repetiit spe subjiciendi sibi totam insulam. Cumque sibi partem aliquam insulæ subjugasset, sperans ex facili reliquam posse subjici, incautius exercitum ducere coepit, eodem modo deceptus, quo et avus ejus Haraldus in Anglia. Hybernienses vero collecta omni multitudine, parati pro patria mori, reditum ad naves intercipiunt, hostes strenue invadunt, regem Magnum prosternunt. Pars exercitus cum illo occubuit, ceteri utcunque ad naves remeant. (His ships loaded with rich booty, King Magnus [Barefoot, 1093-1103] now returned to Norway. A few years later he prepared his fleet again, and in his usual restless state of mind set out for Ireland hoping to conquer the entire island. When he had brought part of the island under his sway, he hoped that the rest could easily be conquered, and he proceeded rather carelessly with his army, being trapped just like his grandfather Harald [Hard-ruler, 1046-1066] had been in England. The Irish gathered a large crowd, and ready as they were to die for their country, they cut off the retreat to the ships, attacked the enemy energetically, and killed King Magnus. Part of the army fell with him, the rest somehow made it back to the ships.)

Although not ornate in any way, this paragraph brings out a larger section of the Latin vocabulary and syntax. The clauses are introduced with variation: an instrumental ablative (onustis ... navibus), an absolute ablative (paucis ... interpositis), and a temporal cum-clause with the ordinary pluperfect subjunctive. The development from plans to disastrous action is also reflected in the language. Magnus’s character and state of mind (solita mentis inquietudine, and sperans) contrasts with the swift sequence of historical present tenses (intercipiunt, invadunt, prosternunt).

However, in the prologue and the digressions we often encounter a more elaborate style than in the narrative. Some digressions closely follow the sources and thus vary in style, but if we want to consider the highest point of Theodoricus’s Latin prose, we should look at the central chapters concerned with St. Olaf, e.g. at the end of ch. 20 where we are told what happened after the king’s death.

Quomodo vero mox omnipotens Deus merita martyris sui Olavi declaraverit cæcis visum reddendo et multa commoda ægris mortalibus impendendo, et qualiter episcopus Grimkel – qui fuit filius fratris Sigwardi episcopi, quem Olavus filius Tryggva secum adduxerat de Anglia – post annum et quinque dies beatum corpus e terra levaverit et in loco decenter ornato reposuerit in Nidrosiensi metropoli, quo statim peracta pugna transvectum fuerat, quia haec omnia a nonnullis memoriæ tradita sunt, nos notis immorari superfluum duximus. (Soon Almighty God manifested the merits of his martyr Olav by giving sight to the blind and dispensing much good to frail mortals. After a year and five days bishop Grimkel, son of the brother of bishop Sigward whom Olaf Tryggvason had brought with him from England, exhumed the holy body and laid it to rest in a properly furnished place in the capital Nidaros where it had been brought immediately after the battle. But I am not going to dwell on these well-known matters since they have been handed down to posterity by several people.)

This is – in the Latin – a respectable period. In addition to the tension created by the piling up of dependent clauses, only to be resolved by the final duximus, one is struck by the epic phrase ægris mortalibus, “frail mortals”. The passage also illustrates the standard rhetorical procedure of praeteritio – explaining at length what one is not going to talk about. Whether Theodoricus also sometimes uses prose rhythm has not yet been systematically investigated. He was not alien to rhetorical devices and poetic allusions, but he seems to have reserved them mostly for St. Olaf.

Generally it can be said that Theodoricus did not strive for stylistic unity, nor was he guided by one or more models. The echoes of Sallust and other historians are not pervasive, and he probably saw his own work as being in the same mixed style as e.g. the lively narrative of Lombard history by Paul the Deacon (cf. MORTENSEN 1993).

Sources and literary models

Despite GUÐNASON 1977 and ANDERSSON 1985 there are no serious reasons for disbelieving Thedoricus’s claim (ch. 1 and 34) that his work is the first of its kind and that he relied on oral sources (ch. 34 non visa sed audita retractans, cf. MORTENSEN, 2000a). He probably did most of his research by interviews, with the Icelanders whose poems he mentions, as well as with Norwegians (for his of Icelandic knowledge and of skaldic poetry see HALVORSEN 1958, RÖHN 1996, MUNDAL 2000), and like most historical pioneers he must have worked hard to establish a chronology (chs. 1 and 20 & ELLEHØJ 1965).

As regards the narrative, two minor exceptions to oral sources have been noted. In chapter 20 Theodoricus refers to a written list of Norwegian kings:

Eidem vero Kanuto et filio ejus Sueinoni et Haconi nepoti ejus asscribuntur anni quinque in catalogo regum Norwagiensium. (But the list of Norwegian kings assigns a reign of five years to this Knud [the Great], his son Sven and his nephew Håkon.)

It is probably the same list Theodoricus has in mind in the prologue when he notes the absence of a reliable royal genealogy before Harald Finehair, and ELLEHØJ 1965 has convincingly argued that the Catalogus (Catalogi regum Norwagiensium) furnished Theodoricus with a skeleton of number of regnal years plus brief information about family and death. In chapter 43 (quoted below, see Composition and style) Theodoricus refers to a written source on the whereabouts of St. Olaf’s holy body. This has been taken to mean a lost Translatio sancti Olavi (STORM 1880), although Theodoricus’s wording does not warrant a single specific work, let alone a title (>Sanctus Olavus, Passio Olavi).

Theodoricus had no major Nordic historiographical sources or models, be they Latin or vernacular. He was aware of Old Norse as a written language, but his only reference to it entails an anachronism (ch. 16 where Olaf Haraldsson is credited with putting laws into writing in the mother tongue (patria lingua), i.e. almost a century before written Old Norse is attested). The literary models Theodoricus turned to were foreign and Latin. He names and quotes quite a number of historical works, among which we find the medieval classics by Jerome, Isidore, Bede, and Paul the Deacon as well as three more recent works: William of Jumièges’s Historia Normannorum (written from ca. 1050 to 1070), Sigebert of Gembloux’s Chronica (written from 1082 to 1111), and Hugh of St. Victor’s Chronica (ca. 1130). The model he chose was primarily the Historia Langobardorum by Paul the Deacon (ca. 790) to whom Theodoricus i.a. appeals as a pattern for lengthy digressions (MORTENSEN 1993).

The Latin historians are all put to use in the digressions rather than in the narrative. For that Theodericus found little of Norwegian relevance, though he does report with some pride his discovery of a reference to the baptism of Olaf Haraldsson in the Norman history of William of Jumièges (ch. 13: sed et ego legi in Historia Normannorum...). His excerpts are evidently gathered in a library in northern France, and several details, including his reverence for Hugh of St. Victor, as well as circumstantial evidence points firmly to St. Victor in Paris (JOHNSEN 1939 & MORTENSEN 2000b). Theodoricus used various other Latin sources, church fathers, classical authors (especially Lucan), medieval Biblical scholars etc. This learning has been investigated by STORM 1880, JOHNSEN 1939, MORTENSEN 1993 & 2000b, RÖHN 1996, MCDOUGALL & MCDOUGALL 1998, KARLSEN & VATSEND 2003 but the subject is far from exhausted.

Purpose and audience

The author’s express purpose – which can hardly be questioned – is to provide the Norwegians with a national history, such as exist for other nations. However, this should not be taken in the sense that he is looking for an international audience. The work was destined for the cathedral library of Nidaros, and his off-hand and mostly unexplained references to Norwegian matters made sense only for a local audience. A case in point is the above-quoted reference to what people already know about the translation of Olaf’s body.

A clerical learning and perspective loom large in the digressions. Theodoricus is obviously interested in moral and even theological lessons of history. He also hints at a parallelism between Norway and the Roman Empire. Formulating these common medieval frameworks was probably the easy and natural part for a man of Theodoricus’s background. His history was intended to have exemplary value, but it must not be forgotten that he did a serious piece of historical research with all the difficulties accompanying a pioneer. And when he chose to cut the history short – leaving out the period where he had most to tell – the results were not voluminous. The digressions should also be viewed in that light: they added weight, scope, and meaning to a rather thin story (cf. BAGGE 1989, MORTENSEN & MUNDAL 2003, MORTENSEN 1993 & 2005).

Medieval reception and transmission

No medieval codex with the Historia survives, but one must have been in place in the cathedral library of Nidaros. The lost medieval exemplar of the existing copies seems to have had some connection with the Danish Victorine milieu (it included a text by >Wilhelmus of Æbelholt, and the >Historia de profectione Danorum in Hierosolymam, cf. LEHMANN 1937, 70 & SKOVGAARD-PETERSEN 2002). The Historia was no doubt a rare text, to be found only in a few Scandinavian libraries; nor do we have any direct references to the work from the Middle Ages. But Theodoricus‘s efforts were not lost on his contemporaries, as has been established by painstaking research in contemporary texts (AÐALBJARNASON 1937, ELLEHØJ 1965, ULSET 1983, ANDERSSON 1985 & 2003). The socalled Ágrip, an Old Norse chronicle slightly later than Theodoricus, relied heavily on the Historia, and through Ágrip much of the material lived on in the great kings’ sagas of the thirteenth century.

Around 1620 J. Kirchmann found a parchment codex in the Council library of Lübeck. Its main text was Josephus’s Bellum Judaicum, but at the end were added some minor historical treatises, i.a. the Historia. The text is now known entirely through various seventeenth-century copies and the editio princeps published by Kirchmann’s grandson B.C. Kirchmann (SKOVGAARD-PETERSEN 2002):

  • Kirch = B.C. Kirchmann’s edition, Amsterdam 1684 (see Editions)
  • L = Berlin, Staatsbibliothek, lat. f. 356. [J. Kirchmann’s autograph fair copy, not known to STORM 1880 (cf. LEHMANN 1939, 120-22)].
  • A = Copenhagen, The Arnamagnæan Collection, AM 98 fol. [A copy in Arni Magnusson’s possession, probably copied or obtained from B.C. Kirchmann. SUHM‘s edition is based on this manuscript].
  • S = Uppsala, University Library, De la Gardie 32. [J. Stephanius’s copy of one of J. Kirchmann’s copies, probably a lost one].
  • M = Copenhagen, Royal Library, Thott 1541 4°. [B.C. Kirchmann‘s inherited working copy; not known to STORM 1880].
  • B = Copenhagen, Royal Library, Kall 600. [J. Kirchmann’s draft notes and indices to the text].


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