In Denmark there is a long-established tradition of textual scholarship in the fields of Latin and Greek; interest in the vernacular literature, while not entirely absent, only made itself felt from the late 17th century on. With the exception of Saxo’s Gesta Danorum, first published in Danish translation in 1575, no vernacular literary canon existed; the cultural dominance of Latin, French and German resulted in the near complete exclusion of Danish-language texts from schools and the university.
Interest in early Scandinavian literature was sparked by the manuscript discoveries, principally in Iceland, made by the collector (1663–1730), as well as by the in Sweden. The recognition of this material’s importance was to some extent the direct result of Danish-Swedish rivalry as to which country had the more glorious past. Sweden had made a head-start in exploring sagas for evidence of historical glories, having published a number of mythical-heroic sagas (fornaldarsögur) in the second half of the 17th century. On the Danish side, the physician/antiquary Ole Worm had, in his Runir, seu Danica literatura antiquissima ( 1636) printed texts – in runic characters – of the poems Höfuðlausn (attributed to Egill Skallagrímsson) and Krákumál (the death-song of Ragnar Loðbrók). In the book’s second edition ( 1651), several passages from the Eddic Völuspá and Hávamál were included, also in runes, accompanied by Latin translations. The first full editions of Völuspá and Hávamál were printed in Copenhagen in 1665, also with accompanying Latin translations. The editions were by Peder Hansen Resen, who also brought out an edition of the Snorra Edda (also called the “Younger” or “Prose” Edda) in that same year, with translations into both Latin and Danish. Finally, extracts from a large number of early Icelandic sources with Latin translations were included in Thomas Bartholin’s Antiquitatum Danicarum de causis contemptae a Danis adhuc gentilibus mortis libri tres (1689); the texts had been transcribed and translated by the young Árni Magnússon. The importance of these early editions and translations can scarcely be overestimated, as it was through them that the European intellectual elite discovered “Runic poetry”, chiefly by way of Paul-Henri ’s (1755-56; esp. the supplementary volume, ), translated and adapted by Thomas as (1770).
The first proper edition of an Old Norse text to be published in Danish was ( 1768), a Norwegian “mirror for princes”. The edition, though it was published in Denmark, was very much an Icelandic affair. Behind the publication stood a society calling itself Ósýnilega félagið, in Latin Societas invisibilis, founded at in 1760 by Bishop Gísli Magnússon (1712–1779) and Hálfdan Einarsson (1732–1785), rector of the cathedral school there, who is credited with the edition, although it was to a large extent the work of Jón Eiríksson (1728–1787), at that point tutor in jurisprudence at Sorø Academy. This was its only publication.
An actual programme for the scholarly publication of Old Norse texts in Denmark began in earnest with the establishment of the Arnamagnæan Commission in 1772 – a full 42 years after Árni Magnússon’s death. The first edition to be published under its auspices was , a short work on the Christianization of Iceland (1773), followed by , prepared by Jón Eiríksson, and , the history of the first five bishops of Skálholt (1775 and 1778). The most important editorial project undertaken by the Commission was the publication of the first edition of the entire Eddic corpus, , published in three volumes, in 1787, 1818 and 1828, a span of 41 years.
The slow publication pace provoked the foundation of Det Nordiske Oldskriftselskab (“The Nordic Society of Antiquaries”, later given the “Royal” prefix) in 1825. Among the founders were Rasmus (1787–1832) and Carl Christian (1795–1864), the aim being the promotion of Old Norse literature through the publication and explication of Old Norse texts and “alt, hvad der kan tjene til at oplyse det gamle Nordens Historie, Sprog og Oldsager i Almindelighed, og derved til at vække og nære Kærlighed til Fædre og Fædreland” (“everything that can serve to elucidate early Nordic history, language and antiquities in general, and thereby awaken and nurture love for [our] fathers and the fatherland”). Foremost among their early publications was the series , comprising editions of the Icelandic konungasögur, or histories of the kings of Norway and Denmark, issued in 12 volumes between 1825 and 1837. Parallel volumes containing translations into Danish and Latin also appeared, called (1826-37) and (1828-42) respectively.
Det Nordiske Literatur-Samfund (“The Nordic Literature Society”) was founded in 1847 by, among others, N.M. (1791–1862) and (1898–1891), partly in response to what was perceived as the elitist attitude of the Oldskriftselskab, which, after Rask’s premature death, was run with a high hand by Rafn. Under the auspices of the Literatur-Samfund, 33 volumes were published in the period 1847-85, principally the Icelandic family sagas but also other works, including some Danish texts. With the decline of , interest in the society waned, until it was finally disbanded in 1879; it may, however, be said to have found a continuation in the same year in the Samfund til Udgivelse af Gammel Nordisk Litteratur (“Society for the Publication of Old Norse texts”), usually referred to by its acronym STUAGNL.
In all, STUAGNL published 67 volumes, the first four in 1880. Production slowed down in the 1930s, by which point about 90% of the volumes had appeared; the very last came out in 1976. The majority of these were “best-text” editions, i.e. based on a single manuscript with variants from other manuscripts. Although the focus of the series was on Old Norse-Icelandic literature, there were also editions of Danish, Swedish and Faroese texts. The editors, with one exception, were Scandinavians, i.e. Danes, Swedes, Norwegians, Faroe Islanders and, in particular, Icelanders, most of them long-term residents of Copenhagen. This “unwritten law” was criticized by Halldór Hermannsson, the Icelandic librarian of the Fiske Collection at Cornell University, who also criticized the society’s publication in fascicle instalments and its editorial procedure (retaining the orthography of the originals), which rendered them, so Hermannsson felt, “virtually unreadable by most mortals”. Hermansson was also critical of the dominant legacy of (1858–1934), professor of Old Norse at Copenhagen University.
Det Nordiske Literatur-Samfund published an edition of the medieval Danish translation of in 1849, and an edition of the Danish translation of Mandeville’s “Travels”, , came out in 1882 in the series of STUAGNL. Editions of four early Danish works were also produced by the historian and linguist Christian (1783–1857): (1825), (1826), (1828) and (1836). Editions of modern, i.e. post-medieval, authors also began to appear in the latter half of the 18th century, often in the form of collected works in multiple volumes, e.g. Jens Schelderup Sneedorff’s (9 vols, 1775-77).
In the 19th century several learned societies played a leading role in the publishing of editions of modern Danish literature, in particular Samfundet til den danske Literaturs Fremme (“Society for the Promotion of Danish Literature”, 1827-86). It published works by a large number of Danish authors, including (1868). SDLF also initiated the publication of Svend ’s monumental edition of Danish ballads, (1853-1976), as well as new editions of older works, such as Anders Sørensen Vedel’s (1851).
Other societies focused on the works of single authors, such as the Selskabet til Udgivelse af Oehlenschlägers Skrifter (1857), which was responsible for the publication of Adam Oehlenschläger’s (32 vols, 1857-62), the most extensive critical edition produced in 19th-century Denmark.
Throughout the 19th century there appeared monumental collections of authors’ complete works, usually arranged by genre, issued by publishers like Reitzel. Frequently, there is no indication of who has edited the texts, let alone according to what editorial principles. The works of the major 18th-century authors such as Ludvig , Johan Herman Wessel and Johannes Ewald were published again and again, later joined by more contemporary authors such as Jens , Oehlenschläger and H.C. . These were generally published in non-critical editions, as Ausgaben letzter Hand. Commentary of any sort is rare, but there are occasionally biographical forewords or afterwords included. There were exceptions to this, notably several editions which included discussions of the literary characteristics of the works in question by Georg (1842–1927), for example Emil ’s (1877) and Schack von ’s (1882).
Alongside these commercially driven ventures for a large readership, the last decades of the 19th century saw an increasing professionalism in the production of scholarly editions, as trained philologists took over the task of editing. The preparation of large-scale scholarly editions produced according to accepted philological principles may be said to have come into its own with the founding of Det Danske Sprog- og Litteraturselskab (DSL) in 1911.