Adam of Bremen
Adam of Bremen (also: Adamus Bremensis) was a German medieval chronicler. He lived and worked in the second half of the eleventh century. He is most famous for his chronicle Gesta Hammaburgensis Ecclesiae Pontificum (Deeds of Bishops of the Hamburg Church).
Little is known of his life other than hints from his own chronicles. He is believed to have come from Meissen (Latin Misnia) in Saxony. The dates of his birth and death are uncertain, but he was probably born before 1050 and died on 12 October of an unknown year (Possibly 1081, latest 1085). From his chronicles it is apparent that he was familiar with a number of authors. The honorary name of Magister Adam shows that he had passed through all the stages of a higher education. It is probable that he was taught at the Magdeburger Domschule.
In 1066 or 1067 he was invited by archbishop Adalbert of Hamburg to join the Church of Bremen. Adam was accepted among the capitulars of Bremen, and by 1069 he appeared as director of the cathedral's school. Soon thereafter he began to write the history of Bremen/Hamburg and of the northern lands in his Gesta.
His position and the missionary activity of the church of Bremen allowed him to gather information on the history and the geography of Northern Germany. A stay at the court of Svend Estridson gave him the opportunity to find information about the history and geography of Denmark, and the Scandinavian countries.
Bremen was a major trading town, and ships, traders and missionaries went from there to many different locations. The earlier archbishopric seat in Hamburg had been attacked and destroyed several times, and thereafter the sees of Hamburg and Bremen were combined for protection. For three hundred years, beginning with bishop Ansgar, the Hamburg-Bremen archbishopric had been designated as the "Mission of the North" and had jurisdiction over all missions in Scandinavia, North-Western Russia, Iceland and Greenland. Then the archbishop of Hamburg-Bremen had a falling-out with the pope and in 1105 a separate archbishopric for the North was established in Lund.
Adam of Bremen's best-known work is the Gesta Hammaburgensis Ecclesiae Pontificum (Deeds of Bishops of the Hamburg Church), which he began only after the death of the archbishop Adalbert. It consists of four volumes about the history of the archbishopric of Hamburg-Bremen, and the isles of the north. The first three mainly consist of history and the last one is mainly on geography. Adam based his works in part on Einhard, Cassiodorus, and other earlier historians, as he had the whole library of the church of Bremen at his fingertips. The first edition was completed in 1075/1076.
The first book gives a history from 788 onwards of the Church in Hamburg-Bremen, and the Christian mission in the North. This is the chief source of knowledge of the North until the thirteenth century. The second book continues the history, and also deals with German history between 940 and 1045. The third book is about the deeds of archbishop Adalbert and is considered a milestone in medieval biographical writing.
The fourth book, Descriptio insularum Aquilonis, completed approximately in 1075, is about the geography, people and customs of Scandinavia, as well as updates of the progress of Christian missionaries there. The description of the Uppsala temple is one of the most famous excerpts of the Gesta, however as no archaeological site has ever been found, one can wonder if Adam’s description is linked to reality.
In this temple, entirely decked out in gold, the people worship the statues of three gods in such wise that the mightiest of them, Thor, occupies a throne in the middle of the chamber; Wotan and Frikko have places on either side. (…) Thor, they say, presides over the air, which governs the thunder and lightning, the winds and rains, fair weather crops. The other, Wotan – that is, the Furious – carries on war and imparts to man strength against his enemies. The third is Frikko, who bestows peace and pleasure on mortals. His likeness, too, they fashion with an immense phallus.
—Adam of Bremen, 
Adam also presents idolatry and human sacrifice as religious practice:
- For all their gods there are appointed priests to offer sacrifices for the people. If plague and famine threaten, a libation is poured to the idol Thor; if war, to Wotan; if marriages are to be celebrated, to Frikko.
Adam was a supporter of converting the Northern people. Scandinavia had only just recently been explored by missionaries, and since the fourth book was perhaps created to inspire and guide future missionaries, its detailed descriptions make it one of the most important sources about pre-Christian Scandinavia. It is also the first known European record (in chapter 38) that mentions Vinland (Winland) island (insula), a land centuries later possibly identified as Newfoundland, Canada, North America.
Notes and references
- Gilman, ed., Daniels (1905). The New International Encyclopedia. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co. p. 101.
- Remy, Arthur F.J. "Adam of Bremen." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 1. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907. 20 Sept. 2012
- Tschan, Francis J. (1595). History of the archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen [by] Adam of Bremen. Translated with an introd. and notes by Francis J. Tschan. Columbia University Press.
- Adam of Bremen, History of the Archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen, English translation by F.J. Tschan, Columbia University Press, 2002, ISBN 0-231-12575-5.
- Edition of the Gesta by Bernhard Schmeidler, Digitale Bibliothek der Monumenta Germaniae Historica 1917, including current edition of the Latin text
- Adam of Bremen, Allgemeine Deutsche Biographie, online text. German.
- Adam of Bremen, Gesta Hammaburgensis ecclesiae pontificum, online text. Latin.