Holberg on Scanderbeg

Publisher: Bjoern Andersen, Sociologist

Contact: post@bjoerna.dk

Scanderbeg is one of the greatest generals ever - wrote the famous historian Ludvig Holberg in 1739

A viewpoint from Copenhagen

By Bjoern Andersen [1], May 2003.

Ludvig Holberg. The original painting is at the Soroe Academy, a copy can be found at »Tersloesegaard« - the mansion of Holberg near Soroe - and another one in Oslo, Norway. Click the image to enlarge it.

Professor Ludvig Holberg was the major character in Danish and Norwegian literature at the time of the Enlightenment - and he is still much admired.

He was born in Bergen in Norway, went for England for some years in his youth - and then settled in Copenhagen. At that time Norway and Denmark was a dual kingdom, and some Norwegians went to Denmark and vice versa. Later on he travelled some years in France and Italy.

Holberg was promoted to the chair of public eloquence at the University of Copenhagen (est. 1479); some years later he was promoted to the chair of history - and he was a Rector and a Treasurer for some years, too [2].

The writings of Holberg

Holberg was a great scholar and a highly productive and versatile writer. His writings were on natural law and natural rights, history and philosophy, but he also made up scathing satires and vivid comedies that are performed even today. Some of the comedies are »The Political Tinker«, »Erasmus Montanus« and »Jeppe of the Hill« [3]. Holberg wrote against haughtiness and false wisdom - in the comedies and in his essays.

In the essays - the 'Epistles' - he discussed many problems of contemporary importance; like other European writers of that time he - for instance - grappled with the insoluble theodicy-problem [4].

Great Heroes

In 1739 Holberg published 'The Achievements of Great Heroes' [5]. He had taken inspiration from the ancient Greek writer Plutarch, who once compared outstanding Greek and Roman figures.

'The Achievements of Great Heroes'. Click the image to enlarge it.

Holberg wrote about 12 pairs: Zoroaster and Mohammed [6], Sulla and Caesar, Socrates and Epaminondas - and Zizka [7] and Scanderbeg. The figures were - as it appears - highly important figures from different times and different places.

One of the favourites of Holberg was Socrates, whom he highly appreciated because of his approach to knowledge and his moderation.


Scanderbeg was appreciated as one of the greatest generals ever lived - and for his modesty. According to Holberg Scanderbeg never overrated his position, but stood up as an humble Christian Soldier [8] since he left the Ottoman army and abandoned Islam.

One of the rare Holberg manuscripts (at the National Library in Oslo, Norway). This page is from the story about Scanderbeg - and is written by a scribe of Holberg's. Holberg himself wrote the draft - and the marginal notes in the final manuscript. Click the image to enlarge it.

Writing about Scanderbeg Holberg took the work of Marinus Barletius (or Barleti) [9] as a starting point, but he formed his own judgment. Possibly, he had an aim of his own to pursue - to promote certain virtues and to discredit other ones.

Holberg realized that Scanderbeg - with limited support - was capable of holding his ground against the Ottoman forces. Even more, he fought the enemy vigorously, defeated him and often put him to flight.

Holberg took an interest in Scanderbeg because of his great military achievements against the Muslims. Here we have to bear in mind the Ottoman attack on Vienna in 1683 [10] - and the Habsburg attack on Kosova and Macedonia in 1689 [11]. At the time of Holberg the Ottomans still were to be considered a dangerous neighbour.

From Marinus Barletius: »Historia de vita et gestis Scanderbegi Epirotarum Principis«. Click the image to enlarge it.

True, the Ottomans had to give up against Vienna, but the Habsburgs had to withdraw from Kosova too, and that with the Patriarch Arsenije and many Serb followers.

The clashes between the Albanian princes and the role of Scanderbeg

Barletius - and Holberg - is telling about the clashes between the Albanian princes; we understand that Scanderbeg was the leading Albanian prince who could-and-would fight the Ottomans; he united the Albanian princes, but he was not followed unanimously, and some of the princes - from time to time - allied themselves with the Ottoman Sultan.

Scanderbeg therefore also had to make alliances with foreign magnates - the Pope in Rome and the King of Naples. Scanderbeg was an outstanding general, but a master in political manoeuvring as well - and had to be, to uphold his stand. When he passed away in 1468, the Ottomans profited greatly - politically and militarily.

Reading Holberg today

Reading Holberg today is quite feasible for Danes - because of the precise language [12] - but difficult too, for it is not possible to adopt the political and theoretical standpoints. Some of his most important stands on common matters - on the other hand - remain valid. His critical approach has been an important inspiration for the posterity, but many of his conclusions have been abandoned - and his historical scepticism has been further developed.

Today, the conflicts in the Balkans are not the same as in the time of Scanderbeg, nor as in the time of Holberg. The Albanians do not fight the Turks, on the contrary they cooperate in the military field. Furthermore, Albania is not involved in a religious or ideological strife between Muslims and Christians. And now, the agenda is to unite the European nations in the European Union for their common good - not to separate them.


1) MA in Danish Philology & Cultural Sociology (Cph.). An editor of an electronic weekly and the author of some books about Albanian matters (in Danish), cf. http://bjoerna.dk.

2) At that time the University met severe problems. Most of the buildings and libraries were destroyed by a great fire in 1728 - and for some years the research and education stagnated. Holberg analysed and criticized the institution. Some years later - in 1788 - a radical reform was carried out. Holberg supported the foundation of the Soroe Academy, a modern institution compared with the University.

3) English editions are available at the internet, cf. http://www.ibiblio.org/gutenberg/etext04/cmdhl10.txt.

4) There is, many were thinking, an fundamental inconsistency between a world predominated of agony and misery - and the postulate of an almighty, all-merciful and omniscient God.

5) Published in Danish. It came out in German too at the time of Holberg.

6) Holberg turned on against Mohammed and Islam, since he found a discrepancy between Islam and a rationalistic approach - which he himself supported.

7) Jan Zizka (John Zizka) was a Bohemian General who fought with the Roman Emperor, Sigismund, in the Hussite wars in the 15th century.

8) Possibly, Holberg would not have appreciated the Greek inscription at the seal: Emperor of Rome and King of the Albanians, the Serbs and the Greek.

9) 1460-1512 or 1513.

10) Headed by the grand vizier, Kara Mustapha Pasha - a brother-in-law to Ahmed Köprülü from the Albanian Köprülü-family.

11) Headed by the Habsburg General Giovanni [?] Piccolomini - and Georg Christian von Holstein, who was a relative of the Danish King. Pius II - a pope at the time of Scanderbeg - was a Piccolomini too.

12) But the style is old-fashioned and the meaning of some of the words have changed since then.

Literature and information


Minna Skafte Jensen: A Heroic Tale: Marin Barleti's Scanderbeg between orality and literacy. Cf.: http://miqesia.dk/Barleti-Scanderbeg.htm [this note has been added 17th March 2006]

The seal of Scanderbeg at the Danish National Museum. Information from Dr Peter Pentz.

Peter Pentz: »Den store Albaner«. An article about the seal and Scanderbeg in the »Sfinx«-magazine, March 2003. Cf. http://www.hum.au.dk/sfinx/TidsskriftetSFINX.html

Information from Karsten Fledelius, Assoc. Professor, the University of Copenhagen.

Bjoern Andersen: http://bjoerna.dk/albansk-historie/Seal-of-Scanderbeg.htm

Bjoern Andersen: »Krudttoenden i baghaven«, Soeborg, Denmark, 1999 - the chapter on Scanderbeg. Cf. http://bjoerna.dk/albansk-historie/krudttoenden.htm

Ludvig Holberg

'Epistles' and 'Memoirs' [»Epistler«, »Moralske Tanker« and »Memoirer«]. The annotated editions by F. J. Billeskov Jansen.

The chapter on Zizka and Scanderbeg in 'The Achievements of Great Heroes' [Danish scientific edition by Carl S. Petersen of the collected works of Holberg, vol. XI, Copenhagen 1931]. I have published the chapter in Danish - with some illustrations - at the internet: http://bjoerna.dk/albansk-historie/Holberg.htm. Later on the chapter maybe could be translated into English and Albanian.

Comedies, cf.: http://www.ibiblio.org/gutenberg/etext04/cmdhl10.txt, introduction in English and three comedies translated.

Readings of Professor, Dr F.J. Billeskov Jansen (†).

Literary handbooks and encyclopaedia (in Danish).

The University of Copenhagen

Ole B. Thomsen: »Embedsstudiernes Universitet« vol. 2, Copenhagen 1975.

Vienna 1683. Kosova 1689. General Piccolomini and Georg Christian von Holstein

Barbara Jelavic: »History of the Balkans«, vol. 1, Cambridge 1983.

Noel Malcolm: »Kosovo. A short story«, MacMillan, London 1998.

Documents from the Holstein-family at Rigsarkivet (the Danish National Archives).

Information from Kriegsarchive in Vienna.

You are welcome to quote if you specify the source: bjoerna.dk