A brief history of Denmark: Everything you need to know about the Danes
Danish history and culture have long fascinated people from around the world. From the first Stone Age settlers through the proud Viking connections that still resonate in Danish culture today, on into the modern era in the cosmopolitan, green-oriented city of Copenhagen, Denmark history is a never-ending source of global interest. For centuries, Denmark has been a player at the heart of the tumultuous struggles of the mighty European powers, and the country has long held a uniquely central role in the history of western civilisation.
Today, the health-conscious, environmentally-friendly innovations of Danish culture help keep the country consistently ranked as one of the happiest nations on earth. While the official language is Danish, most residents of Denmark also speak English, and they are eager to share Danish culture with travellers who want to learn more about their land. Visitors marvel at the happy Danish population, revelling in Denmark’s flat but gorgeous landscapes, pristine beaches and waterways, low unemployment, and cozy, walkable cities. Perched on the south side of Scandinavia and the northern edge of the European Union, this tiny but influential nation has been uniquely positioned to spread Danish culture around the globe for millennia. Learn about Denmark history from its first Stone Age residents to the fascinating, preserved bog-men of the Bronze Age, on through the era of the Vikings and Medieval Europe right up to the present in this brief history of Denmark!
Ancient Danish history and the beginnings of Denmark culture
Denmark is the southernmost Scandinavian nation, situated on a peninsula jutting out into the Baltic Sea and extending into an archipelago of some 443 islands. While Denmark proper only covers some 42,000 square km, if you count the Kingdom of Denmark, which includes the autonomous constituent countries of Greenland and the Faroe Islands, suddenly Denmark’s land area balloons up to 2.2 million square km. Not so tiny after all!
The landscapes in Denmark proper are surprisingly diverse, given the small geographical footprint of the country, and the land figures prominently in the history of Denmark. Here you can find popular beaches, incredible forests and pristine cities like Copenhagen, which is at once steeped in history and on the cutting edge of green technology. Copenhagen, just 41 km across the sea from Malmö, Sweden even boasts a harbour so clean that many city residents swim in it every day!
Given Denmark’s location—Germany and the other mighty western European states lie to the south, England to the west, and Sweden and the rest of the great Scandinavian kingdoms loom above in the north and northwest—it’s not surprising that the history of Denmark is a tumultuous one. The history of Denmark has long seen the country at the centre of European and world affairs.
Danish history starts around 14,000 years ago with the first human settlers on the main body of Denmark in what is now called Jutland — appropriately enough since it juts out into the Baltic Sea north of Germany. These hardy, early explorers at the outset of Denmark history first braved the formidable lands of this area shortly after the last Ice Age ended. No doubt that fortitude and resilience are a vital component of the history of Denmark, informing the toughness and stoicism of their later Viking and modern descendants.
These earliest settlers in the history of Denmark lived mostly by hunting, and they followed herds of reindeer northward in the wake of the retreating glacial ice. Early Danish culture found the people establishing villages and quickly spreading out, soon exploring the islands of the archipelago and forming settlements throughout. Modern scholars know this by the discovery of dolmen, burial sites near early settlements that still periodically yield up what are known as “bog-men,” or mummified corpses found in watery graves. These bodies have been preserved due to the unique properties of the soil and water in the region, and are in themselves a fascinating part of the history of Denmark.
But Danish history didn’t leave our intrepid early Danes isolated in their tundra landscape, simply hanging out with the reindeer and occasionally falling into a bog. As early as 1800 B.C., there is evidence that artisans in what is now Denmark were creating tools, weapons and jewellery fashioned from the latest technological innovation of the era: bronze. It is also evident to scholars and archaeologists that these men and women at the forefront of the creation of Danish history and culture were actively trading with other early peoples, some of them from as far away as Mycenae and Crete! So, thousands of years before the glittering, world-renowned city of Copenhagen began drawing young people from the around the world to revel in its fantastic nightlife and bicycle-friendly, green lifestyle, Danish history and culture was already a player on the world stage.
Emerging danish culture, bog-men, and global reach in trade and war
After 500 B.C., the advent of the Iron Age affected Danish history and culture by allowing the Danish people to develop a more complex society. The evidence of Denmark history suggests that at the time, abandoning, then returning to and reusing the same plots of land repeatedly every generation or so was an essential part of the development of a cohesive Danish culture and a sense of connection with the land.
This period in Denmark history is also where we first begin to see strong evidence of a true Danish culture emerging in terms of the treatment of the deceased and burial rituals. Valuable iron jewellery and weaponry was often buried with the people who were being laid to rest in bogs and elsewhere, indicating that the Danish people were making offerings to gods.
Perhaps the most famous of the bodies that have been excavated from bog areas in modern Danish history is the Tollund Man, whose mummified remains were discovered in a bog near the Danish town of Silkeborg in 1950. The burial site shows evidence of offerings being buried along with his body. His remains, as well as those of other so-called “bog-men,” also show evidence that slavery was practiced during this period of the development of Danish culture, and that human sacrifice may have been practiced as well.But one remarkable bog discovery goes much further to illustrate the complexity and depth of the Denmark history and culture beliefs related to offering sacrifices, as well as early Danish culture’s affinity for the sea: an entire boat that was found in a bog, referred to as the Hjortspring find. It is the oldest such prehistoric boat found in Denmark history, demonstrating the skills and craftsmanship of ancient, seafaring Danish culture as well as the importance of sacrifice for maintaining social order. Indeed, this boat is the exact same kind that was depicted in Denmark history rock carvings dating back to the Bronze Age. Interestingly, most of the weapons recovered in the Hjortspring find were of Celtic origin, once again illustrating how far Denmark culture had spread.
Romans and Vikings and Bluetooth — oh my!
By 200 A.D., Danish culture had spread to the point where there were essentially fixed and steady trade routes with the Romans. They traded goods with the Romans ranging from slaves to furs to animal skins to amber in exchange for luxury items from across the farthest reaches of the Roman empire. As early as 100 to 400 A.D., there is evidence that household utensils, intricate weapons and numerous other artifacts from the Roman Iron Age were commonly in use in Denmark culture. The evidence from Danish history also shows that around this time, the complexity of Denmark culture was advancing steadily. A number of archaeological finds seem to indicate that a cultural elite ruled over vast swathes of land, presaging later society in Denmark history with its chieftains and kings.
Perhaps more importantly, this is the period where scholars find that Denmark culture took an important leap forward with the emergence of runes, an early form of writing common to many Scandinavian cultures, but especially prominent in Denmark history.
Around 900 A.D., a related momentous event took place in Denmark history with the rise of King Harald Bluetooth, also known as Harald I. His runic signature is one that is immediately recognised around the world to this day as the symbol we use for Bluetooth devices connected with our computers and phones.
The original Bluetooth is believed to have subdued all of Denmark, and indeed his runic commemoration of that epic event in Denmark history and culture is the first time scholars have found written evidence of the word “Denmark” being used, although they believe it was likely spoken before that time.
But we know why you’re really here — Vikings! Everyone’s favourite bad boys and girls of the early middle ages, and a group that was highly influential in shaping centuries of Danish history and culture. Even with all of their traveling, global contact with a variety of civilisations, and access to luxury items – not to mention the emergence of writing and a more stable, cohesive Danish culture — the early Danes apparently wanted more. What we do know is that early Denmark culture was built around boats and boat-building, and they weren’t afraid to use those skills to their distinct advantage.
Around 800 A.D., the rise of the Vikings signalled a new epoch in the history of Denmark as Danes truly took their place at the forefront of world powers to be feared. It is a fact of Denmark history and culture that the Vikings who originated in Denmark were known as some of the most ruthless and bloodthirsty of the lot, gaining a reputation for inflicting particularly brutal treatment on people they encountered in churches and monasteries on their legendary overseas raids.
The Vikings famously raided England, even heading as far north as the Orkney Islands in Scotland. And while some Vikings chose to settle in this new land—after all the pillaging was done, of course—for many of these early actors in Danish history and culture, raiding was not only an economic godsend, it was a way of life intrinsic to Denmark culture.
By the 10th century, the Viking lifestyle had spread to fully encompass Danish culture as well as that of Denmark’s Scandinavian neighbours, Sweden and Norway, and later Iceland as well. As time went on, various chieftains in each of these countries consolidated their power separately, and we see the beginnings of a true kingdom emerging in Denmark history, led by our well-connected friend, Harald Bluetooth, who ruled for 35 years. Harald’s son Sweyn Forkbeard spread Danish culture even further than his famous father, conquering much of England and establishing for a brief time a unique moment in Denmark history: an Anglo-Danish kingdom which eventually saw Harald’s grandson Canute briefly sitting on the throne of England.
Denmark history and the beginnings of the monarchy
The Viking period drew to a close by the late 11th century, and Denmark history entered a phase of diminished power marked by internal squabbling and power struggles until around the 14th century when Queen Margrethe became the first official head of state in Danish history. The following year, a group of Swedish elites sought her help in forming a rebellion against a German-born king who was exceedingly unpopular, sowing the seeds of her later alliance with Sweden and Norway called the Kalmar Union. This pivotal moment in Denmark history came about as the leaders of these three Scandinavian nations felt compelled to fight the growing power of the Hanseatic League, a group of powerful German elites who dominated regional trade.
Denmark history is marked by the struggles of the monarchy and the Catholic Church in combating the influence of the Hanseatic League, culminating in the league actually invading Denmark, a low-water mark in the history of Denmark. But Denmark culture quickly bounced back, taking advantage of the long Danish history and culture of being great traders, and signed a neutrality pact with Sweden, Prussia and Russia.
However, that move alarmed the British, who sent a fleet of ships to attack Copenhagen, destroying much of Denmark’s navy and forcing their withdrawal from the pact. This was followed by a period in Denmark history in which the Danes remained neutral and actually profited handsomely from ongoing war elsewhere in Europe, until 1807 when a new pact between France and Russia again caused the British to panic in the face of Napoleon’s increasing power in the Baltic region. Once again, British ships sailed to Copenhagen, bombarding the city in a surprise attack that ignited the town in flames before confiscating the entire Danish navy, 170 ships.
In spite of these early setbacks at the outset of the 19th century, by the 1830s Denmark history once again came to the fore, and Danish culture saw flourishing trade as well as great advancements in the arts and literature. Famed Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard was gaining a worldwide reputation, as was “The Little Mermaid” author Hans Christian Andersen and sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen.
By the middle of the 1800s as revolution was spreading across the rest of Europe, Denmark culture showed its remarkable ability to adapt to changing circumstances. At a watershed moment in Danish history, the nation adopted a democratic constitution, ushering in a legislative democracy and limiting the power of the monarch.
The modern era
By the time World War II rolled around, the history of Denmark dictated more or less that neutrality was the way to go. But with Germany aggressively seeking to counter the Allies’ influence in Norway, Hitler staged a rapid invasion and seizure of vital Danish resources and strategic locations. Then the Germans announced that if Denmark’s leaders resisted, warplanes that were currently flying over Copenhagen would commence bombing. Denmark history may not have had its proudest moment, but capitulation was really the only choice at that moment, given the circumstances. For the early war years, the Nazis allowed trade-oriented Denmark culture to continue doing business, and to operate semi-autonomously under their supervision. But by 1943, the Nazis seized power outright.
This led to the emergence of a powerful resistance movement, which redeems the history of Denmark during the war a great deal, as activists notably smuggled some 90 percent of Jews still remaining in Denmark into neutral Sweden.
The post-war years saw Denmark history taking a turn toward social democracy as students and others opposed authoritarianism in all its forms. And indeed, even support for the European Union was and continues to be a bone of contention for some people in Denmark — some 87 percent of Danish voters rejected adopting the Euro as its currency. The stubborn independence we have seen running through the history and culture of Denmark continues to this day. For instance, Denmark was an early adopter of legal same-sex marriage and is a strong proponent of alternative fuel sources. Today, bicycles dominate the city streets and Denmark culture, contributing to a greener world. Indeed, Denmark was named the Green Capital of Europe in 2014, and modern Danish culture has led many Danish companies to become innovators in wind power and other alternative fuel sources.
But Denmark history and culture isn’t all work and no play. Ole Kirk Kristiansen is the Danish inventor of LEGO, the iconic brick and building toys that seem to grow in popularity every year with both children and adults, even in this era of “always-on” screens. The name LEGO comes from two Danish words, “leg” and “godt,” which mean “play well” when put together.
That Denmark culture of innovation and inventiveness continues to this day, as Danes celebrate their part in what has been termed a “New Nordic Wave” of creativity in many fields, including culinary—Copenhagen is home to some of the top-rated, Michelin-starred restaurants in the world—architecture and design.
All taken together, the history of Denmark and a closer look at Denmark culture perhaps illustrates why the Danish people today are consistently ranked among the happiest in the world!
Did you know? Some little-known facts about Denmark history
1. Early Danes traveled far and wide
Denmark history is known for the formidable boat-building and navigational skills of its early people. Danish culture shows evidence that early Viking sailors journeyed not only as far as Byzantium (now Istanbul), but also sailed as far north as the Arctic Circle, south to the Mediterranean Sea, and as far west as Greenland and likely North America as well, long before Columbus “discovered” the continent. They also maintained trade routes that stretched all the way to modern-day Kiev in Ukraine and Novgorod in Russia.
2. Some Scottish people are up to 25 percent Viking!
While many Vikings did settle and intermarry in England, permitting Danish culture to become part of the fabric of that nation’s culture and heritage as well, modern DNA analysis shows that the actual contributions Vikings made in terms of shaping the genes of modern Brits is negligible compared to that of the early Anglo-Saxon invaders from modern-day Germany. However, if you are from the Orkney Islands in Scotland, there’s a 25 percent chance that you carry the DNA early Vikings brought to that land as they spread Denmark culture between 800 and 950 A.D!
3. The Danish didn’t invent the danish
Although in modern Danish culture they occasionally poke fun at visitors with wild tales of the invention of the breakfast pastry named after them, the truth is that the danish was not originally a part of Denmark history. The fact is that the layered pastry was actually invented by Austrian bakers who imported it to Denmark. However! Danish bakeries ran with the concept and have fully taken it to heart, developing ever more intricate versions of the beloved breakfast staple and incorporating it into modern Denmark culture.
4. Bluetooth was originally a guy, not a wireless connection
The famous Bluetooth symbol was the rune—aka the written signature or name—indicating an early Viking king who was a vital player at the heart of Denmark history, Harald Bluetooth. The person who suggested using “bluetooth” for the “short-link” wireless communications protocol in 1997, which was built on a decade of work by Scandinavian engineers, was Jim Kardach of Intel, who happened to be reading a book about Harald Bluetooth and his Viking exploits as they relate to Denmark history.
Quick Denmark facts:
What is the population of Denmark?
The Denmark population, as of 2018 sits at 5,781,190.
What is the religion of Denmark?
Of all the religions in Denmark, Christianity is the most prominent, with 75 percent of the population adhering to Church of Denmark (the “Evangelical Lutheran Church in Denmark” or “National Church”).
What language is spoken in Denmark?
Danish, Greenlandic, Faroese, Germanic are the recognised regional language of Denmark. English is also commonly spoken.
What is the Danish currency?
Danish Krone is the accepted currency of Denmark.
What does the Danish flag look like?
The flag of Denmark is a red and white Scandinavian cross which extends to the flags edges; the vertical line of the cross is shifted toward the hoisted side.
What is the capital of Denmark?
The capital and largest city in Denmark is Copenhagen.
Where is Denmark located?
North of Germany extending into the Baltic Sea, and to the south of Sweden and Norway.
What is Denmark known for?
Vikings, LEGO and green initiatives!
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