“He who wielded Medusa’s head on his shield”: A Danish Historic-Poetic Perspective on the French Revolution

This piece is a part of our ongoing series, entitle “Rethinking the Revolutionary Canon.” 

By Kasper Rathjen

In  1838, the Danish pastor and poet Nikolaj Frederik Severin Grundtvig (1783-1872) gave his lecture, “Mands Minde [In Living Memory], on the history of modern politics, culture, and religion, focusing on the impact of the French Revolution. Even though Grundtvig was only a child when the Parisians stormed the Bastille, he vividly described the transgressions of the revolutionaries as if he had witnessed the assault on the prison. In his lecture, Jacobin leader Maximilien Robespierre seemed to personify the Revolution. In what would become a famous phrase from the lecture, Grundtvig quipped: “Robespierre wielded Medusa’s head on his shield.”[1]  

Greek mythology states that Perseus beheaded Medusa and gifted the decapitated head to the Goddess Athena, who then wielded it on her shield. One might see Grundtvig’s comparison of Robespierre to the Greek goddess of wisdom to be a compliment; however, if we look closer at Grundtvig’s interpretation of the Athena myth – especially in its Roman rendition, Minerva – we see that it is hardly a flattering comparison. Minerva embodies a certain Roman spirit and wielding Medusa on her shield she turns her enemies into stone.[2] Her “ugly Night-Owl” represented the “fake Latin wisdom,” and her origins – born fully armed from Zeus’ forehead – indicates that worshipping her will eventually end in war.[3] In 1869, Grundtvig attached some appendixes to the lecture manuscripts from 1838, in which he reiterated and added to the character of Robespierre: “This mob-idol, who wielded the Medusa-Head and the Guillotine in his shield, was the greatest coward that ever walked the earth.”[4] Robespierre’s project was an affront against the heavens, noted Grundtvig, which became apparent with the dechristianization of France, the implementation of a new Republican calendar, and the Cult of Reason. The assault on monarchy and Christianity was indeed a temporal one, which is perhaps why Grundtvig accused him of wielding Medusa in his shield; he froze his adversaries in time.[5]

Grundtvig is a key figure in Danish history. A strong proponent of liberty in religious and pedagogical affairs, Grundtvig shared many sentiments of the Enlightenment, yet, unlike many of his contemporary Danish liberal nationalists, he despised the majority of the philosophers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Although an obvious caricature, Grundtvig simplified the ideas of Enlightenment philosophy to reason alone. Reason – being abstract, devoid of history, experience, and beliefs – would force the societies of Europe to spin out of control and ultimately, as evident by the French Revolution, into chaos. Societies, he argued, should instead evolve in a living interaction between reason and sensibility, between tradition and aspiration. However, the most important aspect of societal evolution was a temporal one. Echoing the great St. Augustine, Grundtvig summarized the optimal evolutionary process: “Past and future vividly fusing together with the present.”[6] 

In his influential work, Enemies of the Enlightenment: The French Counter-Enlightenment (2001), historian Darrin McMahon described how, to the counter-revolutionaries, “the so-called century of lights represented the single most concerted attack on the Christian religion in the history of humanity, and figures like Voltaire – self-styled philosophes – were directly responsible for waging this war.”[7] In some regards, Grundtvig’s critique resembled counter-Enlightenment thinkers like Burke and De Maistre, although he scarcely references them (we know he at least owned Burke’s Reflections). Clearly drawing upon the notions of the counter-Enlightenment and Paul (1 Cor. 12:14-15), Grundtvig stated:

The democratic equality, which the French sought in their Revolution, is an illusion, which neither shall or can be found in civil societies, unless it would result in a deformity, like a body made up of only hands, or like the old monster is depicted, entirely by heads [the Hydra].[8]

The reference to Medusa and Athena is not just a stylistic take, but instead aims at placing the Revolution in a broader historical and poetic perspective. Epistemologically, Grundtvig was convinced that human reason was limited and that the process of acquiring knowledge should involve emotions and imagination.[9] Following the above, he interpreted and communicated history as a grand play, where traditional history, myths, and religion all fused together to characterize the development of, and interplay between, four different people (the Romans [i.e. Italians], Greek, Jews, and Northerners), often in relation to Christianity. In his philosophy of history, the Romans came to symbolize the adversaries of “Christian civilization.” Being a Christian (Lutheran), Grundtvig saw Rome as synonymous with the Roman Empire’s persecution of Christianity, and the later Papal opposition towards the Protestant Reformation.[10] A malevolent “Roman spirit” seemed to haunt world history. According to Grundtvig, this spirit – in the shape of a classical, Latin heritage – had infected different fields of thought like pedagogy, politics, and theology.

Grundtvig interpreted the “Age of Enlightenment” as relatively uniform and as a direct heir to this Roman spirit. It took root in France and, according to Grundtvig, a notion of absolute rationalism (at first in theology) was here developed by Calvinists (the Huguenots). [11] With King Louis XIV’s Edict of Fontainebleau (1685), Huguenots were forced to flee or convert. The refugees were welcomed by Frederick William, ruler of Brandenburg-Prussia, who became a staunch protector of the Calvinist conviction. Grundtvig uses this refugium to connect his idea of a “French Rational Enlightenment” (and thereby the Roman spirit) with the later German scholars like Wolff, Hegel, and Kant.[12] In France, the persecution of Huguenots also inspired Voltaire’s writings on religion, which Grundtvig interpreted as diatribes against Christianity in general.

Grundtvig attacked French encyclopedists like Voltaire, Condorcet, d’Alembert, and Diderot,[13] and German idealists like Kant and Hegel, accusing them of wanting to free humanity from every conceivable constraint and thereby creating the foundation for the revolution. In a thesis on the Enlightenment, published in 1825, he argued that the philosophy of the eighteenth century only managed to misguide humanity, make it forget its duties, its place in society, and its spirituality. The philosophers of the Enlightenment seduced mankind into forgetting “himself in favor of the world, the spirit in favor of the body, eternity in favor of the contemporary.”[14] Interestingly enough, it was not Rousseau (whose ideals famously captivated Robespierre) who became the primary recipient of Grundtvig’s polemics. Instead he singled out Voltaire as the emblematic thinker of the Enlightenment.

When the theologians joined the Voltairean Enlightenment […] not only did the last defense disappear against the sacrilege that spread from France – especially during the Revolution – to all of Europe, but churches and schools themselves became their allies when they learned to despise Christianity, and stood then defenseless against it obvious enemies that mocked everything divine and favored humanity’s sinful lusts. This Enlightenment, the Semlerean [Johann Salomo Semler, German theologian, rationalist] and the Voltairean, reached us [Denmark] as well.[15]

According to Grundtvig, Voltaire – inhabited by the Roman spirit – spearheaded rationalism, which German idealists like Kant appropriated and further developed. Grundtvig accused Kant of trying to become not just “the complete Man, but God and the entire World.”[16] At the heart of his critique was a resentment towards the idea of natural laws based on rational thought alone. “Voltaire’s gospel,” as Grundtvig spitefully called it, thereby caused a “German revolution in the academic world.”[17] The French revolutionaries, like the German idealists, tried to usurp God, create their own universal laws, and make humankind “Eternal […] in all times and everywhere.”[18]

Grundtvig theorized that the Revolution had failed in its basic rationalistic and abstract conception of humanity as always universally equal. The outcome, he stated, mirrored that of the human head (rationality), which forgot its own body (experience) and heart (sensibility/faith).[19] However, Grundtvig was in no way a reactionary. He acknowledged that something was rotten in the Ancien Régime, and he reflected upon this in his lecture while talking about the conclusion of the uprising in Vendée: “The unfortunate uprising of the Vendées is usually – even by the royalists – explained away with ignorance and superstition, […] Nothing shows how rotten the old French constitution was, when its princes, priests and nobles, at their hearts’ content, laughed at those who fought like they were fools and fanatics.”[20]

From the 1830s on, Grundtvig actively shaped the democratic future of the Danish nation. The lessons learnt from the Enlightenment and the Revolution were that chaos would ensue unless the Roman spirit was kept in check. In academia, he fought against the excessive reliance on Latin and classical texts and teachings, and those who he saw as Minerva’s worshippers.[21] In the field of theology, he fought against rationalistic professors and clergymen.[22] Grundtvig was a proponent of freedom in most matters, but Voltaire and Robespierre had taught him that through the pursuit of abstract ideals or reliance on excessive rationalism, that freedom would degenerate into chaos, unless it was rooted in history, tradition, and faith.


Kasper Rathjen wrote his PhD thesis on the ‘Grundtvigian’ influence in the creation of the Danish modern museums (1850-1950). In 2020, he was appointed researcher and curator at the Fisheries and Maritime Museum in Esbjerg, Denmark. His primary research is on maritime and business history, yet other fields of interest includes nation building, nationalism, and museum history.He is an affiliated researcher at Southern University of Denmark.

Title image: Caravaggio, Head of Medusa, 1598-99.

Further reading:

Allchin, A.M. N.F.S. Grundtvig: An Introduction to his Life and Work. Aarhus: Aarhus University Press, 2015.

Holm, Anders. The essential N.F.S. Grundtvig. Filo, 2019.

Pedersen, Ove Kaj, John A. Hall, Ove Korsgaard, eds. Building the nation – N.F.S. Grundtvig and Danish National Identity. DJØF Forlaget, 2014.

Literature

Begtrup, Holger. N.F.S. Grundtvig. Udvalgte Skrifter, X. København: Nordisk Forlag, 1909.

Grundtvig, N.F.S. Udsigt over Verdens-Krøniken fornemmelig i det Lutherske Tidsrum. Kjøbenhavn: Seidelin, 1817.

Grundtvig, N.F.S. “Om det attende Aarhundredes Oplysning i Salighedens Sag,” Theologisk Maanedsskrift, no. 1 (April 1825): 17-127.

Grundtvig, N.F.S. “Romer-Vise,” Nordisk Kirke-Tidende, (Januar 1837): 17-22.

Grundtvig, N.F.S. “Det danske Samfund,” Brage og Idun: 414-473.

Grundtvig, N.F.S. Brage-Snak om Græske og Nordiske Myther og Oldsagn. Kjøbenhavn: C.A. Reizel, 1844.

Grundtvig, N.F.S. Mands Minde 1788-1838. Kjøbenhavn: Karl Schønbergs Forlag, 1877.

McMahon, Darrin. The French Counter-Enlightenment and the Making of Modernity. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Endnotes:

[1] Grundtvig, Mands Minde, 134.

[2] Grundtvig, Brage-Snak, 247.

[3] Grundtvig, Brage-Snak, 242-250.

[4] Grundtvig, Mands Minde, 585.

[5] Suggested further reading on “revolutionary temporality” between the abstract and concrete: Taylor A. Eggan, “Revolutionary Temporality and Modernist Politics of Form”, Journal of Modern Literature, Vol. 38, No. 3, 38-55.

[6] Grundtvig, ”Det Danske Samfund”, 421.

[7] McMahon, The French Counter-Enlightenment, 18.

[8] Grundtvig, Mands Minde, 124.

[9] Grundtvig, Nordens Mythologi,

[10] Grundtvig, ”Romer-Vise”, 17-22.

[11] Grundtvig, Verdens-Krøniken, 289-90.

[12] Begtrup, Udvalgte Skrifter, X, 321, 323.

[13] Grundtvig, Verdens-Krøniken, 305.

[14] Grundtvig, ”Om det attende Aarhundredes Oplysning,” 29.

[15] Grundtvig, ”Om det attende Aarhundredes Oplysning,” 19.

[16] Begtrup, Udvalgte Skrifter, X, 323-24.

[17] Grundtvig, Mands Minde, 272.

[18] Grundtvig, Mands Minde, 116-17.

[19] Grundtvig, Mands Minde, 165.

[20] Grundtvig, Mands Minde, 186.

[21] Grundtvig, N.F.S. Skolen for Livet og Academiet i Soer. Kjøbenhavn: Wahlske Boghandel, 1838.

[22] Grundtvig, N.F.S. Kierkens Gienmæle. Kjøbenhavn: Wahlske Boghandlings Forlag, 1825.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s