Denmark - Culture Smart!: The Essential Guide to Customs & Culture

Denmark - Culture Smart!: The Essential Guide to Customs & Culture

by Mark Salmon, Culture Smart!


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Mention Denmark and some people will think of marauding Vikings with horned helmets or one of Denmark’s more famous exports—Carlsberg beer—or the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen. But of the Danes themselves they may know very little. The Danes tend to be more relaxed and less formal than their fellow Scandinavians—and more independently minded. In fact, Denmark used to be referred to by its puritanical northern neighbors as “the loose woman to the south.” This book gives an insider’s perspective on Danish home, work, and social life, and on the Jantelov—the principles underpinning the traditional Scandinavian virtues of modesty, equality, and social cohesion, but which also warn against the dangers of individualism. This book offers many practical tips on travelers should conduct themselves in Denmark and what to expect in social situations. Readers will discover that, beneath their quiet northern reserve, the Danish people are friendly, fair-minded, civilized, and warm.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781857338843
Publisher: Kuperard
Publication date: 06/24/2019
Series: Culture Smart! Series
Edition description: None
Pages: 168
Sales rank: 631,138
Product dimensions: 4.20(w) x 6.60(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Mark Salmon grew up in Ireland and is a jurist and educator. A graduate of Trinity College, Dublin, he practiced company and commercial law for 10 years before resuming his studies at the National University of Ireland and gaining an M.A. in English Literature. He immigrated to Denmark in 1998, where he worked as a teacher specializing in Business English and as a translator and cultural consultant. He is now Senior Legal Counsel for the Danish international business conglomerate Maersk.

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Surrounded by sea, except for its slim southern border with Germany, Denmark is almost an island. Lying approximately 56° North and 11° East, it forms a bridge between Scandinavia to the north and the rest of the European continent to the south, a position that has resulted in the unique blending of continental European and Scandinavian values and ideals that is peculiarly Danish.

In area, Denmark is 16,631 square miles (43,075 sq. km) — approximately twice the size of Massachusetts. The peninsula of Jutland makes up roughly two-thirds of the total landmass, the rest consisting of around five hundred islands of varying sizes. The largest of these islands is Zealand (Sjælland in Danish), on which Denmark's capital, Copenhagen, is situated. The second-largest island lying between Zealand and Jutland is the island of Funen (Fyn), on which Denmark's third-largest city, Odense, is located. Zealand and Funen are separated by a body of water known as the Storebælt, or Great Belt. This waterway was spanned by the Storebælt Bridge in 1997, then one of the largest of its type outside Asia, and briefly the world's largest suspension bridge.

The island of Funen itself is separated from Jutland by the Lillebælt, or "Little Belt," which was first bridged in the 1930s, although the modern bridge was built in the period 1965–70. The rocky island of Bornholm, which lies to the east between Denmark and Sweden, is a popular summer vacation destination for many Danish families. The Danish kingdom also includes two North Atlantic self-governing regions: the Faroe Islands and Greenland.

Denmark's terrain could best be described as flat with some gently rolling plains, the highest point being Ejer Bavnehøj, at some 568 feet (173 meters). The soil is moraine — glacial deposits — from the Scandinavian and Baltic regions. In Northern and Western Jutland the soil is quite sandy, while in Eastern Jutland and the islands it is more fertile. The exception is Bornholm, which is granite, thinly covered by a layer of moraine.

Most people live near the coast, and there is a strong marine tradition. There are many rivers, the largest of which is the Gudenå, part of the Silkeborg Lake District in Jutland, which is some 98 miles (158 km) long, and is popular with Danes for leisure activities such as boating, fishing, and kayaking. The largest lake in Denmark is the Arresø, on Zealand. There are plenty of sandy beaches on its 4,545-mile (7,314 km) coastline, with the west coast being particularly favored by German tourists. The influx of tourists, while welcome, caused the Danish government to pass a law preventing foreigners from buying vacation homes in Denmark (which are exempt from property taxes), as they were afraid this would drive up house prices beyond the reach of ordinary Danes.

Much of Denmark's natural environment was heavily exploited in the nineteenth century, and as a result only 2 percent of its natural streams remain unaltered, while most of its woodlands are today planted for timber production, recreation, or conservation purposes. The intense cultivation of the land resulted in the loss of many animal species. This exploitation and loss led to a growing environmental awareness among the Danish people. Today restoration projects are widespread throughout the country as a consequence of a nature management act implemented in 1990. Denmark is a nuclear-free zone and has experimented with alternative forms of energy supply — predominantly wind power. Danish businesses are taxed on the amount of carbon dioxide emissions they make, and the European Environmental Agency is located in Copenhagen. Recycling is popular, with approximately 70 percent of all waste being recycled, and public littering is almost unheard of.

The population of Denmark is roughly 5.8 million, of which some 70 percent live in urban areas. Approximately two million Danes live in the major cities of Copenhagen, Århus, Odense, and Ålborg. The vast majority (roughly 86.9 percent) are ethnic Scandinavian, while the remainder consists mainly of Inuit, German, Turkish, Iranian, and Somali. As a result, the influence of foreign cultures on Denmark has been minimal to nonexistent. At the time of writing 81.9 percent of the Danish population are over the age of fourteen and the birth rate stands at 10.6 per thousand. If this demographic trend continues, the Danish social welfare system could come under intense pressure in the future, as there will not be enough people working to support those in retirement.

The Danish climate is officially described as temperate, which is surprising when one takes its northerly location into consideration. It does, however, benefit from the warming waters of the Gulf Stream. The coldest winter months are January and February, when temperatures are around the freezing point. High humidity and cold winds contribute to making things feel much colder, and drive most people indoors during winter. Rainfall is frequent, particularly in July and August, but is spread reasonably evenly throughout the year.

Denmark enjoys long hours of daylight during the summer. The longest days occur in late June, with up to seventeen hours of daylight. In the winter, however, this can fall to eight hours, and the Danes put a great deal of effort into making their hibernatory existence as comfortable as possible.


Denmark has been inhabited since prehistoric times. Agriculture was established around 3000 BCE, and by the Bronze Age (c. 1700–500 BCE) people were burying their dead in burial mounds with their possessions. Sophisticated bronze artifacts have been found in rock tombs from this period. During the succeeding Iron Age (c. 500 BCE–1 CE) climate change caused migration south from Scandinavia into Germany, and there is also evidence of Celtic immigration to Denmark. There was trade with Rome and later, as agricultural land became depleted, conflict with Roman settlements in Gaul.

The ancestors of today's Danes were among the tribes that arrived in the Germanic mass migrations of the fifth to seventh centuries CE. Known as Daner or Dani, they arrived from southern Sweden in around 500, and became a great power based on the Jutland peninsula, southern Sweden, and — for a brief period in the eleventh century — eastern England, raiding and trading throughout the rest of Europe.

The Viking Period (c. 750–1035 CE)

Scandinavian raiders, mostly Danes and Norwegians, terrorized the British Isles and the Frankish Empire from 750 to 1035 CE. They were given many names by those they dealt with, being called Normanni (Northmen) by the Franks, Gall, meaning stranger or foreigner, by the Irish, and Rus by the Slavs, from which the name Russia comes, derived from the Finnish ruotsi — a name for the Svear (modern day Sweden) — which itself came from the word for rowers or a crew of oarsmen. Only the English referred to them, periodically, as Vikings. While the precise etymology of this word remains uncertain, some claim it means a traveler or explorer. The Old Norse expression "to go a-viking" meant to explore. In Old Norse the word vik meant a creek or bay, suggesting that a Viking was one who kept his ship in a bay. Yet another explanation is that it comes from the word vikingr, meaning a pirate or raider.

The first mention of Viking raids is recorded in 793, with the plundering and burning of the monastery of Lindisfarne, off the Northumbrian coast of Britain. There is evidence, however, that a large part of Denmark was already an organized state by around 750. This can be seen in the construction of the Danevirke, or "Dane work," at around that date. This was a frontier wall of wood and earth built near Hedeby, close to the modern Danish–German border.

The Vikings came from all parts of Scandinavia, but each group had its own overseas sphere of influence. The Danes came to dominate the northeast of England and spread along the coast of Western Europe. In the late ninth century the area of England they conquered and colonized was known as "the Danelaw." Today there is little evidence in Danish society of the more violent aspects of its delinquent past. The Danes are, however, very proud of their brief Viking heritage, and there is a distinct Viking influence in modern Danish jewelry. They have also retained a love of travel and exploration as well as of the sea. One of the largest shipping companies in the world, Maersk, is Danish-owned, and it is one of the largest employers in the Danish private sector.

The history of Denmark as a country ruled by a central figure could be said to have begun in the mid 900s under the reign of Gorm "the old," the son of an invading Norwegian chieftain, Hardegon; the Danish monarchy, the oldest in Europe, traces its lineage back to him. Gorm's son, Harald "Bluetooth," extended and consolidated his rule to all of Denmark, and began the conversion of Denmark to Christianity. Harald's son, Sweyn Forkbeard, and grandsons, Harald II and Knud II (Canute the Great), extended Denmark's rule to England. Knud II, an ardent Christian, completed the conversion of Denmark to Christianity. He was acclaimed King of England by Danes and Anglo-Saxons alike. Denmark's Viking era, and Viking rule in England, ended with the death of his son, Knud III, in 1042.

The Middle Ages

The Middle Ages in Denmark were characterized by violence and civil war that created power vacuums, which rival lords rushed in to fill. Some of the more notable events of the period include the assassination of Knud IV, "the Holy," in 1086, as a result of his introduction of the first personal tax into Denmark. He had been chased out of Jutland by rebellious farmers, who cornered him in a church in Odense on the island of Funen, and stabbed him to death. The assassination in 1131 of Knud Larvard, Duke of Slesvig, the popular nephew of the then aging King Niels (1104-34), led to civil war resulting in the death of the heir to the throne, Magnus the Strong, King Niels, and five of his bishops. The strife eventually ended with the accession to the throne of Knud Larvard's son, as Valdemar I, in 1157. The coat of arms that remains the emblem of Denmark today, three blue lions on a yellow field with small red hearts, dates from this period.

Valdemar "the Great" united a country tired of bloodshed. It was during his reign that the first history of the Danes was produced, written (in Latin) by Saxo Grammaticus. Shakespeare later used one of the accounts from this history as the basis for his tragedy Hamlet. Denmark's progressive tradition could be said to have its beginnings during this time. His son, Valdemar II, enacted Denmark's first written laws, known as the "Jutland Code," in 1241, and his descendants introduced laws outlawing imprisonment without just cause, the first Supreme Court, and replaced the old hof, or court, with a new and more powerful National Council known as the Rigsråd, comprised solely of nobles and senior clergy.

Valdemar I built a castle in the village of Havn, which led eventually to the foundation of the city of Copenhagen. He and Bishop Absalon built Denmark into a major power in the Baltic, competing with the Hanseatic League, the Counts of Holstein, and the Teutonic Knights for trade territory and influence.

The Union of Kalmar, 1397

Dynastic ties between Denmark and Norway had been formed when Margrethe, daughter of Denmark's Valdemar IV Atterdag, married Norway's Håkon VI in 1363. Their five-year-old son Olav succeeded to the Danish throne on the death of his grandfather in 1375, and to the Norwegian throne after the death of Håkon in 1380. When Olav died in 1387, at the age of seventeen, Margrethe I became the official head of state in both countries.

In 1388 rebellious Swedish nobles sought Margrethe's assistance against their king, the German-born Albert of Mecklenburg. She sent Danish troops to Sweden in return for the Swedes' acknowledgment of her as their sovereign. Finally, in 1397, she constitutionally formalized the Union of Kalmar between the three kingdoms of Denmark, Sweden, and Norway. Her grandnephew, Erik VII of Pomerania, was crowned King of Scandinavia, although she in fact controlled the state's affairs. Under the terms of the Union she agreed to protect the political influence and privileges of the nobility, and each member state retained a fair degree of self-government. The main purpose behind the Union was to fend off the growing influence of the Hanseatic League over trade in the Baltic. This union was tenuous at best and finally fell apart when the Swedes elected their own king in 1523. Norway, however, remained under Danish rule until the Swedes took it over in 1814.

After Margrethe's death in 1412, Erik VII ascended the Danish throne. He is probably most noteworthy for concentrating his power around the Øresund, the sound between Sweden and Denmark and gateway to the Baltic. To this end he moved his capital to Copenhagen in 1417, taking it back from the Bishopric of Roskilde, to which it had been granted by Margrethe in 1375. He built the castle of Helsingør to the north of the city, where the sound was less than three miles wide, installed cannons there, and reinforced the castle of Helsingborg on the opposite shore. Erik curbed the privileges enjoyed by the Hanseatic League, which had become so powerful that it almost controlled the Danish economy at this time. His introduction of the Sound Toll of a silver coin on all passing ships led to open war between the League and Denmark, which the League ultimately lost. In the sixteenth century Denmark grew rich on the increased traffic through the Øresund, which it was able to tax.

Erik was ousted in 1438 by the state councils of both Denmark and Sweden, following an uprising in Sweden, and Denmark fell under de facto aristocratic rule with the figurehead king of Christoffer III on the throne. During this time the members of the Hanseatic League had their old privileges reconfirmed. Christoffer III was succeeded by Christian I in 1448. Christian I was a spendthrift, and is best remembered for instituting the Knighthood of the Order of the Elephant, and founding the University of Copenhagen in 1479. When he died in 1481 his son, Hans, succeeded him and paid off his father's many debts within ten years. King Hans was also responsible for the foundation of the Royal Danish Navy, a new idea in Europe at that time. He successfully challenged the monopoly of the Hanseatic League, opening the straits of Denmark to all in 1511.


The Hanseatic League, or Hansa, was an alliance of trading cities that maintained a trading monopoly over most of Northern Europe and the Baltic states in the late Middle Ages. It was officially founded in the city of Lübeck in 1356, and reached the height of its power in the late 1300s, when there were over eighty member cities in the alliance. Hansa cities were strategically located along the main trade routes. They were independent from the local nobility, owing allegiance directly to their respective sovereigns. The League fell apart in the late 1600s as a result of infighting and a combination of the social and political changes that accompanied the Reformation and the expansion of the Ottoman Empire.

Christian II, who succeeded him in 1513, is best remembered for the "bloodbath of Stockholm," in which he had eighty Swedish noblemen massacred following the imprisonment of the unionist Archbishop of Uppsala. He planned to reduce the power of both the aristocrats and the Hansa. They in turn supported the Swedish independence movement led by Gustav Vasa, later King Gustav of Sweden. The Danish aristocrats renounced allegiance to Christian II, and offered the throne to Frederik, Duke of Slesvig and Holstein, son of Christian I, the younger brother of Hans. In 1523 Christian II was driven out of Denmark. He tried to seize Norway, but was captured and imprisoned for the rest of his life. He died in 1559.


Frederik I (1523–33) invited Lutheran preachers to Denmark in an attempt to weaken the influence of the Danish bishops. Among these was a former monk, Hans Tavsen, who preached in Viborg and later Copenhagen to great effect under the protection of the King. On Frederik's death in 1533 the majority of bishops and aristocrats at first refused to elect his eldest son, Christian, as successor, fearing that he would encourage the spread of Lutheranism. (Christian had personally attended Luther's plea at Worms in 1521 and had become a devout Lutheran. His father had let him rule Northern Slesvig, where he carried out a reformation of the Church in the latter end of the 1520s.) Instead they postponed the election, thereby turning Denmark into a de facto aristocratic republic. The deposed Christian II, however, was the first choice of the burghers and the peasants, and the postponement led to a revolt.


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Copyright © 2019 Mark Salmon.
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Table of Contents

Map of Denmark,
Key Facts,
Chapter 6: TIME OUT,
Further Reading,

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