Gallery of Philologists
Nikolai Madvig
1 Aug 1804 - 12 Dec 1886

Nicolai Madvig

Johan Nikolai Madvig (pronounced "madvi") had parallel careers in politics and in scholarship. In both, he saw to the education of future generations, especially where that education involved the Latin language.

Madvig was schooled at Frederiksborg and the University of Copenhagen; Wilamowitz-Moellendorff describes him as self-educated. In 1828, at the age of 24, he became reader, and in 1829 Professor, of Latin language and literature at Copenhagen; in 1832 he was appointed University Librarian. He eventually became Rector of the University, a position to which he was elected six times. In politics, he associated himself with the faction which wanted the Eider to be the boundary of Denmark, and on the victory of that party in 1848 he entered Parliament, becoming Minister of Education and, in 1852, Director of Public Instruction. He was President of the Danish Parliament from 1856 to 1863. There is nothing like a self-educated man, who writes it as he learns it, to produce a textbook for other people to use in their turn. Madvig's treatment of Latin is notable for its logical clarity, and his 1841 school grammar was for many years used in several countries. An English translation was made in 1859, and went through many editions.

He was critical of the carelessness of contemporary German scholarship, and like his slightly older contemporary Lachmann, he sought to get back to a truer manuscript tradition. Also like Lachmann, he was limited in the manuscripts which were available to him, but his sense of correct procedure was generally sound, and his influence has been lasting. His great work is generally considered to be his Emendations to Livy and especially his edition of Cicero's De Finibus (1839), which is said to have revolutionized the study of Cicero's philosophical writings. It circulated even outside conventional scholarly circles; Leonard and Virginia Woolf owned a copy.

Madvig wrote a treatise in Latin on the art of conjectural emendation (1871), and let him here be remembered for a small but notable example of that art as applied to a Latin text: Letter 89 of Seneca. We may quote Charles-Victor Langlois:

The old reading was: Philosophia unde dicta sit, apparet; ipso enim nomine fatetur. Quidam et sapientiam ita quidam finierunt, ut dicerent divinorum et humanorum sapientiam . . . which does not make sense. It used to be supposed that words had dropped out between ita and quidam. Madvig pictured to himself the text of the lost archetype, which was written in capitals, and in which, as was usual before the eighth century, the words were not separated (scripto continua), nor the sentences punctuated. He asked himself whether the copyist, with such an archetype before him,


. . . had not divided the words wrongly, and he had no difficulty in reading:


The difficulty is not in reading it, but in seeing what, other than the received version, is there to be read, and in being able to accommodate a new reading when it presents itself.

In 1874 Madvig's sight began to fail; he continued to work as best he could. In 1880 he resigned his professorship but continued with his work on the Roman constitution, which was published lot long before his death. It has not found equal esteem with the products of his earlier years. His final statement, appropriately for an organized person, was an autobiography, Livserindringer, which was published posthumously in 1887.

The Second International Congress of Classical Studies, held at Copenhagen in 1954, was designated the Congressus Madvigianus in his honor.


  • J N Madvig. Latinsk Ordføiningslære. 1841
  • J N Madvig. A Latin Grammar for the Use of Schools. Oxford 1859
  • J N Madvig. Adversaria Critica ad Scriptores Graecos et Latinos. Copenhagen, 3v 1871-1884; repr Olms 1967. The first volume includes a Latin treatise De Arte Coniecturali plus some Greek emendations, the second volume is devoted to Latin emendations. The third continues both series
  • J N Madvig. Kleine Philologische Schriften. Leipzig 1875; repr Olms 1966
  • Esbern Spang-Hanssen. J N Madvig Bibliografi. Kongelige Bibliotek 1966. The last word on the works, in 139 pages

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