I’ve been trying to think back to what I knew about Swedish history before I made my second home there twenty years ago. It turns out to be very little.
There were the Vikings, of course. As schoolchildren we loved the Vikings – far more than those awful Roman and Norman invaders. Raiding us in their wonderful dragonships, burning monasteries, slaughtering the poor English, and dragging our best-looking women off to Iceland to mate with them. (Apparently there’s as much British DNA in Iceland today as there is Nordic. I imagine – and this has been borne out by my experience since – that the Scandinavians’ own women were too tough and assertive to want to join in their menfolks’ ‘silly boys’ games’.) Pinned up on a door of a church in Essex, where I come from, there is – or at least used to be – a scrap of what looks like leather in a frame, which we learn is the pelt of a Danish invader skinned alive and put up there to deter any more from coming over. That still gives me a frisson to think about it. Oh yes, we knew about the Vikings.
But then my Swedish friends tell me that the ones that went about raping and pillaging were all Norwegians and Danes, quite different from the Swedes who merely traded peacefully with the peoples to the east. I must say I’m sceptical. But if it’s true, it turns out I know nothing about tenth-century Sweden, either.
After that – what? I studied history at university, but don’t remember Sweden ever coming into the picture before the end of the Second World War, and the wonderful ‘Swedish model’. No Gustavus Vasa, no stormaktstiden, no nothing. That’s a thousand years of – one could only assume – sitting around, eating raw fish, cross-country skiing, designing nice furniture, not troubling anyone, and cannily avoiding wars – even if that meant leaving others to save them from Hitler. (OK, sorry. I understand. I really do.)
My own first serious engagement with Swedish history came quite fortuitously. It helped fill in some of that thousand-year gap. I was researching on early Victorian British travellers on the European continent, and came across one who wrote three interesting books about, firstly Norway, then Sweden, then Denmark. He was called Samuel Laing (the elder), and came from the Orkneys, which of course have a far stronger Norse heritage than a Celtic or Pictish one. (They were actually part of Norway up to 1468. They still have annual longboat-burning ceremonies.) He was a businessman, whose kelp business failed, causing him to move to Levanger in the north of Norway, and start farming there. He found that as a Scot he could understand the Norwegians fairly easily – better than he could the English. He became interested in ancient Nordic literature, and published a translation of the Icelander Snorre Sturlasson’s Heimskringla, which is still in print. But it was his impressions of early nineteenth-century Norway and Sweden which interested me more; and laid the (somewhat unreliable) foundation of my knowledge of both countries thereafter.
Laing’s Scandinavian travelogues are fascinating in many ways – enough I think to be worth republishing, in translation if necessary, for modern Scandinavian audiences. Much of the material in them is about social customs in the two countries, some of which I recognised when I became acquainted with Sweden myself. (His descriptions of formal dinner parties are quite amusing. Refusing a third helping of the fifth course – probably more sill – he was accused by his angry host of ‘insulting the entire Swedish nation!’) But it was his political and economic observations that I found most fascinating. For Laing was an early and quite zealous champion of free market liberalism – he was cited as a source by John Stuart Mill in his Principles of Political Economy – which at that time was believed to be the best guarantee of economic equality between the classes. Things have changed, of course, since. (Mill wrote in a later edition of his Political Economy that if the free market turned out not to conduce to equality, he for one would become a ‘socialist’. Not many people know that.) This was why he so admired Norway, which he saw as a model of democracy, free trade and equality. And why when, on a later – and much shorter – visit to Sweden, he disapproved of that country so strongly that the Swedish ambassador to London wrote to Lord Palmerston to complain. The Norwegians were free, equal and happy; the Swedes still aristocratic-dominated, wasting their time with art (Laing hated ‘high art’), arrogant (especially towards the Norwegians), and far too regulated by the State. This explained their ‘immorality’ – the number of bastards born there – which was the slur that got up the Swedish ambassador’s nose. (Of course, Laing didn’t understand the ‘Stockholm Custom’ – is that right? I can’t find it on Google – which permitted sex before marriage.)
I have to say that on my first visits to Sweden some of this actually rang bells – the ‘statism’ in particular. (I don’t mind it.) Unfortunately I know Norway less well.
For anyone who’s interested, my writings on Laing are lost in rather obscure journals. “‘Monstrous Vandalism’: Capitalism and Philistinism in the Works of Samuel Laing (1780-1868)”, appeared in Albion, vol.23 No.2 (1991); and ‘Virtue and Vice in the North. The Scandinavian Writings of Samuel Laing’, in the Scandinavian Journal of History, vol. 21 (1999). I think they’re quite fun.