Imperial Sweden - Image and Self-image

David Kirby discusses how Sweden's sudden rise to prominence in 17th-century Europe provoked much soul-searching both within and without the country on its nature, its culture and its destiny.

In the seventeenth century it was commonly believed that those who ventured beyond the pale of civilisation were liable to find themselves amongst uncultured and barbaric peoples, in a barren wasteland covered in snow for up to nine months of the year. Menage, one of the minor French poets whom Queen Christina of Sweden (1652-54) managed to attract to her court, wrote mournfully of:

... ces tristes climats
Le funeste sejour des Ventes et des Frimes,
D'ou des aspres Hyvers l'eternelle froidure
A banni pour jamais l'agreable verdure.

(... these sad climes/The funereal abode of winds and rimes,/From whence the eternal cold of winter's ravages/The pleasant greenery for e'er has banished.)

Others of this circle could not face the prospect of dark, long and bitterly cold nights, and simply decamped. Rene Descartes, not so lucky, caught pneumonia and died in 1650.

That 'wit in northern climates will not blow/ Except, like orange-trees, 'tis housed from snow', to cite Dryden, was also a widely accepted assumption. In Les entretiens d'Ariste et d'Eugene, by the French playwright, Bouhours, Ariste declares:

I acknowledge that cultivated minds are somewhat rare in colder countries, because nature is there more languid and mournful, so to speak.

Had Sweden remained the kind of rough-and-ready kingdom fashioned by Gustav Vasa (1523-60) out of the ruins of the Kalmar Union, a vast, sparsely populated territory whose rude and simple native customs were guilelessly revealed to the world by Olaus Magnus, then the image of barbarity need not necessarily have troubled the Swedes any more than it did their Russian counterparts. But the irruption of the Midnight Lion, Gustav Adolf, into Germany during the Thirty Years War (1618-48), a military venture that thrust Sweden to the centre of the European stage, changed all that.

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