Olof Rudbeck

A few years ago I bought Gunnar Eriksson’s biography of Rudbeck from Ekerö library, where it was being sold (in mint condition and horrendously cheap). It remained in mint condition in my library for some time but I’m glad to have it now that I live in Uppsala, where it’s hard to move a metre without stumbling over Rudbeck. I’ve now have my Rudbecks sorted out and know that I am reading the bio of Rudbeck the elder (1630 to 1702).

He was involved in so much – discovering the lympathic system (I was too squeamish to cope with this chapter) and later having an anatomical theatre built. And other matters, far removed from his professorship in medicine, in the manner of the intellectuals of his period; also his ongoing efforts to reform the university, presented by Eriksson as a battle to overcome the scholastic and Aristotelian remnants of the middle ages and to usher in a more empirical approach.  There is a wonderful episode which I must find out more about where Rudbeck announced a presentation on what was known about nothing, which was perceived (probably correctly) as a provocation (it might be a reasonable question today…). He was also involved in organising a water supply from the castle and housing. And then his magnum opus, Atlantica, where he combines sharp insights and methods anticipating the future with statements about Sweden as the lost continent of Atlantis and Swedish being the root tongue of all languages, which may have served well as an ideology supporting Sweden’s great power ambitions but which were otherwise an oddity. And the last tragic chapter when many of Rudbeck’s manuscripts, including the last part of Atlantica and a substantial part of his library were destroyed in the town fire. He lived long enough to work on plans for Uppsala’s reconstruction but died not long after

My intention was for the Rudbeck bio to be my bedtime reading but it proved far too weighty a work for this purpose. I need to read it carefully and to take notes. I’d like to work my way through the quotes from Rudbeck in seventeenth century Swedish, which, poised on the threshold of hopeful sleep, I skipped. And to know more about the history and organisation of the university and Rudbeck’s academic conflicts. The seventeenth century feels rather late for scholasticism (counting angels on pinheads and all that) and I’d like to know more about Gunnar Eriksson’s reasoning and also about Rudbeck’s relationship to Cartesianism. It’s going to be a laborious plod but I think worthwhile from the point of view of feeling at home in Uppsala.

While checking some facts, I came across a picture of the very fine door to the house where Descartes lived in the Old Town in Stockholm (it’s still there, I have to take a pic) on his tragic visit to Sweden. I’m very suspicious about French people, who move to Sweden. It seems so existentially irresponsible and careless (not to deny this northern country’s many redeeming features but France undoubtedly has some charms that Sweden lacks). And in Descartes case, it was fatal, as he came in October, didn’t get on well with Queen Kristina, who had invited him, and subsequently died of pneumonia so the whole thing was rather a disaster, “I went to Sweden, therefore I am not” as he mumbled to St Peter surprised to find him knocking on the gate of heaven at such an early time. So my bio has generated a visit to Gamla Stan in Stockholm as well as to Rudbeck’s tomb in Uppsala cathedral.

Marika Stjernstedt

Circadian anarchy strikes again and I am keeping Stalinist hours, being awake far into the small hours and then sleeping until noon, although without having the place cluttered up by booze-sodden “chums” (an interesting word, said to originate from “chamberfellow” unlike “bloke”, which comes from Shelta,  according to the Concise Oxford Dictionary, with a startling absence of PC, perhaps explained by mine being the 2004 edition, “a secret language used by Irish and Welsh tinkers and Gypsies “), although “crony” coming from the Greek khronios (long-lasting) might have been a better word, keeping up the association with time, or, on second thoughts, maybe not  bearing in mind that friendship with Stalin was not exactly durable and, in any case, I don’t like megaphone words shrieking “look out, bad guys”, preferring to think for myself rather than being shoved here and there by signpost words. In any case, I much prefer the company of Marika Stjernstedt to Malenkov, Iron Lazar and Kobe.

I’d never heard of Marika Stjernstedt until I found her “Riksäpplet” (1941) at the library with its snippets about Uppsala, written in an older Swedish style, which I’m very taken with. And became more enthusiastic when I read about her life (admittedly a life-long Catholic but she had an abundance of redeeming features, anti-fascist among them). I’ve now moved on to her “Fröken Liwin” (1925) about the travails of an unmarried mother and mother-daughter relationships. My copy retrieved from the library cellar has a wonderful redolent black binding predating the standard library bindings of my youth. It’s stamped IOGT on the front underlying the teetotal salubriousness of my nocturnal activities and has an ancient sticker “Regler för boklån från Logen-Erentuna-Lyckas studiecirkelbibliotek” informing that “person som lånat en bok kan ej låna en annan utan att först hava återlämnat den förra”. When I’ve finished Fröken Liwin, I shall go on with her autobiographical “Kring ett äktenskap”, which I assume is about her second marriage to Ludvig Nordström, most remembered otherwise for “Lort Sverige”.

Whether Marika S will help me sleep is another matter. She is at least suffused with a light red light rather than blue light, which will perhaps help.

Visit to Vaksala church

The brief taste of almost normal life during our cycle trip has made it hard for me not to think of covid-19-related restrictions now that I’m back in my flat. I’m eager to travel, to Germany and the UK, but realise that, if I’m going to be pent up somewhere, then my flat is the most practical place to be. I am, however, finding it hard to concentrate; I’m making good progress with Guy Shrubsole’s “Who owns England?” with its fascinating exposé of land ownership in England. But my other books are less satisfactory. I’m working my way through Richard Robert’s book on the City, a few years old now but still very informative. I would like to grasp its contents but all the various institutions and organisations are whirling around in my head and I need to read it several times, once quickly and then a careful plod. And I’ve also got into David Harvey’s book on “Marx, capital and the madness of economic reason”. It looks like just the book to read if one wants an overview of Marx’s Capital as part of an attempt to understand finance capital without immediately tackling all three volumes and the two or three additional works on surplus value. But I find myself losing the thread and again realise I have to read it quickly to get an overview and then start again.

At least I am making progress with Bengali. It’s still going very slowly but I try and do a bit everyday and am recognising more and more of the letters.

To reduce the feeling of being jaded, I need to be physically active. This morning was satisfactory on that front as I got started early (woken by workfolk doing preparatory work on urbanising a strip of parkland that my flat overlooks, giving me ample opportunity for exercises in self-discipline to keep Nimby at bay).  I cycled to the old church at Vaksala, on my list for a long time with one failed visit when a funeral was taking place. This time I went early and got in (before the rush hours). It’s a fine old church, mostly Gothic but with the remains of an old window in the south wall indicating its Romanesque origins.

There are very few monuments but the interior is livened by the mediaeval wall paintings of the Arentuna school, which are now on view after being covered up. The major sight is the fifteenth century altarpiece made in Antwerp (a bit before the Walloons started to come). I couldn’t find much information in the church about how the altar piece came to Sweden but there is an excellent guide to the altarpiece itself (see my facebook page for pics). There is supposed to be a severed hand, a symbol of Antwerp, in a number of places, but I couldn’t find it, neither standing in front of the altarpiece nor at home looking at a pic with a magnifying class. There were, however, plenty of other grisly details as the centre of the altarpiece showed the crucifixion and the side panels a collection of religious figures, saints, bishops and martyrs, often with an attribute indicating the way they died (a cauldron for a saint boiled to death and various unpleasant sharp objects). The freestanding figures are exquisitely carved and there’s a lot to learn from all the associations; I was grateful for the brochure’s literature list, including a reference to a licentiate thesis from 1958 on the altarpiece, which I shall try to get hold of (covid volente…).

Back from the Walloon country

Just back in Uppsala from our trip to the Walloon iron-making area, full of images of elegant country houses with water features and gardens within a few hundred metres of locations for hard dirty manual labour and pokey rooms, “labbies” where the work force slept during the working week. Were the country houses a later addition? I must try and check this.

I was also struck by the time scale. Iron-working facilities from the mid-seventeenth century, with well-resourced foreign entrepreneurs, swiftly naturalised, who imported skilled labour for rapid technical progress, recruited on the basis of contracts with paid travel and compensation fixed in money terms. This was at least two hundred years before Sweden industrialised in earnest.

It would be interesting to know what these early entrepreneurs did with their accumulated resources.

Part of the key to understanding this is that, although private entrepreneurs were used, the process was driven by the Crown (State) with the aim of providing funds and weaponry for Sweden’s ambitions to be a great European power. The main emphasis in other words is on obtaining articles of use rather than on the circulation of capital in search of continual expansion. It looks like full-blown capitalism with an industrial proletariat, technical advances, large sums invested but it isn’t.

It’s not clear from my sources the extent to which the De Geers had a monopoly of iron working in the areas where they were active. According to Kilbom’s “Vallonerna”, there seem to have been competitors and the poaching of imported labour was a problem. The Walloons were better compensated than the surrounding rural workers (unclear to what extent money was used for the latter or whether they rented farms partly in return for days of labour). The introduction by the De Geers of a certificate of good conduct as a prerequisite for employment gives an indication that the Walloon labour force may have engaged in collective activities not to their employer’s taste.

It took a long time before the Walloons were integrated into Swedish society. I’d like to know more about the social relations in the countryside. Local labour was needed by the Walloon enterprises for transport and preparing charcoal stacks, among other things. Who provided this labour and on what conditions and how was it compensated (tenant farmers with an obligation to provide labour?). I’ve read that Sweden didn’t experience a fully-developed feudal mode of production but I’d like to know more about what this description is based on and what it meant.

I found much of interest in Karl Kilbom’s “Vallonerna”, which, although it has considerable limitations (no footnotes), does take up interesting questions.

I couldn’t place him to start with but later realised that Kilbom was one of the founders of the Swedish Communist Party (before falling out of favour with the stalinists in the 1930s and eventually moving back to social democracy). He was of Walloon descent himself and this book was written late in life.

Kilbom writes a lot about the reasons for the Walloons coming to Sweden, and how this at one time was integrated into an anti-catholic dialogue, the Walloons being persecuted protestants finding a safe haven in protestant Sweden. I think he’s right to be critical of this perspective (the emphasis given to the religious aspects) although it would have been easier to convince me if he had not been so eager to prove the primacy of economic factors.

He also describes the changing attitudes of the Swedish church on how to deal with Calvinism among the immigrants and how the church was restrained from imposing orthodoxy if it led to discontent and turbulence among imported labour (at least until Queen Kristina’s flight to Rome, when there was a general tightening up of religious orthodoxy).

I found a closed museum of metallurgy but no museum which took up the history of the Walloon immigrants, their impact on the Swedish economy with a critical approach to the issues involved. Perhaps there is one – it was hard to judge as much was currently not open. But my general impression was that much more could be made of an area that is of great pedagogic, social and aesthetic interest, which at present has rather weak transport links and where it requires effort to extract information.

It’s anyway a good sign to return from a trip with more questions than when starting. And I feel in pleasantly good form after a week with a high level of physical activity (cycling and walking).