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.

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