Iiro Kajanto

Reprinted from: Minna Skafte Jensen (ed.): A History of Nordic Neo-Latin Literature. (Odense 1995) pp. 13-16 - with the permission of Odense University Press [press@forlag.ou.dk.]

In the Early Modern Age from the Reformation to the end of the eighteenth century, there were two fully independent countries in Scandinavia, Denmark and Sweden. Of the others, Finland belonged to Sweden while Norway and Iceland, which had been sovereign states in the Early Middle Ages, were so no longer. However, Norway was united with Denmark by dynastic policies in the late fourteenth century, and it remained under Danish rule until 1814 when Denmark ceded Norway to Sweden. The union with the Swedish C rown lasted until 1905 when Norway declared its independence. Iceland, settled by Norse people, fell under the rule of Norwegian kings in the thirteenth century, and later passed into Danish possession together with Norway. Iceland obtained a degree of se lf government after the First World War, and in 1944 by a plebiscite it became a sovereign republic.

The Nordic peoples can truly be claimed to constitute a distinctive unity. Besides geography a most important unifying factor is language. Right up to the early Middle Ages, Scandinavian, a subbranch of the Germanic languages or North Germanic, was undif ferentiated. It was only after the ninth century that some slight differences began to develop between eastern and western speakers of the language. Today Swedes, Danes and Norwegians by and large understand each other's languages. Icelandic, however, has a special position as it has retained many features of Old Norse.

The great exception to the unifying factor of language is Finnish. This is a non Indo European language brought to the country by settlers coming from the Gulf of Finland and originally from what is now called central Russia. But Finland has always been considered a Nordic country, which is historically justifiable. Before the Finnish trib es which had settled in the country had succeeded in forming a separate state, the Swedish kings, by three successive crusades between the mid twelfth and late thirteenth centuries, christianized the country and annexed it to the kingdom of Sweden. Finland was governed as part of Sweden until 1808, which has left an indelible imprint on its social and cultural structure.

Religion was another unifying factor, though its importance is today greatly reduced. In the Middle Ages the Catholic faith prevailed in the North as it did elsewhere in Europe. But the Reformation brought about a radical reorientation, the subtle influe nces of which penetrated far beyond the merely religious field. Because of the proximity of Protestant North Germany, and probably also because of the greater distance from Rome, the Lutheran reformation rapidly spread to the North. As early as 1527 the C atholic Church was deprived of its privileges in Sweden. In Denmark the Reformation triumphed only a decade later; nor did Norway and Iceland lag far behind. The other major variety of Protestantism, Calvinism, never made any conquests in the Nordic count ries.

The Reformation also exerted great and lasting influence on education. Though the downfall of Catholicism and the abolition of its endowments were at first followed by some decline of learning, especially in Sweden, the Protestant reorganization of educa tion launched by Melanchthon was adopted also in the North. Thus, though the use of Latin in the divine service was discontinued and the Vulgate replaced by vernacular translations, the pre eminence of Latin in schools and universities was not affected. In Protestant countries the Bible and the Humanities constituted the basis of education. It is also possible that the Protestant ethic, the value it attached to work and its abhorrence of idl eness, contributed to fostering the spirit of enterprise, which with some justification can be attributed to the Nordic peoples.

Another feature common to most Nordic countries in the Early Modern Age may be mentioned. These countries can be claimed to have enjoyed a relative political freedom and a degree of social equality. In the seventeenth century royal absolutism advocated, for example, by the French philosopher Jean Bodin, as well as the privileges of the nobility, led to the increasing oppression of the common people in many European countries. Though the North was not spared, here this trend assumed somewhat more moderate and different forms.

After Gustav Vasa had been elected king in 1523 Sweden became a hereditary monarchy, but the king governed together with the Council (råd), composed of members of the high nobility, and with the Estates (riksdag), albeit the king always wielded decisive authority. In the latter half of the seventeenth century the Swedish Crown became increasingly absolutist until in 1693 the Estates proclaimed that the reigning king was responsible to none but himself. At the same time, however, the high nobility, which was increasingly turning Sweden into a true feudal state, had its power greatly curtailed by reduktion, by having to return to the Crown the lands which it had earlier lavishly donated to them.

After the catastrophic defeat and death of Karl XII in the Great Nordic War in the early eighteenth century, Sweden adopted a new constitution, which gave all effective power to the Estates. The king became little more than a figurehead. The period of Pa rliamentary Rule was, however, marred by party strife, especially between what were called the Hats and the Caps, which led to increasing intervention by foreign powers such as Russia and France. Finally in 1772 the new King, Gustav III, restored monarchi cal rule by a coup, though the king's powers were considerably more limited than they had been in the age of absolutism.

Developments in Denmark initially followed similar lines. Despite the increasing privileges of the nobility the absolutist tendencies of the age made themselves felt, and in 1660 1664 Frederik III, with the aid of the commons and clergy, established hereditary monarchy and absolutist rule, which was to survive in Denmark until the nineteenth century.

It should be stressed, however, that absolutism in the Nordic countries was not despotic as it was in many continental states, not to speak of czarist Russia. Though the political power of the nobility was circumscribed, in Denmark even more than in Swed en, it still had an important role to play in the service of the state. Nor, except for a period in the seventeenth century, did serfdom seriously imperil the traditional freedom of the Swedish and Finnish peasant. In Denmark, it is true, feudalism was mo re marked, but the Danish peasants were to some extent protected by the local courts and by the Crown. In Norway and Iceland, serfdom never made any inroads.

Language, religion, and social and political structure were, then, the three most essential unifying factors among the Nordic peoples. In the late Middle Ages, the unity of the countries found concrete expression in the Union of Kalmar, concluded in 1389 in the Swedish town of Kalmar among Denmark, Norway and Sweden. The driving force behind the union was Margrethe, Queen of Denmark, who following the deaths of her husband, King of Norway, and of her infant son, Crown Prince of Denmark, had seized contro l of both countries. Moreover, by responding to a call by the Swedes, she defeated their hated king. According to the treaty (extant only in draft) the three states were to have a common ruler and a common foreign policy, but otherwise retain their own la ws and modes of government. In reality, however, the Union was tenuous. It was especially the Swedes who bitterly resented the attempts of the Danes to impose their will on them. The Union was formally dissolved in 1523 when Gustav Vasa, aided by his peas ant troops, expelled the Danes from Stockholm.

Despite these common features and despite one and a half centuries of at least formal political unity, the internal history of Scandinavia throughout most of the Early Modern Age was marked by the armed struggle for hegemony between Denmark and Sweden. B ut in those times war was considered very much part of the natural order and a legitimate means of national aggrandizement.

During the seventeenth century, especially following the rise to the throne of Gustav II Adolf, Sweden rapidly became a great power, defeating the Russians and the Poles and emerging victorious from the Thirty Years' War. The struggle between Denmark and Sweden had at first been successful for Denmark, but after losing two wars in the middle of the century Denmark had to cede her easternmost provinces on the western and southern coasts of what is now Sweden. After a Swedish defeat, however, Denmark in 16 60 regained the province of Trondheim in central Norway. At the end of the century at the apex of her power, Sweden comprised Finland, Ingria around St. Petersburg, the Baltic provinces of Estonia and Livonia, as well as Pomerania, Wismar and Bremen Verden in North Germany.

The final act in Sweden's story as a great power was played in the Great Nordic War 1700 1721. After the succession to the Swedish throne of the young Karl XII, Russia, Poland and Denmark, Sweden's ancestral enemies, combined to avenge their old wrongs. By bold and swift moves, however, the king first forced Denmark to make peace, then turned eastwards to beat the Russians, but after an initial success at Narva, the campaign ended in the catastrophe of Poltava in 1709. As a result of her defeat, Sweden lost Ingria, Karelia in South East Finland as well as the Baltic provinces to Russia. But though Denmark had renewed the war after the Swedish defeats in the East, little was achieved. With some insignificant concessions Sweden retained her former acquisitions from Denmark.

Even without the young king's recklessness, Sweden's debacle would probably have been inevitable. Sweden had overreached herself. Her resources were too modest to keep together an empire separated by the seas and surrounded by envious enemies. But for Sc andinavia the end of Sweden's era as a great power, with its unavoidable and exhausting wars, was no doubt beneficial. The Nordic countries gradually turned to more peaceful pursuits. After many vicissitudes, especially in the case of Finland, and helped by favourable external circumstances, these countries are today among the most prosperous in the world.