Universität KonstanzExzellenzcluster: Kulturelle Grundlagen von Integration

The Royal Father and His Disobedient Children

Fear of Peasant Revolts, Early Modern Political Culture and the Swedish State Power’s Information Dissemination in the 17th Century

Miriam Rönnqvist


The 17th century was in many respects a century marked by change. During this period the Swedish realm, formerly a politically and economically rather insignificant country in the Northern European periphery, far away from the pulsating power centers on the European continent, rose to a great power with unique might and geographical circumference. This period was, however, not only the era of rapid modernization, centralization of the administration and the implementation of state formations, but also the epoch of social disturbance and peasant unrest. Sweden had had her share of peasant unrest in the preceding century, e.g. the Dacke uprising (Dackefejden, 1542–1543) in the Western part of the realm, today's Sweden, and the Club War (Nuijasota/Klubbekriget, 1595–1597) in the Eastern part, today's Finland. Surprisingly, there were no uprisings of similar extent in the 17th century. In spite of the population's dissatisfaction and suffering, due to burdens such as high taxes and the recruitment of young men to serve as soldiers in Sweden's many wars, the indignation of the Swedish people did not resolve itself in a revolution. Nonetheless, I argue that the fear of peasant unrest was omnipresent during this time, and haunted the Swedish aristocracy and the State Council, regardless of the absence of actual rebellion. The political tension was undeniable and can be found in the source material as well as in the historical research.

My view is that there are two main causes for the elite's fear of peasant unrest that are closely linked to the state power's information channels; the knowledge of peasant unrest in other European countries, combined with rather insufficient knowledge about the state of mind of the peasants within the realm, contributed to a highly alarmed state. This led the government to instrumentalize propaganda in order to keep the subjects in line. As earlier research has demonstrated, “everyday resistance” occurred in multiple Swedish provinces, and the Swedish peasants, having a uniquely “influential” political position in comparison to peasants in other European states, were not hesitant to exploit the legal political instruments at their disposition, as well as illegal ones. This fact is closely linked to the political culture in the Early Modern Swedish Empire, and earlier research can generally be divided into two groups: the interactionistic approach (characterizing the relationship between state power and subjects as a dialogue) and the power-state-theoretic approach (viewing the relationship as controlled by the state elite).

In my thesis, in order to gain more profound insight into this relationship, I analyze the Swedish state power’s information channels transnationally, by focusing on national as well as transnational channels of information. Especially interesting is the Diplomatica collection, in which foreign revolts are depicted in the letters of Swedish residents in other European countries (e.g.  France and the German Empire) to the regent or the council. By identifying the sources of information, and studying how information was (not) spread and instrumentalized by the elite, it is possible to depict the flow of information. Acquired information was unarguably a symbol of power. In the case of the Swedish council in the chosen period of study (the 1630s and 1650s), it seemed to be further fueling the fear of peasant revolt. Due to the lack of source material left behind by the peasants, the consulted source material reflects the view of the state elite rather than that of the peasants, which, nevertheless, allows for drawing conclusions about the lowest estate. Apart from the earlier mentioned Diplomatica collection, the source material will include the council's and the Diet's protocols and Chancellor Axel Oxenstierna's correspondent.

In addition to that, could this transgression of information “boundaries”, i.e. the circumvention of official information channels, not be considered a rebellious act in itself? One object of examination will be the manner in which subjects were informed about political events by the authorities. The source basis will consist of the prayer day proclamations (böndagsplakat), initiated by Gustav II. Adolf, and the Diet's propositions. The first mentioned were used to make the subjects obedient, using the prospect of collective salvation of the entire Swedish people as leverage. The subjects were informed about foreign events, but mainly, the proclamations justified the government's political decisions, such as the Swedish intervention in the Thirty Years War. Following the argumentative tradition of the Old Testament, the government argued that it was the subjects' sins that caused war. This meant that according to the government's rhetoric, the Swedish people collectively bore the responsibility for the country's involvement in the Thirty Years War.

The period of time to be analyzed in the thesis extends over two decades, the 1630s and 1650s, both of which belong to an era that in historiography is referred to as stormaktstiden, the time when Sweden was a European great power. The mentioned decades are chosen because of their characteristic features. In the 1630s, Sweden was involved in the Thirty Years War, a period imposing almost unbearable burdens on the Swedish population. Consequently, a highly charged and politically unstable situation arose domestically under the reign of Queen Christina in the 1650s and continued after her abdication in 1654. Under the reign of Karl X. Gustav Sweden was once more at war against Denmark, Poland and Russia. Moreover, it was a decade when clusters of political unrest occurred on the continent. Being reported back to Sweden and evaluated by the diplomats, information on unrest functioned as a catalyst for the government's fear. Rebellion was being perceived as a highly contagious disease that overcame not only national, but also cultural and social borders, threatening to infect the Swedish people. These decades are highly interesting due to their unique political and economic features, and the analysis of the state power's information channels is relevant in order to characterize how peasant unrest was interpreted and communicated.