17th Century Pastoral Novel

Urban Hiärne, self-portrait at age 29 in 1670.

As a schoolboy I read the first original play performed publically written in Swedish, Urban Hiärne‘s Rosimunda (1665). Me and my friend Tor loved the absurd spelling, the odd changes that had occurred in the sense of many words and some of the comical one-liners. Recently I learned that about the same time Hiärne also wrote the first novel in Swedish, Stratonice (1666-68). Rosimunda deals with bloody intrigue at the Italian court of the conquering 6th century Lombard king Alboin. Stratonice is instead a pastoral romance set in the age of Alexander the Great. It is strongly derivative of the era’s pastoral fiction on the Continent.

Both of Hiärne’s works apparently conceal a subtext about his attempts to woo a certain young lady of high birth, which strikes modern readers as a liiittle iffy when we consider that Rosimunda premiered in Uppsala when Hiärne was 24 and the girl in question 12. (She in fact ended up marrying someone else.) Students at the time cultivated a courtly pastoral fandom based on the output of German pastoral literary societies, which encouraged lyrical devotion to unavailable females. Celadon, a main character in Stratonice, was also Hiärne’s alias in those circles.

Here’s a translation into modern English of Stratonice’s first two paragraphs (complete text here) just to give you a feel for what it’s about. I’ve deconvoluted the syntax and chopped up some of Hiärne’s longest sentences.

In the sixth year of Alexander’s reign, the great son of Philip, king of Macedonia, Thyrsis came from Corinth to Ephesus for the sake of the fair Castizane, whom he had long loved with all his heart. This Thyrsis was a servant of Parmenion and could not stay long in Corinth. But he had travelled a long way and was not far from where his brother Celadon, a shepherd whom he had not seen in a long time, was watering his sheep at a certain stream. And as Thyrsis did not have time to go to Athens, he wrote to his brother and asked him to come quickly to Corinth. Although Celadon had good reason to stay in Athens, brotherly love nevertheless caused him to start upon the trip. It was a cold and dry spring and there was little grazing for the sheep. Celadon, bringing ugly and starved livestock, endured hardship on the road. But his complaints were assuaged by the presence of his dearest brother before Phoebus had driven his tired horses into the Western Sea. And as Thyrsis greeted Celadon with true brotherly love, he would not let him go either before his brother had promised to accompany him to Ephesus – particularly as Parmenion employed three of Celadon’s brothers at his court and had ordered him to come. After three days with favourable wind they arrived at Ephesus in good health, but did not find Parmenion there. When Thyrsis learned that he had gone to his country manor about eleven kilometres from the city, he immediately went there across an inlet of the sea. Celadon, meanwhile, went to see his younger brothers, who greeted him with great joy. They had not seen him since a cruel plague had hit northern Nathaly, frightening these brothers and innumerable others away from the region. And so Celadon stayed at Parmenion’s court, seeing the sights of that famous city, particularly the widely celebrated Temple of Diana. After two days his brother Thyrsis came from Pelignum, where Parmenion stayed at the time, and asked Celadon to come with him there and kiss Parmenion’s hands. And so they went, bringing along Cobalus, Parmenion’s steward, who managed his court and servants. As this Cobalus was acquainted with Celadon and knew that he was not unskilled at drawing and painting, particularly portraits, he would not leave him alone before speaking to him of this.

When Celadon reached Pelignum along with his brother, he had to wait for about an hour in the hall before the august Parmenion was awake and dressed. Meanwhile he greeted Parmenion’s mother-in-law Selenista when she came in. She appeared to be a pious and meek person. Not long thereafter a veritable idol entered, who was beautiful beyond all description. Seeing her, Celadon was as if struck by lightning and felt an unexpected fire in his breast. But it died down considerably when his brother pointed out, as was shown also by the woman’s clothes, that she was of very high birth. She was the daughter of Pausanias, a powerful man, who was held above many other mighty men in the esteem of King Philip of Macedonia. He was the brother of Selenista and had joined Charon’s great army three years previously. Twelve months later his wife joined him, and so this Stratonice and her sister Sophonisbe were placed in the care of Selenista and Parmenion. And just as unexpectedly as Celadon fell in love, he fell out of it again, as when a handful of tow is set on fire and just as swiftly burns out. But he did not realise that a small spark of hope remained, telling him I know not what and encouraging him. Then he was called before Parmenion, who greeted him quite favourably and declared his wish to remain Celadon’s benevolent lord.


Author: Martin R

Dr. Martin Rundkvist is a Swedish archaeologist, journal editor, skeptic, atheist, lefty liberal, bookworm, boardgamer, geocacher and father of two.

26 thoughts on “17th Century Pastoral Novel”

  1. Of course, if the story had been historically accurate, it would have been something like “after lunch, they went out to watch the flogging and execution of an escaped slave”. Not quite as romantic.
    — — —
    Yes, I know we are not supposed to judge past culture by our standards, but…
    “She appeared to be a pious and meek person.”
    “Celadon was as if struck by lightning and felt an unexpected fire in his breast”
    Ballistic vomit.


  2. Both of Hiärne’s works apparently conceal a subtext about his attempts to woo a certain young lady of high birth, which strikes modern readers as a liiittle iffy when we consider that Rosimunda premiered in Uppsala when Hiärne was 24 and the girl in question 12.

    That certainly would not be allowed in the Western world today, but it’s not so unusual historically. Similar subplots occur in some of Heinlein’s novels, and as a real world historical example Mohammed married the then nine-year-old Aisha. Even today there are child brides in some parts of the world; National Geographic had an article a few months ago.

    I’ll agree with Birger that Hiärne’s prose doesn’t hold up well. The first of his examples, unless we are being set up for the “appearances can be deceiving” routine, signifies a useless upper class female, a character type I have always disliked (I prefer stronger female characters). The second has become a staple of bad romance novels.


  3. I’m not making that call myself. Lit scholars are unwilling to count previous dramatisations of Biblical matter as original plays. What sort of play did Messenius write?


  4. Odd, those are clearly independent non-Biblical plays. What do my sources mean when they call Rosimunda the first?


  5. I am always suspicious of statements of ‘the earliest’ or ‘the first example of’, too audacious claims in historical studies. I myself try to wedge in ‘earliest identified’ or ‘earliest extant’ if I am forced to express such statements. Perhaps there are some hidden premises in the lit historians’ definition of plays which exclude Messenius, however.


  6. A slew of Swedish celebrities and entertainers … Anastasios Soulis … Nick Atkinson … Rakel Wärmländer … Andreas Nilsson … Kim Sulocki

    These may or may not be good voice actors. But they certainly aren’t celebrities of any stature. I have never heard of a single one of them.

    Anyway, The Phantom Menace is a power-trip fantasy movie for little boys, so I don’t mind if they dub it.


  7. “…the absurd spelling, the odd changes that had occurred in the sense of many words”

    I am actually surprised anyone could make sense of Linear-B and other archaic languages considering the linguistic drift that happens everywhere and everywhen. The “landscape” of words soon becomes impossible to map to a known language.
    — — — — — — — — — — — —
    Not the Hellenistic era…

    “Engineering images bring life to submerged city” http://www.physorg.com/news/2012-02-images-life-submerged-city.html – structures dating back to 3000 BC!

    (don’t worry, nobody claims it is Atlantis -it is actually Numenor!)


  8. Had an excellent spam comment on this entry. Sometimes the spammers form an idea of what the entry is about and try to write a relevant comment, in the hopes that I will publish it and leave the link to the site they’re flogging in. Here goes:

    “This is such a impressive novel! Pastoral Novel is not best novel of 17th century, This is one of the best novel of the world from the beginning of the world to present time. Thanks for lovely note.”


  9. Woah, this is getting seriously meta! Now a spammer for a Turkish chat site has copied the “This is such a impressive novel!” comment and tried to post it again along with a spam link!


  10. I think this is a relevant link to the problem of writing credibly about people in a world that has long since disappeared -There were no “typical” Greeks, just as there were no typical vikings or typical whatever. Times change, and at any given time there are always subgroups with great differences.

    “The question of life in the ancient world” http://www.physorg.com/news/2012-02-life-ancient-world.html


  11. PS
    “getting seriously meta!” on spammers requires an iron bar… The bodies will make perfectly good Soylent Green.


  12. Funny, not all languages drift at the same speed. I can read (and enjoy!) with minor help from footnotes the Decameron (14th century); I don’t even need footnotes for Galilei, around 1600 – he writes so damn well.

    PS In Italy all movies are dubbed. When I saw the first Star Wars at the end of the sixties, Obi-One Kenobi wished Luke Skywalker “che la forza sia con te!”


  13. Literature conserves a language. Italian was pretty much codified by Dante, right? Swedish, being a small peripheral language, became literary very late.


  14. Martin @21: Literature can be a conservative force in languages, but languages evolve even so. Most English speakers need annotated versions to understand Shakespeare, who was a contemporary of Galileo and only slightly less removed from Chaucer than Galileo was from Dante. Even the differences between Conan Doyle’s English in the 1890s and English as written today are noticeable. Meanwhile, I have been told that Icelandic (an even more peripheral language than Swedish) has changed so slowly over the past 800 years that most modern speakers of the language can read sagas from the medieval era with little or no assistance.

    New languages can also evolve from older languages, too. I suspect that the Swiss dialect of German is on its way to becoming a distinct language from Hochdeutsch (the German of Frankfurt/Berlin); already most speakers of the latter (who are not themselves from the German-speaking part of Switzerland) have difficulty understanding the former.


  15. Eric, Swiss German is just one of the many “incomprehensible” dialects of German that were dominating the population’s language until the late 19th century. Hochdeutsch was really a way to make people in the new Reich communicate, no way a Bavarian could understand a Plattdeutsch speaker from the coastal areas. But the Swiss dialect is typically not written, so I doubt it will develop into a truly distinct language unlike the Dutch language did.


  16. “PS In Italy all movies are dubbed.”

    The reason is that when the first talkies appeared there were so many illiterate people in the audience that subtitles weren’t an option.

    One of my main complaints about Germany (the other is an exaggerated federalism) is that most television and cinema is dubbed rather than subtitles. Subtitled offerings exist, but are about as difficult to find as a public sauna in Sweden where my wife and I can both be nude. 🙂 (Most saunas in Sweden are nude but separate for men and women, in constrast to Germany and the Netherlands.) I find this particularly embarrassing in “dem Land der Dichter und Denker”.

    To be sure, countries which subtitle might dub if they were larger; apparently subtitling is much cheaper, which is why some small countries do it, not because it is better.


      1. Yes, definitely, and that is one reason that Scandinavian, Finns, Dutch and so on are better at foreign languages. But the reason might be because it is less expensive, not because an enlightened government wants the population to learn foreign languages.


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