Social Ancestry

Looked at my family history to get a sense of what my social ancestry is like. I’m a first-generation PhD and my parents are first-generation university graduates. But now I’ve gone back four generations and looked at the men’s professions around 1900. The women among my ancestors didn’t have any recorded professions at the time. These eight men were born between 1816 and 1862.

  • Three were farmers: two farm owners, one hereditary tenant farmer on crown land. Of the three, one later became a building contractor.
  • One was a sailor and had a smallholding.
  • One was a soldier and had a smallholding.
  • One was a foreman at a gunpowder factory.
  • One was a caretaker at a military hospital.
  • One was a rural merchant.

These are fairly humble folks. Neither a desperate proletariat nor any kind of national-level elite. Everyone except the merchant is involved in farming and/or the army. As far as I can reconstruct it, what happened to produce me, a middle-class academic, was the following.

  • A daughter of the merchant (with a bit of money and centuries of bourgeois heritage) married a bright son of one of the farm owners (with a lot of bookish talent), who became a well-connected journalist.
  • Their bookish son became an auditor with frustrated academic ambitions.
  • His daughter got a university degree as part of the great 1960s expansion of higher education, and convinced her smart but completely non-bookish boyfriend to do the same.
  • They got married and had me, she recognised my bookish streak and drove me to the library once a week.

The Stockholm Viking Museum

The Viking Museum in Stockholm (est. 2017) is a good first contact with this period in Scandinavian history. There aren’t many original objects, you hardly see a single name of a find spot or a date within the period. But you do get to see a lot of good replicas of objects and environments, parts of which are as always highly conjectural. And there is a lot of high-quality signage to read, videos to watch, guided tours by highly trained presenters to follow, and there’s a visually arresting narrative theme park ride on the ground floor. A neophyte who spends two hours at the Viking Museum will have fun and learn a lot. You get your money’s worth and more.

I’ve been working professionally off and on with the period for 30 years. I am definitely not the target demographic. Still, I’d like to comment on the main thing that made me go “WTF!?”. The theme park ride: it centres on a narrative conflict that I believe almost all Viking Period scholars would identify as wildly ahistorical.

An affluent couple owns a manorial farm that has come down to the wife by inheritance. The husband suffers from alcoholism. This for some reason means that they have to either marry their daughter off to an older man or get a large sum in silver together in order to keep the farm. How did that happen? Does the scriptwriter believe that there was a banking system with mortgage credit in AD 960s Sweden? This is straight out of a 19th century novel about the demise of the landed nobility!

So how can these people get the silver? Couldn’t they sell one of their other farms? No, the only way is to organise a trading expedition on the rivers of Eastern Europe, selling commodities borrowed from the wife’s cousin. It is going to take two years.

The expedition runs into various trouble but is ultimately successful in bringing home the silver. In the middle of it, though, we get a ridiculously melodramatic little scene where the wife and daughter are lying around their giant mead hall starving and calling out for Papa to save them!? On a major agricultural property!? Does the scriptwriter believe that food was bought with silver at a market in AD 960s Sweden? Does s/he believe that agriculture went on indefinite hold when your husband travelled abroad?

All in all though I was prepared for a much weaker overall production. If you’re in Stockholm, you’ve already seen the warship Vasa and taken a boat ride out into the archipelago, and you’d like to learn a bit about those Vikings you’ve heard of, then definitely come here.

But if you already know stuff, then head up to the Swedish History Museum instead. They’ve got 2,500 original objects on display only in the Viking Period section. You’ll find me in the library on Wednesday afternoons.

Fencing In A Napoleonic Era Invalid Cemetery

Ulriksdal Invalid Cemetery, projected layout by Nyrén Architects

The Swedish National Property Board has done something pretty clever and unusual with geophysics near the royal country manor (”castle”) of Ulriksdal outside Stockholm.

In 1821 the King allocated the manor for the use of a care home for destitute war veterans, “invalids”. Soon a cemetery was laid out nearby since the residents understandably had a pretty high mortality rate. About 200 people were buried there over the following quarter century, before the invalid home was closed down in 1849. Sweden had (and still has) not been in a state of war since 1814, so there were no longer any military invalids to care for.

In 1884 the cemetery was refurbished, and got a new fence. Rather than fence the whole thing in, the decision was made to fence only about a sixth of the former cemetery including some high-status burials. The rest was allowed to revert to forest.

Now the cemetery is scheduled for refurbishing again. The Property Board has decided that all of those veterans of our country’s last wars deserve a tidy cemetery environment. They commissioned Lars Winroth and Anna Andreasson Sjögren to survey selected areas with ground-penetrating radar to check the distribution of grave cuts. Not in order to excavate them, but to fence them in! And now the GPR results are included on the new design plan from Nyrén Architects.

Thanks to my friend Magnus Reuterdahl of the Property Board for information and plans.

“Nuv staket” = current fence. The purple rectangles outside it are GPR survey areas.

Where The Road Paving Ends

We make a really strict mental distinction between paved roads and walking paths these days. But if a paved road ends in a cul-de-sac or has a really sharp bend, there is almost always a walking path that continues in the same direction. And if you look closely at the path, it often has a pretty serious road bank. It shows that a lot of work has been put into the path, and it used to be wider than the 40 cm or so that walkers are using today. Following the path, you’ll often find the foundation of a small-holding and surviving garden plants.

These are signs that prior to cars and paved roads, the entire road plus walking path were originally just one unpaved road. The cul-de-sac or the sharp bend is just the point where modern planners decided to stop paving the road. 120 years ago our current distinction between the road and the path did not exist.

Giacomo Casanova Got Around

Giacomo / Jacques Casanova de Seingalt’s autobiography is pretty strong stuff. He is amoral leaning towards sociopathy, often self-congratulatory, extremely energetic and apparently enormously talented. Over a brief period when he is 23 in 1747 he manages to

a) Seduce a rich farmer’s daughter and propose marriage

b) Change his mind, find another husband for her whom she is happy to accept, participate in the wedding

c) Disinter a random corpse and cut off one of its arms with a hunting knife

d) Use the arm for a nocturnal vengeful practical joke that frightens the victim so badly that he is permanently mentally incapacitated

e) File a written affidavit with a criminal court that he has not at all raped a young prostitute, on the contrary, he has beaten her with a broomstick because she refused to have sex with him

And all of this within 27 pages.

Novels In English Are A New Thing

The English-language novel is commonly held to have originated around 1700, with Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko (1688; at 31,000 words it’s a novella by current standards) or Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719). It occurred to me that since it’s such a recent thing, I’ve lived through much of its history by now. I’ve been reading English-language novels for about 35 years, that is, 11% of the period.

Let’s say you and your grandma read a new novel that you both like in 2020 when you’re 15 and she is 75. And she shared a new novel with her grandma when she was 15, etc., etc. Then the book you two are sharing now is only the sixth in the chain back to Robinson Crusoe. And we know that the book they shared in 1720 was Robinson Crusoe, because there was no other original novel-length prose fiction in English to choose from then.

The first novella in Swedish is Urban Hiärne’s Stratonice from 1666-68. I discussed it here back in 2012.

Nils Mattsson Kiöping in Yazd

Here’s another two chapters of my recently completed translation of Nils Mattsson Kiöping’s 1667 travelogue. I have introduced a paragraph division for legibility.

Chapter 35: Persia, Yazd
Iessedh is a beautiful city, about two Italian miles in circumference. Here rules a relative of the King named Sultan Mesadie. The city is surrounded by a wall, but this wall is not very strong, but just next to the city is a high mountain on which is a castle with some cannon, and many soldiers. No foreigner is allowed to go there, and the soldiers stationed there are never permitted to leave for as long as they live. There is only one road or narrow path up there, and everything they need is pulled up there by billy goats and little donkeys.

Here are also beautiful buildings, particularly their churches, all built of glazed stone.There is also great trade here in all kinds of goods, particularly precious stones, gold and silver cloth, all kinds of golden and silken fabrics, cotton fabric, tapestries, blankets etc. Not to mention all kinds of foodstuffs. Several thousand soldiers are also stationed here, who stand guard keenly on the walls.

The Christians, more than a thousand souls, live in a suburb named Kombella where the Catholics have two Franciscan monasteries and one Carmelite one, which enjoy great privileges here, and walk in their processions about town, as safe as if they were in Rome. The Christian congregation there grows day by day so that they can no longer fit, but have to move elsewhere. I once saw more than 60 Persians and Moors in a church who have allowed themselves to be baptised by their own free will, and have received the Christian creed. This city is famous among the Persians and is called Koss de Iessedh because the most beautiful women live here.

Chapter 36: Persia, Korastan & Kurbazarihan
Korastan is a little open town, roughly a little larger than Strängnäs, everyone who lives here is Christian and they have two Catholic monasteries here, and an Armenian one. They associate very well with each other, and are extremely keen to receive a European Christian, particularly one who can speak some Latin with their priests, because they think (as the monks have deceived them into believing) that the Latin language is a language of angels, and only religious officials may use it. This was a very good-hearted and merciful people who beseeched me to stay longer with them. Some of them are merchants but most are farmers.

Kurbazarihan is a little town where all the inhabitants are Jews, and all are silk weavers, and they are severely forced and pressed by the ruling lord named Mahomet Roskar. I must say that they were roguish people, because they sold us food and water for money, and grain and dates, and it was all spoiled and also very little of it. A few Muslims lived there, they were much more honest than the Jews.

Nils Mattsson Kiöping in Persia

Here’s another chapter of my ongoing translation of Nils Mattsson Kiöping’s 1667 travelogue. I have introduced a paragraph division for legibility.

Chapter 34: Persia, nature and culture
It is a very fertile country with wheat and barley, which they sow twice and reap twice a year. Also a very mountainous country, where lovely grapes grow all year round, both winter and summer, so that when one vine blooms, then the second is unripe, the third half ripe and the fourth ripe. And this goes on continuously every year. They also love gardens greatly, where they have all sorts, roses as well as fruit trees such as pears, white apples, almonds, plums, all kinds of sweet and sour limes, as well as several unknown to us, very large and delicious melons and watermelons, which cool a person excellently.

They have many wondrous springs or fountains in their gardens. Here are found the best horses that can ever be in Asia. So much dates grow in the countryside that they even feed their donkeys, sheep, oxen and cows with them. Here are abundantly found the best sheep that can ever be in the world. Of the most valuable trees, there are very tall cypresses here, and another one called Arbor de Raiss, which is at least one Italian mile around with the twigs, and more than 6,000 men could stand under it, and regardless of how hard it rained, not a drop would fall on them. Its branches are so long that they hang to the ground, and grow up again, they droop down again, and grow up again, so that one twig can easily reach for more than half a quarter mile from the trunk itself. It has large leaves but bears no fruit, but when you break a twig from it a white sap oozes out, which if it gets into a person’s eye, they will soon go blind.

Here are also a lot of deer, wild boar, which the Persians do not eat, but they do eat wild donkeys. Here is also a beast of prey which they call jackals, not unlike a wolf. These catch or greatly wound both birds and beasts, indeed, if they do not protect their dead in solid and deep tombs, then they dig them up and eat them. The Christians believe that this is the hyaena of which the naturalists write.* Several kinds of bird are found here, but no geese, only chickens and partridges, several hundreds together in the flock. Large and small turtle doves, cranes, herons, storks, kroppgäss** etc. The pelican is also seen here, but it never cuts up its chest over its dead chicks,*** nor is its beak suitable for it to cut with in this manner, as the naturalists report.

The Persians are white in complexion, though tending a little toward yellow. They are a proud, greedy, warlike people, similar to the Poles in their dress, except for the headgear, for which they have a mandel or turban. The King can in a matter of days muster several thousand cavalry of which some are equipped with mail coats, bows and arrows, and some with pikes. He uses nothing in particular for the infantry, they have extremely heavy muskets, and strike the cock over towards the muzzle and not to the stock. Their fuses are of cotton. On campaign he also uses cannon, but they are all managed by Christians. At the time when I was there, the artillery was directed by an Englishman and a Holsatian.

On the border between Parthia and Persia is a little town named Ilsikas where live only Muslims and all are farmers. Here also is grown the best wheat in the country, for which they are very famous, and when they say that “this is Nun de Iesikass”, then they love it more than any other grain grown in the country.

* Africa’s hyaenas and South Asia’s jackals occupy similar ecological niches but are not in fact closely related.

** Uncertain. Da. kropgaas and Ge. Kropfganz mean pelican, but NMK mentions the pelican separately here. In analogy with Sw. kroppduva, a kroppgås might be a goose that can inflate its crop. But geese have no crops to inflate, and NMK states that there are no geese in Persia (which there are in fact — he may be thinking of domestic geese).

*** Referring to the earlier version of the pelican’s tale where it kills and resurrects its chicks, not the more widespread one where it simply feeds them with its own blood.

Nils Mattsson Kiöping on the Trail Of Travelling Bengt

Bengt Bengtsson Oxenstierna (1591-1643), portrait by Jakob Heinrich Elbfas, Wikimedia Commons.

Here’s another chapter of my ongoing translation of Nils Mattsson Kiöping’s 1667 travelogue. I have introduced a paragraph division for legibility.

Chapter 33: Persia, the Shah’s hunts and Bengt Oxenstierna’s graffiti

For hunting he uses falcons, among which is a white raven with a red beak, which is as swift in striking birds as the falcons. He also has 200 leopards which have been trained so that no game in the fields or forests can pass them by without them catching it in three leaps. And if he does not catch the beast in three leaps, then he puts his tail between his legs, goes back and is ashamed.

Summing up, this King’s splendour, along with the activities in this city, of all kinds of crafts, of the number of people, is too hard for me to describe from fresh memory, and it would take a long time. Instead they who have Olearius’s diary about the Holsatian envoys’ journey to Persia can experience this city’s characteristics in detail.

Thus I want to move on briefly to the Kingdom of Persia itself, and name the towns that I have visited, and describe them in simple terms. Here in Issphahan and the suburb Julfa, where all Christians live, I found the late Lord Bengt Oxenstierna’s name in an Augustinian monastery inscribed with a nail on the wall in Latin. And it goes as follows in Swedish.

My GOD is a good companion to me
And virtue is in close company with me,
Thus I fear no danger,
I was not proud even in success;
But I go everywhere unafraid

Bengt Oxenstierna, a good Swedish Baron
In the year 1611,
Since our Saviour was born.

Adam Olearius (Ölschläger; 1599-1671) served as secretary to an ambassador from Frederick III, Duke of Holstein-Gottorp, to the Shah of Persia. Olearius published a book about his experiences in 1647 which appeared in English in 1662.

Bengt Bengtsson Oxenstierna (1591-1643, posthumously known as Travelling Bengt) was a Swedish royal councillor and diplomat who travelled extensively in continental Europe and the Near East. He was the first Swede to make a documented visit to Persia and served briefly at the court of Shah Abbas I. NMK’s reported year 1611 is however erroneous. Lord Bengt began his journey to Persia in 1616, so the inscription may have read 1617. NMK reports similar inscriptions in Shiraz and Baghdad, see ch. 41 and 48.

NMK’s Swedish version of the inscription is in rhymed couplets. If the original inscription was indeed in Latin, then NMK must have translated it rather freely. I have aimed to preserve the sense but not the rhymes.

I wonder if NMK really did see any inscriptions of Bengt’s or if the insistent references to him are attempts by NMK to borrow credibility for his book.

Nils Mattsson Kiöping at the Court of the Shah

Here’s another two chapters of my ongoing translation of Nils Mattsson Kiöping’s 1667 travelogue. I have introduced a paragraph division for legibility.


Chapter 31: Persia, Isfahan

Issphahan is the royal seat of Persia and is in its extent three times the width of Paris in France. And though I have never been to Paris, and so cannot know about its size, it is true that Isfahan (which was once, and still is on maps, named Hagistan) is so large that it takes six days on horseback to travel around it outside the walls, but three days inside them. It has four suburbs, of which the finest is Julfwa, which is at least as large as all of Stockholm with Norrmalm and Ladugårdslandet. Here all the Christians live and have their own jurisdiction and court.

The judge is an Armenian and keeps court as magnificently as a Prince. And if it happens that a Turk has done an injustice to a Christian, then the case will be heard in the Turkish Kadi, and the Turk punished by his authorities. But if the guilt is with the Christian, then he is sent to the Christian Council, and they cannot pardon anyone, but must immediately punish the criminal.

The Christians can freely practise their faith here, indeed, the King himself often joins their congregations and watches their divine service with great solemnity. The monks are in great favour with the King, and are strictly protected, particularly the Augustinians, because they have a beautiful church there. The Carmelites have two, the Franciscans also two, but the Armenians have six.

Chapter 32: Persia, the Court of the Shah

With respect to the splendour and court of the Persian King, the ruling Lord at the time when I stayed there was a very pious and young man named Shah Abbas [Abbas II, regn. 1642-66], whom I and many other European Christians served as soldiers for 18 months. In 1652 his age was 22 years. He already had a little son and a daughter, and in addition to his recognised wives he had 400 concubines, all of whom were daughters of the country’s most important lords. He is certainly a Muslim, but nevertheless he likes to hint that he is friendlier to the Christians than to his own people.

All his tableware such as dishes, plates and bowls is of fine gold, indeed, some are so large that you cannot carry them in your hands, but on your head. Many are even so heavy that they have to carry them on stretchers trimmed with gold. And on all these vessels, instead of royal arms, he uses a mark roughly like this: [INSERT SCAN HERE].

In his stable where the royal horses are fed, which are 100 in number, there is exceptional cleanliness. All are tethered with golden chains and shod all around with golden shoes, covered with the finest golden cloth that is made and woven in the country. The vessels or tubs in which water is fetched for them are all of fine Arabian gold. For each horse in the stable hang beautiful saddles with saddle blankets, finely decorated, one better than the next, with diamonds, turquoises, rubies etc. and also the most splendid that can ever be, studded with big pearls. Summing up, everything you see there is nothing but pure gold, indeed the hinges that the gates hang on, as well as everything else.

On one side in the gate house he has a mountain cat standing, which harms people when he can reach them. He is the size of the largest lynxes but grey in colour.* On the other side a mountain rat shut in a cage: she was so tame that she took bread from people’s hands. Every time I walked past her she scratched the bars with her claws because I always gave her something to eat from my hand. She was just like a rat in colour and shape, but was the size of a half-year-old pig. Outside the gate lay nine lions which were only tethered with thin ropes around their necks, and each had a little dog to to play with. One was white as snow but tawny at the front, the others were pale, and none of them did people any harm.

* SAOB suggests that this is a Pallas’s cat, Otocolobus manul. That feline is however typically far smaller than a lynx.