Sarmatia Europaea
Polish Review of Early Modern History

02/6 Some remarks on Swedish Historiography of the Northern War of 1655–1660

December 30th, 2012 by admin

Wojciech Krawczuk


Some remarks on Swedish Historiography of the Northern War of 1655–1660

The Northern War of 1655–1660 was, until recently, a secondary topic for Swedish historians, and Swedes in general. It is not that the deeds of Charles X Gustav from the House of Zweibrücken were ever forgotten: the southern provinces of Sweden such as Scania and Blekinge became incorporated into the kingdom as the spoils of this war. But there were other kings who received greater acclaim: some more popular, like the great founder of the modern state – Gustav Vasa; others more “noble” like the protector of protestants – Gustav II Adolph; or still others more romantic and wild – like Charles XII. In general, the Swedes are (or were) not especially interested in this part of the old history of their kingdom – full of blood and wars and invasions. Meanwhile, in recent years, it has been possible to see a change in this attitude, something like the rebirth of a long forgotten myth.

The situation in Poland is different. Thanks to Henryk Sienkiewicz’s historical novel The Deluge from 1886, the struggle against the Swedish invasion of 1655 has become one of the pillars of the Polish national consciousness. The Poles do love history, but when it comes to the 17th Century the only vivid and still discussed topics are linked with this author and his “Trilogy”: With Fire and Sword, The Deluge, and Pan Wołodyjowski (known in English as Fire in the Steppe).

There is one person, in the very beginning of modern historiography, who marks the whole Swedish research on this period: Samuel Pufendorf (1632–1694), the outstanding philosopher, jurist and, last but not least, historian. He was the Historiographer Royal of Charles XI, King of Sweden and later Historiographer of Frederick William, Duke of Brandenburg. Pufendorf wrote the history of Charles X Gustav in seven books, under the Latin title De rebus a Carolo Gustavo Sveciae Rege, gestis commentariorum libri septem, elegantissimis tabulis aeneis exornati cum triplici indice. The work, with superb illustrations by Erik Dahlberg, was printed in Nürnberg in the year 1696, two years after Pufendorf’s death. Swedish high officials and King Charles XI, son of Charles X Gustav, were so pleased with it that as early as in the year 1697 two translations into German and French followed. Translation into Swedish had to wait until 1912, and now, after more than 300 hundred years, the translation into Polish is ready and will be published soon.

This work is both a blessing and burden for Swedish historians. About 600 pages, (more than 60 printed sheets by today’s measure) are tightly packed with various documents, which were only slightly adjusted by Pufendorf into fluent narration. This is even the greatest advantage of the work – many of the letters and acts were later scattered or destroyed, and some of the information is to be found nowhere else but in the Seven books.

Pufendorf, who of course was obliged to praise the king, still managed to criticize some of his actions. He did it with caution and used devices such as quoting opinions of the king’s enemies extensively. In his view, a king’s deeds should legitimize his right to the crown, and the reader should have the tools to judge Charles X Gustav by his actions.

Pufendorf’s work as a historian is not widely known today. There are only few texts on his work as a historiographer – most of which are in Swedish or German with a few in English. But the impact of Pufendorf’s historical studies was great and it is still felt.

Recently, Lars Ericsson Wolke wrote the book 1658. March over the Bält straits. There we can find a short, but convincing summary of the evolution of the Swedish historiography of the Northern War of 1655–1660[1]. Wolke divided the history of the research in this field into periods. In the first epoch, which ended around the first half of the 19th Century, the validity of Pufendorf’s work was undisputed. The critics during the Romantic period did attack Charles X Gustav for ethical reasons and Pufendorf was also attacked for flattery. This negative attitude towards the warrior–king is still dominant. The best example comes from Swedish novelist Frans G. Bengtsson (1894–1954) – who planned to write a book on Charles X Gustav. In 1940 he changed his mind – I do not want to write the biography of the king who made blitzkrieg on Poland and occupied Danmark any more – stated Bengtsson[2]

Even as we are sorry that Bengtsson did not write his book, we can be grateful for the profound scientific work done by Swedish historians. The “peak” of this research came in the 1960s and 70s in the form of a very fine series under the title Carl Gustaf Studier. The eight volumes of this work are indispensable for everyone working on the era of Sweden’s presence as great power (den svenska stormaktstiden)[3]. But it is not only strict warfare history that has been analysed. We can name here Stellan Dahlgren’s book from 1964 Karl X Gustav och reduktionen, with a superb description of the monarch’s very difficult undertaking of returning the gentry fiefs to the Crown. This was one of the most important issues in constructing the early modern fiscal – military state.

There have been many projects on the Northern War of 1655–1660 pursued in the last decade. Claes Göran Iscason presented a synthesis of the recent studies on Charles X Gustav’s campaigns[4] Andrej Kotljarchuk wrote a book on the complicated relationship between Sweden and Lithuania during this epoch[5] Anna Maria Forssberg published a study in English and Swedish on different aspects of war propaganda in Sweden at the time of the Northern Wars[6]. These are the only examples of the work done to date.

But the most successful attempt to revive this epoch came from Peter Englund. This gifted author reminded Swedes of crucial moments in their early modern history. His most famous book portrays the Poltava battle in 1709. In 2000 Englund published a story about the Northern War of 1655–1660, under the title Den Oövervinnerlige (The Invincible). Englund’s book was criticized by Robert I. Frost, among others, in his convincing study about the Northern Wars[7]. The greatest problem is Englund’s narrow perspective as in his book on Poltava he mainly uses Swedish and German sources. Englund’s description of the world of Charles X Gustav is vivid and dramatic, but his far reaching conclusions – such as comparing the winged hussar cavalry with medieval knights – are often untenable.

Quarrels aside, Englund’s merit lies in the field of popularization. Sienkiewicz’s previously mentioned historical novel “The Deluge” gave, and continues to provide, impulses to the forming of new historical projects in Poland. We can see here positive feedback: wide publicity has increased the desire for research in this topic. Hopefully, Englund will do the same for Sweden.

© 2012 Sarmatia Europaea and Wojciech Krawczuk


[1] L.E. Wolke, 1658. Tåget över Bält, Falun 2008, 196–212.

[2] Ibidem, 211.

[3] Carl X Gustaf och Danmark, ed. Arne Stade, Kristianstad 1965, [in:] Carl Gustaf Studier, vol. 1, A. Stade, Erik Dahlbergh och Carl X Gustafs krigshistoria, Kristianstad 1967, [in:] Carl Gustaf Studier, vol. 3, Polens krig med Sverige 1655–1660, (ed.) Arne Stade i Jan Wimmer, Kristianstad 1973, [in:] Carl Gustaf Studier, vol. 5, A. O. Johnsen, Krabbekrigen, Kristianstad 1967, [in:] Carl Gustaf Studier, vol. 2, H. Landberg, Carl X Gustaf inför polska kriget, Kristianstad 1969, [in:] Carl Gustaf Studier, vol. 4, F. Askgaard, Kampen om Östersjön på Carl X Gustafs tid, Kristianstad 1974, [in:] Carl Gustaf Studier, vol. 6, R. Fagerlund, J. T. Lappalainen, Kriget på Östfronten, Kristianstad 1979, [in:] Carl Gustaf Studier, vol. 7, Carl X Gustafs Armé, ed. A. Stade, Kristianstad 1979, [in:] Carl Gustaf Studier, vol. 8.

[4] C.–G. Icascon, Karl X Gustavs krig. Fälttågen I Polen, Tyskland, Baltikum, Danmark och Sverige 1655–1660, Lund 2004.

[5] A. Kotljarchuk. In the Shadows of Poland and Russia. The Grand Duchy of Lithuania and Sweden in the European Crisis of the mid – 17th Century, Södertörn 2006.

[6] A. M. Forssberg, Nationalist Arguments as Instruments of War Propaganda in Sweden, 1655–80, in: Statehood Before and Beyond Ethnicity: Minor States in Northern and Eastern Europe 1600–2000, (ed.) Linas Eriksonas and Leos Müller, Peter Land, Brussels 2005, 127–146.

[7] R. I. Frost, The Northern Wars. War, State and Society in Northeastern Europe, 1558–1721, Harlow (Essex) 2000, 16–17.


Posted in Volume II (2011/2012)

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