The plague year of 1710 was also a difficult year
24 February 2021
As historians, it is our job to take a step back and give perspective to our current situation. For anyone looking back, it isn’t hard to find other difficult years. In Sweden’s past, 1710 was undoubtedly one such year, writes Jonas Lindström, researcher at the Department of History at Uppsala University, in a column.
2020 was not a good year. Today’s annalists on Wikipedia summarise the year as “a highly disruptive year [...] heavily defined by the COVID-19 pandemic”, which has caused “global social and economic disruption, mass cancellations and postponements of events, worldwide lockdowns and subsequent protests, and the largest economic recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s”.
At the time of writing, the counter on Johns Hopkins’ website stands at more than 111 million infected and 2.5 million Covid-19 deaths worldwide. The World Bank states that, after decades of decline, the number of people living in extreme poverty has increased by at least 88 million in the past year due to the pandemic. In order to reduce the spread of infection, new restrictions have continually been introduced in day-to-day life. Travel, education, trade, socialising – everything has suffered.
And as if that weren’t enough, Wikipedia cites Geospatial World, which has designated 2020 “the worst year in terms of climate change”. A recent report from SMHI (the Swedish Meteorological and Hydrological Institute) shows that the annual average temperature in Sweden is the warmest since records began in the 1860s.
As historians, it is our job to take a step back and give perspective to our current situation. Not to relativise – knowing that somebody has had it worse at some point is rarely any great comfort. But there is value in the realisation that humanity has faced similar difficulties in the past and that, somehow, we have made it through. And there is value in the recognition itself, even in societies that may seem far-removed from our own.
For anyone looking back, it isn’t hard to find other difficult years. In Sweden’s past, 1710 was undoubtedly one such year. What would later be referred to as the Great Northern War had been in progress for a decade. The harvest had been catastrophic the year before. And the autumn of 1710 saw the arrival in the country of perhaps the most feared disease of all – the plague. Some of the effects of this have left traces in the letters written to the County Administrative Board of Örebro County, which the research project Gender and Work has had digitised in collaboration with the Swedish National Archives.
The plague was a little different to Coronavirus, but the reader is struck by the seemingly eternal nature of the conflict between, on the one hand, the desire to prevent the spread of infection and, on the other, people’s ability to make a living. The balance between the two was as difficult then as it is now. In a letter from January 1711, a number of representatives of Grythyttan mining district complained about the roadblocks that had been set up “to prevent, as far as humanly possible, the widespread and dangerous pestilence”, as stated in the proclamation.
In order to impede travellers who could carry the infection, barriers and guards had been deployed between Grythyttan and Filipstad. As a result, the miners had been shut out from the market in Filipstad, where they used to sell their pig iron and buy the grain they needed. The 1710 harvest had been more abundant, admittedly, but there were still shortages in Bergslagen. The consequences of the suspension in trading would be devastating, the miners felt. The area would “unequivocally be ruined”. They wouldn’t be able to pay any taxes – after all, it was the king’s commander they were writing to – and the miners feared that they would be “eventually, against our will, forced to abandon our crofts and our dwellings”. These concerns can be recognised from the words of today’s companies regarding redundancies and bankruptcies as a result of the Coronavirus restrictions.
Travel restrictions are nothing new either. Anyone who wanted to travel around the country during the plague years of 1710–1711 had to carry a health passport certifying that the person was not infected. The authorities suspected, as is so often the case, that people were cheating with the passports, which is why they had to be closely checked. One of those appointed carry out these checks was Erik Molander at Rås Inn, at the border between Örebro and Östergötland counties.
In another letter to the Governor from 1711, Molander requested compensation for the 30 weeks during which he had guarded the county border “day and night”. The fact that these checks had not always been popular can be seen from Molander’s complaint that “when I wanted to see their passports, I was subjected to harsh words and threats from the travellers”. There are many examples of the restrictions to people’s freedom of movement being met with resistance and frustration.
What about climate change? Here, too, anyone looking into the past can find parallels. In 1828, for example, the Governor in Gender and Works’ current investigation area, Västmanland, mentioned the increasingly mild winters: “It is a true observation, namely, that the winters in recent years have been milder than before”. Previously, the Governor claimed, the snow had lingered from December or even November through to April, but that “winters with no snow are now not uncommon”. The Governor linked this to the extensive logging that was being carried out, partly due to the mill’s considerable need for coal.
But something new may have happened. 2020 appears to be the year in which the total mass of all man-made materials exceeds the total biomass on the planet. For example, the total volume of plastic weighs twice as much as all the world’s land and sea animals. This is a frightening fact, because it shows the enormous impact that man is having on our planet. But precisely because of this, it also shows something else: man’s capabilities and the power that exists in our work. Through work, we are changing the world. Through work, we are also stopping diseases. This may be a thankless task, and some of the measures will inevitably clash with other values. It’s no wonder the authorities seem to be faltering. It’s difficult, quite simply. But we’ve done it before.
Jonas Lindström, researcher at the Department of History at Uppsala University
New thesis: Finery for fashionable ladies
11 maj 2021
When the first descriptions of knitting and crochet were published in Swedish, in the mid-19th century, such handiwork was described as the finest of all feminine handicrafts, for the benefit and pleasure alike of the trend-conscious, diligent mid...
Linnaeus’ complicated relationship with racism
07 maj 2021
Since June 2020, Carl Linnaeus has been a subject of debate in Sweden and around the world. What sparked it off were the actions of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. Statues of slave owners have been lambasted or destroyed. In Sweden, the dis...
Conspiracy theories characterise views in and about Europe
03 maj 2021
Conspiratorial narratives of internal disintegration and external threats affect views in the European Union and Europe to an increasing extent. Our trust in society is put to the test in crises such as COVID-19 when various groups are singled out...
Nordic conspiracy theories through the ages
01 mars 2021
Conspiracy theories are becoming more common in the world, and the Nordic countries are no exception. Are some conspiracy theories unique to the Nordic countries? What typical narratives are disseminated? And when did this really start? A new book...
The plague year of 1710 was also a difficult year
24 februari 2021
As historians, it is our job to take a step back and give perspective to our current situation. For anyone looking back, it isn’t hard to find other difficult years. In Sweden’s past, 1710 was undoubtedly one such year, writes Jonas Lindström, res...
Sustainable development the focus of new graduate school at Campus Gotland
21 januari 2021
On 18 January, Uppsala University’s new multidisciplinary graduate school opened at Campus Gotland. Its focus is on sustainable development. This involves research on key societal challenges within changing energy systems, sustainable consumption,...
Archives crucial for Freemasons’ identity
22 december 2020
The Order of Freemasons’ meticulous archives are fundamental to their identity. The unique structure of the masonic archives reinforces the secrecy and mystique of the self-image that has been fashioned by the Order — and characterises it in the e...
Grants for research on the impact of AI on people and society
15 december 2020
In a major 10-year national research programme, two Wallenberg Foundations are supporting research on the impact of the ongoing technology shift, involving digitalisation and artificial intelligence, on our society and our behaviour. Two of the gr...
Linnaeus and Rudbeck medallists chosen
10 december 2020
This year the Rudbeck Medal is awarded to Professors Olle Eriksson, Inger Sundström Poromaa and Maria Ågren, while the Linnaeus Medal is awarded to Professor Kerstin Lindblad Toh and Chairman Dai-Won Yoon at Hallym University in South Korea.
Turkic cultural heritage in Uppsala
07 december 2020
Uppsala University has a rich collection of manuscripts, printed material, art objects and maps related to the Ottoman Empire and other Turkic cultures. How did they come to Uppsala? This story is told in a new book “Turcologica Upsaliensia. An Il...
Fallen in battle, these Swedish Vikings are part of a larger genetic puzzle
17 september 2020
In a recently published article in the journal Nature, 90 researchers from various countries have collaborated to develop new knowledge about the Viking-era population. Marie Allen, professor of forensic genetics at Uppsala University, has contrib...
The VR game that takes you to medieval Visby
14 augusti 2020
Using a VR helmet, you can try your hand at archery in 14th century Visby. This new VR game has been developed by the game company Disir, which was founded by a game developer and three archaeologists, of which two research at Uppsala University.
“The American dilemma is far from resolved”
15 juni 2020
The police violence in Minneapolis that resulted in the death of George Floyd has once again thrust relations between black and white Americans onto the agenda, a dilemma that will most likely play a central role in this autumn’s presidential elec...
Social graces and etiquette vital for Carl Linnaeus
04 juni 2020
What would have become of Carl Linnaeus if he had remained single? Would science have missed out on one of its major lodestars without his well-functioning household? And was his son, Carl Linnaeus the Younger, really the ne’er-do-well he was repu...
Medieval manuscript fragments acquired
26 maj 2020
A group of fragments of medieval manuscripts has been acquired by Uppsala University Library. Among these there is a fragment related to Saint Bridget of Sweden. This particular fragment may have been written at or owned by the Vadstena Abbey.
She studies AI as existential media
30 april 2020
How are we influenced when smart digital assistants, like Siri and Alexa, become part of our homes? And what happens when we begin to track deviating individuals through biometrics? “More research is needed on what it means to be human in a digita...
New study reveals unknown side of Astrid Lindgren’s creative process
21 februari 2020
Why did Jonathan Lionheart’s pitch-black hair suddenly turn golden? And how did Master Detective Kalle Blomqvist get his proper name? In the “Astrid Lindgren Code”, literature researcher Malin Nauwerck lifts the lid on some of the literary world’s...
History professor given prestigious assignment
22 januari 2020
Maria Ågren, professor of history, has been awarded a distinguished professor grant of SEK 50 million over 10 years by the Swedish Research Council. The council awarded grants totalling some SEK 380 million to eight applicants.
Winner of the 2019 Geijer Prize Named
14 januari 2020
The Geijer Prize for history 2019 has been awarded to Mia Kuritzen Löwengart for her doctoral thesis A Matter of Social Urgency: The emergence of a symphony orchestra and concert house in Stockholm, ca. 1890-1926 and Hedvig Widmalm for her doctora...
Legendary runestone bears witness to climate anxiety 1,200 years ago
08 januari 2020
After more than 1,000 years, one of the greatest mysteries of the early Viking Age, the Rök runestone which bears the world’s longest runic inscription, appears to have been solved. According to four Swedish researchers, the puzzling inscription h...