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Henrik and Fredrik Lindström, Svitjods undergång och Sveriges födelse (The Fall of Svitjod and the Birth of Sweden)

Albert Bonniers förlag,  2006. ISBN: 9789100107895

Reviewed by Henning Koch in SBR 2006:2

Any book dealing with an episode of civil unrest in thirteenth century Sweden has a major commercial obstacle, namely that many readers are going to wonder why they should bother with it at all. But this book – like all good historical non-fiction – has a way of making the distant past utterly relevant to life today. Fredrik Lindström is a well-known media figure, a popularizer in the vein of Simon Schama or Melvyn Bragg. His co-writer (and brother) Henrik Lindström is a teacher and expert in Swedish regional dialects. In pooling their resources they have come up with a convincing analysis of a period known in historical circles for the paucity of its historical sources. Luckily, Icelandic contemporaries were more given to writing things down, and so in the case of folkungarna (either “Folke kings” or “people’s kings” – historians are unsure which) we are fortunate to have the testimony of Snorre Sturlasson, who visited Sweden not long after the last rebels had been executed. Henrik and Fredrik Lindström have also relied on Danish and Norwegian sources – Norway being the traditional bolthole for discredited Swedish “strong-men” keen to avoid early, violent deaths. The authors convincingly argue that the creation of a new state went handin-hand with the expansive Catholic Church dissatisfied with its unsystematic influence in Scandinavia. Until the establishment of lineal kingship, there had been a system of landowners and “regional kings” choosing their own High King, whose ceremonial seat was in Upsala (as it was spelt then). Until this time, if too many battles were lost or harvests failed, the High King could always be kicked out with impunity. Remuneration for the High King (one might say) was performancebased.This was not to the liking of the Catholic Church, which preferred the idea of an established royal line and aristocracy, all subject to “proper” law. When (as the authors suggest) the Goths allied themselves with the Catholic Church they greatly elevated their own power – almost like a modern country inviting in the Americans to establish a military base. Rome represented a real challenge to existing legal authority and traditional kingship. Svitjod was in broad terms an ancient union between Goths and the people of Svealand. The epicentre of the latter was in Upsala, while the Goths were slightly more international owing to their geographical position on the west side of Sweden – thus more closely involved with the regional superpower, Denmark. The authors draw a parallel between the thirteenth-century integration of the Catholic Church and Sweden's twentieth-century entry into the EU. Until Birger Jarl came along with a few bishops tugging on his coat-tails, Sweden was an altogether different country, if indeed we could call it a country at all. The wholesale slaughter of the rebels (and subsequent deification of their last, leading candidate Holmger Knutsson, famously executed in 1248 after agreeing to a truce) earned Birger Jarl a black mark in some history books. Like so many dictators and despots he had the required forcefulness to redraw the maps without worrying too much about who got killed in the process. One of his better ideas, however, was to found Stockholm on a rocky island in the middle of nowhere – but a strategic position. German merchants and traders were invited in to provide the money and construction materials for the new city. From that time on Birger Jarl was able to levy customs and excise on all shipments of iron and other goods, which had previously simply been sold direct to traders blithely sailing into Lake Mälaren without worrying about bureaucracy. By sweeping away tradition, Birger Jarl’s new, centralized dynasty enriched itself; yet it also had to pay crippling sums of “protection money” to the Catholic Church. The analogy of the European Union is apt, and makes us look again at the implications of sweeping change – how it always seems to polarize society and cause upheaval. Yet in retrospect such change can be seen as a natural response to political realities which at the time may not have been apparent. “Inevitability” is an awkward concept, and Henrik and Fredrik Lindström are careful to emphasize that historical destiny – in the way it is often presented to voters and other devotees – is rarely quite as one-sided as the powerbrokers would have us believe. Ultimately, for all his power, Birger Jarl (“jarl” being an ancient title linguistically related to the English “earl”) was one of the last nobles in Sweden to bear the title of Jarl.Within a hundred years of his demise there was a whole class of newfangled aristocracy. Birger Jarl, who must have seen himself as a modernizer, ultimately had one boot planted solidly in the turf of the old world. This well argued and researched book – with excellent maps and other illustrations – will appeal to students and others who enjoy reading Scandinavian history beyond the traditional fare of marauding Vikings.

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