The Development of Scandinavia in a European Context

Essay 2014 7 Pages

Scandinavian Languages


1. Give an account of the main periods in Swedish history from ca. 10.000 BC to ca 1250 AD, and describe when and how the kingdom of Sweden was established.

When the ice caps, which covered what now is called Sweden, began to recede in the Mesolithic Era, people followed the ice masses and lived along the borders. The earliest evidence of humans in this area dates back to about 8000 BC. They were most likely small hunter-gatherer tribes, which used flint stone weapons and knew how to fish.

When agriculture and animal farming was brought to Sweden, the tribes became larger and settled down. Typical for the Late Stone Age is also the appearance of megalithic stone graves, which indicate a more complex social hierarchy than before.

The next big step forward in civilization came when the import of bronze started around 1800 BC. Trade contacts between Ireland, continental Europe and Scandinavia are most likely, since there were no copper mines in Swedish territory. Rich burial findings suggest a growing wealth among the population, as well as a further social stratification. Battle-worn axes and other weapons indicate conflicts among the tribes.

In the so called Pre-Roman Iron Age the climate changed dramatically. The winters grew colder, which led to poor harvests and therefore to a less rich culture. Very little artefacts are found from this time, although it is apparent that local iron production grew in importance and the import of bronze came to an end.

Around 500 AD trade links between the Roman Empire and Sweden were established and led to an increase in prosperity, which is mirrored in artefact findings. This time period also produces the first written records and descriptions of Scandinavia, by Tacitus’ De Germania and Proscopius’ writings. Great tribes with different rulers are mentioned to live in Scandinavia.

When the Western Roman Empire collapsed because of the invasion of the Huns, the Eastern Roman Empire made enormous peace payments to the Northerners to keep them at bay. This coincides with the beginning of the so-called Migration Era (Vendel Period in Sweden, Early Middle Ages in continental Europe) when Germanic people from southern Scandinavia and northern Germany started expeditions and settlements southwards and westwards. Very rich ship burials suggest the existence of wealthy and powerful chieftain, who had trading relations to foreign countries or even travelled there themselves.

The following time period is called Viking Age because the Vikings drove the country forwards by colonizing, establishing new empires and raiding coasts. They even penetrated rivers and made their way to the Mediterranean Sea. Their force by sea, as well as their skillfulness in battle finally led to Canute the Great ruling over the North Sea Empire. When Charlemagne conquered Saxony, this led to a direct contact between Scandinavia (the Northmen) and the Franks. During that time the Scandinavian people probably came in contact with Christianity for the first time. After missionaries from Germany and England, it still took centuries for the church in Sweden to organize and only in the 1120s there are established bishoprics at Skara, Linköping, Eskilstuna, Västerås and Sigtuna. The establishment of the Katholic church triggered a cultural revolution and transferred the former tribal society to an organized state. The installment of Sweden’s first archbishop in Uppsala by the papal bull in 1164 is the oldest official source stating Sweden as a united realm under a single ruler.

Even today it is not yet perfectly clear how, where and when the kingdom of Sweden came into existence. This much disputed topic has two main theories: the first states that there was a united realm as early as the 6th century. This is supported by archeological finds and the English Beowulf Saga. The other school of thought dates the unity of Sweden only back to the 11th century, where sure proof can be found. However they agree that the kingdom of Sweden was born when the Svear, living in modern day central Sweden, then called Svealand, conquered Götaland. Other researchers suggest the birthplace of Sweden being in Götaland, since royal clans stem from there. In either case there is no significant centralized administration before the second half of the 13th century.

Olof Skötkung is often mentioned as the first king to rule over all of Sweden, since he was baptized in Götaland and coins verify his ruling over Svealand some decades later. Nevertheless it is not possible to determine how far his control stretched and the realm was divided under his successors anyway.

It seems save to assert that there was a united kingdom in the 1130s under Sverker the Elder. In the following hundred years the Sverker clan and the Erik clan, led by Erik Jedvardsson, struggled for power over the realm. The century following Sverker the Elder’s death in 1156 saw ten kings claim the throne, five of them stemming from the Erik clan, but only few reigning for more than ten years

2. Give an account of some constitutional and political changes in Sweden between 1718 and 1974 that established Sweden as a welfare state.

Karl XII’s death in 1718 triggered many social and political changes. According to his will now women could succeed to the throne, when a monarch died without a male heir this would make his oldest unmarried daughter the new regent. Karl’s younger sister, Ulrika Eleonora, was only elected to succeed him, when she denied all claims of absolute power. Nevertheless she had to abdicate one year later after trying to make her husband, Fredrik of Hesse, her co-regent. With further constitutional concessions her husband was finally crowned king one year later in 1720.

Through the 1720s and 1730s the center of power lay in the Council, with the king having only two votes and a casting one. Since the Parliament controlled the state’s finances and legislation and even seized control over foreign policy through its Secret Commission, it had a strong constitutional stand as well. Furthermore it had the ability to interfere in the administration and the judiciary. Since both sought more power it came to a quarrel between the Council and the Parliament in 1738/39. As a result the parliamentary majority would appoint the Council and deicide its policies from now on. In the aftermath a parliamentary party, called the Hats, and an opposing party, known as the Nightcaps or Caps, battled for changes in political and social affairs. This led to the forming of a political system similar to the British parliamentary government of today. These changes in the so called Age of Freedom are still the base of Swedish politics.

Favorable climatic conditions in the 18th century, especially in the 1720s and 1730s led to an enormous growth of the population, their wealth and the cultivation of new land. This resulted in a new prosperity for peasants, who were now able to buy the land from the Crown, which they had leased beforehand. Those purchases were regulated by law in 1723 and grew more and more common, especially when it became legal to buy aristocratic land in 1789. This phenomenon in turn set the foundation for the peasantry’s strong political position later on.

On the other hand the landless people grew even poorer. They became more numerous as well and since not enough land was available, the many of this class migrated to New World in the 19th century.

Until the beginning of Gustav III’s reign in 1771 Sweden was a poor country with a mostly bartering economy. Then, however, Sweden caught up and reached one of the highest commercial, scientific and cultural levels in Europe. Gustav III supported the arts and founded the Swedish Academy in 1786. Iron and steel, as well as the fishing industries flourished in particular. Trade boomed, manufactures grew and were developed; a prosperous era in Sweden began.

This led to a greater influence of the town burghers and a bigger number of middle class’ representatives, which resulted in a reduction of social disparities. The formal abolishment of aristocratic privileges in 1789, such as acquiring tax-exempt estates, helped too.

When Sweden lost the war of 1808-09 against Russia, Gustav IV Adolf was dethroned and the new constitution divided the power between king, Council and Parliament. When Gustav III’s younger brother, Karl XIII, was elected king Sweden was a constitutional monarchy.

When the metals and engineering industries began to develop in earnest in the beginning of the 20th century Sweden was finally on its way to become an industrial country. This includes social changes and political reforms, such as compulsory elementary education, which was established in 1842.

After the Second World War the Social Democrats, who held the majority in both Chambers of Parliament, started under Per Albin Hansson and later Tage Erlander to reform society. Old-age pension was raised, a sickness benefit scheme was introduced, child allowances and social housings came into being. Especially the housing solutions for low-income families, the so called Miljonprogrammet and the lengthening of the annual holidays were very popular. Education took a turn for the better too, since now nine years of schooling were obligatory and research and higher education were expanded. This movement was called Folkhemmet, Swedish for the people’s house, and was considered a middle way between capitalism and socialism, a kind of “third way”.

When the bills started to come in for these massive reforms, which coincide with the price rise due to the Korean War in 1951, Sweden’s financial status grew worse and worse. Inflation and dramatically rising expenditure led to a situation where no more new reforms could be undertaken, so the politicians concentrated on fulfilling the changes instead of making new ones during the 1950s. Only exception was the adjustment of the blue-collar workers’ pension to the one of the white-collar workers. The 1960s saw a rise in production, a decline of unemployment and overall stable conditions, and so more reforms could be put into effect. These included first of all the reinstatement of the monetary value, furthermore the development of child care, a working health system and an answer to the elderly peoples’ needs.

Although these reforms helped thousands of families and millions of individuals, one must not forget that sterilization was forced on mentally ill people, who lived off the welfare state. This practice was abolished only in 1976 when the Swedish state made amends and paid out damages to those, who suffered from forced sterilization.

In 1974 the new Instrument of Government was adopted, which stated, that all power comes from the people, that they alone can elect the Parliament (it was reduced to a single Chamber in 1970), which in turn legislates and levies taxes. It also states that the king remains head of state, even though his former political functions were transferred to other organs and his role is a mere ceremonial one.. He does not declare the prime minister any longer and does not run the cabinet meetings, which is now the prime minister’s duty. The power over the armed forces lies now under the government.

So Carl XVI Gustaf, who succeeded Gustav IV Adolf in 1973, is the first Swedish king, who reigns but does not rule the state.


Helle, K. (Ed.) The Cambridge History of Scandinavia. Vol.I. (Cambridge 2003).

Weinbull, J. Swedish History in Outline. (Stockholm 1993).

Gould, A. Developments in Swedish social policy. (Basingstoke 2001).

Persson, I. Generating equality in the welfare state : the Swedish experience. (Oslo 1990).



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Göteborg University – Cutltural Sciences
scandinavia sweden kulturwissenschaft skandinavistik schweden europa europäischer kontext Göteborg medieval scandinavia overview history of scandinavia Geschichte Skandinavien



Title: The Development of Scandinavia in a European Context