Vilhelm Moberg was born in 1898, in a remote village where remnants of the peasant way of life persisted. He wrote A History of the Swedish People, which spanned two volumes: (1) before the Renaissance, and (2) after. Moberg’s writing has been translated into 20 languages, and Swedes have bought six million copies of his books. Most histories focus on the big shots, the decision makers, the conquerors, the villains. His work focuses on the nameless people that historians disregard: the common folks, the salt of the Earth. I like that.
In this spirit, chapter one is a discussion of slavery, which existed for several thousand years. Bondsmen (slaves) have been invisible in Swedish history, because textbooks are obligated to focus on the patriotic glories, and step around the embarrassing dreck. Bondsmen could be bought, sold, given way, or killed. Throughout his life, Moberg was devoted to the notion of freedom. He estimated that in the eleventh century, twenty percent of the population was bondsmen. The rest of the book is devoted to the commoners who were freeborn, the rugged peasantry who worked hard to survive in the forests of Sweden, and were the majority of the population.
In most other European nations, peasants were not free. They suffered for centuries under the heavy fist of feudalism. They inhabited lands crisscrossed with roads, which enabled the nobility to snatch the fruits of their toil and keep them under control. The main exceptions were Sweden, Norway, and Switzerland, where the peasants escaped serfdom. The Swiss, surrounded by powerful enemies, were protected by the Alps. The Norse and Swedes were protected by their vast rugged forests. As long as the forests survived and remained roadless, the people were much safer.
In several European languages, the words for “road” and “raid” evolved from a common root. Romans built many roads for the expansion and management of their empire. Later, those same roads made it easier for scruffy outsiders to rubbish their empire and loot their booty. In Roman times, the wild German tribes were also fiercely warlike, but their goal was not conquest and expansion. Their goal was to keep outsiders out, homeland security. Caesar noted, “It is the greatest pride of the Germanic tribes to surround themselves with broad desolate frontier regions.” Frontier forests were buffer zones that were kept untilled and uninhabited.
In the dense roadless forests of Sweden, invaders soon became perfectly lost. It was terrifying. Behind any bush might be a man with a crossbow. The forest people knew every rock, hill, and cranny in the woods. They could pick the ideal time and place to strike. When attack was unwise, they vanished and waited patiently for fresh opportunities.
Over the centuries, Swedes adapted well to forest life. In addition to fishing, foraging, and hunting, they farmed on a small scale. Livestock was their primary resource, providing them with meat, milk, butter, cheese, hides, and wool. The forest was common land owned by no one. A Swedish proverb declares, “The forest grows as well for the poor as for the rich.” It was the poor man’s garden. Forest dwellers often lived in isolation, with few neighbors to rely on.
Moberg devoted an entire chapter to his love for the forest wonderland in which he grew up. In his strict rural Lutheran village, good and bad were sharply defined. Where others could see him, little Vilhelm had to behave properly, to avoid criticism. In the forest, he was free. He could hide where no one would see him, and behave any way he liked. He was happier as a child in the forest than in any other place in his life.
In pagan times there were festivals in which stallions, bulls, billy-goats, cocks, and humans were sacrificed to the gods. One observer recorded details about the annual ceremony at Uppsala. Next to the temple was a sacred grove, where the corpses of up to 200 sacrificed men and beasts hung from the trees. The sacrificial humans included criminals, infirm old men, foreigners, bondsmen, and prisoners.
The Vikings were possessed with an insatiable hunger for the valuables belonging to others. They enjoyed cruising along coasts and rivers and raiding Christian towns and villages — peaceful settlements with which they had no disputes. Vikings were extraordinarily cruel and inhuman, and they fought with pure fury. Vikings ravaged Europe from 800 to 1050.
Sweden’s conversion to Christianity was slow and bloody. The Asa people (pagans) were open minded, and they worshipped many gods and goddesses. Deities that brought good harvests, weather, and health were honored, and bummer gods were tossed on the compost pile. When foreign missionaries suggested worshipping a new one, they were willing to give him a try. The pagans were open minded, but the missionaries were not. Naturally, the Swedes were not delighted to be told that all their ancient beliefs were wrong and evil. Commonly, after the missionaries had moved on to convert others, the newly baptized folks returned to the faith of their ancestors.
It took 300 years to convert the small population of Swedes. In 1122, Småland was last region to be converted. The chronicle reads: “King Sigurd set his course for a trading city called Kalmar, which he laid waste, and thereafter ravaged Småland, exacting from the Smålanders a tribute of fifteen hundred beasts; and the Smålanders accepted Christianity.” This slaughter was called the Kalmar Raid. Sigurd returned to Norway laden with loot. In some regions, Swedes continued to secretly practice pagan rituals into the seventeenth century.
Later, Christian Swedes decided to teach the Finns about the Prince of Peace. King Erik offered the Finns peace on condition they let themselves be baptized and adopt the Christian faith, but they turned down his offer. So the Finns were massacred. “After the struggle was over the king walked about the battlefield among the masses of the fallen heathen and was so deeply moved by the sight of their corpses that he wept.”
Moberg had deep appreciation for the 5,000-year era of Swedish peasants, which was approaching extinction by 1900, displaced by the hideous rise of industrialism and urbanization. Ancient farms and villages were being abandoned, returning to forest. Growing numbers of weird and spooky human-like beings, known as Consumers, were wandering into peasant country from Stockholm, and other insane asylums.
Rural peasants were the last full-blooded individualists; each one was personally unique, warts and all. They were highly attuned to the ecosystem that had been their ancestors’ home for centuries, and they had little contact with outsiders, or their peculiar ideas. The Consumers were rootless tumbleweeds who dressed alike, smelled alike, thought alike, and lived alike — the standardized outputs of a mass culture.
Peasants spent a lot of time with each other, gathered around the hearth fire. Folks did handiwork — spinning, weaving, carving, and so on. Elders shared stories and memories. The daily lives of peasants were spent in intimate contact with the magic, mystery, and beauty of wild nature, which is essential for wellbeing. Consumers would suffer panic attacks if forced to live in a medieval cottage — no lights, TV, radio, internet, books, running water, toilet. Here’s Moberg’s punch line: “Instead of the things they lacked, medieval people had others, which we have lost.” They enjoyed good old fashioned community.
The book goes on to discuss many other topics. It interested me because my mother’s family has Norwegian roots. The Norse and Swedes are closely related. I’ve been reluctant to review this book, because it’s not about ecological sustainability. But it does discuss subjects that are both interesting, and rarely mentioned. So, I turned to a number of other sources to look for the missing eco-info.
Like the wild Irish, British, and Germanic tribes, Scandinavians shifted from hunting, fishing, and foraging, moving toward small scale pastoralism and farming in forest clearings. This encouraged conflicts with wild critters, who were thrilled to feast on the delicious offerings of rye, oats, calves, poultry, sheep, and so on. Nature became an enemy. The peasant lads fetched their war paint.
By 1870, wild boars, aurochs (wild cattle), and beavers were extinct in Sweden, and red deer and moose were getting close. By the mid-1900s, the wolf population was zero. Later, some beavers (from Canada), boars, and wolves were reintroduced, or wandered in from elsewhere. To this day, the eternal peasant’s war on wolves continues in Sweden, Norway, and Finland — three of the most “eco-progressive” societies in Christendom.
Oddest of all, in Moberg’s celebration of the common folk of Sweden, he made no mention of the Sami people, the wild hunter-gatherers who have been harshly abused and exploited by the civilized racist settlers for several centuries. New research is discovering that the Sami people inhabited large portions of Scandinavia long before the Nordic (Germanic) pastoralists arrived. Sami lived as far south as Hadeland in Norway, not far from Oslo, one of my ancestral homelands.
Genetic data has linked the modern Sami to the first humans who wandered into Scandinavia more than 10,000 years ago. They have been in Sweden much longer than the Swedes. The Sami homeland is known as Sápmi, and it spans large areas of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia. Sami have another name, Lapp, which some do not like.
Moberg, Vilhelm, A History of the Swedish People, Pantheon Books, New York, 1973.
To learn more about Sami and reindeer, four nice essays are [HERE]
Lapps and Labyrinths, an excellent 2010 book on the Sami, by archaeologist Noel Broadbent, can be purchased from Amazon ($$$), or downloaded free [HERE]