Per Landgren

From Imperial Free City to Baltic Empire: Political Humanism and its Ramifications in Sweden in the Era of the Thirty Years’ War

Intellectual Geography / Monday 5 September, 2011

During the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, the geographical location of the city of Strasbourg opened it to intellectual influences from all directions. As well as confessional impulses arriving from Germany and the Swiss cities, strong pedagogical countercurrents passed up river from the lower Rhine (including Johann Sturm [1507-1589] and the gymnasium illustre and the political humanism of Justus Lipsius [1547-1606]). Moreover, Strasbourg’s position near the southwestern border of the Empire opened it to French influence as well, perhaps most notably to the mos gallicus, which brought humanist perspectives and philological techniques to bear on the interpretation of ancient legal codes. In early seventeenth-century Strasbourg, these interrelated strands of thought were woven together into a coherent tradition by figures such as Matthias Bernegger (1582-1640), a refugee from Habsburg Austria who became rector of the academy in 1617. Edmund Kelter regarded Bernegger as the founder of the philological-historical school of Strasbourg, and John E. Sandys called it a ‘flourishing school of Roman History’.

Partly in recognition of this long tradition of excellence, Strasbourg was the first imperial free city ever to be granted full university status for its gymnasium in 1621. For a decade and more, the new university thrived. Although never large by German Lutheran university standards, Strasbourg continued to develop the sophisticated high-humanist approach to pedagogy established a century earlier by Sturm; and as a consequence the new university was particularly well patronized by the nobility. However, over the longer term, the political and military chaos unleashed by the Thirty Years’ War cut short the honeymoon of Strasbourg’s new university; the failure of the Peace of Prague in 1635 brought France directly into the central European battlefield, and Strasbourg’s enrollment plummeted. Previously a meeting point of intellectual as well as commercial traffic from all directions, Strasbourg endured a decade and more of misery, occupied successively by Spanish, Swedish, and French troops. While the prestige of Bernegger and his colleagues remained undimmed, military events had made Strasbourg a much less attractive place for students, and its professors became vulnerable to offers of employment elsewhere.

It may seem surprising that several of the most tempting of these offers should have come from an incomparably larger monarchy far to the north of the imperial free city. But during Sweden’s early Great Power Era there was an urgent need for higher education. The sole university, founded in Uppsala in 1476, had had a troubled existence, but was re-established by Gustavus Adolphus II in 1620. Uppsala was soon followed by a chain of gymnasia, and new academies. They were modeled on the German stratified gymnasium and on Ramist pedagogy. The Swedish State Authority, through nobility such as Oxenstierna and Skytte, used its power and influence to recruit the most talented and learned academics as diplomats, royal historiographers, or to Uppsala as professors. Sweden could offer a safe haven for scholars far away from the turbulence of war on the mainland Europe. There had been particularly good diplomatic relations between Sweden and the reformed city of Strasbourg ever since the Reformation and the University of Strasbourg became a strategic source for the identification of well-educated humanists and their transition to Uppsala in Sweden. Bernegger himself almost became Swedish royal historiographer, but the core of the Strasbourg-school in Sweden was the disciples of Bernegger Johan Freinshemius (1608-1660), Johan Boecler (1611-1672), and Johan Schefferus (1621-1679).

Initially, then, the Swedish Age of Greatness was to a considerable extent lacking in intellectual independence. It was marked by the import and reception by pedagogical and intellectual trends from academies in German free imperial cities and principalities, through the works and networks of influential humanists as Melanchthon, Ramus, Lipsius, and Comenius. My purpose is to delineate the significance from the Swedish point of view of, not only the reception, but the active transplantation and cultural transmission of this particular kind of political humanism and to assess the crucial importance of geographical factors in shaping and facilitating this rich process of intellectual transfer.