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I: Bringing the people back in

Repertoires of state building from below in the Nordic countries, c. 1500–1800

Knut Dorum, Mats Hallenberg & Kimmo Katajala

The formation of states in early modern Europe has long been an important topic for historical analysis. Traditionally, the political and military struggles of kings and rulers were the favoured object of study for academic historians. From the late 20th century, the case of popular contention and participation from below came increasingly into focus. In the 21st century, however, historians have shifted their interest away from politics and the state in favour of cultural and discursive analysis.

We believe the time has come to return to the subject of contentious politics and state building from below. The early modern period was a time that witnessed initiatives by the people from a number groups formally excluded from political influence, operating outside the structures of central government. Some 30 years ago, Theda Skocpol argued for bringing the state back into historical analysis.[1] In this volume, we seek to bring the people back in to the discussion of state politics, highlighting the impact of ordinary people as well as various elite groups. We do this by focusing on four important themes:

4 Historical agency: The essays address political practices, power relations as well as the mobilisation of social resources. A common goal is to identify different repertoires for collective action.

In this chapter, we argue that the concept of state building from below may be used as an analytical tool for better understanding of political and social relations in the era before industrialisation. We start by presenting an outline of the international historiography of the state and its adaptation in Nordic research. Then we point to some of the major challenges to the classic paradigm of state building raised by recent research. After that we introduce the key concepts of this volume and discuss how they may be applied in the Nordic context.

Classic historiography has interpreted the growth of powerful states as a process directed from above, where regional and local societies were considered objects for rules, organisations, and increasing taxation. However, since the late 20th century historians have analysed state building as an interactive process where the government constantly bargained with its subjects over resources. New rules or demands introduced by the state had to be adapted to traditional local institutions in order to function properly. Even open expressions of contention had a lasting impact on government decisions. It is this perspective we start from when we discuss ‘state building from below.’

While state formation is a perspective more often focusing on the organic, unintended, and accidental attempts of the making of states, the term ‘state building’ accentuates the interests that various groups and persons had in attempting to shape the state in their own way and becoming a shareholder or participant in the state. The agency of local people lies at the heart of our analysis. That is why we prefer the concept of state building, focusing on active participation and contention rather than the eventual result, i.e. state formation. We want to clarify the role of peasants and burghers, servants and even members of the elites in this process. How and in what ways did they manage to negotiate and influence the formation of political and administrative institutions? What goals were they trying to achieve and to what effect did they succeed in promoting them? The state provided social resources which could be utilised to promote particular interests as well as government policies (Table 1.1). Local officials representing the king as well as the parish clergy had important roles in implementing the crown’s orders. Importantly, these local representatives lived in rural and urban settings and therefore were dependent on the cooperation of locals. In this way, they became mediators between the local societies and the central authorities.

The role of personal agency in state formation has recently been explored by Finnish historians in a volume edited by Petri Karonen and

Table 1.1 Repertoires of rule and political contestation

Government policies

Forms of rule

Local strategies

Repression, decrees, and top-down measures

Power state

Obedience, passivity, contestation, revolt

Negotiations, political representation, and official communication

Bargaining state

Bargaining, petitioning, and non-violent protest

Recognition of local privileges and institutions

Conglomerate state

Adapting local and provincial institutions to the government system

Delegation to peasant

Peasant state

Organised self-government,

and urban communes

Semi-feudal towns under family dynasties

local or provincial uprisings

Marko Hakanen. The essays focus on many of the intermediating groups that we are interested in: Provincial and local officials, clergymen, mayors, and burgomasters.3 We want to take this approach one step further by also incorporating the agency of peasants, townspeople, and even persons of rank, working outside central government institutions into the analysis. There is a need to expand and problématisé the development of state institutions beyond the simple dichotomy of rulers and subjects.

We do not claim that the state building process was exclusively determined from below. State building was most often a top-down process; rules and regulations, bureaucracy and military organisation were implemented in urban and rural societies very much from ‘above.’ However, we do claim that the people ‘below’ developed effective means and strategies to affect the state building process throughout the early modern period. Subjects of the crown were not just passive objects of the growing ‘power state.’ On the contrary, they helped to shape the scope and character of state institutions in a variety of ways as demonstrated by this volume.

Neither do we claim that all political interactions were about state building from below. Early modern societies were permeated with power relations of different kinds and not all of them involved the state. We do claim, however, that in the early modern Nordic countries, the state provided an overreaching framework that both shaped and was shaped by various local conflicts. We also hold that local agents were quite aware of the significance of state institutions and quite adapt in utilising them for their own purposes. In doing so, they helped to transform the character of the state not only on the local, but sometimes on the central level also.

Our project focuses on European state building in general and Scandinavian development in particular. However, we do acknowledge the fact that recent research has demonstrated that state building was not exclusively a European project. Transnational or even global connections could have profound effect on local interactions in a way not appreciated by earlier research. While comparing differing local societies in the Nordic countries, we also recognise the transnational links. Ideas and concepts for mobilising political action were often communicated across borders but could gain new relevance in the local context.

The concept of state building

According to the classical definition of Max Weber, the state is an organisation claiming a monopoly of the legitimate use of force within a given territory.4 Therefore, ‘state formation’ can be understood as the process which resulted in a clearly defined state territory and a system with a central administration that exercised more or less legitimate power over the state territory and its subjects. Scholars have stressed that this process gained momentum in the early modern period, starting from renaissance in the 15th century and continuing into the 19th century.5

British sociologist Michael Mann has formulated an alternative definition of the state, stressing social relations and overlapping networks of agents operating at different levels in society. Mann’s perspective on state building is highly relevant, because it focuses on the importance of extensive power networks, including some agents in local societies but excluding others.6 This line of reasoning has been further elaborated by historians such as Michael Braddick and Steve Hindle, who have demonstrated how the British state operated through local agents who exploited state institutions to promote their own social status.7 Importantly, the state could function as a social resource, a set of competences and resources that might be utilised by various agents and groups - not just the social elites - to gain status and legitimacy for their actions. Swiss scholar André Holenstein has named these practices ‘empowering interactions,’ through which local agents and groups could gain influence and better their position through contacts with the state.8

One dominant perspective has held that warfare, or preparation for war, was the prime mover for building centralised states in early modern Europe. This idea has been attributed to German historian Otto Hintze (1861-1940), a contemporary of Max Weber and one of the first historians who discussed the process of state building.9 American sociologist Charles Tilly (1929-2008) elaborated this argument in a series of influential publications. According to Tilly, the state building process was a struggle for resources: To survive military threats from neighbouring polities, the rulers had to intensify administrative control and the extraction of resources (taxation) from their subjects.10

This reasoning has inspired researchers to characterise the early modern state as a power state - a bureaucratic organisation controlling its subjects top-down. Recently, however, Tilly’s focus on war and extraction has come under fire. Benno Teschke has argued that Tilly underestimated the importance of intra-state relations and that intensive warfare might just as well result in the disintegration of state structures. Others have pointed out that it was not the pursuit of war as such that promoted state building activities, but rather the need for effective administration and long-term planning.11 Mark Dincecco holds that theories explaining the state put too much weight on internal and external conflict, underestimating the need for cooperation between social groups with different agendas. This perspective is in itself a strong argument for analysing interactions and mobilisation from below.12

Charles Tilly did in fact recognise that initiatives from local or regional groups could have profound effects on the state. When Tilly’s theory about state building is described in the literature, his notion about the impact of the ‘below’ in the process is most often forgotten. In his own works, however, Tilly insisted that centralised states could only be formed ‘... at the cost of widespread resistance, extensive bargaining and the creation of rights and perquisites for citizens.’13

We want to expand upon this perspective, studying how this bargaining with various agents significantly shaped the states that emerged in Europe. State intervention also created political opportunity, providing some subjects with effective tools for strengthening their position while pushing others into the background. Central power was gradually expanded by offering people something in return: Financial privilege, limited self-government, or at least room for addressing grievances and entering into negotiations. John A. Hall and John Ikenberry have argued that state building should be analysed as a response to the demands from a wider society: People craving protection from military violence, a legal system that defended the poor, and a political organisation that provided at least rudimentary material support.14 While this comes across as a valid argument for focusing on local mobilisation and initiatives from below, this also stresses the need for sharpening the conceptual framework of our analysis.

Agency, intentionality, and state building

Charles Tilly’s perspective stresses the haphazard and accidental character of the growth of state power. The administrative institutions created were not the result of a well-designed master plan, but rather the outcome from a series of compromises and ad-hoc solutions.15 In consequence, scholars have argued that state formation must be analysed as a long-term process of institutionalisation where individual strategies and choices played a secondary role.

While this long-term perspective is perfectly valid, we argue that the concept of state building is more relevant for our focus on interactions at the micro level. Peasants, artisans, or townspeople might not have had a clear, articulated programme on how the political system should function or how military resources should be deployed. But that does not mean that they could not be politically active or even proactive. Local people did more than just react to initiatives from above - they formulated protests, organised meetings, and developed counter-strategies. In doing so, they effectively influenced and transformed the development of state institutions. Their actions must be analysed as intentional, even if the eventual results were not in full accordance with those intentions. By analysing their strategies as state building from below, we consider local people as political subjects capable of taking part in national as well as local politics.

It is true that common people seldom (if ever) labelled their own actions as ‘state building.’ Nevertheless, we argue that the men and women described in this volume - journeymen artisans, soldiers’ women, colonial merchants in the far east as well as noblemen in the periphery - all tried to mobilise social sources to improve their living conditions and ultimately to change the political order. By recognising their actions as intentional as well as political, we analyse state building from below as strategies employed by various agents to influence the state and utilise the resources at hand to expand their scope of political action. And in many of these cases, they eventually succeeded!

Consequently, the authors in this volume study the practices and interactions that made up the overlapping networks of power so crucial to early modern politics. Some of the social resources they employed were provided by the state, others by the church, by local authorities, or even by merchant companies. The institutional settings are of course also important; they provide the context for the practices that we define as state building.

The early modern public sphere

Following Jurgen Habermas’ influential work, early modern politics has been characterised as a representative public sphere dominated by authoritarian monarchs and church doctrine. According to this, the political community was effectively restricted to the king and court and the representative arenas. This system was only challenged in the 18th century when urban groups created new arenas where political matters could be discussed, eventually forming a strong public opinion not controlled by the ruling elite.16

Scholars of the early modern period have protested against this view of early modern politics as being essentially a display of social status. Their main argument is that popular contention played a decisive role throughout the old regime, creating a vibrant political culture that stretched beyond the arenas controlled by central government. For instance, bargaining over taxes often involved many local groups, and this sometimes spilled over into coordinated political action. This representative public sphere may not have provided a free exchange of arguments by equals - it was still a deeply

Repertoires of state building 9 hierarchical system. However, it did offer opportunity for a broader scope of the population to engage in political matters. From the late 17th century, these discussions gradually spilled over into new arenas like coffee houses, reading societies, and published pamphlets.17

Erling Sandmo has argued that early modern society should be analysed as a permanent public sphere, where ordinary people interacted with each other on a day-to-day basis. In this context, personal honour was a crucial asset to be able to act with authority and met with respect by neighbours and strangers alike. Public action was not by any means restricted to noble elites and government officials. Peasants, crofters, artisans, and soldiers came to muster conceptions of honour and turn them into weapons of collective action. For Norway’s part, Knut Dorum has demonstrated how the period c. 1740-1800 meant a restoration of local self-government which opened up political arenas to unprivileged groups.18 Furthermore, he states that the 18th century in both Denmark and Norway saw the beginning of a public sphere dominated by state officials and urban elites who eventually managed to form a hidden and disguised opposition directed towards absolutism and government. This led to a revision of the Danish-Norwegian absolutism inspired by the ideas of the Enlightenment.19

The authors of this volume confirm the notion of an expanding public sphere, where various groups gradually appropriated the means to promote their interests inside as well as outside the traditional representative arenas. In the Nordic context, the early modern period saw a successive broadening of the political community. This process was not predominately the result of top-down measures. Rather, it was an effect of conscious struggle by local agents to gain recognition as political subjects. Thus, the transformation of the public sphere was a crucial aspect of state building from below.

Spaces and places of state building

Scholars who have criticised Tilly’s and his followers’ focus on war and economic extraction have pointed out important features that have been downplayed in the dominant narrative of European states formation. Philip Gorski and Vivek Swaroop Sharma have argued that there were social institutions which provided stability in the supposedly Darwinistic context of belligerent states. Family structures and dynastic connections played a vital part in resolving conflicts and creating networks that could operate both within and outside state structures.20 The chapters in this book demonstrate the fundamental importance of households, guilds, parishes, and estates as normative settings for political agency. These institutions provided legitimacy and authority that could be utilised not only by state agents, but also by different groups to forward their own interest.

State institutions such as representative assemblies or judicial and administrative bodies were social resources that conferred legitimacy to collective action. However, they were not enclosed representative arenas in the sensethat Habermas imagined. Rather than being dominated by elite groups, they were places for negotiating power relations that might also have served as hotbeds of political contention. There were learning processes going on in the early modern period, where local groups learned how to coordinate their actions in public arenas in order to influence government policy. Also, in the latter part of the period, new institutions were formed on the local level that had great significance for the broadening of political participation during the following century.

The Scandinavian states, like their European counterparts, were political entities that claimed sovereign power over all territory within their borders. However, they were far from homogenous in the political sense. First, they were conglomerates made up of different territories with varying political status. For instance, the Norwegian part of the Danish monarchy was a medieval kingdom with political institutions that was never fully incorporated by the Danish state administration. Second, the character and scope of political action differed greatly between the central provinces and the peripheral parts. In the central regions, local groups had easier access to political arenas and information on government policy. However, state administration was also better organised in the vicinity of the capital city. In the more remote provinces, government control was often less effective and there were potentially more room for political action from below. Consequently, the repertoires of protest and state building from below were never uniform. They were shaped by local conditions and could take many forms.

Jeppe Strandsbjerg has argued that state building in early modern times witnessed a qualitative leap, while governments learned to apply scientific methods for measuring distances and organising the extraction of resources. Geographical knowledge and techniques for surveying land provided the government with advanced tools for dominating local societies.21 Some of the chapters in this book argue to the contrary. State authorities continued to depend on local knowledge throughout the period. State territory was not a uniform entity but rather a fluctuating space full of ‘holes’ - places and spaces where central control was missing or totally dependent on local agents and institutions.

Finally, political actions from below were by no means endemic phenomena restricted by territorial borders. Repertories of organisation and contention were copied, translated, and then spread between different parts of Europe through word of mouth as well as by printed sources. We therefore analyse state building as a set of practices that could be transnational and border-crossing, as well as national, regional, or local.

The Nordic perspective

Our project addresses the development in early modern Scandinavia, i.e. the kingdoms of Denmark-Norway and Sweden (including present-day Finland) from the beginning of the 16th to the turn of the 18th century.

These realms did not form a homogenous territory although their governance and cultures had a long common history and traits. The political system of Denmark was characterised by royal absolutism and a manorial system which differed from Sweden, where the Diet often played an important role in connecting the central and local levels of government. On the other hand, although Denmark tried to incorporate Norway and centralisation around Copenhagen, Norway did remain as an own kingdom with many of its own administrative peculiarities. In contrast, although Finland differed linguistically and culturally from much of Sweden proper, its incorporation into the Swedish governmental and political system was quite complete. Therefore, we must be aware that state building took different forms and courses inside Scandinavian territories as well.

In the Nordic countries, the discussion about the state building process in the 1980s and 1990s produced two conflicting narratives. Some scholars described the growth of the 17th-century state as an organised process to strengthen exploitation structures to support aggressive warfare. This ‘power state’ approach is often connected to the works of Sven A. Nilsson (Sweden), Jan Lindegren (Sweden), Leon Jespersen (Denmark), and Oystein Rian (Norway).22 The origin of the approach was in the German ‘Machtstaat' (Sw., Da. and No. maktstat} discussion. However, Sven A. Nilsson and researchers following his reasoning preferred the term ‘military state’ (Sw. militarstat), with special relevance to Sweden.23

Other historians were inspired by Swiss historian Peter Blickle, who characterised state formation as a ‘dialogue-like exchange between peasant communes and the state’ and as the gradual incorporation of local institutions rather than a simple series of top-down measures.24 Swedish scholar Eva Osterberg held that early modern Swedish society was characterised by intensified interaction between the central government and its subjects. The administrative organs of the expanding state preferred negotiating with the subjects rather than coercing them. The means of interaction were not altogether peaceful but included various forms of resistance such as non-compliance, strikes and riots.25

From the same interaction perspective, the Norwegian historian Steinar Imsen sees a prevalent political system in Norway c. 1274-1604 where the state and the peasantry were intertwined in dialogue, reciprocity, and common interests.26 Imsen further speaks of a peasant state, where local representatives were strongly integrated into the state as sheriff’s assistants, churchwardens, tax collectors, and as so-called ombodsmenn (lower state officials). However, Imsen recognises that the peasant state in many ways was serving the interests of the king as much as reflecting local interests. Magne Njâstad has followed up and developed further the communal-ism-perspective, and he has pointed out the strong resistance to centralised rule and the limitations of state government prior to 1600.27

Since the 1990s, Nordic historians working on the early modern period have had to navigate between the ‘coercion and control perspective’ and the

‘interaction and everyday resistance perspective.’28 Finnish historian Nils Erik Villstrand has argued that research about early modern society has been frustrated by this unfruitful duel. Villstrand underlines that many recent works about Swedish and Norwegian early modern society show a tendency to look for the ‘third route’ which could theoretically accept and mediate between those two ‘theoretical poles.’29

Mats Hallenberg and Johan Holm is one example of this approach. They focus on ‘three central aspects of states; organizing, legitimation and interaction.’ According to Hallenberg and Holm, the three aspects should be analysed systematically to answer questions fundamental in the state building discussion about governance, empowering interactions, and compliance.30 They characterise early modern Sweden as a ‘bargaining military-state.’ The Swedish early modern state took its form ‘because of the requirement to negotiate with the country’s freeholders, perforce recognizing them as political subjects.’31

Oystein Rian has asserted that a harmonious or consensus perspective dominated among Norwegian historians after the Second World War. Distinguished scholars generally agreed that the early modern state based its rule on dialogue and negotiations with both the elites and the commoners.32 In Denmark, the peasants succeeded in upholding some privileges regarding property rights to land estates and taxation up the 1500s. For the early modern period, Danish historians have thoroughly demonstrated how political centralisation and the expansion of manors led to political disempowerment and weakening of the peasantry.33 However, Claus Bjorn argues that the Danish peasants still managed to front bargaining positions into the 1700s.34

The purpose of our project is to revitalise the discussion by expanding the interaction approach to include a comparative perspective. If the modern state was the product of interactions on several levels, a main objective of historical analysis must be to analyse and compare interactions between state representatives and different groups. The conditions for bargaining varied according to the national context, but also between urban and local communities, from central and peripheral areas and so forth. Urban settings in particular have tended to be disregarded by Nordic scholars, focusing on the relations between government and the peasantry. We like to stress the multifaceted character of state building in the Nordic countries, and we do so by focusing on the interactions of multiple groups of agents more or less integrated into the growing nexus of state power.

Looking from below

We argue that state building should not be analysed as a one-way process directed by the lords against the subjects. On the contrary, our research challenges this distinction by addressing shifting local and regional conflicts as well as alliances between individuals and groups of different status.

Agents of the state might have very different ways of exerting influence according to the local setting. And local agents may use the structures of the state to forward their own interest. Therefore, local politics and contention were not merely local. These interactions were also regional, national, or even transnational. Local people knew the impact as well as the limits of the state apparatus and chose strategies to overcome them. In doing so, they used existing structures to formulate alternatives, thereby influencing and ultimately forcing the state to adapt and reform. This was a reciprocal process, albeit often with very unequal proponents.

The ‘from below’ part of state building needs to be qualified. Analysing state building from below means addressing political contention from various agents not fully integrated in the networks of government; be they aristocrats or merchants, local noblemen or priests as well as soldiers, journeymen, or farmhands. Significantly, they acted together in shifting constellations in order to further their own interest - and in doing so, they sometimes succeeded in reshaping the practices of the expanding state organisation.

This perspective connects to the sharper focus on contentious politics advocated by many scholars. Such works highlight the dynamic forces in politics, to understand how common interests, mobilisation, and leadership create social movements. E.P. Thompson and Charles Tilly have led the way by studies focusing on political action outside the established government arenas: Food riots and popular protests helped shape the political consciousness of labourers and other urban groups that were excluded from the official arenas of government.35 James C. Scott has demonstrated how political dissent was a vital part of everyday life in remote peasant villages in East Asia. Scott argues that there was always a ‘hidden transcript,’ a discourse of contention that was parallel to the official political culture approved by the state.36 There are also scholars who have focused on placebased political activity.37 David Featherstone coined the term ‘dynamic spatiality’ to describe the connections between particular places attached to contentious meaning and broader geographical networks. The geography of solidarities produce the resources that give strength and vitality to popular antagonism and help articulate political goals.38

Combining the perspective of state building from below with the notion of contentious politics helps us to focus on a wider scope of interactions -conflicts, negotiations, and alliances - as well as on the functions and spatial extension of various political, social, and economic networks.

Repertoires of state building

In the following paragraphs, we describe the main components of our analysis: The repertoires of rule and political contestation (see Table 1.1 above); the categories of agents; the arenas for interaction and contestation. State building from below cannot be restricted to official, reciprocal interactions.

Table 1.2 Categories of agents

The state

Elite groups

Ordinary people

Central government: The king, royal councillors, and office holders

The royal family, the aristocracy, the estates of the Diet

Household servants

Provincial governors and

Bishops and chapters, the

Soldiers and household

secretaries, royal courts, army officers



Local officials: Bailiffs,

Merchants and artisans,

Crofters, farmhands,

district judges, sheriffs,

local clergymen, peasant

journeymen, servants, day-labourers

village constables


Political action also took the form of more or less spontaneous activities by ordinary people to improve their living conditions and thereby challenging state policy. Such tactics included many forms of ‘obstinacy,’ from the foot-dragging in day labour to strikes and even open revolt. Ordinary people could also use the threat of violence strategically to affect government decisions.

Government officials, local judges, and clergymen have often been characterised as instruments of the state, implementing government decisions. However, these agents as shown in Table 1.2 could also act as mediators between the government and the ordinary people. They agreed to hear the petitions and complaints of the commoners while bargaining over taxes and custom dues. These ‘middling sort’ could also support local claims and forward them to the highest authorities. They might also pursue their own interest rather than acting on behalf of the king.

At the local level, official interactions took place between representatives of the state and the peasant/burgher elites. However, in some cases, the clergy might assume the role of promoting local interest against government officials. The parish clergy regularly assisted the peasants by formulating their grievances. In Sweden, the bishops and the deans allied with the non-noble estates to provide ideological support in the struggle against the nobility on several occasions. The Lutheran Faith underlined the importance of humble and modest behaviour and could therefore be used to criticise aristocratic privilege.

Inclusion of some agents in the political sphere of government also meant exclusion of other groups: Crofters, soldiers, farmhands, household servants, and so on. Women, in particular, were formally excluded from political interactions in the town as well as the countryside. In the urban setting, merchants and established craftsmen constituted the political elite while journeymen, apprentices, and labourers were denied any political influence. However, riots and disturbances from marginalised groups could have an impact on state politics and must therefore be considered. These forms of non-legal protest often engaged women as well as men.

Table 1.3 Arenas of interaction and contestation

Official arenas

Communication channels

Informal arenas

The Diet, council meetings, meetings of the estates

Provincial meetings, church courts, district courts, royal commissions

Parish meetings, city councils, guild assemblies

Royal decrees, legislation, the estates’ grievances Provincial grievances and petitions; litigation

Local grievances and petitions; litigation

Secret meetings

Annual fairs, army gatherings

Churchyards, alehouses, market places, street gatherings

We must also consider the arenas of interaction as shown in Table 1.3, where government officials confronted the demands from below. Political interaction was not restricted to official arenas like the Diet or the meetings of the estates. The interactions between agents of the state and ordinary people also took place through the judicial institutions, in military units and even in the church courts. Sometimes the peasantry organised their own unofficial meetings to decide matters or to elect representatives to bring their complaints to the king or the Diet.

It is important especially to notice the informal arenas where protests may have been organised. Marketplaces, churchyards, exercise grounds, and even alehouses and coffee parlours played a special role as hotbeds of political contention throughout the early modern period.

The Swedish Realm might be regarded as an exceptional case in Europe, while the peasant estate was present at all national diets from the middle of the 16th century.39 The Swedish Diet was summoned at the king’s discretion to commit his subjects to new taxes and military conscriptions.40 However, the Diet also provided the peasantry and the burghers with a political voice and opportunity to address their grievances (besvdr) and petitions (supplik) to the king at the Diet.41 In this way, local and central politics became entangled, as the government was obliged to respect local demands in order to realise its own political agenda.

Popular litigation - in Sweden as in Denmark/Norway - could be channelled both through the political and the judicial systems. The court cases where the peasants challenged their superiors - fief holders, manor owners, bailiffs, and even governors - can be seen as one sort of interaction where local groups could promote their collective interest. During the course of the early modern period, several Courts of Appeal were established to handle these complaints. The king also used special commissions to control local office holders and to address the grievances of his subjects.42 If the complainer was still unsatisfied with the decision, it was still possible to appeal directly to the king. In all Nordic countries, regular parish meetings were organised by local priests. These meetings handled the issues of the congregation and in the 18th century became an important arena for local self-government.43

State policies often encountered organised protest and state authorities often chose to adapt to opposition from below. One solution was to integrate local elites into the government, as when the Norwegian lensmenn or Swedish and Finnish lansman (local sheriffs) were transformed into state servants rather than communal representatives. One might call this strategy ‘integration by manipulation,’ as Knut Dorum has pointed out in a Norwegian context.44 Another approach, which could work perfectly in combination with the latter one, was to mediate pressure from above and constantly be aware of the popular reactions. This strategy should be named ‘government adapted to popular opinion,’ and it is apparent that the Danish Realm based its rule on such a political theory from c. 1750 and onwards.45 Furthermore, it was a widespread political praxis in Denmark-Norway to ‘hear the people’ on local matters, and to accept the negotiations about taxes. In the late 18th century, it is clear that law drafts were presented to the people, and the state authorities carefully noted the opinions and views expressed in those hearings.

Patterns and variations

One important question that begs answering is which individuals and groups stood to benefit from the extension of state power? If the ascendance of the state was a communicative process, as Charles Tilly argues, we must be able to identify the groups who successfully interacted with the state and the people who were formally excluded. Studying state building from below requires recognising social conflict within urban and rural societies as well.46 The ‘empowering’ interactions of elite groups might well correspond to acts of violence and insubordination by their less fortunate neighbours.

The problem of political influence must be studied at the local level. The main victories of Swedish peasants, for example, are well documented, like the abolition of tax farming in 1634 or the fief reduction campaigns of the late 17th century. However, we need to learn more about the strategies of specific local groups. The alliances of the commoner estates at the Swedish Diet were certainly important, but what alliances could be formed between town and country, noble and non-noble, and state and non-state agents in the provinces?

On the other hand, we must also consider that state formation might have had levelling effects in local society. Gustavus I of Sweden (r. 1521-1560) claimed that his tax reforms would curb the dominance of rich farmers and lower the costs for those who did not own large traits of land. This was of course propaganda, but the king strategically pitted the interest of the less fortunate against the local elite. Swedish historian Bbrje Harnesk has argued that the extractive power of the Swedish state may well have served to hamper social stratification and preserve the relatively egalitarian peasant communes.47 Therefore, it is fundamentally important to analyse the impact of the state on the social and economic relations of local society.

There are also important questions to raise regarding timing and geography. Early modern polities were loosely integrated units and the impact of political institutions varied much between the centre and the periphery.48 We must thus expect local elites to adopt different strategies depending on their position within the realm. Thomas Ertman has argued that state formation is all about timing; who gains influence depends on whether strong institutions of self-government had been established before the ascendance of state power.49 We know that such structures existed in early modern Scandinavia, but we know less about what parts of the realm had the most success in resisting/participating/adjusting in state formation. On the one hand, we may expect peasants and burghers in the central parts of the Swedish or Danish Realms to have strong political traditions, be well organised and therefore better equipped to interact with the state. On the other hand, state power might well have been less effective in the periphery, which would have created other incitements for local elites, and for instance stimulating the emergence of local self-government. It is crucial to compare different polities, but also different provinces within the same realm. Moreover, as territorialisation was a crucial part of the state building process, it certainly opens up the perspective for studying border areas as special cases.

The impact of towns and urban settings on the state formation process must also be considered. Guild regulations and police ordinances became vital instruments for urban elites to discipline the unruly elements of the city. In some parts of the Nordic countries, there evolved semiautonomous small towns where two to three families, groups of merchants, or private companies succeeded in establishing political, economic, and administrative dominance. These dynasty towns, burgher towns, and company towns merged both in conflict and in interaction with the state.50 The towns tended to dominate a vast hinterland around widespread river systems, and several social groups were integrated into these semi-independent political units. In these regions, the peasants could exploit the double political system - the state and the private dynasties - by creating shifting alliances and seeking various patrons.


The early modern period produced new repertoires for collective action and political agency. Studying state building from below means that we recognise that regional and local groups had an active role in protesting, challenging, and ultimately transforming the politics and practices of the state. To bring the people back in means challenging the established dichotomy between the state and its subjects. Firstly, the state was a complex organisation of overlapping elite networks, and local agents came to be involved with the state in various ways. Secondly, shifting alliances and contention between various social groups and agents of the state brought about profound changes in political culture. Finally, the development of transnational networks, where political ideas and repertoires of activism spread across national borders, created a more complicated system of politics than earlier research has supposed.

By focusing on a broader spectrum of local agents, alliances and conflicts, networks spanning over different groups as well as regional or national borders, this volume demonstrates the pros and cons of political contention in early modern societies. Governance practices, local agency, political arenas, and contentious politics are crucial for our analysis. The fact that our research network brings together scholars from four Nordic countries provides us with a unique potential to integrate the micro and macro levels of history; integrating the study of local politics with research on how the modern state was contested, built, and transformed.


  • 1 Skocpol 1985, pp. 3-37.
  • 2 Tarrow 1994; Tilly 2006.
  • 3 Karonen & Hakanen 2017.
  • 4 “Staat ist die jenige menschliche Gemeinschaft, welche innerhalb eines bestimmten Gebietes - dies: das “Gebiet" gehört zum Merkmal - das Monopollegitim erphysischerGewaltsamkeit für sich (mit Erfolg) beansprucht”, Weber 1919, p. 397.
  • 5 A good summary about the main trends in the discussion on the state formation is in the article Gustafsson 1998, pp. 189-193.
  • 6 Mann 1986a, pp. 122-125; Mann 1986b.
  • 7 Braddick 2000; Hindle 2000; Wood 2002.
  • 8 Holenstein 2009, pp. 1-31.
  • 9 Ertman 2005, p. 368.
  • 10 Tilly 1992. See also Tilly & Ardant 1975.
  • 11 Teschke 2017.
  • 12 Dincecco 2015, pp. 901-918.
  • 13 Tilly 1992, p. 25.
  • 14 Hall & Ikenberry 1989, pp. 12-14, 95. Moore 1978, pp. 20-22.
  • 15 See for example Gustafsson 1998, pp. 189-213.
  • 16 Habermas 1989, pp. 7-26.
  • 17 Sennefelt 2011; Hallenberg 2012, pp. 557-577; Droste 2018.
  • 18 Sandmo 1999; Runefelt 2014, pp. 7-20; Dorum 2016.
  • 19 Dorum 2017, pp. 52-109.
  • 20 Gorski & Sharma 2017, pp. 98-124.
  • 21 Strandsbjerg 2017, pp. 127-153.
  • 22 See Nilsson 1990; and issue of Scandinavian Journal of History 4:1985 with articles Jespersen, Leon, The Machtstaat in seventeenth-century Denmark, 271-304; Lindegren, Jan: “The Swedish Military State”, 1560-1720, pp. 305-336; Rian, 0ysteim State and society in seventeenth-century Norway, pp. 337-363; and magnificent anthology of “power state scholars” Jespersen, L., (ed.) (2000): A Revolution from Above? The Power State of 16,h and 17th Century Scandinavia, Odense: Odense University Press; Glete J. (2002): War and State in Early Modern Europe. Spain, the Dutch Republic and Sweden as Fiscal-Military States 1500-1660. London & New York: Routledge.
  • 23 Ämark 2012, p. 152.
  • 24 Blickle 1997, pp. 325-338; Blickle 2009, p. 295.
  • 25 See f.ex. Österberg 1979; Österberg 1993, pp. 126-145.
  • 26 Imsen 1990-1994.
  • 27 Njästad 2003.
  • 28 Österberg 1993, 131, see Ämark 2012, pp. 150-156.
  • 29 Villstrand, pp. 466-479, esp. 472 and note 27. Villstrand takes the expression “polarized poles” from Jens Lerbom, see Lerbom 2003, p. 227.
  • 30 Hallenberg & Holm 2016, p. 38.
  • 31 Hallenberg & Holm 2016, p. 270.
  • 32 Steen 1933; Mykland 1987; Imsen 1990-1994; Sandnes 1989, XXVI: pp. 84-92, Sogner 1996.
  • 33 Jensen 1994, p. 123-142; Pedersen 1976, pp. 63-88.
  • 34 Bjorn 1981.
  • 35 Thompson 1963; Tilly 2005; also Te Brake 1998.
  • 36 Scott 1987.
  • 37 Cox 1998, pp. 1-23; Harvey 2001; Tuan 1979; Featherstone 2008.
  • 38 Featherstone 2008.
  • 39 Österberg 1993, p. 129.
  • 40 Katajala 2001, p. 286; Karonen 1999, pp. 207-211.
  • 41 See f.ex. Almbjär 2016.
  • 42 See Lennersand 1999.
  • 43 See Aronsson 1992.
  • 44 Dorum 2010.
  • 45 Seip 1958.
  • 46 As argued by, i.e., Andy Wood on peasant resistance in 16th-century England.
  • 47 Harnesk 2000, pp. 191-213.
  • 48 Gustafsson 1998; Elliott 1992.
  • 49 Ertman 2010.
  • 50 Eliassen 1999; Dorum 2018.


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  • [1] The Nordic perspective: This book highlights new historical research from Europe’s Northern frontier, presenting an alternative view of early modern politics. 2 State building from below: The authors investigate the struggle for recognition by individuals and groups outside of the established political arenas. This not only includes the local, peripheral, and the marginalised but also elites seeking alternative ways to gain political recognition. Their actions and strategies were their own but they ultimately effected and changed the government of the state. 3 Early modern kingdoms, realms, and states: This book discusses the concepts of state and state building/state formation used by scholars as more complex and multifaceted than the more tradition views, and how different ‘state’ and similar concepts such as kingdom, realm, and nation were perceived in the early modern period compared to the definition of the state and nation merging in the 1900s and 2000s.
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