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VI: State building from below in perspective

The people and the state

Nordic paths in state formation, 1500-1800

Marjolein 7 Hart

‘Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’ This is the famous first sentence of Leo Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina. It hints at the fact that happiness in the relationship of husband and wife depends upon a myriad of factors. Only one factor is sufficient to disturb that relationship thoroughly and make it an unhappy marriage. The relation between the state and the people is an equally precarious relationship. Perhaps even more so, since not only are many factors at stake, a mass of different actors are also involved. In addition, competing visions of both good government and household order exist, which complicates the relationship further. ‘Successful state formation,’ in which the central administration listens to its people, takes care of their needs, while at the same time manages to keep foreign competitors at bay, is a truly rare phenomenon in history. One might even ask whether it has ever existed.

This volume addresses early modern state building and popular contention in the four Nordic countries and offers a fresh comparative perspective on a well-known subject. The challenge to write a conclusion to this rich volume, which deals with so many different factors and also with so many different actors, is a conundrum indeed. There is simply no ideal model of a state that enabled sufficient participation ‘from below,’ to which one might compare and contrast Nordic experiences. The forces ‘from above’ prevailed in state formation everywhere. Scholars formulated generalities, such as countries with a rather high degree of commercialisation and urbanisation were more often characterised by a larger proportion of state formation from below.1 Yet the weight of factors ‘from above’ dominated there too. With the definition of ‘below’ by the editors of this volume, which applies not only to the lower segments of society but also to local elites,2 I would say that to prevent all substantial unrest from below was simply impossible for any state in the past.

Indeed, all early modern European states faced the challenges of expanding or maintaining their territories, increasing their armies, and levying more taxes. Such drives stimulated central control from above. However, they could only do so successfully under the condition of ‘peace’ at home. How successful states, i.e. the states that in the end survived, managed to do so, and how and to what extent their modus operandi was modified by the people from below is the topic of this volume. This implied that state rulers needed to make choices when they tried to accommodate groups that made themselves heard through lobbying, protests, or turmoil. Such decisions might be hurtful for other (competing) groups in society, who had fewer means and resources to make themselves heard.’’ This aspect must always be kept in mind.

Let us move towards a discussion of the contributions in this volume. People made themselves heard in the ‘public sphere,’ the physical spaces (parish meetings, Riksdag, clubs, societies, etc.), and media (petitions, newspapers, etc.) that permitted the debate and identification of political and societal problems by different groups in society.4 As the editors noted in the introduction, the transformation of this sphere was crucial for the interaction between state and people. The spread of literacy and printed materials enlarged this sphere considerably, for example in Norway. In the 15th century, the public trust in the written word was already substantial, even though only a minority of Norwegians could read and write. This trust increased markedly in the 16th century, as Magne Njâstad showed. The power of the written word strengthened the administration, since it standardised and facilitated communications from the state. The state defined the terms of interaction, yet the people used similar means of expression in their complaints and protests. Politically excluded groups could appropriate the discourse of legitimate rule to serve their interests. Written petitions became an established way to demand change, while informal dialogues became less important. In this ‘textual community,’ intermediaries who could read and write helped the people to raise and formulate complaints in a generally accepted format.

In all Nordic countries, the Lutheran Church played a prominent role in the public sphere, and not least in the countryside. The Church entangled notions of good governance with ideals of household regimes. Local priests acted as crucial intermediaries between the state and the people. They communicated state decisions from the pulpit, yet also transmitted signs of local abuses and unrest back to regional or central authorities. In this way, priests linked households to the state and diminished the mental distance between communities and the state, no matter how peripheral those communities were. Jenni Merovuo studied the strength and flexibility of a Russo-Swedish borderland parish during a physical split because of the rather arbitrary positioning of the new frontier. Despite serious complications regarding the political position of the priest and the maintenance and ownership of the church building, the parish remained intact. Even more so, the multifunctional interaction within church and parish strengthened the actual development of an early, rural-based citizenship. Ella Viitaniemi demonstrated how the peasantry became more involved with the estate in the diet in the 1720s. Freeholders obtained the time and means to participate in local and regional politics, thanks to demographic and economic

The people and the state 331 growth. In the 1730s, the election of local priests and the rise in public spending on local public projects strengthened the political participation of peasant freeholders even further. The notion of this early citizenship also signified the crucial transformation of consensus-based resolutions towards individual decision-making.

Trond Bjerkas regarded the local Norwegian churches as an important nexus in the transformation of the later 18th-century public sphere as well. Even though the churches did not stand outside state governance, debates were not totally under the control of the state either. People voiced their claims in these local arenas, similarly to the Finnish parishes. In the Norwegian parishes, the establishment of two semi-government committees for local affairs enhanced political deliberations, dealing respectively with education and poor relief. Together they acted as a kind of proto-local council, such as would emerge in a stricter institutional sense in the 19th century. Thus, even before the coming of official representative institutions, these committees heard grievances and intermediated between the state and the people.

The role of literacy in the public sphere, already stressed previously, also strengthened the networks of the Norwegian elites. The orientation of the latter was transnational, since many could understand German, French, Dutch, or English. In the later 18th century, the number of newspapers increased to around 35 by 1800. Knut Dorum demonstrated how within Norwegian civil society new ideas regarding citizenship emerged. The elites came to discuss politics and government under the influence of the philosophers and political spokesmen in France and North America promoting popular sovereignty and the separation of powers. For instance, the French Declaration of Human Rights was printed in full in the main newspaper of Christiansand. Clubs and societies discussed alternatives for the absolutist regime, rather than just advocating a restoration of the traditional order and familiarised themselves with notions such as freedom and civil rights. In 1814, absolutism had lost its legitimacy in Norway when the Danish prince instigated the Norwegians to rebel against the Swedish conquest of their country after victorious military operations in the south of the Kingdom of Denmark. Prominent Norwegians exploited the momentum to force Prince Christian Frederick to relinquish his hereditary position to the throne and wait upon a king-elect, and thus allowing a Constitutional Assembly to elaborate a new constitution and government making popular sovereignty vested in parliament as the legislative power. In this way, the radical nature of the Norwegian Constitution of 1814 can be explained: Eventually, this became the most democratic of all 19th-century North Atlantic constitutions.

Transnational notions had been shared earlier as well, as Malte Griesse and Miriam Rdnnqvist showed. An ideology that claimed the right to resist and even to oust rulers who abused their powers crossed borders and existed in the Nordic countries too. The 17th-century treatises, for examplein Sweden, echoed the notions of theorists such as Johannes Althusius. For the latter, politics was as a contract between ruler and ruled. Monarchs had the obligation to prevent unrest by ‘just and godly government.’ In this ‘moral economy,’5 revolts could act as a necessary corrective if the monarch failed to do so.

This ‘moral economy’ also legitimised the paying of taxes in return for protection against foreign invasions. Sari Nauman analysed the dangers that arose when the state could not protect its inhabitants against the Russian troops during the Great Northern War of 1700-1721. As a result, the peasants in Ostergotland revolted and challenged the legitimacy of the taxes. They even aimed to side with the Russian state. Typically for such moral economies, the Swedish state reacted surprisingly leniently after the war. Peasants were pardoned for their rebellion. In a way, the wrongdoings of the peasants were balanced by the recognition that the state had failed to protect its citizens.

The legitimacy of taxation was at stake elsewhere as well. The Norwegian nobles had been marginalised through the coup of Christian III in 1537 and had lost much of their political influence facing the fact that the Danish king and aristocracy had abolished the aristocratic Norwegian Council of the Realm followed by diminishing Norway from functioning as a separate kingdom to serve as an incorporated Danish province. As an estate, the Norwegian lords continued to discuss the duties imposed by the Danish king. Erik Opsahl noted that they were only willing to consent to taxes upon the condition that the funds would be used within or for Norway itself. Despite their marginalisation, they managed to win in certain cases. In 1591, for example, upon their demand, the office of the Norwegian chancellor was re-established.

Similar contestations regarding taxes were voiced in the Swedish diet as well. Magnus Linnarsson studied why the major Swedish towns opposed the novel system of tax farming for customs duties. The levy of these duties had been in the hands of the state administration itself, yet in the 1720s, the state shifted to an arrangement in which a private company was to collect the funds. Towns like Stockholm and Gothenburg protested, since by habit the urban authorities had been allowed to deduct a part of the revenues to pay for the costs of the fences and customs buildings. This right had simply ‘disappeared,’ while the company assumed the towns would pay for these costs. The towns actually demanded a say in how the tax administration should be organised. At the same time, with their stance against privatisation of collection, they thus aimed at strengthening the state administration.

With the absolutist ‘wave’ in Swedish state formation, around the 1680s, King Charles XI curtailed the privileges of the regional nobility. Joakim Scherp illustrated this process by focusing on the small feudal enclave of Angso, to the north-east of Stockholm. Among others, the lord of this community presided over an independent high jurisdiction court and the

The people and the state 333 inhabitants were exempted from certain taxes. The king intervened when the lord’s moral misbehaviour caused a conflict with the local priest. The latter had attacked the lord openly from the pulpit, after which the lord closed the church to the congregation. This was regarded as a step too far, and the king incorporated the Àngsô community into the kingdom. The outcome was not only state formation from above in this case. The king restricted the rights of the local lords, yet also respected the interests of the local priest and the parish community.

The new absolutism in Denmark, which dated from the 1660s, attacked the traditional guild regulations there. Jorgen Miihrmann-Lund analysed how the new rules caused a conflict between the novel royal police (established in 1682) and the local Copenhagen government. The reforms were aimed above all against journeymen. As a part of a social disciplining process, they were no longer permitted to leave their master before the end of their term of employment. They should also be at home before the curfew (9 pm in winter and 10 pm in summer). The new regulations were embedded in a moral framework of ‘good police’ which was thought to benefit the state in terms of tax increases and decreases in spending for poor relief. The city council clashed in particular with the police regarding the right to impose fines.

The conflict between the Copenhagen council and the police showed that different practises of patriarchal rule existed and needed accommodation. Since the Reformation of 1536, the Church in Denmark had lost its independent position, and a new moral framework impacted Danish households substantially. Nina Koefoed described the joint entanglement of state, church, and family norms. A new ethical code was transmitted from the pulpit. Parents were responsible for educating their children, not only in the interest of their own household, but also in the interest of the state. Violence by children against their parents was criminalised, and children who misbehaved were likely to end up in a tugt workhouse, a correction institute. Parish priests and also members of the local community helped to put the child away in these cases. As a result, ‘the household was thus turned into a space for state-building.’

With regard to the Danish East India Company, a strict centralist policy existed. King Christian IV regarded this colonial establishment as a private enterprise of his own. He simply overruled the original charter and appointed Willem Leyel as his own representative in the board of Directors. Kaarle Wirta described how Leyel became in fact the main agent of Danish imperial authority in India. In this way, the Danish state attracted capital and exercised patronage outside the normal government institutions, circumventing the influence of local Danish noble and financial elites. The king could act thus as he was also the principal investor of the project.

The stamp ‘from above’ was perhaps even stronger in military institutions. Olli Backstrôm noted that the monopoly of violence remained firmly in the hands of the Danish central power. Christian IV’s army reforms in

Bremen-Verden, Holstein, Jutland, Scania, or Norway provoked protests, mutinies, and desertion during Torstenson war (1643-1645). Such protests were sometimes even backed by local elites in the different parts of the realm. Yet they were of no avail. The peasants who were enrolled in the military simply had to concede, despite the former rights that militias had enjoyed traditionally.

Even Sweden, which has been labelled a ‘bargaining military state,’6 pulled the reins in on the soldier class. In the early 16th century, recruitment had entailed a kind of collective negotiating with the independent freeholder farmers. These soldiers usually served with a kind of individual pride and courage. Yet the militia was degraded gradually into a kind of back-up emergency service. Martin Skoog argued that next to the militia a huge, new army emerged with a new kind of soldier enlisted under royal command for cash payment, which attracted above all recruits from the lower echelons of society. Instead of bringing their own arms, the weapons were now provided by the state, the costs being deducted from soldiers’ pay.7 This proletarianisation of military violence eventually caused a conflict with the traditional ideal of the independent peasant soldier, as was demonstrated by Backstrom too. The new army system circumvented the former bargaining with peasant assemblies.

The sexual relations of these new ‘common soldiers’ also came under close state scrutiny. Martin Andersson showed how the group of soldiers’ wives became a distinct, conscious socio-economic group, who lived above all in Norrmalm, Stockholm’s northern suburb. While in most other countries, prostitution rose with the expansion of the armies, in Sweden, the proportion of married soldiers increased substantially, first during the 1580s, and even more so after 1615. The interests of the soldiers’ wives were looked after rather well by the state. In foreign campaigns, however, prostitution was still condoned.

All in all, the degree to which state formation from below was possible varied from time to time, from public arena to public arena, and from Nordic state to Nordic state. On the whole, the people of Denmark and Norway were more often forced into cooperation, whereas the Swedish showed a rather higher gradation of ‘open interaction,’ at least for the politically organised group, thanks above all to the relatively strongly institutionalised position of the diet. In such variations, Scandinavia did not differ significantly from the experiences of other European countries at large.

However, in the field of relations between Church and State, Nordic countries stood out. The extremely close-knit cooperation between the government and the Lutheran Church often acted to the disadvantage of initiatives from below. In countries with a less homogenised religious situation, religious actors often appeared as possible coalition partners in the balancing acts against an absolutist state, which furthered the relative successes of movements from below. On the other hand, Lutheran priests did often facilitate the drafting of petitions (such as in Norway) or the bringing

The people and the state 335 of local complaints before the diet (in Sweden). Because of their crucial, semi-official position, priests were thus also instrumental in several Nordic movements from below, next to being agents for the state.

The rather low degree of urbanisation, as compared to large stretches of Western Europe or the Mediterranean for example, contributed to the fact that the impact of state formation from below remained restricted. Nevertheless, in the Swedish Riksdag, towns did have an opportunity to be heard, despite their rather limited size. Also, the representation of the freeholding peasantry in itself was quite extraordinary in the European scene.

Moreover, the Scandinavian experience showed that the low degree of urbanisation did not necessarily halt the development of a notion of citizenship. Most scholars regard the public sphere as a typically urban phenomenon, yet Nordic experiences showed that the public sphere existed in the countryside as well. Information from newspapers was read (and heard) widely in villages. Freeholder-farmers even gained more opportunities to engage in political debates in the 18th-century Sweden, just as Norwegian elites did later in the century. This volume showed that a specific kind of rural citizenship was quite developed even in rather peripheral parishes of Sweden, often spurred on through the intermediation of newspapers, the local gentry, or the Lutheran priests.

As elsewhere in Europe, the tendency of state makers was to strengthen their administrative powers, to increase their armies and to centralise government. Everywhere and always, they tried to circumvent existing representative assemblies and estates, and to limit the impact from below as much as possible. Yet from time to time, Nordic state rulers also needed to accommodate demands from below. The gentry or urban authorities could gain through an ‘aggregation of interests.’8 The growth of the state was thus partly accompanied by the empowerment of local elites.9 Lower classes were left with fewer options, such as petitions, complaints, and protests. Nevertheless, from time to time, the political contention of marginalised groups did have a lasting impact on the politics of the state, as this volume shows.

The Nordic experience thus demonstrates that state building was not the exclusive prerogative of rulers and local elites, but rather a continuous struggle between demands from above and initiatives from below. The chapters also suggest that popular contention gradually expanded from the traditional claims of restoring good government to actually promoting alternative forms of political rule towards the end of the period. Historians should take such demands from below more seriously. People from below did put issues on the agenda and did influence the state to take steps in a certain direction. In providing such a rich range of Nordic examples of failed and successful attempts of state formation from below, this volume positively challenges the all-to-often assumed dichotomy between the state and its subjects.


  • 1 Tilly 1992.
  • 2 See also Te Brake 1998.
  • 3 Wiirgler 2001, p. 23.
  • 4 Habermas 1989.
  • 5 Thompson 1971.
  • 6 Hallenberg and Holm, quoted in Dorum, Hallenberg & Katajala 2020, p. 12.
  • 7 For similar developments in the Netherlands: ’t Hart 2014, pp. 37-80.
  • 8 Glete 2002.
  • 9 Blockmans, Holenstein & Mathieu 2009.


Blockmans, W. and’t Hart, M., (2013): ‘Power’, in Clark, P. (ed), Oxford Handbook of Cities in World History, Oxford: Oxford University Press: 421-437.

Blockmans, W., Holenstein, A. and Mathieu, J., (eds) (2009): Empowering Interactions. Political Cultures and the Emergence of the State in Europe 1300-1900, Farnham: Ashgate.

Dorum, K., Hallenberg, M. and Katajala, K., (2021): ‘Repertoires of State Building from Below in the Nordic Countries, c. 1500-1800’, in this volume: 3-22.

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.

Habermas, J., (1989): The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

’t Hart, M., (2014): The Dutch Wars of Independence. Warfare and Commerce in the Netherlands, 1570-1680, London: Routledge.

Te Brake, W., (1998): Shaping History: Ordinary People in European Politics, 1500-1700, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Tilly, C., (1992): Coercion, Capital, and European States, AD 990-1992, Oxford: Blackwell.

Thompson, E.P., (1971): ‘The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the 18th Century’, Past & Present, 50: 76-136.

Wiirgler, A., (2001): ‘Voices From Among the ‘Silent Masses’. Humble Petitions and Social Conflicts in Early Modern Central Europe’, International Review of Social History, 46 (S9): 11-34.


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