Ages of liberty : social upheaval, history writing, and the new public sphere in Sweden, 1740-1792

University dissertation from Stockholm : Stockholms universitet/Gotab Elander

Abstract: This dissertation investigates how different social groups used history as a political instrument in Sweden during the second half of the eighteenth century (1740-1792). More specifically, it analyzes how representations of the past were used to influence behavior, legitimize claims to power, mould opinion and forge collective identities. In addition to analyzing how historians conceived of the relationship between history writing and society, the study considers how three social groups or actors -commoners, nobles and the King - used history to advance claims to power during a time of intense social conflict. These questions are pursued within the context of competing efforts to describe society and social relationships and the ways in which they were reformulated in the emerging public sphere. Combining textual analysis and diffusion studies, the dissertation examines both the meaning and the transmission of texts. The empirical material consists of government documents, textbooks, history books, subscription lists, political pamphlets, journals and speeches. The study shows that history was commonly viewed as a branch of ethics and that its social benefits were related to the creation and maintenance of civil society. In the late 1760s and early 1770s, this function was complemented with a radical historical discourse that advanced anti-aristocratic opinions, introduced ideas of democratic traditions and helped shape a collective identity for commoners. The nobility's reactions to these efforts show that they were unable to adapt their approach to the past to the demands of a new political culture. A study of Gustavus III's official rhetoric shows that historical elements were mobilized to support the idea of a revolution in favor of restoring liberty and national traditions. On a more general level, this dissertation argues that there were numerous ways to understand society and that these were contingent on ideological considerations. By conducting a study of the social make-up of the subscribers to one of the period's most important history books the study shows that the emerging "middle class" constituted a core group of readers. Moreover, the language of history increasingly became the national language (Swedish). The media of history became more variegated, books became cheaper, and the audience played a more decisive role in publishing; all of which contributed to the formation of a new Swedish public sphere.

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