Historisk Tidskrift. Utgiven av Svenska historiska föreningen
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Historisk tidskrift 134:2 • 2014

Innehåll (Contents) 2014:2

Uppsatser (Articles)

Memorialets makt. Bonderiksdagsmän i det frihetstida Sverige som aktörer i en förskriftligad politisk kultur

Nils Erik Villstrand

Fulltext (pdf)


The power of the written word: The peasant estate and the challenge of a literalizing political culture in Sweden’s age of liberty.

Modern scholarship on the political role of the eighteenth-century Swedish peasantry emphasizes the growing impact of the peasantry not only on a local level but also at the national level as one of four estates at the Riksdag (Parliament). This investigation looks at the peasants’ ability to defend and promote their political agency in a political culture where the role of literacy was growing. It takes the form of a case study of Ostrobothnian peasants who defended their traditional right to trade their own produce using their own vessels at the Riksdag 1746–1747. The principal sources of the investigation are memorials submitted to the estates by peasants.

The case study provides a test for the usefulness of the theoretical concepts “possessive” and “accessive literacy” that were developed by Villstrand in the 1990s. In the latter form of literacy, which has not been sufficiently investigated in international scholarship, the role of translations from oral to written language, and vice versa, is crucial. The investigation shows that the peasants did not use their religious literacy, i.e. their ability to read printed religious texts, as a means to gain a possessive political literacy. Instead they were able to maintain their political agency by employing the services of hired scribes.

The activities of hired semiprofessional scribes, possessing a sufficient literacy for writing memorials of sufficient quality to promote the interests of the petitioners, became an object of political debate in the Riksdag in 1747. In order to make the scribe responsible for the content of memorials submitted to the estates that were not written by the petitioner it was made obligatory in 1751 that scribes signed such memorials. Nevertheless, in many cases the identity of scribes remained a secret for the estates in the eighteenth century as well as for modern scholars. Memorials signed by the petitioner rather than the scribe continued to appear even though evidence in the document indicates that it was written by someone else.


Sweden, Finland, 18th century, peasants, political culture, parliament, literacy