A Brill Calendar: September 17
Few European cultures bear ready comparison with the one of Sweden.
The ancient world behind the Pillars of Hercules and the Straits of Gibraltar is mirrored in the younger theatre contained within the Baltic. To the north of the old Kingdom of the Danes and beyond the maritime traffic in the Sont, an immense land-mass, in which ‘density of population’ seems an abstract notion is eternally present.
As a great European military power, Sweden’s life may be dated in a surprisingly exact way. It can be said to start on September 17 1631 when a Swedish-Saxon army under King Gustav II Adolphus destroyed the Roman Catholic foe; the first strategically important Protestant victory in the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648). It ended on July 8 1709, when the Swedish King Charles XII was left no choice but to fight Czar Peter’s subjects at Poltava in the Ukraine. Both the birth and the death of this military process and expertise – at Breitenfeld in 1631 and in the endless Ukranian steppe 78 years later – became history in a wider sense.
It is seldom that a culture and society learned its national lesson as quickly and thoroughly. After 1709 it is clear that the idiom ‘splendid isolation’ is not exclusively reserved for a more or less United Kingdom. The Swedish eclipse as a fearsome European power has been matched in the three centuries following it by the sustained evolution of a civilization which has learned the wisdom of John Milton’s line “They also serve who only stand and wait”.