Wednesday, March 16, 2011

13th Century Sweden and 21st Century America

I'm reading in a history of Sweden this morning, and I ran across this passage, about a time back around 13th century when actions by the Swedish kings led to a decrease in social equality and the rise of an aristocracy.  I thought it sounded suspiciously familiar to what the Republicans and conservative Democrats have been trying to do for about 30 years now.
The development of a separate noble class was one of the most fateful changes of the Middle Ages. Distinctions of status had existed earlier, but they were vague. No differences between freeman were recognized before the law. In the course of the thirteenth century, however...the need arose to provide a mounted armed force on land. Individual knights appeared....The kings could not afford to outfit armies of knights, but they could encourage their officials and the greater landowners to equip themselves. Hence King Magnus Ladulas...issued a statute at Alsno in 1279 by which he gave exemption from taxation to men who would supply themselves with horses and armor....

Thus King Magnus got an army and also created a lay upper class, the fralse, distinguished by its tax-free privileges and its social status....From an egalitarian peasant society with distinctions only between slave and free, Sweden became, with this new institution of knights and fralse, a status society with sharp gradations between ranks.

As the lands of the newborn fralse became tax-free, the lands of the ordinary free farmers had to bear an increased load. As the privileged fralse discovered how advantageous it could be to own land with no responsibility other than maintenance of a few knights, they bought up additional farms and took them off the tax rolls, thus increasing further the burden on the small landholders. The state found it harder and harder to collect taxes....The fralse served as functionaries of the state. They enjoyed mobility, contacts with foreign countries, and educational opportunities for their children; they worse fine clothes and built fine houses.  (Sweden: The Nation's History by Franklin Scott, pp. 57-58)
Sounds a whole lot like our current American aristocracy/upper class, their low tax burden and privileged life. 


  1. I guess the important questions here are how long did this arrangement go on and by what means did it end (it did end, didn't it?). Seems a far cry from the democratic constitutional monarchy Sweden is supposed to be today, or is the "Kingdom of Sweden" still in the hands of the privileged elite? How much more will we here in the US bequeath to our "Aristocracy" before "...we've had enough, and we aren't going to take it anymore" (paraphrased from the movie "NETWORK").

  2. Hi Gra'ma Banana,
    Yes, there were all kinds of twists and turns over the next seven centuries or so of Swedish history, though I won't know them all until I finish the book! Suffice it to say that the big turning came toward the beginning of the 20th century, when the Social Democrats came to power, with their political philosophy of social, political, and economic egaliatarianism.