The plague year of 1710 was also a difficult year

COLUMN

24 February 2021

A globe with a face mask

During 2020 COVID-19 has spread all over the world and new restrictions have continually been introduced in day-to-day life. During the plague years of 1710–1711 there were also restrictions.

As historians, it is our job to take a step back and give perspective to our current situation. For anyone looking back, it isn’t hard to find other difficult years. In Sweden’s past, 1710 was undoubtedly one such year, writes Jonas Lindström, researcher at the Department of History at Uppsala University, in a column.

2020 was not a good year. Today’s annalists on Wikipedia summarise the year as “a highly disruptive year [...] heavily defined by the COVID-19 pandemic”, which has caused “global social and economic disruption, mass cancellations and postponements of events, worldwide lockdowns and subsequent protests, and the largest economic recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s”. 

At the time of writing, the counter on Johns Hopkins’ website stands at more than 111 million infected and 2.5 million Covid-19 deaths worldwide. The World Bank states that, after decades of decline, the number of people living in extreme poverty has increased by at least 88 million in the past year due to the pandemic. In order to reduce the spread of infection, new restrictions have continually been introduced in day-to-day life. Travel, education, trade, socialising – everything has suffered.

And as if that weren’t enough, Wikipedia cites Geospatial World, which has designated 2020 “the worst year in terms of climate change”. A recent report from SMHI (the Swedish Meteorological and Hydrological Institute) shows that the annual average temperature in Sweden is the warmest since records began in the 1860s.

As historians, it is our job to take a step back and give perspective to our current situation. Not to relativise – knowing that somebody has had it worse at some point is rarely any great comfort. But there is value in the realisation that humanity has faced similar difficulties in the past and that, somehow, we have made it through. And there is value in the recognition itself, even in societies that may seem far-removed from our own.

For anyone looking back, it isn’t hard to find other difficult years. In Sweden’s past, 1710 was undoubtedly one such year. What would later be referred to as the Great Northern War had been in progress for a decade. The harvest had been catastrophic the year before. And the autumn of 1710 saw the arrival in the country of perhaps the most feared disease of all – the plague. Some of the effects of this have left traces in the letters written to the County Administrative Board of Örebro County, which the research project Gender and Work has had digitised in collaboration with the Swedish National Archives.

The plague was a little different to Coronavirus, but the reader is struck by the seemingly eternal nature of the conflict between, on the one hand, the desire to prevent the spread of infection and, on the other, people’s ability to make a living. The balance between the two was as difficult then as it is now. In a letter from January 1711, a number of representatives of Grythyttan mining district complained about the roadblocks that had been set up “to prevent, as far as humanly possible, the widespread and dangerous pestilence”, as stated in the proclamation.

In order to impede travellers who could carry the infection, barriers and guards had been deployed between Grythyttan and Filipstad. As a result, the miners had been shut out from the market in Filipstad, where they used to sell their pig iron and buy the grain they needed. The 1710 harvest had been more abundant, admittedly, but there were still shortages in Bergslagen. The consequences of the suspension in trading would be devastating, the miners felt. The area would “unequivocally be ruined”. They wouldn’t be able to pay any taxes – after all, it was the king’s commander they were writing to – and the miners feared that they would be “eventually, against our will, forced to abandon our crofts and our dwellings”. These concerns can be recognised from the words of today’s companies regarding redundancies and bankruptcies as a result of the Coronavirus restrictions.

Travel restrictions are nothing new either. Anyone who wanted to travel around the country during the plague years of 1710–1711 had to carry a health passport certifying that the person was not infected. The authorities suspected, as is so often the case, that people were cheating with the passports, which is why they had to be closely checked. One of those appointed carry out these checks was Erik Molander at Rås Inn, at the border between Örebro and Östergötland counties.

In another letter to the Governor from 1711, Molander requested compensation for the 30 weeks during which he had guarded the county border “day and night”. The fact that these checks had not always been popular can be seen from Molander’s complaint that “when I wanted to see their passports, I was subjected to harsh words and threats from the travellers”. There are many examples of the restrictions to people’s freedom of movement being met with resistance and frustration.

What about climate change? Here, too, anyone looking into the past can find parallels. In 1828, for example, the Governor in Gender and Works’ current investigation area, Västmanland, mentioned the increasingly mild winters: “It is a true observation, namely, that the winters in recent years have been milder than before”. Previously, the Governor claimed, the snow had lingered from December or even November through to April, but that “winters with no snow are now not uncommon”. The Governor linked this to the extensive logging that was being carried out, partly due to the mill’s considerable need for coal.

But something new may have happened. 2020 appears to be the year in which the total mass of all man-made materials exceeds the total biomass on the planet. For example, the total volume of plastic weighs twice as much as all the world’s land and sea animals. This is a frightening fact, because it shows the enormous impact that man is having on our planet. But precisely because of this, it also shows something else: man’s capabilities and the power that exists in our work. Through work, we are changing the world. Through work, we are also stopping diseases. This may be a thankless task, and some of the measures will inevitably clash with other values. It’s no wonder the authorities seem to be faltering. It’s difficult, quite simply. But we’ve done it before.

Jonas Lindström, researcher at the Department of History at Uppsala University