Crop failure disasters: Societal knowledge in circulation and transformation, Sweden 1695–1870

by Erik Bodensten

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Erik Bodensten

The aim of this project is to further our historical understanding of crop failure disasters as an important political, environmental, and knowledge phenomenon during the transformative shift from pre-modernity to modernity. Based on a variety of different sources, this project seek to show how the multifaceted and growing knowledge concerning crop failure disasters changed and circulated in Swedish society, during the period of 1695–1870. “Crop Failure Disasters” runs between 2018 and 2021, and is funded by the Swedish Research Council.

Pre-modern Sweden suffered from recurring crop failure disasters. Few other phenomena affected society to the same high extent. In order to understand these disasters and to prevent or alleviate future adverse effects, people turned to a multifaceted array of knowledge going far beyond the most immediate explanations related to weather conditions. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as these disasters gradually became less common and less devastating and as society simultaneously underwent far-reaching modernization, this knowledge was also subject to important changes. For instance, within the learned community, writers began to collect and interpret historical data in order to predict future disasters. In the emerging public sphere, enlightened critics of the social order in a novel way began to describe crop failure disasters as market failures and evidence of social injustice.

However, instead of focusing on discoveries, innovations, and the origins of knowledge, focusing on learned and political elites or on the original sites of knowledge production, this project focuses on the societal circulation of knowledge and the ways in which ordinary men and women––the ones most affected by these disasters––tried to make sense of them. Such an analytical shift inevitably puts different––frequently less studied––knowledge actors, institutions, practices, and media in focus. For instance, this approach places almanacs, chapbooks, supplications, letters of intercession, and royal decrees, read aloud from the pulpit, at the center as the main sources of this study.

Also, prioritizing the knowledge of the many rather than the few does not require a perspective of dissemination. On the contrary, studying the societal circulation of knowledge invokes an understanding that knowledge is not a fixed or free-flowing essence, but something that is mediated and usually transformed through the circulation process; for instance, as the knowledge moves between different media and genres and crosses social boundaries. This project sets out to study this circulation process empirically, in addition to the ways in which the knowledge of crop failure disasters changed over the course of almost two centuries, spanning the transformative shift from pre-modernity to modernity. The questions asked include: How and why did the knowledge of crop failure disasters circulate and come to attain broad societal influence and significance in Sweden––a society not yet familiar with modern-day mass media? How and to what degree did this knowledge, circulating in society at large, change and begin to reflect more modern views with respect to politics, religion, and the natural environment? To what extent was this diverse array of knowledge characterized by conflict?

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