Foreign travellers at the library

Travel accounts were very popular in the 18th century and emerged as a fully-fledged, popular literary genre. This enthusiasm and fascination with travellers’ tales was sometimes even spoofed by witty observers. In 1794, Xavier de Maistre wrote his Journey round my room:

« I have undertaken and performed a forty-two day’s journey round my room. The interesting information I have made, and the constant pleasure I have experienced all along the road, made me wish to publish my travels; the certainty of being useful decided the matter (…). Among the immense family of men throng the earth, there is not one, no, not one (I means of those who inhabits rooms), who, after reading this book can refuse his approbation of the new mode of travelling I introduce into the world (…). My room is situated in latitude 48 east, according to the measurement of Father Beccaria. It lies east and west, and, if you keep very close to the wall, forms a parallelogram of thirty-six steps round. My journey will, however, be longer than this; for I shall traverse my room up and down and across, without rule or plan. I shall even zig-zag about, following, if needs be, every possible geometrical line (…). Hence, when I travel in my room, I seldom keep to a straight line. From my table I go towards a picture which is placed in a corner, thence I set out in an oblique direction for the door; and then, although on starting I had intended to return to my table, yet, if I chance to fall in with my arm-chair on the way, I at once, and most unceremoniously, take up my quarters therein. »

His book is a delightful parody of the genre. However, let’s have a look at some travellers who decided to venture, despite the fact that Scandinavia was not a part of the classic Grand Tour, to Northern Kingdoms and especially to Sweden. This was clearly considered something exotic as can be seen from the travel book’s preface of Giuseppe Acerbi (1773-1846):

“It may possibly excite curiosity to know why a native of Italy, a country abounding in all the beauties of nature, and the finest productions of art, would voluntary undergo the danger and fatigue of visiting the regions of the Arctic Circle (…). Journeys in the North will be undertaken by those only who have a just and masculine taste for nature, under every aspect.”

Thus, I’ve selected for you, dear readers, some insights into the impressions foreign visitors had about Uppsala and particularly our library. The academic town had already been considered a centre of erudition. When Edward Daniel Clarke arrived in Uppsala in 1799, he could not help but think of numerous of its renowned scholars:

« A long avenue of stately firs at length opened upon Upsala, once the metropolis of all Sweden. Its appearance, in the approach to it, is really noble: we descended a hill towards it, calling to mind the names of Celsius, Linnaeus, Wallerius, Cronstedt, Bergmann, Hasselquist, Fabricius, Zoega and a long list of their disciples and successors, which has contributed to render this University illustrious; the many enterprising travellers it has sent forth to almost every region of the earth; the discoveries they have made, and the works of which they were the authors. » Illustration by Gustaf Johan Härstedt (1756-1820):

2851One year previously, it was the knowledgeable Saxon named Carl Gottlob Küttner who stopped in Uppsala:

« We left Stockholm at seven this morning, and reached this place before three. Upsal is the handsomest and neatest of all the Swedish towns of the middling class, and, to compare small things with large, reminds me of Oxford. Its most magnificent building, though only of brick, is the cathedral church; but the beauty of the inside far exceeds that of the exterior. In my opinion it is the finest church I have seen during the last four years (…). The library of the university is said to contain 52, 000 volumes. » Illustration by Gustaf Johan Härstedt:

2276The library was self-evidently much smaller than it stands nowadays. However, it already played a key role for the town’s reputation and could not be overlooked by those passing by. In 1774, the Englishman Nathaniel William Wraxall is in town and lucky enough to meet Linnaeus. But while here he also takes some time to explore the city:

« The principal objects of consideration are the library, the cathedral, and the botanical garden. I hardly know of any thing else. The first of these is a neat, good building, though the books that it contained appeared to me to be neither numerous, nor very choice in the selection. There were, however, some curiosities which, as connected with the Swedish history, attracted my attention. Among these, was the astrological diary, belonging to Eric the fourteenth, king of Sweden; a prince who had the weakness to believe in judicial astrology. In his diary he had marked the days, on which he was menaced with misfortunes; and among them is that particular day, upon which he was subsequently deposed (…). Like most other seats of learning, Uppsala is lonely, silent, and dull; but clean, and contains numerous gardens within its walls. » Atrologial diary by Eric XIV:


Around the same time, his compatriot William Coxe also discovers the town and the library, learning a lot about its history:

« This town is particularly celebrated for its university, the most ancient in Sweden. The library contains many valuable books and manuscripts. Olaus Celsius, in a publication upon this subject, inform us, that it owes its origin to Gustavus Adolphus, who presented the university as well with his own private collection, which was very considerable, as with several libraries obtained in the different countries which he had over-run with his arms, it being his custom to reserve for himself, in all towns taken by storms, the book especially, as his share of the plunder. Thus, the Jesuits’ library at Riga, that at Wurstenburgh, and those of many other conquered towns in Poland, Germany and Prussia, were transmitted to Upsala. His example was followed by his successors, and thus the victorious arms of Sweden enriched the kingdom with these literary acquisitions. Olaus mentioned Christina as a considerable benefactress to this library, and enumerates many private donors (…). Among the most valuable pieces of literary curiosity is a manuscript of the Four Gospels, called, from its silver letters, Codex Argenteus, and supposed to be a copy of the Gothic translation made by Ulphilas, the apostle of the Goths, in the fourth century. I examined this curious volume with great attention (…). In this library two original manuscripts of the unfortunate Eric XIV caught my attention. They are in Latin, and were composed in 1566 and 1567, the two years that immediately preceded his deposition. They contain his astronomical, or rather astrological, observations and predictions (…). There are in this library of Upsala few manuscripts of the classics of much importance; but the printed editions are numerous and good. Having desired the librarian to show me the first book printed in Sweden; he pointed out to me the Dialogus Creaturarum moralizatus, published at Stockholm in 1483 (…). I hold myself greatly indebted to the polite attention of Mr. Eric Michael Fant, sub-librarian, who kindly accompanied me to the library, and favoured me in the readiest manner with every possible information. »

By crossing the various accounts, we quickly realise that the writers always mentioned the same manuscripts, and before anything else the silver bible which was obviously already a touristic attraction. By the end of the 17th century the Frenchman Jean-François Regnard, who had travelled in Lapland previously, mentioned this manuscript as a must-see. The librarians were showing the visitors a selection of what were considered the treasures of the collections. Furthermore each traveler acknowledges each other’s publications and refers to them, sometimes in agreement but also quite often to correct some mistakes or express a different way of thinking. In the beginning of the 1790’s, the Frenchman Pierre-Marie-Louis Boisgelin de Kerdu spent some days in Uppsala with his fellow traveler Alphonse Fortia de Piles. The following description is interesting, it is indeed important to remember that at that time the library was still hosted in the Gustavianum and only composed of three rooms. Illustration by Gustaf Johan Härstedt:

1808« The city is very small, containing scarcely four thousand inhabitants, exclusive of the students, the number of whom vary, as in every other University, though they seldom are fewer than five hundred (…). Three days at least are requisite to see Upsala properly; for this city contains many objects of curiosity (…). The cathedral is the largest and handsomest church in the kingdom (…). The first of the three rooms which compose the library contains a marble bust of Charles XI (…). The first room is dedicated to the belles lettres, history and natural history. The contents of the second were a present of Gustavus III when prince-royal; which donation is inscribed on the door: and the third contains jurisprudence, divinity, and physic. Nothing is more curious in the whole of this collection than a Gothic manuscript in quarto, intitled Codex Argenteus; it contains the four evangelists in gold and silver letters, with writing between every line. The beginning and end are incomplete, and the whole consists of a hundred and eighty-seven leaves, with some of the passages translated into Latin in the margin (…). This library likewise contains (…) Edda et Scalda, a very valuable Iceland manuscript, on vellum; with some figures, coarsely drawn (…). The manuscripts in this collection are placed on the first floor, and the whole of the library consists in about fifty thousand volumes (…). Though the collection of manuscripts is very considerable, there is still room for more; and none of them are of great value, excepting a Diarium Wadstenense, an original manuscript, on vellum. It is a small quarto, written in different hands, between the years 1344 and 1544. » Vadstena Diary:

P1120213The accounts written after the death of the king Gustav III in 1792 mentioned something new of high importance regarding the library. Let’s read what John Carr, a native of Devonshire, evokes in 1804:

« Some of the private dwellings and the colleges are handsome, and are generally stuccoed and stained on a yellow colour; but the majority of houses are composed of wood, painted red, and have behind them little gardens filled with apple and other fruit trees (…). In the small room in the library we saw a large chest, about the size of a bureau bedstead, double locked and sealed, containing the manuscripts of the late King, which he directed should not be opened till fifty years after his decease. Conjecture and expectation frequently hover over this case, which will, no doubt, one day unfold to Sweden much interesting memoir, and literary treasure. Here we were shewn some Icelandic manuscripts, said to be upwards of eight hundred years old, and several Lapland tracts. How wonderful, that literature should have lived, and even smiled, in region which the sun rarely warms! »

The Gustavian collection is now unsealed and is indeed a goldmine of information. One might notice the last observation about sun and literature. An interesting concept. To conclude this anthology, here is one last extract from 1808 written by Robert Ker Porter:

« It being dark when we entered this ancient town, you must pardon I gave you no account of its approach. It is built on the banks of the river Fyris, and altogether exhibits a very venerable appearance (…). We first visited the university of Gustavus Adolphus, and were ushered into the grand public library. The repository of learning is richly stored with volumes of all ages, languages, and authors; besides above a thousand manuscripts of great value and antiquity. One, esteemed the most precious in their possession, bound splendidly in solid silver, was laid before us. The celebrated Codex Argenteus (…). We next have the gratification of taking into our hands one of the first impressions of the bible (…). Having carefully examined the sacred volume, which was quite perfect, a heathen work was unfolded to us. The manuscript of the Edda. It was found in Iceland (…). There is something very provoking in turning over the leaves of famous books, when we are ignorant of their language. Our feeling, in such a case, are not dissimilar to what would have been a completely deaf man’s, standing in the forum where Cicero was speaking (…). It would be tedious, as well as tantalizing to you, whose favourite banquet is a good library, to name all the rare books we turned over. In fact, this bibliotheque contains every early and curious edition of the most scarce and renowned works, to the number, I am told, of eighty thousand volumes. »




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