And you, what is your favourite treasure from the Cultural Heritage Group? I’ve asked this question to Lars Björdal, senior conservator at the department. I’ve always thought that he might work as a fashion expert at Vogue in another life. If you want to learn how to deal with moths or pests, Lars is the one you need to meet. It is a very serious matter for a conservator who is also a member of a board dedicated to these subjects.

P1120597Lars used to be a student at Uppsala University -of course- and then in Copenhagen, in the School of Conservation, the Royal Academy of Fine Arts. Before his current position, he worked in various places such as the National Archives in Stockholm. He also spent a lot of time teaching, from being an extern professor at the School of Conservation of Gothenburg to giving lectures in different local museums about how to treat collections in a proper and good way.

“It is never easy to sum up in few lines what you are doing”. Lars is in charge to keep the collections in good conditions, “I’m also monitoring the stacks problems due to the climate, or the light. But you are always working in a team”.

Concerning the Cultural Heritage Collections “our work is mainly based on projects. For instance, we made protective boxes for Incunabula (books printed before the year 1501) because researchers often request them. But we cannot have an “open door” otherwise it would be an open stack here with so many things to fix. Moreover, we don’t go very deeply into conservation and restoration. When I was educated, we were, for example, using lots of heavy treatments. Nowadays we try to be very careful and not to over-restore. Thanks to historians, we know that bookbinders have made lots of mistakes and destroyed lots of books by replacing covers for instance. We really try to maintain the object and not to change it”.

Material is sometimes lent out for exhibitions. But you cannot let a 13th century medieval manuscript take a plane on its own. Thus, at the beginning of the month, Lars was in Corsica to escort an item to be shown in a French museum. This kind of loan requires a lot of preparation. Besides, Lars is also member of the team who is in charge of organizing exhibitions, here, at Carolina.

 We also alluded to the central question of digitalization, the current passion in every single library. A good way to preserve old books and manuscripts indeed since it’s supposed to protect them by not being directly handled. But what is the essence of a book if it’s not to be used but to be kept in cold and deserted stacks forever? But let’s switch to the crucial question, Lars’ top three favourite rare pearls from the library:

“I have to start with the Silver Bible because…it’s amazing, written in gothic and so very old! And its story is very good too!” And Lars surely knows what he is talking about. He is in the team who is in charge of the conservation of the manuscript and is one of the few who had the chance to touch it : “But you know it’s so complicated to handle the pages. I’m so glad it’s now digitalized”.

“Then? I’ve always been fond of a small drawing from the early 15th century realized with a silver point. I like it because of the technique. I like it because it’s just so beautiful!”

Silverstift“The third one? It’s hard to select. There is this series in the scriptorium… » Let’s have a look. I was glad to discover that I have also noticed these three lovely books, among the thousands of others, during one of my wanderings. “It’s a very nice paper, so clean, so well preserved. I also like the typefaces. These books written in Italian are from the 18th century. I like the simple beauty of their covers.”

I will just conclude this article by quoting Lars’ words: “It’s amazing what we can learn from the past from old books and manuscripts. And I’m not just talking about the object itself but also its provenance, the annotations you can find in it, I have a very nice job you know”.


The Silver Bible and the metal point drawing are on display in our permanent exhibition.

Weather considerations

Sweden was notorious for its weather even in centuries gone by. Many foreign travellers notably wrote about the rigour of the winter. However, the Swedes seem to find some charm in this severe climate. In November 1741, the count of Tessin, then ambassador in Paris, wrote from the French capital to his wife in Sweden: “It is warm as May: an unfazed sky, a high sun, dry weather (…). I guess that it is not the same in Sweden, but fortunately you are in a place where we can live without a good weather”. Fifteen days later, the coldness finally arrived in Paris: “It is currently very cold with a dreadful fog that makes me miss our Swedish white winter”.

Umbrella style, two illustrations from our database by Axel Gustaf von Arbin (1784-1856) and Carl Jacob Mörk (1780-1828):

This same year 1741, an astronomical observatory is built in Uppsala under the supervision of one of the nowadays most renowned inhabitant of the town, in order to realise his best research. Indeed, if there is at least one native from Uppsala that everybody is familiar with, he is it. That is except for Americans; that isn’t to say they aren’t knowledgeable, but as a matter of fact they are less familiar with this figure for a reason to be revealed later on.

The man in question was born in Uppsala in 1701 from a learned family of astronomers and mathematicians. His father and grandfathers were well known scientists. In 1730, at the age of 29, he was appointed to the professorial chair of astronomy at Uppsala University and thereafter embarks on a tour to Germany, France and Italy where he met and worked with the most famous astronomers around Europe.

In 1736, he takes part in an expedition with the French Pierre Louis Moreau de Maupertuis (1698-1759) to Lapland financed by the French Science Academy. The goal was to test Isaac Newton´s theory that the earth was not entirely round, and that it was flat at the poles. Meanwhile, another team was investigating this theory in Peru. It turned out that Newton was right. Some of our Uppsala’s savant letters as well as Maupertuis’ are sheltered here at the Cultural Heritage Group.

450px-Anders-Celsius-HeadHowever, our man is most of all celebrated for his contribution to meteorology. Have you guessed who he is yet?

In those days’ geographical measurements and meteorological observations were included in the work of an astronomy professor. To be more specific, he is renowned for his temperature scale which is used throughout the world.
 Who is the one who did not imprecate or thank warmly, at least once, if not thousands of time, Celsius and his degrees? “It is just 2° Celsius today, distressingly cold” or “forecast for tomorrow: 25° Celsius. Lovely!” In fact, his name is used all the time without even realising it.

Anders Celsius did not invent the thermometer which was already widely used by the 18th century with various temperature scales, including one still used to this day in the US – which explains why he is lesser known in the United States – the scale developed by the German Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit (1686-1736).

At the manuscript department, you can find two fascinating meteorological diaries written by Celsius and his professor Eric Burman (1692-1729), whose was himself a student of Nils Celsius, Ander’s father, written between 1722 and 1731. The date, hour, barometer temperatures, wind and sky conditions are all meticulously reported in these diaries. This is really worth seeing!

Celsius died of tuberculosis in Uppsala in 1744. His world famous thermometer was adopted all around the world. However, the centigrade scale was different from the one we used nowadays with 0 for the boiling point of water and 100 for the freezing point. The scale originally was actually reversed with 0 degrees as the freezing point of water just right after his death. It has been claimed that it was Linnaeus who lay behind this reform.

To conclude these weather considerations, here is an extract of a letter that you can find at the manuscript department, written in May 1784 by the count of Creutz and addressed to the king Gustav III who was travelling in Italy at that time. Carl Gustav Creutz, who used to live more than fifteen years in France as an ambassador, was now back in Sweden:

“Right now we have the most beautiful weather and the mildest temperatures; nature seems to want to indemnify us from her harshness. However, I do not hate our winters; the body feels more strength, the soul more energy, the spirit is freer, the ideas are more clear and cheerful. And well, of all the climates I know, it is the one from Sweden which I prefer most of all. If the society was as sophisticated, the arts and letters as cultivate, the taste as uncluttered as in France, I think we would be happier in Sweden than anywhere else”.


Mysterious ciphers

The Cultural Heritage Group regularly receives persons who want to discover some parts of the collections. Last week, two researchers, from the University of Southern California and Uppsala University, visited the manuscript department. In 2011, this international team cracked the « Copiale cipher » a famous encrypted manuscript that deals with a secret society in the XVIII century.

Who hasn’t dreamt of secret method of communication and mysterious encoded documents ? Cryptography is a science based on linguistic and mathematics. The reader who knows me a little might be floored that I’ve decided to write about this topic since I usually faint at the simple evocation of the word mathematics. But my fondness for enigmatic subjects get the better of me against my fear of numbers.

P1110061An investigation into our collections became clearly unavoidable and it quickly appeared that the Manuscript department shelters some cryptic documents. Would you like to start with a fleeting medieval excursion ?

Welcome in Vadstena, Östergötland County, a monastery founded by Saint Brigitta – one of the six patron saints of Europe – and soon to be famous as the mother-house of the order she founded in 1346. Sweden is still a Catholic country, we are more than one hundred years before the Reformation. All around Europe, lots of men and women decided to leave in retreat, into a life of prayers, far from the everyday life.

A Musical journey with the Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos:

Let’s walk wordlessly around the cloister and the scriptorium, the room devoted to the copying of manuscripts by monastic scribes, and open up one manuscript after another, rummage through the papers to find some curiosities. But here is a monk approaching. His name is Störkarus Thurgillus. Wait, he is handing a manuscript, the one that we now keep in the shelves of the Cultural Heritage Group.

P1110092He explains that he copied this volume in 1379 that contains religious treatises and sermons. But it’s impossible to talk further with this monk, we should inquire about it somewhere else. This manuscript is one of the very few that is currently known to contain cipher notations. There are indeed only about two dozen in Europe, a minuscule fraction of the medieval manuscripts.

It seems important to notice that nowhere in the medieval sources is any word equivalent to the English « cipher ». They are simply referred to as figures or numbers.

This small encoded note on our manuscript is a valuable proof that ciphers were known in Sweden in the late XIV century. According to the professor David A. King, the cipher might deal with magic and could be used as an invocation or more likely a curse involving devils. The mystery still partly surrounds.

P1110075I highly advise you to read the Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco and to watch the excellent adaptation movie by Jean-Jacques Annaud if you wish to extend the travel into the captivating world of medieval libraries and scriptoriums.

It is now time to jump through ages. A time warp to the XVIII century. At that time, cryptographic methods were abundantly used especially by diplomats for whom it was a necessary tool of communication. The different diplomatic representations were trying to hide their political secrets and never-ending plots of all types. Monarchs, ministers, ambassadors, they were all accustomed to refined ciphers.

Postal spying was ever-present and the letters were often unsealed. Thus, the French Countess of Egmont, correspondent of the Swedish king Gustav III, warned him that he should not, on any accounts, trust the postal service : « An even more important precaution is to only write by mail what you want to be publicly known (…) because it is certain that all the letters are unsealed, and even often not properly returned ».

Count Gustaf Philip Creutz, Swedish ambassador at the French court for 17 years, between 1766 and 1783, was exasperated by the bad habit of the Cabinet Noir, the office where the letters of suspected persons (but almost everyone was potentially a suspect !) were opened and read by public officials before being forwarded to their destination. This is why, as much as possible, Creutz sent his letters and dispatches by private route, taking for instance the opportunity of a friend or a close relation’s departure to the homeland. Here is the beginning of a letter he wrote to Gustav III :

« As this is by a sure hand that this letter will be delivered to Your Majesty, I take this opportunity to make him aware of some features that I would not even wish entrust to the postal service despite the cipher (…). I beg Your Majesty to burn this letter. There are spies everywhere and if ever the King here knew the contents of this letter, we should never ever think of France anymore ».

But the travelers were also controlled so cunning was compulsory : « Mr. Kling Sporr on which I can absolutely count will sew this package in his coat lining and so shirk it of all accidents ».

The use of a foreign tongue was also a good way to hide some information. The Count of Creutz often switched between French (most of his letters are written in the language of Molière) and Swedish for political news that he wanted to hide from curious people. It is also possible to mix in one sentence different languages and then encode it. It will be almost impossible to discover the meaning of it without the good interpretation key.
 Of course, There are thousands of different ciphers, each using different techniques .

P1110049The Manuscript department still has a sumptuous portfolio that contained various documents about French ciphers from the second part of the XVIII century. The perfect ambassador’s kit.

P1110046A technique, among many others, was to state the opposite of the reality. Pointed by brackets or other signs ascertained in advance, the meaning of the contained was actually diametrically reverse. An example : « The Queen is still ill but will recover soon » was to be understood as « she will pass away soon ». However, the common technique to protect writings from undesired eyes was to represent every letter and some words and proper noun by a number. See the picture, the queen of France was, in this case, encoded by the number 16.

If you don’t know what to do of your spare time, feel free to contact us, you can have a great fun trying to decode some political letters that might contains invaluable undisclosed data. And who knows, your training attempts might help you to be the first to unveil the secret of the Voynich manuscript, the world’s most famous mysterious manuscript.


Note: All the pictures are from our collections. A huge amount of Creutz letters are in the Gustavian Collection in the Manuscript department.

USC Scientist Cracks Mysterious « Copiale Cipher »:

Library in the Name of the Rose:

The Book That Can’t Be Read, a documentary about the Voynich manuscript:

Students of the past

What was it like to be a student in past centuries at Uppsala University? A little exploration in the Maps and Pictures collection might give us some keys on the subject. Just as a reminder, Uppsala University was found in 1477 which makes the establishment the oldest in Scandinavia.

Thanks to a small watercolour from the early XVII century, we can have an idea of the life of a new student at Uppsala University at that time, and believe me, the few first months weren’t a bed of roses, to put it mildly. This gouache of unknown origin describes an event that we would nowadays refer to as hazing. It was a compulsory initiation that every recent student has to pass through.

Sans titre1

Multi-coloured clothes, donkey´s ears and horns form a humiliating outfit. The young man (you still have to wait ages before you really encounter women), was then pushed in front of a scoffing and mocking audience. Then the highlight of the ceremony could happen; it consisted of removing the horns and the ears, symbols of the bestiality of the prospective student. Different kinds of lovely tools were used like saws and tongs. At the end, the master of the ritual put salt on the tongue of the man, poured wine on his head and officially declared him a free student. But that is not all, it was just the beginning of a bullying year during which the whipping-boy had to serve an older student. One can easily figure all the roughness of these acts and of course the foreseeable degenerations. The whole thing was finally forbidden in 1691. Better late than never.

Another ordinary unpleasant moment for a student is the examination. Nothing to compare, of course, with the above-mentioned tradition. In the first decade of the XVIII century, Carl Fredrik Piper was a student at Uppsala University. In his notebook, there is, among academic writings of different kind, a superb watercolour depicting a dissertation at the Gustavianum. Built in the 1620s, it was then the main building of the University. This is actually one of the few original pictures showing the life and work at Uppsala University at this time. It is an invaluable testimony! It must be known that the library, unlike the other pictures, is not the owner of this painting since the manuscript is still the property of the Piper family. However, you can find the watercolour in the database because the library purchased a digital copy of it a few months ago.

Sans titre2

Obviously, the scene takes place just before the beginning of the presentation. Have a look at the very casual way of sitting of some of the attending men while others are already gently waiting on their bench. And also we could speak hours, at least I could, about this wig fashion. Such an enthralling picture! Would you like to have a closer glimpse of the student style in the beginning of the XVIII century?

Sans titre3Let me introduce you, via an engraving, to this very elegant Uppsala student with his hat and walking stick. This perfect gentleman is probably ready to start, after some studies at the University, his Grand Tour, a long journey – usually a couple of years – around Europe. At the time, it was nearly a mandatory travel for young noblemen and member of the high society as it was seen as the ultimate way of refining their education.

Holland, England and France attracted lot of travellers. However, France was the first destination to reach. It was considered good manners, but it was also to improve their military skills and enhance their knowledge of the French language, which was the diplomatic and aristocratic language of Europe. I’ve discovered that a French diplomat named Antoine de Courtin, who went to Sweden and was at the service of the Swedish crown, is the author of one of the most popular manuals of politeness called Nouveau Traité de la Civilité (1671).

Don´t go assuming that these voyagers spend all their time in society. It was common to be accompanied by a private tutor and some of them also studied in many universities of the “old continent”. Indeed, even if the University of Lund was created in 1660s, Sweden was still dependent on foreign countries in terms of intellectual formations. For instance, Germany was definitely the destination for those who wanted to study theology.
The Swedish authorities were aware that it was an excellent thing in many ways for Swedes to travel abroad but they were also scared that the young men could be contaminated by the catholic “virus”. That’s why they really tried to control the students before their departure, especially the ones who wanted to go in catholic stronghold like the Sorbonne University in Paris. Thus, In the XVII century, in Uppsala University, the students were supposed to pass a little theology exam before leaving the Kingdom.

The reader as probably already noticed my love for digression. I can’t help it. My initial idea was to write about examination so here is another example. We are now, for your information, in the beginning of the XIX century. The Uppsala Professor Lars Georg Rabenius (1771-1846) is ready.

Sans titre5

He is a quite impressive character, sitting in his chair, waiting to examine a student that I don’t really envy, visible on the background.
The only thing we can do is wish for this student to be well prepared! And for that matter, here is a last drawing by the Swedish artist Johan Bernhard Theodor Beskow (1835-1912). Three sophisticated students from the 1850s are revising for their exams with the help of an old man in his slippers and dressing gown. It is a charming team!

Sans titre6

Students, researchers and curious readers, you should really have a look at our database; there are some real treasures to discover even if only a small part of the collection is available online yet. Nevertheless, there is a huge on-going digitalization work. And if you don’t find what you are looking for, please contact the Maps and Pictures section, they will be pleased to help you in your thirst for knowledge.


Antoine Courtin’s book, for those who wish to improve their good manners in an XVII century way. It can always be useful… French reading skills required:

The link to find the pictures and many others: