Silly Money

07 16 chinese paper moneyToday, I am told, is the date that the first European banknotes were issued by the Swedish bank, Stockholm Banco, in the year 1661. Banknotes are quite a weird thing, if you think about it, so I thought we might take a look at how we came to accept what is essentially just a piece of paper in place of something that has any intrinsic value. Paper money had been used in China for around eight hundred years. The Ancient Chinese also produced some of the earliest known coins. They were generally round, though there are older coins that are shaped like spades or knives. The coins had a rectangular hole through the middle so they could be strung and worn around the neck. The problem was, if you had a lot of them, they were a bit heavy. So people started leaving their coins with a trustworthy person which was exchanged for a slip of paper stating how many coins had been deposited. These slips of paper could then be used later to retrieve the money. Eventually the notes began to be passed from person to person instead of the coins.

07 16 kublai kahnTravellers from Europe such as Marco Polo brought back tales of the strange paper money. In fact in his ‘Travels of Marco Polo’ he devotes a whole chapter to it. He describes how the Emperor, Kublai Khan, had notes made from the bark of mulberry trees, which he had plenty of. He paid for everything with the notes and they were used by all his subjects in place of coins. No one was allowed to refuse the notes, on pain of death. Furthermore, merchants coming to China from abroad, bringing gold, silver, jewels or pearls were allowed to sell to no one but the Emperor. They were paid with his notes, which could be exchanged for anything in his Empire. If there was anyone else left who happened to have any gold, silver, gems or pearls, they could take them to the Royal Mint and get a good price for them, but they were paid in notes made from mulberry bark. So that was how the Emperor ended up with all his empire’s wealth, yet it cost him almost nothing to acquire it. “He hath”, said Polo, “ the Secret of Alchemy in perfection”. The idea of issuing promissory notes travelled to medieval Italy and Flanders and they began to be used as an alternative to transporting cash over long distances, which was both impractical and dangerous.


As in China, the notes that were issued in Sweden were also due to the difficulty of carrying heavy money around. Their problems however, were much bigger. Basically there were two currencies that were both called the daler, but one was made of copper and the other of silver. This was a problem because they were both meant to be worth the same amount. Copper was much cheaper than silver, so the copper coins needed to be bigger. Then suddenly copper got really, really cheap. The coins became enormous, huge slabs of copper weighing several kilograms. The largest denomination, the ten daler weighed almost 20 kilograms, that’s 44 lb. Unsurprisingly, people didn’t much want to carry them around, they wanted to deposit them at the bank. The promissory notes they received in exchange were much easier to use. A note could be put in an envelope and posted whereas even a single coin might require a horse and cart.

Sadly, Stockholm Banco decided it would be okay to print more notes than the value of the copper that they held. That didn’t really work out. They went bankrupt after three years. Swedish banks did not issue paper money again until early in the nineteenth century. The Bank of England began to issue paper notes in exchange for real money in 1695, when it was trying to raise money to rebuild the country’s navy after a particularly disastrous war with France. Eventually, paper money became pretty normal everywhere. Coins made from gold, from silver, from copper, could be often too dangerous, and sometimes massively inconvenient to carry around, so everyone was persuaded to accept little pieces of paper, that are essentially useless until you exchange them for something else. Now, of course, we don’t often have the pieces of paper either, just a small plastic card. Money feels even more imaginary but, unfortunately, our world would grind to a halt if we stopped believing in it.

Queen of Nowhere

06 06 queen christinaToday I want to tell you about Queen Christina of Sweden. She is something of a contradictory character. Not entirely good, but also a fascinating person. I didn’t want to celebrate her birth, because she caused a lot of problems for a lot of people. But celebrating her death isn’t really appropriate either, so today I am celebrating her abdication from the throne of Sweden on June 6th 1654.

Christina was born in 1626 and was made heir to the throne by her father, Gustav II. Her mother had already given birth to a stillborn daughter and a second daughter, also called Christina, who died when she was only a year old. When Christina number two was born there was, at first, some confusion over her sex and everyone thought she was a boy. This seems mainly to have been because her body was covered in hair and she cried with a “strong, hoarse voice”. When the king was informed of the mistake he replied: “She’ll be clever, she has made fools of us all.”

Gustav was very fond of his daughter and had her raised with the sort of education normally reserved for boys. She studied languages and philosophy and learned about politics. When Christina was only six, her father was killed in a battle and her mother, who was already emotionally unstable, went completely over the edge. She refused to bury her husband’s body. She kept it in an open coffin and visited it regularly. The King remained unburied for over eighteen months. So Christina’s mother was, fairly swiftly, sidelined and she was raised by an aunt.

06 06 christina and descartesChristina was hugely interested in arts and sciences and, by 1649, had amassed an enormous collection of paintings, statues, manuscripts, coins and scientific instruments. She was equally interested in opera and theatre and was a bit of an amateur actress herself. Christina wanted to make her capital, Stockholm, the “Athens of the North” and she invited many learned men to her court. Most notably, she asked René Descartes. Christina had a lot of stuff she felt she needed to learn about. Her days were long and she decided the only time she could possibly see Descartes was at five in the morning. The climate and possibly the early starts didn’t agree with poor Descartes and, sadly, he caught pneumonia and died there in 1650.

She was not officially crowned until later that year, but it wasn’t long before she was making plans to abdicate. Christina made it very clear that she had no plans to marry, ever. She admitted “an insurmountable distaste for marriage” and “for all things that females talked about and did.” Though this did not stop her having an extremely close relationship with one of her ladies in waiting, Ebba Sparre, who she describes as her ‘bed-fellow’. For most of her reign though, she pursued a punishing regime of long days, a rather ascetic existence and very little sleep. It led to a sort of nervous breakdown in 1651 and she again asked to abdicate. In 1652, under the care of a French physician, Pierre Bourdelot, she was persuaded to stop studying so hard, get more sleep and enjoy life a bit more. He also introduced her to the sonnets of Pietro Aretino.

As she never planned to marry or have children, she made arrangement to have her cousin, Carl Gustav, made her heir. Christina had, for a long time been very interested in the Catholic idea of celibacy and with Catholicism in general, which made a lot of people very uncomfortable. This may have been one of the reasons her abdication was finally accepted. Another could have been that she was just spending loads of money and had become a bit of a liability. There was an abdication ceremony at Uppsala Castle in which she removed her regalia piece by piece. She made a speech and left in a simple white gown. But she had already packed up most of her treasures and sent them on ahead.

Days later, she left Sweden disguised as a man, to make travelling easier. She journeyed through Europe, spending and partying all the way and arrived in Rome in 1655. There, she was warmly greeted by the Pope, Alexander VII, and was accepted into the Catholic faith. Her presence was widely celebrated. Firework displays, jousts, fake duels, operas and all manner of celebrations were held in her honour. Take a look at this carousel (below), which was given for her in February 1656, it’s pretty splendid. She set up home in the Palazzo Faranese and opened an academy for the enjoyment of music, theatre and literature.

06 06 carousel for christina

Of course, as soon as the Swedish government found out about her religious conversion, they cut off all her financial support. Then, she became involved in a very close relationship with a cardinal called Decio Azzolino, who was rather liberal for a Catholic, and that didn’t go down so well. But they stayed firm friends for the rest of their lives.

Cut off from her revenue, she hatched a plan to become Queen of Naples. Spain and France had been fighting over Naples for years and she had the idea that, if she were made Queen, she would pass on the crown to the King of France. When she visited France, in an attempt to organise this, the French found her extremely uncouth. At the ballet, she applauded too loudly and sat with her legs over the arm of the seat. Nevertheless, she was treated with respect by the King and his mother. It was at this time that she visited and recommended the release of Ninon de l’Enclos, who I mentioned back in November.

However, things went terribly awry when she accused her master of the horse of revealing her plans and had him executed. She had to leave France and was not particularly welcome in Rome either. Then, in 1660, her cousin. Carl Gustav died and she thought she might go back and be Queen of Sweden again, But, being a Catholic, they wouldn’t have her and she went back to Rome. She was reasonably happy there until 1666, when she returned to Sweden again and, disappointed by her reception, went to live in Hamburg. There, she found out that her patron, Pope Alexander, had died. The new Pope, Clement IX, was also a friend and had been a regular guest at her palace. She threw a party to celebrate. Citizens of Lutheran Hamburg were furious. The party ended with shooting and she was forced to leave in disguise via the back door.

Christina made a spirited attempt to be made Queen of Poland in 1668, but this also failed. She passed the rest of her years in Rome. She and Pope Clement shared a love of theatre and in 1671, she established Rome’s first public theatre. Subsequent Popes were less keen, and Innocent XI had it turned into a storeroom for grain and banned women from performing. Christina didn’t care though, she carried on putting on plays at her palace.

06 06 queen christina 1685She continued to be a bit of a rebel, supplying the world with her unsolicited opinions, long after she had lost her rights to rule. When Louis XIV revoked the rights of French Protestants, she wrote him a letter of objection. In 1686, she made the Pope put an end to an awful practice of chasing Jews through the streets at Carnival. Then, she issued a declaration pronouncing all Roman Jews under her protection and signed it ‘the Queen’.

When she died, in 1689, she left all her treasures to her old friend Cardinal Azzolino and they passed almost immediately to his nephew, who sold them. Many of her books are now part of the Vatican library. Most of her paintings went to France and many are now in the National Museum of Scotland.

On balance, I really like Queen Christina. She upset a lot of people, but she did what she wanted and she didn’t care. Certainly, she walked off with a lot stuff that almost definitely should have stayed in Sweden but, in 1697, her castle burnt down and it would all have been destroyed anyway. She is one of only three women to have been buried in the Vatican.

The Goat Who Stole Christmas

01 13 nuuttipukki 1Christmas seems like ages ago now doesn’t it? If you celebrated all twelve days of it, then it ended at Epiphany last week. People in some parts of Sweden and Finland are still going though. And who can blame them? Their dark winter nights are much longer than ours, so they deserve an extra week.

Today is Saint Knut’s Day, the twentieth and last day of Yule. The day is named for Canute Lavard, a prince of Denmark who was murdered in 1131. Oddly, the festival is not part of Danish culture at all, so there’s clearly something else going on here. Over the last month or so I’ve become rather interested in unusual Christmas visitors, and in Finland, on January 13th, you can expect a visit from the Nuuttipukki. It sounds as though it might have something to do with a person called Knut, but it is often translated as New Year Goat. The ‘pukki’ part of the word may be derived from the word ‘buck’, which can mean a male goat, or the old Norse ‘puki’ a devil. The Nuuttipukit (plural), although they might now be children taking part in a tradition that is somewhat like trick-or-treating, were once a group of masked men from a neighbouring village dressed in fur coats worn inside out. They wore masks of animal skin or bark and probably had horns as well. Rather than sweets, what they would expect from you was anything you had left over from the festive season, particularly alcohol. They were there to take your Christmas away. So what you have in the Nuuttipukit is a gang of marauding and unidentifiable men, in scary masks, who force their way into your house, and drink all your beer. Awful.

01 13 nuuttipukki 2Clearly this has nothing whatsoever to do with a Christian festival and is probably related to something much older. The mid winter celebrations are a time for gathering your family together and this could also include family members no longer with us. At one time, dead relatives would be expected to join the feast too, in spirit at least. It’s good to see family, but no one wants a guest who outstays their welcome. You wouldn’t want a spirit hanging round all year, that would be a nuisance and they would be likely to turn bad. The Nuuttipukki comes into your house and makes a big fuss to scare the spirits away. He wears a mask so that he won’t be recognised by any spirits who might decide to go and bother him instead.

In Sweden Saint Knut’s Day is associated with a tradition called ‘Julgransplundring’, Christmas tree plundering, which has been around since at least the seventeenth century. It is the day that you take down your tree and eat all the nuts, sweets and fruit that you used to decorate it and open all the crackers. The wikipedia entry for Saint Knut’s Day suggests that the Swedes ate the candy and the candles from their tree. Either it is a poorly constructed sentence or times were hard in seventeenth century Sweden. It is also a day for smashing your beautifully constructed gingerbread house and eating it. In the last century, once you had plundered your tree, the thing to do was tip it out of the window. This is now very much frowned upon. The trees have designated dumping areas and are either recycled for heating or saved for a big bonfire on Walpurgis Night at the end of April. Failure to dispose of your tree properly can lead to a fine or even up to a year in prison.

Perhaps this is the last of the Christmas celebrations, perhaps I’ll find another one lurking somewhere, I just don’t know yet. But it’s good to have a festival in which we can all celebrate having made it through the darkest part of the year. Nights that are longer and darker for some people than others, wherever they live. Hopefully we can, in the northern hemisphere at least, start looking forward to Spring soon.

Not Alone

12 28 peder winstrupToday I want to tell you about Peder Winstrup, bishop of Lund. Peder was born in 1605 in Copenhagen. He was made bishop of Lund in 1638 and was clearly something of a diplomat, as he managed to hang on to his position when Lund moved from Danish to Swedish control in 1658. He was very interested in science, he made studies of animal behaviour and tried to find out if it was true that the cuckoo puts its young in another bird’s nest. Education was important to him and he was instrumental in the founding of the University of Lund which happened in 1666. He died on this day in 1679 and was laid to rest in the cathedral in Lund.

It isn’t really his life I want to tell you about though. In 1833 his burial vault was partially demolished and his body was found to be remarkably well preserved. Well enough for him to be easily recognised from his portraits. His coffin was opened again in 1923 and photographs were taken. Then, in 2012 the cathedral staff decided to move his coffin and by coincidence, at the same time, the archivist at Lund University’s museum was examining a glass plate from the 1923 opening. It was soon realised that the bishop was probably the best preserved 17th century body to be found in any of the Nordic countries. Here was an excellent opportunity to make a scientific study, using modern methods, to find out about life in seventeenth century Sweden and how it was that his body had been so well preserved. It was a time capsule from the year 1679.

His body has been accidentally preserved rather that deliberately mummified and all his internal organs are intact. There are several reasons why his body has dried out naturally. He had been laid on a mattress stuffed with wormwood, juniper berries, lavender and hyssop. His head rests on a pillow filled with hops. The herbs have probably played a role in preserving his body and so have the cold, draughty and dry conditions in the crypt. The fact that he was died and buried in the winter have also helped. Bishop Winstrup’s body was very emaciated at the time of death, suggesting a long illness. So the lack of body fat has also helped prevent decay.

Among the things that have been found out about the bishop are that he probably died of pneumonia, but also suffered from arthritis, gout and a shoulder injury. Missing and rotted teeth indicate a high amount of sugar in his diet, while the presence of gall stones suggest a high consumption of fat. So he lived well.

When the body of Peder Winstrup was put into a CT scanner, in order to build up a three-dimensional picture, a surprising discovery was made. The bishop has not been alone in his coffin. For close to 350 years he has had a companion. Tucked amongst the herbs beneath his feet is the body of a five or six month old foetus. Clearly it has been deliberately hidden there and no one would have known about it except whoever concealed it. Probably it was placed there by a member of the bishop’s staff and it is unlikely that the bishop and the baby are in any way related, but DNA tests may tell us in time. Probably that person was looking for a proper resting place for the child. A stillborn infant or one who died before baptism was not permitted a Christian burial and bereaved parents often resorted to desperate measures. They may have had to hang on to the body for months waiting for the right opportunity to bribe someone to place it in another coffin or to bury it in the church wall. Who better to look after the child than a bishop?

I am not in the habit of filling this blog with pictures of dead bodies, it seems disrespectful, but, as his body is so remarkably well preserved, if you want to see a short video, there is one here. The bishop’s body has now been re-interred. I couldn’t find out for sure whether he still has his companion, but I hope he has.