Encyclopædia Britannica, Ninth Edition/Erik Gustaf Geijer

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GEIJER, Erik Gustaf (17831847), Sweden’s greatest historian, was born at Ransäter in Värmland, January 12, 1783, of a family that had immigrated from Austria in the time of Gustavus Adolphus. At sixteen he left Carlstad gymnasium for the university of Upsala, where in 1803 he carried off the Swedish Academy’s great prize for an Äreminne öfver Riksförståndaren Sten Sture. He graduated in 1806, and in 1810 returned from a year’s residence in England to become “docent” in his university. Soon afterwards he accepted a post in the public record office at Stockholm, where, with eleven friends, he founded the “Gothic Society,” to whose organ Iduna he contributed a number of prose essays and the songs Manhem, Vikingen, Den siste kampen, Den siste skalden, Odalbonden, Kolargossen, and others, whose simplicity and earnestness, warm feeling, and strong patriotic spirit are dearer to his nation for the fine melodies to which he set them. About the same time he issued a volume of hymns (1812), of which several are inserted in the Swedish Psalter. Geijer’s lyric muse was soon after silenced by his call to be assistant to Fant, professor of history of Upsala (1815), whom he succeeded in that chair in 1817. In 1824 he was elected to the Swedish Academy. A single volume of a great projected work, Svea Rikes Häfder, itself a masterly critical examination of the sources of Sweden’s legendary history, appeared in 1825. Geijer’s researches in its preparation had severely strained his health, and he went the same year on a tour through Denmark and part of Germany, his impressions from which are recorded in his Minnen (1834). In 183236 he published three volumes of his Svenska folkets historia, a clear view of the political and social development of Sweden down to the close of Queen Christina’s reign. The acute critical insight, just thought, and finished historical art of these two incomplete works of Geijer entitle him to the first place among Swedish historians. His chief other historical and political writings are his Kort teckning af Sveriges tillstånd och af de fornämste handlande personer under tiden från Karl XII.’s död till Gustaf III.’s anträde af regjeringen (Stockh. 1838), and Feodalism och republicanism, ett bidrag till Samhällsförfattningens historia (1844), which led to a controversy with the historian Fryxell regarding the part played in history by the Swedish aristocracy. Geijer also edited, with the aid of Schröder, a continuation of Fant’s Scriptores svecicarum medii ævi (181825), and, by himself, Thorild’s Samlade skrifter (181925), and Konung Gustaf III.’s efterlemnade Papper (3 vols. 184345). Geijer’s academic lectures, of which the last three, published in 1845, under the title Om vår tids inre samhällsforhållanden, i synnerhet med afseende på Fäderneslandet, involved him in another controversy with Fryxell, exercised a great influence over his students, who especially testified to their attachment after the failure of the prosecution for alleged anti-Trinitarian heresies in his Thorild, tillika en philosophisk eller ophilosophisk bekännelse (1820). A number of his extempore lectures, recovered from notes, were published by Ribbing in 1856. Failing health forced Geijer to resign his chair in 1846, after which he removed to Stockholm for the purpose of completing his Svenska folkets historia, and died there 23d April 1847. His Samlade skrifter (13 vols. 184955; new ed. 187375) include a large number of philosophical and political essays contributed to reviews, particularly to Literaturbladet (183839), a periodical edited by himself, which attracted great attention in its day by its pronounced liberal views on public questions, a striking contrast to those he had defended in 182830, when, as again in 184041, he represented Upsala university in the Swedish diet.

Geijer’s style is strong and manly. His genius bursts out in sudden flashes that light up the dark corners of history. A few strokes, and a personality stands before us instinct with life. His language is at once the scholar’s and the poet’s; with his profoundest thought there beats in unison the warmest, the noblest, the most patriotic heart. Geijer came to the writing of history fresh from researches in the whole field of Scandinavian antiquity, researches whose first-fruits are garnered in numerous articles in Iduna, and his masterly treatise Om den gamla nordiska folkvisan, prefixed to the collection of Svenska folkvisor which he edited with A. A. Afzelius (3 vols. 181416). The development of freedom is the idea that gives unity to all his historical writings. This idea is not subjective; he traces it in the darkest annals of his country. Sweden, he repeats, is the only European land that has not been trod by foreign armies, that has never accepted the yoke of serfdom. There, on the whole, the king has ever been the people’s faithfullest ally, and all his great designs for the country’s external and internal gain have been carried out “by the help of God and Sweden.” Throughout life Geijer was what he professed to be, a seeker; and to no philosophic system did he yield absolute allegiance. Yet his writings mark a new era in Swedish history, the rise of a “critical school” whose aim is to draw the truth without distortion, and present reality without a foil.


For Geijer’s biography, see his own Minnen (1834), which contains copious extracts from his letters and diaries; Malmström, Minnestal öfver E. G. Geijer, addressed to the Upsala students, June 6, 1848, and printed among his Tal och esthetiska afhandlingar (1868), and Grunddragen af Svenska vitterhetens häfdar (186668); and S. A. Hollander, Minne of E. G. Geijer (1869).