Monday, 21 May 2012

New books: Swedish royal births and christenings

On the occasion of Crown Princess Victoria and Prince Daniel of Sweden’s wedding two years ago Lena Rangström, senior curator at the Royal Armoury, published a book on the weddings of Swedish monarchs since the sixteenth century. Now she has followed this up with a book on royal births and christenings, Kanonsalut och vaggor – Kungliga födslar och dop, published by Carlssons Bokförlag to coincide with the birth and christening of the Crown Princess’s first child, Princess Estelle.
I was quite critical of her book on weddings and am happy to say that her new book is much more satisfactory. Indeed the author has managed to avoid most of those weaknesses which spoilt her previous book.
The wedding book was chronologically arranged, allocating each wedding a chapter of its own and losing itself in endless tedious details. This book, on the contrary, is arranged thematically, which makes it far more readable and gives the author the opportunity to draw the long lines, show the development of traditions and identify when and how traditions changed (and this, rather than the accumulation of facts, is what history is really about). This time the book is not only more to the point, but there is also a useful chapter summing up the book’s findings.
There is no clearly defined timeframe to this book, but most of it deals with the Palatine, Holstein-Gottorp and Bernadotte dynasties (there were no children born to the short-lived House of Hesse). The author explores the ceremonial related to royal births and christenings, baby clothes, christening robes, wet-nurses, cradles, orders, regalia and the choice of names.
As a Norwegian historian I am naturally pleased to note that Rangström this time mostly remembers that the Bernadottes were also kings of Norway for nearly a century and that there were therefore Norwegian concerns to be taken into consideration.
The illustrations are many and well chosen and thus in themselves form part of the book’s attraction. Apart from some factual mistakes (for instance, 11 November 1882 is twice given as the date of Gustaf VI Adolf’s christening, although it was in fact his birthday) the greatest weaknesses of this book are the absence of some information of interest which Rangström would have found had she delved deeper into the source material, and that the author looks only at the main line of the royal family.
By excluding the junior branches she misses out on some developments which lead her to wrong conclusions. For instance, she states that Crown Princess Margareta was the first royal mother to attend her children’s christening, but overlooks the fact that Princess Ingeborg had done so some years earlier. She also wrongly states that Crown Princess Margareta was the first royal mother to breastfeed her children, which Queen Sophia had also done, although briefly, two generations earlier.
Thus, when Rangström reaches the concluding chapter, she ascribes too much importance to Crown Princess Margareta, whom she identifies as some sort of watershed as Margareta, unlike previous generations, gave birth in private, was the first royal mother to breastfeed her children and to attend their christenings, and (in 1910) the first to hold her own child at the font. But two of these four examples are in fact wrong, making Rangström’s assessment of Margareta seem somewhat overrated.
But despite these reservations, Kanonsalut och vaggor is a useful introduction to the traditions related to Swedish royal births and christenings and seems able to appeal to a wide readership.

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