Swedish Science and European French

Eighteenth-century Sweden was a scientific powerhouse. Its researchers gave their names to some of the most significant developments of the period, from the Linnaean system of binomial classification to the temperature metric established by Anders Celsius. But what if I told you that one secret to Sweden’s success was a German-speaking Protestant from Alsace?

This post explores the role that the French language played in the lives of two intellectuals between Sweden and France: a Germanophone Lutheran preacher, Frédéric-Charles de Baër, and the perpetual secretary of the Swedish Academy of the Sciences, Pehr Wargentin.1 It shows how these “culture brokers” leveraged their multiple identities, and their knowledge of the French language, to gain status and recognition throughout Europe.2 Above all, their gripping life stories show that questions of language can be central to the history of knowledge.

Swedish scientists, then as now, spoke a language that was not widely known beyond the shores of the Baltic Sea. They were at the mercy of foreign languages, and of foreigners who could translate and distribute their research abroad: in the case of the Academy’s Transactions, in English, in German, and in French.3 The last language, in particular, was spoken by a small stratum of society that formed what my dissertation refers to as “European French,” a language shared by a group of elite speakers that was scattered across the Continent.4 From the seventeenth century onward, these speakers began to associate the French language with both luxury and refinement, a product of its use in royal courts that included the Swedish Stockholm and Drottningholm as well as the French Versailles.5

A number of languages—including German, Latin, and English—may have contained the precise vocabulary to describe the findings of the Swedish Academy to an audience abroad.6 However, I argue that Wargentin and Baër chose to write in French due to the sociable nature of their scientific endeavors. For these two non-native French speakers, the language was a sign that they belonged to this rarefied microcosm of civilized European elites. It allowed them to transcend their regional identities, and traditional cultural divisions, through a shared linguistic bond. French was not just a neutral medium that the Swedes used to find a wider audience; it was a sociable international tongue that shaped the very nature of Baër and Wargentin’s intimate exchange, one they maintained for a quarter century.

Frédéric-Charles de Baër (1719–1797) was a preacher who was born to a Lutheran family in Strausbourg, France, in 1719. He became the assistant chaplain at the Swedish Embassy in Paris in 1742. He soon began to read the letters that passed through the Embassy, and in doing so, he taught himself Swedish. Although many Swedes knew French in this period, the reverse was not true, and writers who could translate from Swedish into good French were in short supply. Baër’s new skill made him indispensable to the Embassy’s daily operations. He became the Embassy’s head chaplain in 1744 and stayed for four decades, until he retired in 1784.7

But Baër’s duties went far beyond preaching. He translated scientific articles from Swedish into French for the newly founded Swedish Academy. He published these translations, along with books of his own, in a variety of fields, from music and theology to linguistics and history. As a contact who lived in Paris, he lobbied for Carolus Linnaeus’ acceptance as a foreign member of the French Academy of the Sciences in 1763. While in Stockholm in the summer of 2019, I explored papers in the Riksarkivet, or the Swedish National Archives. These documents show that the psalm-writing scientist also handled Embassy affairs related to shipping in the final decades of his long career.8

Baër first wrote the secretary of the Swedish Academy of the Sciences, Pehr Wargentin, in 1758. The preacher was already hard at work translating some of the Academy’s Transactions into French so that they could be understood across Europe, but he wanted to enter into even closer relations with Wargentin in order to learn more about Sweden, a country that he had never visited. Baër wrote, “I will try to maintain a continuous correspondence with you, in sending you exactly the sort of literary news that can interest the Academy, and I will receive, Sir, on your behalf with an equal pleasure, those that you would like to share with me to be communicated here.” To prove his sincerity, Baër sent along a tiny bar of “platinum, or white gold.”9 In translating the Swedish Academy’s Transactions, he had learned that the Academy had read aloud an article that described this new discovery; however, they had not yet seen a sample of the element in person.

Baër drew a salary from his work as a preacher at the Swedish Embassy, but his correspondence with Wargentin was remunerative in other ways, too. The Swedish Academy’s secretary sent him gifts that emphasized the exotic nature of Sweden’s far north. These included samples of Lapland moss and a pair of reindeer gloves, which Baër asked Wargentin to send, “while keeping in mind that I have a rather small hand.” These were not just gifts for Baër himself, but items that he shared with his contacts around the Embassy. He asked Wargentin for an entire barrel of the Lapland moss in particular, noting that “others ask me often to have some.” Such gifts were circulated to advertise Sweden’s uniqueness and to raise its status in the eyes of French elites.10

Baër was not merely French or Swedish; he was a “culture broker,” a third-party agent who helps shape relations between two larger powers. We see brokers like these often in the historical literature: think of Natalie Rothman’s dragoman translators in the Ottoman Empire, or Richard White’s Ottowa traders in the Great Lakes region of North America.11 Baër performed a similar task mediating between France and Sweden. If I were pressed to define him with a phrase, he was a German-speaking Lutheran from Alsace who could move in both French and Swedish milieux. He did not shift his identities, but instead grew multiple identities over time.

But ultimately, this ambiguous identity as a culture broker was what led to his success. Neither his language nor his religion were typically “French.” In fact, his Lutheranism was what brought him to the chapel of the Swedish Embassy in the first place, one of the only churches in France that could openly hold a Protestant Mass without fear of persecution. German worked to his advantage here, as well: Baër asked Wargentin for a Swedish dictionary for his son, whose German would allow him to learn the language with relative ease.12 Both language and religion set Baër apart from the French elite. At the same time, however, these differences allowed the Swedes to accept him as their culture broker. And the practical cosmopolitanism that defined this age did not entail Wargentin or Baër learning an international language and somehow becoming French. Instead, it was the gradual accretion of multiple identities, mediated through French, that allowed them to live as Europeans.

From the perspective of an English speaker reading this blog, the question of language might seem like a secondary concern for the history of knowledge. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Language is central to the history of knowledge: not as an abstract object of study, but because written and spoken language is the primary medium through which we share what we know. Culture brokers, such as Baër, introduced Swedish discoveries to France at the same time that they shared ideas and material objects with scientists in Sweden.

Yet French held a special significance in this period, as well. Wargentin and Baër were both incredibly learned men. They could have written in Swedish (Wargentin’s native tongue), in German (the same for Baër), or in Latin. When correspondents like Wargentin and Baër had the choice, they often wrote in French. To take Baër’s example, French connected his scientific endeavors with the administrative and diplomatic work that he performed for the Swedish Embassy. Language was not a mere medium or an obstacle that Wargentin and Baër had to overcome in order to share knowledge across national borders; instead, French was central to the sociable practices that allowed them to exchange this knowledge in the first place.

Matthew McDonald is writing a dissertation at Princeton University entitled  “A Linguistic Archipelago: The Spread of European French, 1740–1815.” A political and cultural historian, he recently won the Natalie Zemon Davis Prize for his paper “Language, de luxe: The Uses of Style in Eighteenth-Century European French.”

  1. I would like to thank Anne Miche de Malleray, archivist at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, for introducing me to Baër and his correspondence with Pehr Wargentin: Kungl. Vetenskapsakademiens arkiv (hereafter: KVA), Pehr Wargentin Inkommande brev, 1758–1783, E1:2. Additional letters from Baër are held in the archive’s Bergianska brevsamling. Research in Sweden was financed with the help of the American-Scandinavian Foundation. I would also like to thank Mikael Alm, Jenny Beckman, Francisca Hoyer, Margaret Hunt, Marie-Christine Skuncke, and members of the audience for their comments on a related talk given at the Seminariet för historiska institutionen at Uppsala University on November 13, 2019. ↩︎
  2. E. Natalie Rothman, Brokering Empire: Trans-Imperial Subjects Between Venice and Istanbul (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2012), 3–4. ↩︎
  3. Sten Lindroth, Kungl. Svenska Vetenskapsakademiens Historia 1739–1818, in 3 vols. (Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell, 1967), 1:181. ↩︎
  4. Matthew McDonald, “A Linguistic Archipelago: The Spread of European French, 1740–1815” (Ph.D. diss., Princeton University, forthcoming). ↩︎
  5. Among others, Marc Fumaroli, Quand l’Europe parlait français (Paris: Éditions de Fallois, 2001), 10–27; on the Swedish court, see Marie-Christine Skuncke, Gustaf III: Det offentliga barnet. En prins retoriska och politiska fostran (Stockholm: Atlantis, 1993). ↩︎
  6. Michael Gordin, Scientific Babel: How Science Was Done Before and after Global English (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015). ↩︎
  7. Lindroth, Kungl. Svenska Vetenskapsakademiens Historia, 1:187–189; Päivi Maria Pihlaja, “Sverige, vetenskapen och Paris i slutet av frihetstiden. Synpunkter på de lärdas kontakter, deras visitelser i Paris och Nordens roll i de vetenskapliga förbindelserna,” Historisk Tidskrift för Finland 1 (2006), 2–34; Charlotta Wolff, Vänskap och makt: den svenska politiska eliten och upplysningtidens Frankrike (Helsinki: Svenska litteratursällskapet i Finland, 2005), 125; Töre Frängsmyr, “Introduction: 250 Years of Science” in Frängsmyr, ed., Science in Sweden: The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences 1739–1989 (Stockholm: Royal Swedish Academy of the Sciences, 1989), 8; Mlle Salomon, “Le pasteur alsacien C.-F. Baer, chaplain de l’ambassade de Suède à Paris (1719–1797), Bulletin de la Société de l’Histoire du Protestantisme Français (1903–2015), vol. 4, no. 4 (1925), 423–452.  ↩︎
  8. Riksarkivet, Diplomatica Gallica, SE/RA/2105, Vol. 464: Baërs brev, 1770–1783. ↩︎
  9. Baër to Wargentin, Paris, October 13, 1758, KVA, Pehr Wargentin Inkommande brev, 1748–1783, E1:2. ↩︎
  10. Baër to Wargentin, Paris, September 9, 1774, KVA, Pehr Wargentin Inkommande brev, 1748–1783, E1:2. ↩︎
  11. Rothman, Brokering Empire; Richard White, The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650–1815 (1991; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 105–111. ↩︎
  12. Baër to Wargentin, Paris, September 9, 1774, KVA, Pehr Wargentin Inkommande brev, 1748–1783, E1:2. ↩︎
Suggested Citation: Matthew McDonald, “Swedish Science and European French,” History of Knowledge, December 18, 2020, https://historyofknowledge.net/2020/12/18/swedish-science-and-european-french/.