Learned societies in Sweden
Academies for the purpose of advancing sciences and arts began to be instituted in Italy in the late 15th century. Less than a century later, England and France followed suit, and the first plans for a Swedish academy can be seen in the mid 17th century. It was Queen Christina who wished to create an equivalent of the French Academy for the purpose of refining the language and culture of the budding great power that Sweden represented. But it was not until the 18th century that our oldest still active academies were established.
The Royal Society of Sciences in Uppsala, which traces its roots to 1710, is the oldest, but if we limit ourselves to nationwide academies, the oldest is the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, founded on June 2, 1739 and royally sanctioned two years later. Next after the Royal Swedish Academy of Science, which is mainly concerned with natural sciences and mathematics, came the Royal Swedish Academy of Letters, as it was officially called during its earliest period from 1753. The 18th century also saw the birth of most of the other royal academies. Among them are the Swedish Academy, which was instituted by King Gustav III in 1786 to steward the Swedish language and its literature, the Royal Swedish Academy of Music, the Royal Swedish Academy of Fine Arts, the Royal Swedish Society of Naval Science, and the Royal Swedish Academy of War Sciences. The Royal Swedish Academy of Agriculture and Forestry was created in the early 19th century, whereas the Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences and the Royal Gustavus Adolphus Academy are products of the 20th century.
The Royal Swedish Academy of Letters
On March 20, 1753, Queen Lovisa Ulrika instituted her Royal Swedish Academy of Letters, the society that continues under the name of the Royal Swedish Academy of Letters, History and Antiquities. In everyday usage the shorter form is used, “the Academy of Letters.”
Throughout its earliest period it was also known as “the Queen’s Academy,” as it was governed by its institutor and shared her fate. The failed palace revolt of 1756 destined the king and queen to passivity, thereby also rendering the Academy dormant; it was resuscitated in 1773 following the successful coup staged by the queen’s son Gustav the year before, only to fall into slumber again when the queen died. Her Academy never attained any considerable scope or importance. Throughout its existence it had only 22 members.
Best known to posterity is Olof von Dalin, secretary to the Academy up to his death in 1763. Foreign members such as Voltaire and d’Alembert lent distinction to the society, but only from afar. The concept of “Letters” comprehended more than what we understand by it, that is, literature; it also included eloquence, history, and “antiquities.”
Gustav III revived his mother’s creation on March 20, 1786. On that same day he established the Swedish Academy. Its focus on the Swedish language and its literature necessitated a reformulation of the Academy of Letters. It took over the collections of the old Antiquities Archive and was assigned responsibility for archaeology and antiquarian values; it was to advise in matters of emblems and inscriptions and to author a history of medallions.
Gustav III had determined that the Antiquarian of the Realm would be the secretary of the Academy. This entailed that work became more and more focused on history and numismatics and to an even greater extent on archaeology and stewardship of the cultural heritage. While the Swedish Academy concentrated more and more on literature, the Academy of Letters became an academic society and a governmental office to preserve the past. What the two academies continued to share was an interest in the history of the Swedish language.
The Academy of Letters, which had met during its earliest period in chambers of the queen, had its first own premises in the Wrangel Palace on Riddarholmen in Stockholm. After the death of Gustav III the Academy was moved to the Royal Palace, where it had to share a library room with the Swedish Academy. The collections were left on Riddarholmen. In 1864 the Academy followed the National Heritage Board to its various addresses, finally landing in Storgatan in Stockholm.
During the 19th century the Academy came to pursue ever more dynamic and diverse activities. In our day, the organization of the Academy of Letters began to be perceived as impractical. The Academy wanted to dissolve its ties to government institutions in order to more freely develop into an academic humanities society. In 1975 the Academy was separated from the National Heritage Board, and since then the Academy has been an independent society.