Society was built on relationships in the early 1600s


Personal relationships with favours and reciprocity were crucial to how society was organised around the turn of the 17th century. This is shown in a thesis in History, which focused on a single nobleman  Count Abraham Brahe, who was active at the national level – in order to demonstrate the main historical contexts operating during the period immediately before Sweden’s time as a great power.

Swedish society changed in many ways during the latter part of the 17th century. The nobility grew richer and more numerous, and the organisation of the state was formalised and regulated. But the period before these changes occurred has not been studied to the same extent.

Johanna Thorellli’s thesis examines how the realm’s elite lived and worked around the turn of the 17th century and reveals that medieval ways of thinking and acting survived well into the new century. Personal relationships based on favours and reciprocity were crucial to all aspects of the organisation of society.

“Because favours resulted in reciprocity, they provided the basis for lasting cooperation in the absence of regulatory frameworks. Friendships between equals, and between social superiors and inferiors, functioned in the same way, as even a social inferior expected favours and help in exchange for their work,” says Johanna Thorelli.

Honesty and decency

Johanna Thorelli
Johanna Thorelli, Doctoral Student, Department of Historical Studies

The thesis shows how activities such as marriage formation, estate acquisition and the exercise of public office were all organised by means of this particular cultural logic.

“At the same time, of course, not everything ran smoothly – the norms for a good relationship could be manipulated and exploited to get one’s way and make an opponent appear in a bad light. For better or worse, pre-modern society possessed enormous flexibility, ,” says Johanna Thorelli.

The unwritten norms of personal relationships were elastic, and combined with communications not being secure, this created scope and opportunities for individual priorities – as long as one’s actions could be kept within the bounds of decency in the eyes of one’s surroundings.

“Various obligations to the King, social inferiors, family and relatives could be played out against one another. Oral communication was preferred, and one way to be in several places at once was to use proxies.”

Flexibility in the notion of time

Abraham Brahe
Abraham Brahe.

The notion of time was also flexible. Meetings of the Council of the Realm were held irregularly in different locations across the country when the King convened them. But in many cases the notifications to attend did not specify a definite date, and even when a date was mentioned, it was quite normal that this was exceeded by a couple of weeks. It could take time for the councillors to receive these notifications, to conclude the business they were currently attending to, and to travel to the location.

The thesis weaves together several different aspects of society that are otherwise often studied separately. Discussions about friendship and obligingness, private and public, oral and written, conflict management, aristocratic status and the role of a high official combine to create a holistic picture of the period, where these different aspects provide context to each other.

This thematic breadth is achieved by basing the thesis on the life of a single nobleman – Count Abraham Brahe (1569–1630), who was active at the national level – and the people he communicated with. The thesis therefore also contributes a personal history, even though its aim is to demonstrate the nature of broader historical contexts. The result is a valuable depiction of the background of the period that shows the actual contexts within which the Swedish state and politics operated at the national level during the period immediately before Sweden’s time is a great power.

The thesis entitled De tjänstvilliga vännernas samhälle. Abraham Brahe och den svenska eliten 1590–1630 (The society of obliging friends. Abraham Brahe and the Swedish elite 1590–1630) was publicly defended on 12 May at Humanisten in Gothenburg.

Link to the thesis:

Johanna Thorelli, phone: +46(0)704-777 203, e-mail:


Text: Johanna Hillgren