How ideology transformed the early modern individual

The French Revolution - with its 'left' and 'right' wings of the National Assembly - created political ideology. Nothing was ever quite the same again.

Wiki creative commons
Wiki creative commons

In the winter of 1520, the Danish king, Christian II, invaded Sweden at the head of a large army consisting of mercenaries from all over Europe. The war was successful. After a brief and victorious campaign and a lengthy siege of Stockholm, Christian was acknowledged as King of Sweden and crowned on November 4 by the re-installed Archbishop of Uppsala, Gustav Trolle. A few days after the festivities, on November 7, Christian II ordered the bishops and the nobility of the realm to congregate in Stockholm Castle for political discussions. The events that followed have been the subject of centuries of learned discussions.

Christian ordered the gates of the castle to be locked. No member of the congregated council was allowed to be absent from the discussions without the king’s leave. Suddenly, the archbishop appeared and read aloud from a list of complaints, verbally attacking his old enemies within the council of the realm, the men who had been responsible for his downfall a couple of years previously, in the autumn of 1517. Gustav Trolle accused several members of the nobility, as well as the mayor and the city council of Stockholm, of having caused great harm to himself and to the church. The term employed by the archbishop was ‘apparent heretics’ and these words were not picked at random. Before the invasion, Christian II had been authorised by the Archbishop of Lund, ie indirectly by the papal administration and the official Catholic hierarchy, to conduct a holy war, equivalent to a crusade, against Sweden. The council meeting of November 7 was, in effect, not a council meeting at all, but a trial against the enemies of God. And, even more importantly, any promise given to a heretic was deemed to be without value. Previously, Christian II had promised his Swedish enemies complete amnesty for all transgressions in the past, provided that they lay down their arms and accepted him as king. But if it could be demonstrated that they were ‘apparent heretics’, these promises could and, one might argue, should be broken.

The verdict was reached by an ecclesiastical tribunal, headed by Bishop Jens Beldenak of Odense, on the morning of November 8. In the sententia, the accused were found to be guilty of heresy. The punishment was death. The executions took place only a few hours later, in the early afternoon. However, things immediately got out of hand. Two bishops, Mattias of Strängnäs (who was also chancellor of the Swedish realm) and Vincent of Skara were beheaded in Stortorget, the central square of Stockholm. The members of the tribunal were horrified. According to Canon law, secular authorities were not allowed to execute bishops. But Jens Beldenak and the other judges were quickly silenced. The executions turned into a virtual massacre – the Stockholm Bloodbath. All in all, two bishops, 15 noblemen, about 40 burghers and 40 servants of noblemen were beheaded or hanged.

On November 10, when the executions were finished, the corpses were taken to Södermalm, south of the city, and burned. The corpse of the Swedish regent, Sten Sture the Younger, Christian II’s main enemy, who had died from wounds inflicted upon him during the war several months earlier, were dug up and burned as well. No women perished in the bloodbath, but Sten Sture’s widow, Kristina Nilsdotter, who had been promised amnesty when she surrendered Stockholm Castle to Christian, remained in prison until 1524.

This massacre is one of Sweden’s most well-known historical events. Almost everybody has heard of the Stockholm Bloodbath. But why did it happen? What motivated Christian II? Why all the bloodshed?

It has been pointed out that there is a clear motive, an ideological motive, inherent in the written proceedings of the court, the so-called sententia. The accused were put on trial and found to be guilty of heresy. They were religious enemies. However, this does not explain why two bishops, contrary to Canon law, were beheaded, especially if we consider that the bishops were not even mentioned in the specified list of accused individuals. In fact, Christian II did not follow the ecclesiastical rules at all. He followed his own rules. The only thing the men who were executed in Stockholm had in common was the fact that they had sided with the regent, Sten Sture, in the war against Christian II. The Stockholm Bloodbath was a political manoeuvre, steeped in blood, a brutal purge of the opposition.

It should be noted that the king acted within the framework of historical experience. When Christian’s father, King Hans, and his grandfather, Christian I, had conquered Sweden (in 1457 and 1497), they had been merciful towards the opposition and treated the Swedish nobility and the Swedish bishops kindly in order to create firm ties of alliance and harmony to important families in the realm. Both kings had failed, since the Swedish nobility had chosen to rebel and reassert its autonomy a couple of years later (in 1464 and 1501). Christian II was not about to make the same mistake. A dead nobleman and a dead bishop could not rouse the peasantry to revolt, nor command armies in rebellion.

Are we to interpret the events surrounding the Stockholm Bloodbath as the outcome of conflicting ideologies, of the clash between a Scandinavian unionist party and a Swedish nationalist party, or between two aristocratic and mercantile factions who interpreted their actions within a religious context? Both the adherents of Christian II’s policies and his opponents chose to interpret events by employing what we would call ideological terminology. On the face of it, Christian II’s purge in 1520 was no different from ideologically motivated purges of the 19th and 20th centuries. But are we in fact misreading history, misrepresenting the activities of historical actors by discussing them within an ideological framework?

Admittedly, no one has made a case for Christian II being an ideologically motivated actor in the modern sense of the term – that he was a right-wing extremist who persecuted the liberal politicians of Stockholm. But, we should ask ourselves, is it equally wrong to evaluate him and the entire political situation in 1520, in terms of ideological patterns of thought, of parties and collective political behaviour? Was Gustav Trolle acting from the point of view of legalistic Catholic doctrine or was he simply seeking revenge for the disgrace of 1517? Were Christian II and his Westphalian adviser, Didrik Slagheck, motivated by Machiavellian ideas on the nature of the Renaissance monarchy, or was Christian merely a hot-headed king who wanted to set an example and who failed to control his henchmen?

The more we investigate the events leading up to and following the Stockholm Bloodbath, the more it becomes evident that the role of the individual can hardly be over-emphasised. Politics, even political agendas, are impossible to comprehend without taking into account the point of view of the actors themselves. The political allegiances of the members of the Scandinavian nobility, church and peasantry shifted constantly. Hemming Gadh, previously a staunch and bellicose supporter of the regent, Sten Sture the Younger, shifted his allegiance to Christian II and took part in the invasion of 1520, only to be betrayed and executed by the king on December 16. Christian used him when he saw fit, but he never trusted him. Bishop Hans Brask of Linköping was one of the unfortunate councillors who were in danger of being revealed as heretics on November 7, but he managed to convince his attackers that he had been forced to act as he had done three years previously. The following morning he was not only free from danger, he was formally included in the ecclesiastical tribunal that passed the verdict of guilt. In 1521, he switched his allegiance to the Swedish rebellion and became a close associate of the new regent, Gustav Eriksson. A few years later, when Gustav (as Gustavus I, 1523–1560) confiscated church lands and inaugurated the Swedish Reformation, Bishop Hans changed sides again and went into exile.

Similar stories can be told of many protagonists in the Middle Ages and in the early modern era. While it is easy to highlight their religious and political ideas and alliances, bordering on what today would be referred to as ideologically motivated behaviour, it is usually misleading to focus on these aspects as being of the utmost importance. The absence of political mass movements, the lack of efficient communication technology and the low degree of popular participation in politics made all political scenarios far more individualised than is possible in today’s world.

The ideologies of the 19th and 20th centuries are mass phenomena. They embody patterns of thought and ambitions, theoretical guidelines that function as focal points of political interest for thousands of men and women. As such, they are historical novelties. However, since group identity and collective action have existed since the dawn of human history, political programmes and what we might refer to as proto-ideologies played a significant part in politics long before the French Revolution, when the term ‘ideology’ was introduced.

As is evidenced by the example of the Stockholm Bloodbath, a crucial problem is how to identify the reasons for political action in historical settings. We are all-too-often blinded by our own suppositions and by modern political logic. We forget that policy-making in the past was, to a high degree, based on individual motives and actions. In the absence of institutions (such as parliaments, permanent tribunals and courts), individual kings, queens, generals, judges and councillors were forced to create their own platforms and to form political cultures by cooperating with other actors. They experimented with various means of propaganda and constantly searched for common interests and symbolic links.

In other words, the basic foundations for political culture in the ancient, medieval and early modern era differ sharply from present-day politics. I would especially like to emphasise the dual aspect of political programmes, the fact that they usually existed on (at least) two levels or planes of action that had little in common but that were linked to each other by individual ties of dependence and by political and religious symbols.

Thus, the forerunners of modern ideologies were generally constructed on:

  1. A local political culture, firmly based on local issues, such as intense rivalry between groups of merchants and landholders, or between various secular and ecclesiastical princes and office-holders.
  2. A symbolic and regional, or even proto-national, political culture with little actual bearing on everyday life but with ample possibilities for alliances and for identification with broad political and religious agendas.


A famous example is the history of the Guelphs and Ghibellines in medieval Italy. On the local level, the actions of these groups were firmly rooted in the local and regional ambitions of merchants and landed magnates in various Italian city-states. On the higher level, they were either pro-papal or pro-imperial political parties. If we only look at one of these levels, we misunderstand the Guelphs and Ghibellines completely. The proto-ideology of a particular Guelph or Ghibelline faction was moulded in the complex interplay of local and regional interests, with purely individual motives in the forefront. It was perfectly possible for the groups, once they had defeated their opponents, to split into new rival factions. In Florence, where the Guelphs emerged victorious in the battles of Campaldino in 1289, they soon split into two groups, known as the Black Guelphs and the White Guelphs. The Black Guelphs continued to be sympathetic towards the papal regime, while the White Guelphs (among them Dante Alighieri) opposed the ambitions of Pope Boniface VIII.

This dualistic framework of proto-ideologies can be found in many historical scenarios. The history of the wars between rival factions, kings and regents in Scandinavia in the era of the Kalmar union provides us with numerous examples. Thus, the Stockholm Bloodbath existed on many levels. It was a personal attack, a vendetta, on the part of Christian II and his advisers directed against the burghers of Stockholm and the clique around the former Swedish regent. On another level, it was a typical act of classical Renaissance realpolitik: by massacring a significant part of the opposition, Christian II aimed at crushing the Swedish elite, the ecclesiastical and secular elite as well as the mercantile elite of the nation’s greatest city. On an even higher level, it was an act of international politics, the outcome of a holy Catholic war that was supposed to pave the way for a strong monarchy, allied to Rome and to the Habsburg dynasty to which Christian II was closely related by marriage.

Nevertheless, most Swedes do not appear to have reacted at all when they heard of the massacre. None of the three levels were important to the ordinary Swede. A king, whom they had never seen, had killed a hundred people to whom they had no emotional ties whatsoever. Why should they care? It was a local incident. It did not affect them. On the other hand, when Christian’s harsh fiscal policy threatened local society in Småland and Dalecarlia, the peasants immediately rebelled and were quick to enter into alliances with the members of the nobility who were still alive.

Another useful example of how ideological patterns of thought were paralleled by essentially non-ideological reasoning is to be found in the history of the Catholic crusades to the Holy Land. Historians agree that there was certainly a crusading ideology. It can be traced to learned debates in the mid and late 11th century and it grew increasingly important in the 12th and 13th centuries. It was preached to masses of people and carried around the continent by warriors and priests, as well as by ordinary peasants and artisans. The roots of the ideology were manifold: the militarisation of society and the glorification of knightly values, the wave of popular piety that swept through Western Europe in the 11th century, the continual development of pilgrimage and so on.

An important aspect that should not be neglected is the theoretical foundations that were constructed by papal supporters in the struggle between Pope Gregory VII and the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry IV, in the early phases of the Investiture Controversy. Gregory VII needed military support from allied magnates who, whether due to personal piety or political opportunism, preferred him to the emperor. These aristocrats, who in many cases were connected to each other by marriage, were known as fideles beati Petri, faithful to St Peter (and to the pope). The network of fideles did not constitute a homogeneous group. It encompassed true vassals who pledged their allegiance to the pope as well as secular princes who refrained from making actual promises but who were generally sympathetic towards the ambitions of Gregory VII and his successors. It is highly possible that the Danish king, Sven Estridsson, belonged to the latter group, for purely political reasons. The position of the Danish monarch vis-à-vis the Holy Roman Emperor was bound to profit from a strengthened papacy.

One of the most prominent members of fideles beati Petri was Countess Matilda of Canossa, ruler of Tuscany. At her court, she assembled several intellectuals, such as Anselm of Lucca, John of Mantua and Bonizo of Sutri. The concept of holy war was a recurring theme in their discussions. The opinions of St Augustine were delved into, as well as the value of martyrdom in warfare. They concluded that the papal office was to be regarded as a legitimate authority that could call faithful Christians to arms. Although these Matildinian intellectuals did not verbally encourage war as such, they glorified the good Christian death in a bellum iustum, a war that was fought in pious defence of the church and the pope.

At the same time, Gregory VII developed a theory on bellum iustum as an alternative form of penance and pilgrimage. Personally, Pope Gregory appears to have dreamed about leading an army to Constantinople in support of the Byzantine emperor against the forces of Islam. According to Gregory, this kind of war would be equivalent to the love message of Jesus Christ, since it demonstrated an ardent form of compassion for the threatened Christian communities in the East. Although the Investiture Controversy stopped any papal plans of conducting warfare in the Eastern Mediterranean, the idea had come to stay.

In the continuing dialogue between the curia of Gregory VII and the intellectuals at the court of Countess Matilda, the thought of warfare as an alternative form of penance ripened. A warrior who went into battle against the enemies of the pope, such as Emperor Henry IV in Germany, or the Turks in Asia Minor and the Saracens of the Middle East, could, it was argued, be granted indulgence for his sins. The idea was, from a theological point of view, very radical, as it contravened the very essence of the pacifism preached by Jesus in the Gospels. Neither St Augustine, nor Pope Gregory the Great, nor Countess Matilda had ventured this far. Gregory VII’s argument that a soldier could do penance for his sins simply by participating in wars that had been previously approved by the papacy was revolutionary. It was enthusiastically accepted by the militarised nobility of Europe.

Although the final promulgation of the theory of indulgentia, the remission of sins, for crusaders did not appear until in the early 13th century, in the age of Pope Innocent III, the concept was present from the very beginning, when Pope Urban II preached to the congregated masses in Clermont in 1095. Urban II combined Gregory’s notion of holy war and the remission of sins with the idea of pilgrimage to Jerusalem. By joining a crusade to the Holy Land, a knight could cling to his warrior image and his warlike profession and still serve God to the best of his abilities and gain eternal salvation.

In all likelihood, this powerful and dangerous combination was already present in the minds of noblemen and preachers, such as Peter the Hermit, in the years before the famous speech. Otherwise, it is difficult to account for the speed with which the first crusading armies were assembled in the beginning of 1096. In the centuries to follow, the crusade developed into the ideal form of pious penance among warlike Catholics in general, both kings and paupers.

In this way, a distinct crusading ideology, with a firm theoretical basis, was born. The fact that many crusades attracted ordinary men (and women) as well as noblemen testifies to the fact that the ideology was sufficiently popular to become the core of a mass phenomenon. But this is not the whole story. In order to explain the workings of the ideology, we need to look deeper. Adherence to crusading ideology was one thing. The true reasons for joining a crusade, or publicly acknowledging adherence to the principle, was quite another.

When King Magnus Ericsson of Sweden launched a crusade against Russia in 1348, he was following the ideologically motivated and carefully orchestrated plans of the visionary Birgitta Birgersdotter (St Bridget of Sweden). His real intentions were, however, very different, as was evidenced in the split between the king and the visionary in the 1350s. Magnus had already acquired three kingdoms (Sweden, Norway and Scania) and was trying to increase his landed holdings in the east. The crusade served as a tool for royal expansionism. When the war failed, largely due to the Black Death, King Magnus abandoned the costly project without repaying the ecclesiastical authorities what he had borrowed. The ensuing conflict resulted in threats of excommunication and in rebellion. In 1363, Magnus was deposed from his throne and Scandinavia was subjected to decades of wars, in which anything vaguely resembling modern ideology was absent.

For many crusaders, the prime mover was not ideological zeal but the pressure exerted by strong aristocratic networks whose influence covered vast areas of Western Europe. For some princely and royal families, crusading developed into a family duty that is more easily analysed from the point of view of local and regional tradition than in terms of religious enthusiasm. The reasons are evident. Since the crusades were costly and dangerous expeditions, it was essential to mobilise all available social networks in order to fulfil the goals of the project. Even if the decision to join a crusade had been taken by a single individual, such as a count or a prince, it would be up to his family, his vassals and their friends to finance the expedition, to secure the necessary amount of horses, weapons, equipment and food, to recruit servants and warriors, to facilitate the administration of the estates and the various enterprises that would be left behind for the duration of the crusade and so on. Without the cooperation of many individuals, crusading activity was impossible. The mobilisation of social networks was also an important indication of the strength of the crusader himself. By manipulating ties of dependence, friendship and family, the crusader demonstrated his personal importance and power, regardless of ideology and religion.

The comital family of Burgundy is a good example. Four of Count William’s sons were drawn into the early crusading sphere. Three of them – Rainald II, Stephen I and Hugo – all partook in the First Crusade in the 1090s, while the fourth son Guy became pope (Calixtus II) and initiated a crusade in the 1120s. The fifth son, Raymond, was not personally involved in the crusades, but he married Urraca of Castile and León, which made him indirectly connected to the Christian struggle against the Moors in Spain. Count William also had four daughters. Three of them married participants of the First Crusade: Clemency married Robert of Flanders, Gisela married Humbert of Savoy (who withdrew from the crusade) and Sibylla married Eudo of Burgundy. The fourth daughter, Ermintrude, who married Thierry of Montbéliard, had a son by the name of Louis of Mousson, who also participated in the First Crusade. According to unverifiable sources, Sibylla also had a daughter, Florina, who was engaged to be married to the (otherwise unknown) Danish prince, Sven, whom she is supposed to have accompanied on the First Crusade. All of the sons-in-law of Count William were, like the count himself, members of the above-mentioned network known as fideles beati Petri.

Another example can be made of the network of Albert of Buxhövden, Bishop of Riga and architect of the crusading conquest of Livonia at the beginning of the 13th century. Albert’s crusading project would have faltered without his family members and his network of friends and allies. In 1212, his brother Theoderich married a daughter of the Russian prince, Vladimir of Pskov, and thus became ancestor of the noble family, von der Ropp. Two other brothers, Engelbert and Rothmar, made prominent ecclesiastical careers in Riga and Dorpat. A fourth brother, Hermann, became Bishop of Leal in 1219; later, he became Bishop of Dorpat. One of Albert’s sisters became female ancestor of the noble family Thisenhusen. Apart from this, many of Albert’s cousins successfully partook in the Baltic crusades. Even more importantly, Albert himself could hardly have risen to the position of crusading leader if it had not been for the support of his uncle, Archbishop Hartwig of Bremen, a brother of Albert’s mother, Aleidis – a typical case of ecclesiastical nepotism.

A third example is the Danish royal house in the late 11th century. King Canute the Holy was married to Adela, the daughter of a Flemish count. Adela’s brother, Count Robert of Flanders, was one of the leaders of the First Crusade. Canute’s son Charles eventually became Count of Flanders and went on a crusade around 1107. In 1103, Canute’s brother, King Eric Evergood of Denmark, was the first king to go on a crusade and died in Cyprus. Another brother, King Niels of Denmark, fought against pagan Slavs in Northern Germany.

Other crusaders reacted spontaneously to the messages of fervent preachers and made judicially compelling promises that forced them to take part in holy wars. They were hardly motivated by ideology, but rather by social and religious mass hysteria. Although it was perfectly possible to give a judicially binding promise to go on a crusade in private and even in secret (as in the case of Valdemar II of Denmark), the vast majority of all participants appear to have joined the movement when surrounded by masses of people, influenced by sermons and speeches. This happened in Clermont on November 27, 1095, immediately after the first crusading sermon of Urban II. A well-known Scandinavian incident of this kind occurred in Odense in 1187, when a papal messenger informed the Danish court about the loss of Jerusalem. Later, many crusaders undoubtedly regretted their promises, but it was impossible to retract their actions without payment of compensation.

Closely linked to this kind of mass hysteria was the development of various forms of personal and collective piety in high medieval culture. Most of these forms had little, or nothing, in common with the notion of holy war, but they could easily be connected with, or subsumed by, current crusading ideologies. The crusade was one of many ways and methods through which the popes attempted to channel popular piety into praiseworthy Christian action. The same high medieval piety could just as easily be directed towards other targets. In high medieval poems, such as La Venjeance de Nostre-Seigneur (‘The Revenge of Our Saviour’) and La Chanson d’Antioche (‘The Song of Antioch’), Jesus foretells the vengeance that will fall upon those responsible for the crucifixion. In the latter poem, the people responsible for this Christian revenge are explicitly identified with the crusaders. However, the same idea of vengeance that drove men to join crusades to the Holy Land drove others to perform hideous deeds in local society. From the late 11th century onwards, Western Europe experienced a number of anti-Semitic pogroms. In the past, they have sometimes been interpreted as actions motivated by greed. The truth is worse: the pogroms were pious acts of Christian vendetta, the poor man’s crusade.

The difference between crusading ideology and the patchwork of reasons, motives and agendas that were present in the minds of the medieval crusaders can be likened to the difference between official religious attitudes and actual political alignments in the armed conflicts of the early modern era. The so-called ‘wars of religion’ were permeated by Lutheran, Catholic and Calvinist rhetoric and beliefs. Nobody can deny the importance of religion in the minds of the participants, nor the fact that religious belief systems gained mass followings among the burghers, the clergy, the nobility and even within the peasantry. The evidence is overwhelming. However, it is equally easy to demonstrate how non- religious aspects were allowed to dominate the policy-making process and the way ordinary people responded to the challenges of the era.

The French case is illustrative. In history books, the French wars of religion of 1562–98 are usually described as a series of conflicts between Catholics and Huguenots. However, they could just as easily be interpreted as a typical power struggle between rival factions within the nobility, such as the families of Bourbon and Guise, with religion a means of social identification and a tool for the creation of ideological frameworks for military action, rather than an actual belief system in the modern sense of the term. Alliances between individuals, families and groups shifted, as did the religions officially adopted by the political protagonists. Henry of Navarre was baptised as a Catholic in 1553, raised as a Huguenot, forced to become a Catholic during the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of 1572, returned to Protestantism in 1576 and finally re-adopted Catholicism in 1593. While it is impossible to neglect the religious fervour inherent in the wars, few actual events can be sufficiently explained without taking into account the great variety of local, dynastic and personal motives. The way a specific French nobleman conceptualised religion, whether Catholicism or Protestantism, could be very different from that of another nobleman.

In the age of the Thirty Years’ War (1618–48), this duality becomes increasingly evident in the written sources. Superficially, religious attitudes were of the utmost importance. The conflict, or rather the wide array of conflicts within the general framework of the Thirty Years’ War, was extremely ideological, as can be discerned in numerous political programmes, letters and speeches. However, it is easy to trace explicitly non-religious alliances and non-religiously motivated political and military actions. The most prominent French politician of the era, Armand Jean du Plessis, Duc de Richelieu, was a Catholic cardinal but nevertheless initiated a close alliance with Sweden, a belligerent Lutheran monarchy. Despite the ideological nature of the Thirty Years’ War, the Swedish regime in 1643 withdrew its army from the German and Bohemian theatre of war in order to attack Denmark, a Lutheran nation that had previously fought on the Protestant side in northern Germany.

Both the government of France and the government of Sweden were motivated by harsh realpolitik, such as the need to prevent the Austro-Spanish Habsburgs from dominating Germany, the need to exploit the political opportunities that suddenly surfaced in the course of the war and the need to promote their own economic interests. In the case of the Swedish invasion of Denmark in 1643, the Danish Sound Dues constituted a legitimate casus belli, a casus that was far removed from any ideological reasoning. Chancellor Axel Oxenstierna and the other members of the Swedish government were irritated by the loss of money, not by the threat to Lutheranism; hence the attack.

What about ordinary people? How did the average Swedish peasant or German mercenary react to news of the Habsburg advance in central Europe, the raising of the Sound Dues and the plans of Cardinal Richelieu? Were ordinary men and women ideologically motivated to join the armies of the Thirty Years’ War, or did they simply respond to the commands of their kings or, in the case of the mercenaries, their need to earn a living?

In the Swedish case, the thoughts and actions of the peasantry can be analysed with relative ease, since they constituted the fourth estate of the national Diet. However, it is virtually impossible to discern a particular peasant ideology that differed from that of the nobility and the other estates. Naturally, there were differing views on the question of privileges, taxes and landholding, but all estates agreed on basic ideological elements, such as the Lutheran identity of the Swedish state and the obligation to remain loyal to the royal house.

Delving deeper into the archives, we encounter the same kind of ideological duality that has been discussed above. In local society, the social ideology of Sweden, dominated and shaped by the Lutheran state religion, was paralleled by the emergence of patterns of ideas and patterns of action that corresponded to daily needs and superstitions. The witch-hunts and witch trials, which occurred in most Western European countries, are typical examples. Several witch-hunts were not orchestrated from above, but from below. They were the outcome of cultural interaction, of contacts between the clergy, whether Protestant or Catholic, and ordinary peasants and burghers, who looked to the church and to the state for guidance. Thus purely local issues, such as family feuds and suspicions on a village level, acquired a dangerous set of theological meanings. Ideology influenced local society and was itself transformed in the process.

In some cases, the political developments of the early modern era resulted in parliamentary groupings that resembled the political parties of the 19th and 20th centuries, but only up to a point. Neither the Tories and Whigs of England, nor the Hats and Caps of 18th-century Sweden, were equipped with modern party organisations or ideologies. They were heavily influenced by individuals and groups of individuals, whose actions were often determined by their need to confront their opponents in tactically successful ways. Ideological motivation, such as adherence to, or rejection of, mercantilist ideas, could easily be contravened by distinctly non-ideological elements of political culture, such as bribery. This was still a prominent aspect of the field of politics during the French Revolution. Indeed, the very fact that the most famous and most notorious of all the politicians of revolutionary France, Maximilien de Robespierre, was not open to bribery was regarded as so remarkable that he is still known in history books as l’Incorruptible.

Gradually, as the means of mass communication developed, as a wealthy middle class and a politically conscious bourgeoisie grew powerful and as the importance of maintaining stable political organisations grew, the basic elements of ideological culture shifted. In the 18th century, the patterns that were in the process of developing into modern ideologies are clearly discernible to a historian.

The most important, or at least the most conspicuous, difference between the ideologies of the 18th century and the proto-ideologies of the early modern era and the Middle Ages is the overwhelming importance of the concept of change. Before the French Revolution, change had been perceived as abnormal. Continuity and repetition had been the norm. After the French Revolution, all ideologies were focused on the challenge of change. Liberals and socialists greeted change with approval, although they disagreed on what kind of change was preferable and in what way change ought to be accomplished. Conservatives, of course, were highly sceptical of social and political change and devised ideas and plans for combating the various threats they regarded as inherent in the visions of their ideological opponents.

One might argue that ideologies and religious movements bent on changing society had existed before. In a sense, this is self-evident. In the history of religion and philosophy, there are many cases of Utopian visions and revolutionary attitudes. For instance, many Protestant sects developed radical ideas during the 16th and 17th centuries that aimed at completely transforming ways of life. But the ideologies of the 19th century were very different. They responded to social, economic and technological transformations that existed and developed regardless of what went on in the political sphere. Moreover, the proponents of the new ideologies were not satisfied with simply securing a territorial or social basis for their own group. They aimed at attaining political power and dominating the world.

In other words, what I would like to refer to as ‘the collective future’ stepped in as a defining element in every ideological framework. Neither conservatives nor socialists nor liberals looked back at the past in search of a golden age. They wanted to shape what was to be – everybody’s future – in accordance with their own particular views of humankind and society. While some perceived the future as a threat and others as a terra incognita of conflicting promises, they all silently agreed that change, for better or for worse, was the only constant.

In this way, ideology became a tool with which the self-appointed architects of the future conceptualised and interpreted the dreams, aspirations and fears of the era – the views of politicians as well as the views of their audiences and potential supporters. As an indirect consequence, the role of the individual, which had hitherto been just as important as the role of the ideas and patterns of thought per se, diminished. Through the new ideologies, the gap between the two levels in the dualistic world of pre-modern politics was bridged, at the expense of individual men and women. If irrationality within politics had previously been attached to the human factor, in the strict sense of the term, it now rested within the realm of ideology.


Dick Harrison