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A Swedish Virago: Queen Christina of Sweden on Dualism and the Passions

George P. Simmonds
Oxford Brookes University


Queen Christina of Sweden (1626-1689) is not well credited for her contribution to seventeenth-century philosophy. Indeed, most historians pose her simply as a bygone monarch, albeit a most idiosyncratic one [1]. To some she is remembered as the mercurial spinster who went about Europe in men’s clothing, unique in her mastery of equestrianism, shooting and military strategy [2]. Most recall her for her involvement in René Descartes’ death, occurring in the midst of the Swedish winter as he laboured to satisfy her educational demands [3]. The more considered historian might meanwhile describe Christina as the ‘intelligent, independent and artistic sovereign’ (Philippe, 1970, p.695) who possessed the greatest book collection in Europe (Birch, 1907, p.8), who dreamt of making Stockholm ‘the Athens of the north’ (Conley, 2011, §1), and who may well prove to be the closest thing to a Platonic philosopher-queen history has ever seen.

At birth she was proclaimed the male heir to the Swedish empire, and was upon the discovery of her true sex spurned by her mother, who had once again failed to provide King Gustav Adolphus with a son (Stolpe, 1966, p.37). The king proved more tolerant: he would later name Christina his heir and afford her the exacting education suited to a prospective emperor [4]. This unusual series of events came to epitomise her legacy as she assumed the role of the honorary male, adopting the character and temperament of a king in a blatant rejection of womanly life no doubt encouraged by her mother’s refusals. This legacy was a relatively good one, however: under Christina’s rule Sweden saw great relief in the Peace of Westphalia, bringing an end to the Thirty Years War, and later withstood severe political tumult without any major civil conflict (Åkerman, 1987, p.21).

The queen has since been dubbed ‘one of the wittiest and most learned women of her age’ (Stephan, 2006). It is said that she studied ten hours a day, leaving no time to keep up royal appearances. Slovenly dress and tangled, unruly hair quickly became her signature aesthetic (Goldsmith, 1956, p.52) [5]. She was by no means plain in the company she kept, however. Throughout her tenure Christina had a number of distinguished intellectuals at hand, a coterie including Isaac Vossius, Samuel Bochart, Nicholas Heinsius and of course the hapless René Descartes. She valued these men as ‘living libraries,’ as silos of information she admired but ultimately viewed as ‘poor advisers in affairs of the great world’ (M, p.25). This reluctance to heed the counsel of others, together with her scholastic bibliomania, enabled the events of 1654 in which the ‘eccentric scholarly creature’ turned Catholic and scandalously abdicated her father’s throne (Fraser, 1989, p.252). As Birch (1907) explains in the Maxims’ introduction: (more…)