What Have the Baltics Ever Done For Us?

It’s easy to forget what we owe others, when we’re busy listing our grievances, or counting our blessings, or hoarding our resources. In a hot debate on Europe, and more particularly, where it begins and ends, an otherwise temperate friend recently complained “why should we care about the Baltic states, what value are they to us?” Maybe he was thinking of Estonia (amongst Europe’s biggest tech incubators and its #1 digital economy), or perhaps Finland (whose education system is widely copied and currently voted #1 world-wide) or perhaps that quietly successful Baltic state, Sweden, whose 17-year-old daughter, Greta Thunberg has transformed the debate on climate change? Or perhaps my friend had forgotten about the Hanseatic League – the trading confederation that allowed for the relatively frictionless transmission of ideas, culture and technology across Northern Europe for 300 years – many centuries before WTO, NAFTA, EEC, TPP et al were conceived. (Good to get that off my chest!)

I’ve just returned from Sweden, which included a train ride to Uppsala, on a pilgrimage of sorts, to see the magnificent Gothic Uppsala domkyrka. It was a few days before the start of Lent and the coffee shops were serving up semlor, a seasonal speciality which allows you to cram several soon-to-be-forbidden treats down in one mouthful: Semlor buns are flavoured with cardamom and stuffed with whipped cream and unbelievably delicious almond paste. The English hot-cross-buns we eat at the end of Lent are good, but these are better. We would stop for semlor and hot tea after our cultural activities, but first we headed to church.

Uppsala Cathedral is the tallest building in Scandinavia and, on this bright winter’s day its three dark spires pierced a blue sky which lifted the mood across this ancient university city. We entered just as the Sunday service had finished and the place was still imbued with the warm atmosphere of community worship. The interior is lit with immense chandeliers and about half-way down the nave is a marble pulpit adorned with gilded scenes from the bible. A sermon preached from such a pedestal must surely carry some real impact and I was sorry that we had missed it.

At one time the place of coronation for Swedish Monarchs, the cathedral is the burial site of King Eric IX, patron saint of Sweden, and also contains a number of notable tombs, including that of Carl Linnaeus. Born in 1707, Linnaeus was a Swedish botanist, zoologist and physician who formalised the binomial system of taxonomy for natural organisms which we use today: genus first; species second. (Every keen gardener and bird-watcher will be familiar with this).

Linnaeus was a great collector and cataloguer of the natural world and those organisms he himself classified are denoted by the letter ‘L’. For example, English oak – Quercus robur L., Common tern – Sterna hirundo L. and the fantastically named Rattus rattus L.. Linnaeus was the first to classify humans as Homo Sapiens L.– meaning ‘Wise man’ and although Carolus Linnaeus was the exemplar of the species, we cannot always live up to the name he gave us. What did the Baltics ever do for us? ‘L’ only knows..

Detail of an altarpiece, made in Lubeck, Germany in 1468 for the Swedish market, thanks to Hanseatic trade – https://thevikingmuseum.com/en/ – image V.Preston
Reliquary of St Eric – Uppsala Cathedral – image V. Preston

Victoria Preston is the author of We are Pilgrims – Journeys in Search of Ourselves – available to order now from Amazon or Waterstones

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