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  • An Image of Paradise: Swedish Spas in the Eighteenth Century
  • Elisabeth Mansén (bio)

Within the Nordic countries Sweden has a unique spa history. When King Gustaf III ascended the throne in 1771, Medevi, the first of the Swedish spas, was almost a hundred years old. History attributes its popularity to a woman, the lady in waiting Aurora Königsmarck (1662–1728). 1 Her letters describing the brilliant air of festivity at Medevi convinced the nobility that the time had come to try a Swedish spa. Her picture of Medevi was essentially false, but nevertheless it dominates the image of the Swedish spas for over a hundred years. Though at the time Medevi was dark and damp, she insisted on the natural beauty of the place and described dazzling young noblemen and distinguished ladies playing games, flirting, and arranging masked balls.

Medevi is one of many instances showing the tension, even contradiction, between ideal and reality in spa life. It is particularly obvious when the spa is presented as a paradise on earth. To this image water, of course, was essential, but also the expectation of a peaceful life, free from ordinary obligations. Spas aspired to be places set apart, different from ordinary social spaces. They guarded their borders, had their own rules of behavior, and some were even granted local jurisdiction. 2 At the spa the ideals of freedom and equality and of a life close to nature, later codified in a more resolute fashion by Jean Jacques Rousseau and the French Revolution, could be cherished and cultivated. In accordance with these ideas, it was claimed that social differences were obliterated at the spa, and consequently the strict rules of observing rank and paying homage to the rich and powerful were abolished. Polite but unnecessary visits were forbidden, and at times the ladies were expected to show that they adhered to a simple and natural life by not dressing up in satin or silk. 3

However, beneath the pastoral surface of the spa, resembling a Boucher painting come alive, there is always another landscape, poorer perhaps, and certainly less idyllic. The enthusiastic epistles of Aurora Königsmarck never once mention the existence of truly sick people or the presence of poor people. In fact, these often gathered in large numbers around the well in the hope of nothing less than a miracle. The spas and watering places still mirror the existing society. They are microcosms where hierarchies and customs are both adapted and slightly altered, but essentially preserved. The utopian changes achieved within the framework of the spa culture are always limited; they can never be trusted beyond the boundaries of the spa, and must always be suspected of raising delusive hopes.

The spa holds an avant-garde position when it comes to the emergence of public holiday resorts. The transition from family visits to manors and country houses—the traditional way the upper classes spent their summers—to vacations by the sea or travels to Paris, Venice, or later the Caribbean, is punctuated by a pause at the spas. The great spas looked very much like country manors. A large, elegant building surrounded by smaller guest-houses is embedded in a green park, where huge trees offer the necessary shade for the ladies to be allowed out. The spa guests did not have to spend the summer with their family or blood relations, they could choose their company by selecting the right spa. In the well-house or the park they could meet their friends and their friends’ friends, as well as make new acquaintances, but the spa area was still not public and accessible to all.

In the 1720s, a number of fashionable spas were established in Sweden, and at the end of the century there were over three hundred. Some were only used by a few guests during a short period of time, other wells were visited by hundreds and listed as spas for decades or even centuries. The greater spas were considered places of national and economic, as well as medical, interest. Carl Linnæus (1707–1778), foremost of Swedish scientists at the time, wrote a treatise regulating spa life. 4 While traveling through Sweden...

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pp. 511-516
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