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Violent crowds in Stockholm and Copenhagen, 1700–1850
Stockholm University, Faculty of Humanities, Department of History. (Stads- och kommunhistoriska institutet)ORCID iD: 0000-0002-7231-7707
2014 (English)Conference paper, Presentation (Other academic)
Abstract [en]

Violent crowds in Stockholm and Copenhagen, 1700–1850

PhD Mats Berglund, Institute of Urban History, Stockholm University


In a European perspective, Scandinavian early modern towns have been considered comparatively calm. Research on upheavals and popular riots has focused on dense populated and violent countries in Europe, mainly England and France. Despite these countries’ central locations and good access to source material and research, there are reasons to regard them as the European exceptions. Thus, greater part of the “peaceful Europe” deserves further studies and more attention from scholars. Everyday resistance, such as street fights, labour strikes and riots in the cities and towns had an important function in forming cultures of popular politics across Europe during the period prior to and following the French Revolution.

Both Stockholm and Copenhagen are to be considered mid-sized European cities. With a population of around 70,000 and 100,000 inhabitants respectively at the opening of the 1800s, they were far below the European mega-cities: London, Paris, Naples and Moscow. Nonetheless, they were unchallenged in dominating the urban system of Scandinavia and as gateway-cities to the European metropolises.

Both countries experienced a turbulent medieval era. The final years of the Kalmar Union generated series of rebellions in the provinces of Småland, Scania and Halland, along the border between the two countries. However, in the aftermath of the collapse of the union, the situation stabilized. From the sixteenth century onward, riots and upheavals occurred infrequently in both countries. The Swedish historian Eva Österberg argued that the Swedish tradition differed from the European in that peasants were given, and chose, other ways to protest against authorities. The people and the ruling class meet to resolve their difference in local arenas like the parish councils (‘sockenstämma’) or the hundred courts (‘häradsrätt’), or through the peasant estate in the national parliament (‘Riksdagen’). From a European perspective, those institutions provided rather unique channels for people to communicate with the local or central authorities, and thus might be important reasons behind the relative lack of violent crowds.

Negotiations and compromise as solutions to societal conflicts are the starting point for analysis in this paper. Important questions to address are therefore whether this pattern of a moderate Scandinavian conflict culture is also valid for urban areas, and further, whether it is valid in both countries.

A severe riot occurred in southern part of Stockholm in 1719. For three consecutive nights, a large crowd of people destroyed a total number of 14 brothels and illegal taverns. Police forces were notably passive. But an extensive source material from the subsequent trial provides the course of events to be followed in detail. In addition, nearly one hundred individuals have been possible to identify. The passive intervention in the streets along with the extensive administrative efforts afterwards seems to be significant for the Swedish authorities’ handling of popular crowds in general. This passive approach normally prevented disturbances to escalate, which resulted in an extremely small amount of violence in the eighteenth century riots.

A predominantly calm century was however eventually transformed into a significantly turbulent period of two decades around the turn of the century 1800. Major riots in Stockholm occurred at the years 1789, 1792, 1799 and 1810. After 1810, Stockholm authorities changed tactics. In riots towards the middle of the century, police and military guards were generally deployed in a relatively early stage when crowd was gathering. Major riots occurred in Stockholm in 1838 and 1848. Both of these can clearly be linked to the international wave of turbulence that swept over Europe.

In Copenhagen 1715, a group of journeymen from the carpenter’s guild confronted their alderman in connection with an assignment involving moving a public punishing scaffold to the King’s New Square (‘Kongens Nytorv’). The incident was a striking example of an older form of labour conflict characterized by a ‘rowdy culture’ among pre-industrial workers and craftsmen. 

During the century, similar incidents took place in Copenhagen in 1732 (carpenters), 1748 (shoemakers), 1733 and 1751 (masons), as well as the Great Carpenter Strike of 1794.  These recurring conflicts between masters, journeymen and apprentices has been noted in Scandinavian research and investigated as a principal historical strategy in forming the working class. In Stockholm however, these types of labour-related conflicts were not common before the onset of industrialization. But other groups and professions went through similar processes towards professionalization, such as personnel from the garrisons, and, in the case of Copenhagen, students.

In June 1787, over a thousand students and citizens demonstrated their dissatisfaction with the Copenhagen police who had arrested several students. Military forces were deployed, and a battle between students and troops broke out and continued for several days. Another case occurred five years later, in February 1793, as a result of a fight between a student and an officer outside the central postal office at Merchant Street (‘Købmagergade’). Both the civic police and patrols from the garrisons had to be called upon. Authorities forced the mass down the street using batons and rifle butts. It soon became highly violent and people protested against police brutality. More than 160 people were interrogated, mostly people from the middle classes.

In both of these incidents it was obviously violence on the part of the authorities that escalated the situation. It thus seems to differ from the Swedish tradition.


Reasons for the unrest are often hard to find in the available sources. In contrast to both French and English towns, the pre-industrial Scandinavian capitals were never hit by food-related riots. However, although sources are rich, they generally do not tell us very much about the participation of women. Especially official court records seldom list women as guilty or even as witnesses. However, parallel records indicate that women were represented in the masses to the same high degree as men.


Several riots started as ideological protests by political aware middle class people. But the social composition of masses sometimes changed during the course of the disturbances. When riots in the later stages expanded and get violent, it was largely people recruited from the lower strata that formed the crowd. This phenomenon of ‘the dual masses’ can be observed in both cities, mainly in the later part of the period.

Place, publisher, year, edition, pages
Keyword [en]
Violence crowds Stockholm Copenhagen
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Research subject
URN: urn:nbn:se:su:diva-108048OAI: diva2:753382
Det 28. Nordiska Historikermötet, Joensuu, Finland
Available from: 2014-10-07 Created: 2014-10-07 Last updated: 2014-10-28Bibliographically approved

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