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« Tuna 2 / 2021

On Change in the Field of Meaning of Historical Concepts, and the Danger of Anachronism in Historical Literature

This article analyses changes in the concept field of history and studies the concretisation of the field of meaning of historical concepts on the background of Reinhard Koselleck’s reception, pointing to the danger of anachronism in interpreting a concept. Specifically, the conceptual pairs ‘capitulation–agreement’ and ‘gathering of estates–diet’ are examined in the article. The change in the semantic field of meaning of the concept field is studied in the development that took place from the early modern era to the modern era.

If in making sense of concepts found in an original text that is being worked through, the historian is guided by the systematics that evolved from the encyclopaedists of the latter half of the 18th century and as a result of the scientific and technical revolution of the 19th century, the development of science, and the dynamic changes that took place in society, and tries to project the content of a concept that was classified at that time and is used semantically nowadays, the result of this endeavour can prove to be anachronistic. The content of the concept may prove to be inapplicable since the content of the concept has been transformed over time. It is not a historically correct method to automatically project a 19th or 20th century concept field, for instance, into conditions in the 16th century or the end of the 17th century. In the sense of semantic time-space, the alteration of concept fields is a continuous process that applies nowadays as well. A concept’s field of meaning does not always necessarily become more concrete, rather it can also expand. This article examines the transition of the nobilities of Tallinn and Northern Estonia to Swedish rule in 1561, the fields of meaning of the concepts ‘capitulation’ and ‘subjection’, and the meaning of the terms ‘Diet’ and ‘gathering of estates’ in how they were linguistically used in 16th–17th century German, Swedish and Latin.

Pacta subjectionis or capitulation? The agreement of 1561 between Sweden and the nobilities of Tallinn and Northern Estonia in sources

The city of Tallinn and the nobilities of Northern Estonia came under Swedish rule by mutual agreement in 1561. Neither the descriptive term ‘subjectionis’ that was added in 17th century chronicles, nor the designation ‘capitulation’ that has been added in the works of some historians in the 20th and 21st centuries, are found in the actual historical sources associated with this event. It has become evident that the nearest adequate term for the agreement is ‘pacta subjectionis’, but not ‘surrender’. The term ‘capitulation’ offered in some historical works similarly does not allow the agreement of 1561 to be correctly interpreted historically, since in the 16th and 17th centuries, this concept meant an agreement or contract in the broadest sense, and it was only in the 20th century that the concept unambiguously acquired its current form in the meaning of surrender. Hence the narrowing of the meaning of the concept field in time can be perceived.

Diet or gathering of estates? Many Estonian historians have found that Sweden’s Diet (Riksdag) was held in Paide at the end of November and the start of December, 1600, thereat claiming that in this way, Paide had allegedly written itself into the history of Sweden’s Riksdag. This claim is misleading. Sweden’s Riksdag had evolved out of medieval county-level parliamentary organs (ting). The Diet (Riksdag), consisting of representatives of all four of the estates of the realm, fit in under the concept ‘gathering of estates’ in early modern Swedish usage of the concept. Yet ‘gathering of estates’ primarily denoted rudimentary county-level gatherings of estates held locally, as well as meetings of the office of the highest-ranking organ of power or its commissions, and the so-called assemblies of nobles (herredagar). Thereat, the specific term ‘Diet’ (Riksdag) in the sense of a state-wide assembly of representatives of the estates had already come into use at the Riksdag of 1527 in Västerås. It was not, however, used in reference to the gathering that took place in Paide. Sweden’s Riksdag for 1600 was already set in the winter of 1599 to be held on 24 February in Linköping. It was held from 24 February to 19 March. The next Riksdag was not held until 1602 from May until 17 June in Stockholm. Local county-level meetings of estates (ständermöten) were held in the winter of 1602 in Turku and Örebro. Hence we see that the meeting at Paide was not a convocation of Sweden’s Riksdag or of a state-wide parliamentary representative assembly, but rather a more limited event that remained in the same class as the above-mentioned meetings of estates in Turku and Örebro. Furthermore, the convocation of Sweden’s Riksdag in Paide, in the above-mentioned year or at any other time, has not been mentioned in any Swedish literature on history.

Hence it is not justified to interpret county-level meetings of estates originating from the Middle Ages as state-wide parliamentary Diets in the context of the modern parliamentary nation state, even if both manifestations of state governance existed in parallel for some time in the period that was substantially the transition of the concretisation of the concept. In this instance, the case of the concretisation of the concept field has similarly been denoted, whereas the concept of the Diet was already developed and established in Swedish linguistic usage.

In summary. It must be acknowledged that historical literature has hitherto directed rather little attention towards the semantic meaning of concepts found in sources. In the case of the examples highlighted above, anachronistic deviations as well as altogether misleading inferences have emerged for this reason in the interpretation of texts. Unfortunately, these examples are not the only ones. Thus one could also polemisingly ask why Charles XII did not have a television set. It had not yet been invented, yet paper and quills existed in those days, and both of them were and are means for conveying information. Attention has to be directed especially towards the development of new social and socio-economic formations in particular, which in R. Koselleck’s reception is a period of transition that has also been accompanied by the evolution of new concept fields.