Carl von Linné in Skåne

For more than two months, Carl von Linné travelled around Skåne. In Österlen he almost lost his entire purse of 100 ducats. But it wasn't thieves that overpowered Linné – it was his own zeal.

The sound of horses' hooves tramping through gravel, the creaking of carriage wheels. The year was 1749. Carl von Linné found himself travelling through Sweden's most southern province. He had been appointed by the government to carry out an inventory of Skåne's natural resources and industry. And who was more suited to the assignment than a prominent scientist such as Linné? During the 18th century, society was awash with a strong utilitarian way of thinking, and science was at its service.

Linné visited important industrial operations and towns in Skåne. He met mayors, priests and other important gentlemen. But he also saw the other side of things, the impoverished Skåne, the ordinary people. And he wrote. He wrote in detail. His curiosity seemed limitless. He combined the big with the small: damaging beetles, handicrafts, diseases, the size of ploughs, and the export value of rape oil. His language was graphic, entertaining, and energetic. And he allowed himself to be enriched by nature's beauty, true nature lover that he was.

He wrote, “A glorious scent crept up from the field, just before we arrived in Vittskövle in the evening,” in his travel journals.

It was the evening of 26th May. The sand pinks were fragrant, the nightingale was singing. Linné reached the mighty estate of Vittskövle with its lush gardens in which apricots, peaches and grapes were grown. It was his tenth day in Skåne, but he had been on the road since the 29th April, when he left Uppsala. The journey through Skåne was by horse and carriage. On his previous provincial journeys, Linné had travelled by horseback, but age and infirmity called for greater comfort. By his side was his assistant, Olof Söderberg. They helped each other to make notes along the journey and write clear copies of these in the evenings.

The assignment for the government was combined with the scientist's innermost calling. Linné was therefore unable to resist weaving his own scientific arguments into his travel journal. He discussed the changes in sea levels and moles' teeth in between the observations of the inhabitants of Skåne's daily grind and business opportunities. Among other things, he took up a very loaded subject, the one of old fossils in the bedrock. He reflected intensely on the fossilised shellfish he found when, during the Skåne journey, he visited a quarry near Balsberg, northeast of Kristianstad. Linné did not accept the church's explanations that the Flood had created the fossils. He wrote in his journal:

“Most allege that the shells have been brought here by the Flood and that they are consequently evidence of this miraculous change to the earth. But they, with such claims, appear to me to not quite be at home with mathematics; for how could a welling up water cast the shells several thousand miles away to one particular place and on top of them lay the other layers of earth in such an even order?”

Friday the 7th June. Linné had spent the previous night with Baron Reuterholm at Tunbyholm. During the day he had visited such places as St. Olof's church, but he now stood discussing the subject of dowsing rods with his company. If he only knew how ridiculous he would soon feel. Assistant Söderberg alleged that the dowsing rod worked, but Linné was sceptical that a wooden stick could indicate metals in the ground. Thus he strode away to a remote field, buried his purse and used a nearby flowering herb as his marker.

“Having done so, I went down to my companion and explained that I had hidden my purse in the field,” wrote Linné.

Olof Söderberg had to search for an entire hour with the dowsing rod in his hands. No success. The purse, together with its 100 ducats, remained undiscovered under the grassy knoll and Linné could happily declare that the dowsing rod was a bluff. But that was when the problem manifested itself. All the trudging back and forth across the field had meant that the flowering herb, Linné's marker, could no longer be seen. It must have been trampled down into the grass. Linné looked uncertainly around, searching with his eyes across the grassy surface.

“I had not the desire to lose 100 ducats over the rod, for we all searched but in vain, both with ridicule and chagrin,” he wrote.

In the end they nevertheless found the purse and Linné could breathe a sigh of relief. The journey could continue as if nothing had happened. Linné headed towards Lund, the old university town where he began his scientific career between the years of 1727-1728, with the help of his old master Kilian Stobaeus. He then spent a week in Malmö and continued on to Trelleborg. The summer weather of 1749 hardly went down in history as the most pleasant that century. When Linné reached Trelleborg on the 20th June, it was wet and windy.

“The autumn weather out in this glorious land is not said to be the best, of that today we had a clear example, since it rained heavily and there blew a cold wind, that we froze as though it was late autumn with a crawling between our flesh and skin,” he wrote.

He spent the midsummer weekend in Falsterbo and then set out eastward towards Ystad. He could smell the villages from a distance; they smelt of peat smoke, hemp and elderflowers. The journey by horse and carriage continued, from Ystad back to Lund and then via Landskrona and Helsingborg, along the coast to places such as Kullen. At the inns along the way, he could continually switch to new, rested horses. The working pace was high, the days were filled with impressions and discoveries.

In total he spent three and a half months on the road. The total distance he covered was approximately 2,400 kilometres, of which approx. 1,300 kilometres were in Skåne. Early in the morning of the 2nd August, Linné reached the border between Skåne and Småland, at Loshult. It was with a certain feeling of loss that he crossed the border. Despite having seen a number of problems with the agricultural situation in Skåne, he was overwhelmingly positive about the province and its cultivation opportunities.  He valued the mild climate, the lush gardens and the many botanical discoveries. But not least had he felt well received. In the preface to his Skåne journey he wrote:

“Generosity, favour and good cheer have so richly and readily been shown to me in this land of all its residents, especially by the Skåne nobility, as well as by priests and magistrates, that I must honestly say that I in no land, although I everywhere have been given favour, have been taken in with so much delight and favour as in this district; for all of which I offer each and every one a respectful thanks.”

© Lena Björk is a science journalist and resident of Malmö. She writes primarily about natural science, but is also fascinated by time travel. She would love among other things to travel back to the 18th century for a chat with the entertaining Carl von Linné.

Why did Linné become so world famous?

Carl von Linné is probably Sweden's most famous scientist. He conquered the world mainly through his systematic way of mapping the various species of plants and animals, but he also had a broad knowledge of medicine and geology. With his sexual system, he made it easier for researchers to determine the species of plants, an important work in a time of a utilitarian way of thinking and explorations when large quantities of species were collated in Sweden and distant countries. The system created a summary of biological diversity.

The ‘two name principle' (binary nomenclature) was another of Linné's successful ventures that achieved international recognition. Linné introduced it to avoid having to use the long and complicated scientific names that had previously been used for both plants and animals. Instead he gave every species a genus name and a species name. This name-giving system is still used to this day.

Linné was born in 1707 in the Småland County town of Råshult. After university studies in Lund and Uppsala, he soon became internationally recognised. He was an active scientist and doctor, he became a professor and a recognised university teacher in Uppsala, but also managed to marry and father seven children with his wife, Sara Elisabeth. He carried out several expeditions within Sweden and lived abroad for a period of three years. He died in 1778 after several years of ill health.

© 2017