Treasures Unveiled (8): Real life in Lapland

~ John Scheffer’s The history of Lapland (Oxford, 1674) ~

Our eighth feature in this Treasures Unveiled series has a suitably wintry flavour: a highly unusual English translation of the Latin-language Lapponia by John Scheffer, or Johannes Schefferus (Frankfurt Am Main, 1673).

Here Johannes Schefferus (1621-79) wrote on a vast array of subjects relating to the Sami people – including religious custom, political divisions, language, architecture, child-bearing, death and burial, and even ‘the inclinations, temper and habit’ – giving a late seventeenth century readership a glimpse into a society which very few people had the opportunity to experience.  In fact his book is the first ever wide-ranging portrait of the Sami.

The Sami – a unique and resourceful people

The northernmost indigenous people of Europe, the Sami are protected by the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (United Nations General Assembly, 2007), and primarily inhabit the Arctic areas of Sápmi, or the most northern parts of Scandinavia (Norway, Sweden, Finland, and the Kola Peninsula, Russia).  The Sami people are frequently known in England as ‘Lapps’, or ‘Laplanders’ (although these are pejorative terms to many Sami people) and, traditionally, collectively spoke ten languages (all of which are currently endangered).

A detailed, ever-engrossing fold-out map of Sápmi’s extensive territory (© Durham Cathedral Library)

Schefferus – pioneer of many talents…

In 1648 Schefferus migrated to Sweden from Strasbourg, under the aegis of Kristina Augusta (1626-1689), Queen of Sweden.  He became a professor, first of Eloquence, and  then of rhetoric and political science, at the University of Uppsala, and taught civil servants and diplomats.  An industrious polymath, he pioneered the study of philology in Sweden; is viewed a key figure in that nation’s literary history; went on to distinguish himself in international law and the law of nature; and wrote on archaeology and the history of science.  He later took on the role of librarian to the University.

An attractive illustration, probably printed in relief, of a reindeer and Sami people: c. ten per cent of today’s Sami population engage in reindeer herding (© Durham Cathedral Library)

Upon its publication in 1673, Lapponia was translated almost immediately into English, French, German and Dutch but, interestingly, not into Swedish – Schefferus’s native language – until nearly three hundred years later, in the mid-twentieth century. This English translation is a rare survivor.

Further reading:

  • Kent, Neil.  The Sami peoples of the North: a social and cultural history.  C. Hurst, 2014
This entry was posted in Collections, Treasures Unveiled and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.