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Written records survive only from late in the Middle Ages. But the number and variety of fortifications, assembly places, votive sites and graves is impressive. Humankind and metallurgy made late appearances and only in the Bronze Age, after the arrival of Indo-Europeans, was there rich trade. The country's early cultural life is still vividly represented in the

The Viking Age was getting under way by the 9th century, and vast repositories of Roman, Byzantine and Arab coins attest to the wealth and power Swedish Vikings accumulated over the next century. Vikings travelled mostly to the east, making their mark in Russia, as well as trading with (and pillaging) Byzantine territories. Pagan gods and slightly more earthbound kings held sway over the domestic population, with Christianity only taking root in the 11th century. Internal squabbles whiled away the bulk of the Middle Ages until Denmark interceded in 1397, when, together with Norway, they joined Sweden in the Union of Kalmar. A century of Swedish nationalist grumblings erupted in rebellion under Gustaf Vasa, who was crowned in 1523. Gustaf then set about introducing religious reform and a powerful centralised nation-state. A period of expansion resulted in Sweden's control over much of Finland and the Baltic countries.

In 1809, the unrestricted power vested in the monarch was undone by aristocratic revolt and Finland was lost to Russia. The same year, Sweden produced a constitution that divided legislative powers between king and Riksdag (parliament). The post of ombudsman appeared as a check on the powers of the bureaucracy. In 1814 the military enforcement of the union with Norway was Sweden's last involvement with war.

Industry arrived late but was based on efficient steelmaking and the safety match, a Swedish invention. Iron-ore mining, important for at least 300 years, and then steel manufacture, began to expand, creating a prosperous middle class. But an 1827 statute, which scattered the agricultural villages of much of Sweden's countryside, had more immediate and far-reaching effects - the old social fabric disappeared. By 1900 almost one in four Swedes lived in cities and industry (based on timber, precision machinery and hardware) was on the upswing. In this environment the working class was radicalised.

Sweden declared itself neutral at the outbreak of WW I and was governed bilaterally until 1917. But food shortages caused unrest and consensus was no longer possible. For the first time a social democratic government took control. The social democrats dominated politics after 1932, reworking the liberal tendencies of the 1920s to join economic intervention with the introduction of a welfare state. These trends were scarcely interrupted until the 1970s when economic pressures began to cloud Sweden's social goals. It was then that support for social democracy first wavered, looking particularly shaky after the 1986 assassination of Prime Minister Olof Palme and its murky aftermath.

The political breeze shifted to the right in 1991 when a Moderate-led coalition won power. The experiment with rightist economics and the move to EU membership left many Swedes uncertain and disillusioned, allowing the social democrats to sneak back to form a minority government in 1994. The social democrats suffered further losses in the 1995 elections, but have managed to cling to power under Prime Minister Göran Persson who relies on the support of the Centre Right party or the Greens. In late 1996, 10 years after Palme's assassination, a leader of a South African hit-squad accused a former Rhodesian soldier of Palme's murder, citing him as a mercenary - Palme was a tireless critic of South Africa's apartheid policies.

Sweden has yet to join the single European currency scheme, but a referendum is likely to be held on the issue. However, the widening gap between rich and poor is causing disquiet, racial tension is increasing and arguments continue to rage over EU membership.


The best known members of Sweden's artistic community have been writers: chiefly the influential dramatist and author August Strindberg and the widely translated children's writer Astrid Lindgren, creator of Pippi Longstocking. The Gustavian balladry of Carl Michael Bellman, rarely heard outside Scandinavia, speaks directly to the Swedish soul. Vilhelm Moberg, a representative of 20th century proletarian literature, won international acclaim with The Immigrants and The Emigrants. Carl von Linné was an 18th century scientist who made pioneering field studies of plant species using Latin names. Still better known is Alfred Nobel, first patron of the Nobel Institute and the coveted international prizes.

Swedish is a Germanic language, belonging to the Nordic branch, and is spoken throughout Sweden and in parts of Finland. Swedes, Danes and Norwegians can, however, make themselves mutually understood since their languages are similar. Most Swedes speak English as a second language, so lazy tongues can get away without wrapping themselves round those Swedish vowels. Sweden has a Lutheran state church, which all citizens in principle join (in fact about 95% of citizens are members). The state, however, guarantees religious freedom.

Hungry Swedes tuck into fish which is usually poached or fried in lard. Pickled herring is especially popular and the potato is basically indispensable. As well as being the vegetable of ubiquity, spuds are critically important in the production of excellent Swedish aquavit. Strong beer, wines and spirits are sold by the state monopoly Systembolaget at outlets in the cities and towns, which are open weekdays. You must normally decide what you want from price lists and displays and then take a number and wait: Friday afternoon queues can be long.

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