Buildings as Persons: Relationality and the Life of Buildings in a Northern Periphery of Early Modern Sweden

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Matthew Johnson opened a paper two decades ago with the question, 'Why is the study of vernacular architecture in England so boring?' (1990: 245). He emphasised that while the subject matter itself is fascinating, the problem lies with the 'anti-theoretical' approaches conventionally employed within the study of vernacular architecture. Ordinary vernacular buildings in the post-medieval western world may not exactly encourage unorthodox thinking because the buildings and their historical context appear relatively (or seemingly) familiar to us. This is particularly true, for example, with the simple log houses discussed in the present paper. Since there is little or nothing 'special' to log houses, common sense and practical-functional considerations may seem quite sufficient for understanding these buildings.

Although it is widely recognised that buildings resemble organisms in various ways in different cultures, and that the relationship between people and buildings is dynamic in nature (e.g. Rapoport 1969; Blier 1983; Carsten & Hugh-Jones 1995a; Thomasson 2004; Bradley 2007), modern understanding of the world dictates that buildings are 'really' just inanimate objects and organism-like only in a metaphorical sense or in the minds of people (Rapoport 1987: 12-13). This thinking, with its dualistic and mechanistic assumptions, may actually be a poor guide when it comes to understanding buildings and their relations with humans in seventeenth-century Europe, and especially in such peripheral contexts as northern Sweden and Finland. In this northern periphery, distinctions between subject and object, culture and nature, and the natural and supernatural were not clearly drawn, and what might be called animistic-shamanistic concepts of the world were preserved (see further Henry 2008; Herva & Ylimaunu 2009 with references). These observations should also have implications for our understanding of buildings.

This paper rethinks buildings in a northern periphery of early modern Sweden in the light of folk beliefs and relational thinking (as explained below). The discussion revolves around the seventeenth-century town of Tornio, founded by the Swedish Crown in 1621 (although today in Finland) and located on the northernmost Gulf of Bothnia (Figure 1), and is loosely structured around the idea of object biography (e.g. Marshall & Gosden 1999; Thomasson 2004). Rather than a thorough or fully substantiated case study, this paper is an attempt to explore human-building relations at a more general level. The argument is not specific to Tornio but concerns northern peripheral regions of early modern Sweden, and the approach discussed here has a much wider application. The main goal of the paper, then, is to outline a 'relational perspective' on buildings and illustrate some of its implications for archaeological interpretation through the case of Tornio.

Folk beliefs and the relational constitution of the world

Christianity spread into the northernmost Gulf of Bothnia in the fourteenth century, but elements of pre-Christian thought and folk belief flourished in the northern periphery centuries after its nominal Christianisation (Luukko 1954: 256-65, 293-6; Paavola 1998: 28-9; see also Wallerstrom 1995: 107-28; Toivo 2006). Popular beliefs indicate that people co-inhabited their world with non-human beings, such as trolls, earthlings and manifold nature spirits, which were associated with various places and landscape elements in the wilderness. Extraordinary properties were attributed to the sea, forest, soil, the elements, and various materials and artefacts (e.g. Sarmela 1994; Eilola 2003; Westerdahl 2005). The persistence of popular perceptions about non-human beings and the extraordinary properties of ordinary things is well established, but their nature and significance may have been misunderstood.

The use of folklore and folk beliefs in the study of the early modern past is not without problems. …