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  5. A Paradise on Earth. On Swedish Spas and Watering-places 1680–1880

A Paradise on Earth. On Swedish Spas and Watering-places 1680–1880

Atlantis, Stockholm 2001. Ill., 592 pages, ISBN 91-7486-573-0 Written in Swedish with a short summary in English.


A Paradise on Earth presents Swedish spa culture during its first 200 years, from 1680 till 1880. Spa cures unites many aspects of life, and this study touches on a wide range of disciplines from history of science and ideas, intellectual history and comparative literature, to theology, philosophy and medicine. The analysis is based upon a study of hydrotherapeutic literature, medical records and journals, spa statistics submitted to the state archives as well as prayers and sermons used within the spa and perhaps most of all on diaries, letters and poems by spa guests.

The introduction gives an historical survey of Swedish spas in relation to the development of spa culture in Scandinavia and the rest of Europe, and provides initial information about organization and economy.

The main part of the study explores the notion of the spa as a paradise on earth, and uses the story of creation in Genesis 1–3 as a pattern of analysis. Special attention is paid to the utopian traits of spa culture and the position of women in this milieu.

The main object of the study is to reconstruct and interpret the ideas and expectations, the dreams and hopes connected with spa life during this period, rather than to outline the history of each spa or critically examine the medical effects of the cure.

Keywords: Paradise, hydrotherapy, spa, watering-places, women, 17th century, 18th century, 19th century, Sweden, Medevi, Urban Hiärne, Linnaeus, Berzelius, Lagberg, Priessnitz, Malla Silfverstolpe, Mathilda Foy

An article in English on a subject related to this theme is “An Image of Paradise. Swedish Spas in the 18th Century” published in Eighteenth Century Studies, University of Johns Hopkins, USA, Summer 1998.

An article in Swedish, published in RIG no 2/2000, has the following summary in English:

Ordinary Water
Within the spa culture of Sweden there emerged in the middle of the 19th century the notion that every ailment could be cured simply by applying ordinary pure and cold water. The predominant explanation of the remarkable results of the water cures tended at that time to focus on the mineral and saline elements in the water, but this new idea – imported from Germany and made famous (or to some notorious) by a certain Vincenz Priessnitz – claimed that the contents were insignificant. The all-important issue was the special cold water cure.

A Swedish journalist travelled to Gräfenberg in the 1840s to try the cure provided by the self-appointed doctor Priessnitz and tell the Swedish general public all about it. The same curiosity urged the ambitious young Swedish MD Johan Olof Lagberg to make a journey to the Continent in order to study the new water cure. Both returned with horrible memories of the regime of Mr Priessnitz, but kept a vivid interest in the water cure itself.

Back home Dr Lagberg decided to introduce his own variety of the cold water cure at the spa of Söderköping, where he was the manager. He started writing scientific works where the medical evidence of the cold water cure is imbedded in the romantic philosophy of Schelling and Oken. He was fairly successful and the spa of Söderköping thrived. The young Swedish author Betty Ehrenborg bears witness to the healing qualities of the cold water cure in her letters to her sister. She also testifies to the charming and serious character of Dr Lagberg, who spends a lot of his time explaining the secrets of the cold water cure.

Others were not impressed. Soon the Swedish press included satirical accounts and comic pictures of people turned into amphibians, instantly submerged in ice-cold water and salvaged only to be wrapped in wet blankets and left to sweat for hours on end.

This is one of many instances showing that an idea considered by science at the time most extreme and perhaps even ridiculous has turned out to be more plausible than the generally approved opinion within medical science. Modern spa culture relies strongly on the supposed soul-soothing and healing effects of natural water, whereas the old traditional conception of active ingredients is most definitely dead.


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