Complex Identities and Cultural Integration: Alexander Erskein and the 30 Years War, by Dr Kathrin Zickerman

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Blog author: Craig Conner

On Tuesday 14th of January, the Centre for Scottish and Celtic Studies gladly welcomed Dr Kathrin Zickerman, lecturer at the University of Highlands and Islands. Dr Zickerman completed her PhD on Early Modern Scottish contact with and settlement in Northwest Germany at St Andrews in 2009, which formed the basis of her monograph, entitled ‘Across the German Sea: Early Modern Scottish Connections with the Wider Elbe-Weser Region’, published by Brill Press in 2013. Beyond this, her current research interests within the Early Modern period also include the Thirty Years War and maritime history, but it is particularly the former topics which have most informed her recent research and the subject of this evening’s talk, the career of Alexander Erskein (1598-1656). Born to Scottish parents in a mercantile family in Greifswald, Pomerania in North Eastern Germany, Alexander Erskein’s varied and highly successful career has been largely neglected by historians, beyond a few relatively brief works based solely on an epitaph published two years after his death in 1658. This limited research ignores the substantial archival collections of Erskein’s correspondence held in the Stade Archives in Lower Saxony and has failed to fully explore and recognise the extent of his significance and achievements. Dr Zickerman argued that there are at least three reasons why Erskein is worthy of greater interest and research and proceeded to explore each of these in turn during the presentation.

Cover of Dr Zickerman’s recent book, available through Brill Press:

Firstly, Zickerman outlined the considerable extent of Alexander Erskein’s influence and success during his lifetime. The upwards trajectory of his career is quite remarkable: from his origins as a second-generation immigrant of middling background, to his beginnings as an administrator in his brief service to Denmark-Norway followed by a far more sustained service of twenty-eight years in the service of the Swedish Crown between 1628-56. His success led to him amassing not inconsiderable wealth and estate in Northern Germany, acquiring many powerful friends amongst the leadership of the Swedish army and state, as well as eventually earning him an ennoblement as a baron within the Swedish nobility, cementing his status as an insider within the government of Sweden’s expanding empire. Throughout his life, Erskein held numerous administrative and diplomatic positions including titles such as war commissioner, councillor of war, president of war, special envoy for Sweden at the treaty negotiations at Osnabruck and Munster in 1648, President (senior judge) of the High court of his native Greifswald and Treasurer then President (civilian governor) of Bremen and Verde. His service to Sweden during and in the aftermath of the 30 Years’ War was highly valued, and though he was not a combat soldier, his administrative skills in terms of organisation and supply made him a asset to the Swedish military leadership over several campaigns across central Europe. His correspondents included such prominent figures as Axel Oxenstierna, High Chancellor of Sweden and several Field Marshals Carl Gustaf Wrangel, Hans Christoff von Königsmarck and Alexander Leslie (later 1st Earl of Leven). Given this prominence, Dr Zickerman argued that a closer examination of Erskein’s career could yield valuable insights into the inner workings of the Swedish army and Imperial apparatus during a period of significant reform, conflict and expansion for Sweden as an emerging power in Northern Europe.

Engraving of Alexander Erskine taken from his epitaph, published two years after his death in 1658.

The evidence of Erskein’s extensive network of high-ranking correspondents is indicative of the second factor for why Erskein should be of interest to historians. Despite his employment as a military administrator, Erskein seems to have been something of a frustrated scholar. His early manhood was marked by stints studying Law at the universities of Greifswald, Wittenberg, Leipzig and Jena between 1612 and 1617, follow by several study trips to (Protestant) educational establishments in the Netherlands and England until settling for a degree at the University of Rostock in 1623. His academic interests were most vividly demonstrated by the many books and documents that he ‘acquired’ (often by dubious means) over the course of his campaigns, and he was later made a member of Die Fruchtbringende Gesellschaft (The Fruitbearing Society), an elite group of noblemen and scholars dedicated to the celebration of German literature and language in 1644. It is due to these literary interests that such an extensive collection of personal papers and letters survives for Erskine and, relatively rarely for the period, many of his letters survive as two-way correspondences with both original letters and their replies intact. This allows scholars significant insight into Erskein’s daily business in his many roles, but also grants us a greater understanding of his many significant colleagues as well as his relationships with them.

Dr Zickerman then argued that questions of how Erskein was perceived as he operated in various elite circles as well as how he constructed his own identity, are key to understanding the third reason for Erskein’s significance. A German of Scottish descent, Alexander was labelled and addressed in a variety of ways by different people. For example, after his death his son later stressed his father’s Scottishness in a letter to his Scottish kinsmen, in order to create closer ties to the prominent Erskines of Mar. Many Scots, whether old friends and strangers seeking his patronage and assistance, also labelled him a Scot, with some correspondents addressing him in English rather than his native German with the expectation that he could comprehend them. Given the lack of evidence for his fluency in English (close Scottish friends like Alexander Leslie corresponded with him only in German), his Pomeranian birth, his interest in the German Language and his long associations with other North German states in Swedish service, It is likely that Erskein considered himself far more German (and specifically Pomeranian) than Scottish despite his parentage.

Yet Dr Zickerman argued that his layered identity and immigrant background were among his greatest assets; his need to function within multi-lingual, ethnic and national environments gave him a flexibility that allowed him to bridge many personal divides, shaping him into an excellent diplomat and negotiator. Thus, his multiple identities were key to his value to Sweden, making his origins an asset, not a disadvantage despite his non elite background. Regardless of his Swedish service and long residence in Germany, Erskein never seemed to deny his Scottish heritage; in later life he revised the spelling of his surname to Erskein, presumably to make it closer to the original Scottish spelling. Further, his acknowledgement of his Scottish roots is most clearly demonstrated through his interest in British domestic affairs, his pride in his lineage (his epitaph includes a family tree displaying Erskein’s Scottish descent back four generations) and his close associations with a network of Scottish officers in Swedish service, including Alexander Leslie, Robert Douglas and William Forbes. In closing, Dr Zimmerman noted that to fully understand the multi-faceted identity of Alexander Erskine on his own terms, more research is required to explore the nature of his links and interactions with the substantial communities of Scots living within northern Germany during the period, and that this will be a key research interest of hers in the future. The Centre wishes Dr Zickerman success in her fruitful research on such a fascinating figure, and hopefully there may be another opportunity to host her again for a later talk based on these prospective findings in the future.

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