Christina, the Queen of Sweden from 1632 to 1654, famously rejected traditional gender roles, often wearing men’s clothing and excelling at traditionally masculine pursuits. She was also one of the most educated women of the Renaissance, had a mischievous sense of humor, and once provoked the jealousy of Elisabeth, Princess Palatine of Bohemia by luring René Descartes to her court in Stockholm, where he died of pneumonia.
The daughter of King Gustav II Adolph and his wife Maria Eleonora of Brandenburg, Christina officially succeeded her father on the the throne when she was six years old; he been killed at the Battle of Lützen during the Thirty Years’ War. She began ruling when she was eighteen.
“Her hair was rough, her hands dirty, her clothes tumbled, she cursed and swore like a musketeer,” wrote Mme. Charles Vincens, “but she rode divinely on horseback, could kill a hare with a rifle, slept on a hard bed and profoundly despised women—their ideas, their occupations, their conversations.”
Christina herself provided the following description in her memoirs:
Women’s clothes and women’s ways were alike insupportable to me. I never wore their head-dresses. I never took any care of my complexion, my figure, or my person generally; and, save in the matters of cleanliness and honorable conduct, I cherished a profound contempt for everything pertaining to my own sex. I could not endure dresses with trains, but much preferred short skirts, especially in the country. I was so clumsy at all kinds of needlework that it was quite impossible to teach me how to do it. But, on the other hand, I was marvelously quick at learning languages and lessons of every kind.
Indeed, she was known to speak eleven languages. “She speaks Latin, French, German, Flemish and Swedish; and she is learning Greek,” wrote her friend Pierre Chanut, the French Ambassador to Sweden. “Learned persons converse with her in her leisure hours of all that is most abstruse in the various sciences. Her intellect, eager for all kinds of knowledge, seeks information about everything. Hardly a day passes without her reading Tacitus—an author whom she calls her game of chess, and whose style is absolutely intelligible to her, though perplexing to many of the erudite.”
She gathered philosophers, scholars, musicians, and artists at her court. Most famously, after Chanut met René Descartes in 1646, she insisted that the philosopher come to Stockholm to give her private instruction—and dispatched a ship to pick him up with his library of 2,000 books. Descartes arrived in October of 1649.
Descartes’s move, however, according to Frances Henry Gribble’s 1913 biography of Christina, elicited the jealousy of Elisabeth, Princess Palatine of Bohemia, the granddaughter of James I. Descartes and Elisabeth had carried on a long philosophical correspondence about the mind-body problem, with Elisabeth challenging Descartes to explain how the mind can influence the body if they are separate and distinct substances.
Gribble believes that Elisabeth and Christina had more than philosophical interest in Descartes, however—and that Descartes cluelessly made everything worse by inviting Elisabeth to Stockholm:
So badly do abstract thinkers blunder when trying to think out concrete problems complicated by factors undreamt of in their philosophies. For, of course,—human nature being human nature,—Christina wanted Elizabeth in Stockholm as little as Elizabeth wanted to go there. Each of them wanted Descartes to herself; and Descartes had to choose between them. He was so obtuse, and so susceptible to flattery,—and they, on their parts, were so delicate and indirect in their dealings with him,—that he never guessed either that Elizabeth was sulking or that Christina was triumphing. But so it was. (source)
How the drama of this triangle might have played out we will never know. Christina insisted on meeting with the philosopher at 5:00am for her discussions with him and, as Gribble puts it, “the season was the late autumn when the mornings, in northern climates, are very dark and very cold. Descartes shivered over his duties for a couple of months, and then caught inflammation of the lungs and died of it.” It was February 11, 1650.
Christina, finally, had a whimsical nature. “She owned eleven Corregios and two Raphaels,” one biographer reported, “but she cut up some of her finest canvases to fit heads, hands and feet into the panels of her apartments.”
On one occasion, writes Gribble,
A visitor was…invited to hear a number of Swedish girls sing glees which the queen had taught them. They had been taught to sing in French—a language of which they were all quite ignorant; and the visitor found to his amazement that the alleged glees which their innocent lips had been taught to utter were in reality amorous ditties of such broad indecorum that even the most brazen-faced of men could hardy have rendered them without blushing.
Image: Sébastien Bourdon: Christina of Sweden (1653) (source)