Deciduous forests in much of southern Sweden are often located on former 'in-field' sites close to farms and villages. The more distant 'out-field' sites are almost always dominated by conifers. Using palaeecological methods, we investigate the origin of this forest pattern at a small estate in Småland, southern Sweden that was the birthplace of Carl Linnaeus. Prior to extensive permanent settlement (c. AD 1100) both in-fields and out-fields supported a rich, mixed deciduous forest that was irregularly ravaged by forest fire. After AD 1100 the in-field site was transformed into a species-rich forest-meadow system with tree composition similar to the pre-cultural state with the addition of Fagus sylvatica L. The out-field sites were used for grazing and slash-and-burn agriculture, but nevertheless maintained a high degree of forest continuity. Forest composition however changed from deciduous to coniferous dominance. Floristic diversity is closely linked to human activity. Herbaceous diversity is greatest during the earliest phase of the forest-meadow system. It declines during the late-mediaeval agrarian crisis and again during the over-exploitation of the late nineteenth century. Diversity returns to pre-cultural levels after the abandonment of the forest-meadow system during the present century. Present forest composition and pattern in the study area are closely related to former human activities and are not primarily a function of soil type or present-day management. © 1998 Blackwell Science. Abstract reproduced by permission.