Mikael Agricola: Father of Written Finnish, Agent of the Swedish King, European Humanist
Today April 9 Finland celebrates Mikael Agricola Day. Mikael Agricola (c. 1510-1557) is recognized primarily for his achievement in establishing Finnish as a literary language. The pastor and later bishop of the Diocese of Turku in Finland created a body of sacred literature in Finnish. Among his works are a spelling primer for Finnish (1543), a book of prayers (1544), and the New Testament in Finnish (1548). Agricola’s works were the first published books in Finnish.
What remains in the shadow of Agricola’s literary achievement is his advancement of the three larger roles that Finland’s Western Church has played in Finland’s history. By Western Church I mean the medieval Catholic Church until the 1500s and then the Lutheran Church that replaced it. In Finland’s history the Western Church has supported the interests of temporal or civil power, it has worked to create a separate Finnish identity, and has been an important and sometimes only conduit of outside cultural and intellectual influences.
From the time it began to establish itself in Finland in the 1100s, the Western Church has worked closely with the Finland’s rulers, a relationship that has become more distant only in recent decades. The introduction of the Lutheran reformation in the sixteenth century was made possible by a king who wanted to take the church’s wealth and a new generation of clergymen who wanted to make the church less opulent. Agricola’s oldest surviving completed manuscript is not a work of religious literature, but rather an accounting in 1542 of the church’s wealth for King Gustav Vasa. The account book would be used by the king for future confiscations of the church’s wealth. Several years later, Agricola died while performing another service for Gustav Vasa. In the fall of 1556, Gustav sent a delegation to Moscow for peace talks to end a war that had been raging for almost two years. Continuing a long-standing tradition in the Swedish kingdom’s diplomacy with Russia, the Swedish delegation included ecclesiastical leaders. As a member of the delegation, Agricola brought to the negotiating table his firm command of a variety of languages: Latin, Greek, and German, in addition to Finnish and Swedish. At the outset of negotiations with the Russians, it was often unclear what language or languages would be most useful. On the return journey home after signing a peace treaty, Agricola became sick. He and the others in his delegation had suffered months of abuse from their Russian hosts. Agricola died on 9 April 1557 shortly after crossing the border back into Finland.
While serving the Swedish king, Agricola like generations of clergymen before him saw Finland as a distinct region within the Swedish realm. The spread of Western Christianity over most of Finland ensured that Finland would become part of Western Europe and not Russia—a reason why to this day Finns both in popular and scholarly memory have a fondness for the medieval Catholic era not found in many Protestant countries. During the Middle Ages, native-born Finns came to dominate the clergy and high offices. This predominance of local Finnish leadership continued into the Lutheran era. Agricola contributed to this local Finnish identity through his publications in Finnish. He not only used his works to establish a written language for Finnish speakers, but also he sought to articulate a sense of place for Finns. In his introduction to his New Testament, Agricola summarizes Finland’s history. He goes on to list Finland’s various regions and historical provinces. In the introduction of his translation of the Psalms, Agricola lists Finland’s pre-Christian gods and their functions. This list is still a foundational source for scholars. With these history and geography lessons Agricola teaches his readers that they have a distinct past and space of their own, but a space and past clearly within the Swedish kingdom.
Agricola was one of several young Finnish clergymen of his generation who studied at the University of Wittenberg in Germany, the intellectual bridgehead of the Lutheran Reformation. High among the items on the Lutheran reform agenda was the transformation of worship from Latin into the vernacular—the language of the people. Wittenberg was also a center of the new intellectual movement of humanism. Contrary to widespread understandings of the term today, humanism in the context of the sixteenth century (and for centuries afterwards) does not mean secularism or an avoidance of religion. Humanism in the sixteenth century was a scholarly movement that emphasized the study of the humanities—history, philosophy, as well as languages and literatures. Humanists sought to go the original sources of Western thought and religion rather than relying on centuries of commentary on them. They wanted to cultivate existing languages as well as improve knowledge of the biblical languages of Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. Agricola among other contemporaries brought both Lutheranism and humanism to Finland. Both humanism and Lutheran reform guided Agricola’s work in the Finnish language.
Agricola belongs to the pantheon of Finland’s national heroes. He created a written language that allowed people to worship God in their own language. His work over the long haul protected Finnish as a minority language in the Swedish kingdom. Although Finnish orthography has changed much since Agricola’s time, over seventy percent of the words used by Agricola are still used in Finnish. Much of the rest of Agricola’s text is understandable to a reader of modern Finnish, especially if the reader can decipher Agricola’s neologisms derived from Swedish.
I frequently wonder what Agricola would think as Finns—both Finnish- and Swedish-speaking--are increasingly willing to allow the takeover of the new Latin—English—in their daily communications, business transactions, and education. I consider my mastery of the Finnish language as my greatest intellectual achievement—greater than my doctorate or my books. Will I still be able to use this achievement in twenty years?