The works of Mikael Agricola are the foundation of Finnish literature. Between the years 1543 and 1552, Agricola published altogether nine books in Finnish, with a total number of pages at around 2400. His most important publication was a translation of the New Testament, which was completed in 1548. The publication of Finnish literature did not continue until a quarter of a century after Agricola.
From Pernaja to School Life
Mikael Agricola was born in Pernaja, in the town of Torby, around 1510. His father was a farmer called Olavi and his hometown is thought to have been relatively wealthy, as it was used as the town’s law venue. Little is known of Agricola’s mother, not even her name. There were also two girls in the family. A third was born after their mother remarried, after the death of her husband. Agricola’s home has not survived, but the Sigfrids farm still exists. A monument was later erected on the spot where Agricola’s home once stood.
Mikael Olavinpoika was home-schooled by Bertil, the vicar of his home town. When he was ten years old, he left for Vyborg to continue his studies at one of the few schools found in Finland at the time. Evidently the vicar encouraged and supported the gifted pupils of his parish, as several students from Pernaja went to study in Vyborg. One of these was Martinus Teit, known to have been Agricola’s fellow student. In Vyborg, Mikael apparently begun to use the name Agricola – the Latin word for a farmer.
From Turku to the World and Back
In 1528 Agricola moved to Turku together with his teacher Johannes, the Son of Erasmus. Johannes had been invited to work as a clerk for the Bishop Martinus Skytten. Agricola inherited this position in the following year, after Johannes died in the hands of English sweating sickness – an outbreak of plague ravishing the city at the time. A couple of years later he was consecrated as a priest. In 1536 he was sent, together with Martinus Teit, to study at the University Wittenberg, the center of the Lutheran Reformation. He received his master’s degree in 1539 and returned to Turku where he became the rector of the most important school in Finland, the Turku Cathedral School.
In his letters Agricola complained about the heaviness of the work at the school and the unruliness of the students. However, during this time the writing of his literary works progressed rapidly. First to be published, in 1543, was the ABC-Catechism, also known as the ABC-Book, next to appear was the Rucouskiria or the Book of Prayers in 1544. Agricola’s translation of the New Testament, Se Wsi Testamenti, was published in 1548. All of the books were printed in Stockholm, as there were no printing presses in Finland at the time. After this, Agricola had to hand over his school master duties to Paulus Juusten, as according to custom, they fell upon the latest Master to have returned from abroad.
Agricola continued publishing books. In 1549 appeared no fewer than three new works: an order of Church services, an order of the mass, and a depiction of the Passion of the Christ based on the four gospels. Agricola also got married with the burgess Birgitta and together they had a son named as Christian. In 1551 Agricola published a Psalter, a book of psalms, and a selection of Old Testament prophetic books. These were accompanied by the translations of the books of Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi published the next year. Altogether, Agricola translated about 37 percent of the whole Bible.
As the Bishop of Turku
After his return from Wittenberg, alongside his other work, Agricola worked as a member of the Church chapter and as an assistant of Bishop Martinus Skytte. When the old bishop passed away in 1550, Agricola had to work as his substitute without an official nomination. King Gustav Vasa did not appoint another bishop until 1554. At the same time he split the diocese into two separate regions, the Turku and the Vyborg dioceses. Agricola became the bishop of Turku, and Paulus Juusten received the bishop’s throne in Vyborg.
In addition to the spiritual and administrative duties within the Church, the bishops also had secular responsibilities. Besides their respected statuses, they had practice in civic affairs and they were experienced and learnt speakers and negotiators. Consequently Agricola was named as a member of the peace delegation which Gustav Vasa sent to Tsar Ivan the Terrible in order to form a settlement over the long lasting disputes concerning the borders of the two nations. This strenuous journey was too much for Agricola’s poor health and he passed away on the way back, at Karjalankannas, in the parish of Kuolemanjärvi on April 9 1557. He was buried in Vyborg, his former school town, most likely in the Cathedral. The exact site of his grave has not been located. Today, Mikael Agricola has his own flag day, which is also celebrated as the day of the Finnish language.
One of the principles of the Reformation was that everyone could read and listen to the Word of God in their own native tongue. If there was no written vernacular, it had to be created. Agricola was not the first or the only author who had begun translating and writing texts into Finnish during the Reformation, but he was the only one who had his works printed, and in this way they came to use in the whole Finnish region of the time. In Agricola’s day there was no standard Finnish, but a variety of Finnish dialects. When the uniform format of Agricola’s works spread everywhere, they created the basis for a written language connecting the different dialectical regions in Finland.
Text: Professor emerita Kaisa Häkkinen