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date: 25 February 2018

Book History in Finland

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Literature. Please check back later for the full article.

Literacy among common people got its start in Finland during the Reformation. Michael Agricola, the first Finnish Reformer, studied in Wittenberg and, after coming back to Finland, translated the first books into Finnish. At first, books were only for priests, but in the middle of the 17th century, a literacy campaign throughout the Swedish Realm produced good effects. Some bishops in the diocese of Turku were also very active in writing basic religious literature, primers, catechisms, hymnals, and other materials for common people. The church examined parishioners as well, to check their reading skills. People were not allowed to get the status of godfather or godmother, or attend Eucharist, or marry without proper reading skills and knowledge of basic Christian doctrine. In the first phase, reading was only reading by rote, but by the last decades of 17th century, reading from the book and understanding the content were underlined by bishops and priests. During the 18th century, literacy emerged further, and literature published in Finnish became more varied.

During the 19th century, the literacy rate gradually went up in Finland. However, for the vast majority of the rural population, literacy meant only the very basic reading skills required and tested by the Lutheran church. The statute for primary schools was laid down in 1866, but the law of compulsory primary education was not enacted until 1921. From the 1860s, Finnish language was promoted by the Russian government. The Finnish-language literature and press afforded reading for large groups of population. The popular movements that began to be established during the last decades of the 19th century (temperance movement, agrarian youth movement, labor movement) provided possibilities for literary training. Among the lower-class people in rural Finland were many self-educated writers who submitted manuscripts to the Finnish Literature Society and sent news from their home parish to newspapers. Some of these became professional writers or journalists.