Discovering Finnish literary heritage with Codices Fennici

Medieval and 16th century manuscripts written or used in Finland

pages of a manuscript on a black background
by
Sanna Raninen (opens in new window) ( Finnish Literature Society)

Sanna Raninen of the Finnish Literature Society introduces Codices Fennici, a digital collection of medieval and 16th century manuscripts written or used in Finland containing more than 200 manuscripts or manuscript fragments collected from libraries and archives in different countries.

Medieval Finland might seem geographically far removed from the famous European centres of book culture.

Much of the medieval book culture of Nordic countries is better known through their survival through destruction. One such example is the Fragmenta Membranea collection - leaves from medieval books which were confiscated by the Crown in the 16th and 17th centuries, unbound and reused as covers for bailiffs’ account books.

Fortunately, not all medieval books ended up as recycling material, as shown by Codices Fennici, a digital resource that brings together all 238 known manuscripts of Finnish provenance.

The sources presented in the database date from the medieval period to 1600, covering the beginning of the early modern era and the early changes in manuscript culture catalysed by the formation of the Kingdom of Sweden in 1523 and the religious Reformation which followed.

page of a manuscript with writing in black and red

The collection includes books of liturgy and religious texts, legal records and law codices, account books and personal copybooks, as well as miscellaneous surviving items of medieval and early modern Finnish book culture, inviting historical and archival research to extend beyond the traditional division literary centres and peripheries surrounding them.

These manuscripts tell the story of the adoption and adaptation of imported books in medieval Finland, as well as the first steps of local book production and development of Finnish as a written vernacular language.

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Religious literature

As the origins of literary culture in Finland are linked to the establishment of Christianity in the area, it is not surprising that liturgical and other religious literature makes up a quarter of the titles presented in Codices Fennici.

One of the earliest surviving examples is a Dominican breviary originating from England (Helsinki, National Library, C.IV.10).

page of a manuscript with writing in black and red

The book arrived in Finland by the end of the 15th century at the latest, which can be ascertained from the later scribal addition of votive mass days particular to the calendar of feasts observed in the Diocese of Turku (Åbo).

Liturgical book culture did not only rely on imported items. Local production of liturgical material became especially relevant through religious Reformation in the 16th century and the gradual adoption of local vernacular for worship.

On the other end of the time scale present in the database is a 1605 book titled Officia Missae containing sung introits, which are chants sung at the beginning of the Mass at the entry of the minister and the celebrants, translated and melodically adapted for Finnish language by Michael Gunnerus, a schoolmaster in the city of Porvoo (Borgå).

page of a manuscript with writing and diagrams

Medieval liturgical books remained in use long after the official Reformation of the Kingdom of Sweden, and it is not unusual that one codex contains parts collated over several centuries. The codices have often survived in a fragmented state through centuries of remodelling and eventual obsolescence.

Like liturgical books, legal codices also enjoyed a long shelf life in medieval and early modern book culture. Codices Fennici holds over twenty separate titles of Magnus Erikssons stadslag (City laws) and Kristofers landslag (Country laws) ranging from the mid-14th century to the end of 16th century.

As Swedish was the administrative language of the kingdom to which Finland belonged, it is not surprising that most books listed in Codices Fennici contain written Swedish.

The development of Finnish vernacular in administrative tasks is seen in a Finnish translation of Kristofers landslag (Helsinki, National Library, C.III.10): at the end of the book is a dictionary with words relating to familial relations written in Latin, Swedish and Finnish.

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Geography

The surviving sources in Codices Fennici are geographically concentrated on the western part of modern-day Finland, due to sparser populations in the east and the region’s occasionally restless history.

There are some records from Eastern Finland, including court records from the province of Savo, collated by Judge Jesper Sigfriedsson in 1563–1564 (Vaasa, Provincial Archives of Vaasa, Savo Judicial Province Archives CA:1).

page of a manuscript with black writing

From beyond the reach of the kingdom, relations with Russia - the eastern neighbour - are recorded in Diplomatica Muscovitica (Stockholm, National Archives, vols. 654 & 655), which contains copies of documents regarding delegations to, and correspondence with, Russia.

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Codices Fennici: a digitisation project

This digitisation project was initiated at the Finnish Literature Society in 2013. Codices Fennici has collated items from 22 archival institutions from the Nordic countries, ranging from individual church archives to national libraries and museum collections.

screenshot of the Codices Fennici website

The manuscripts are available for browsing either by institution or as individual items, while the search tools allow for more detailed options for particular year, provenance, language, or associated persons. Each manuscript is presented with metadata conforming to the Dublin Core standard, the digitised manuscript along with a TEI encoded transcription.

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