Lutheranism and Drunkenness in 17th Century Finland

Jenni Lares

The question of how and why drinking cultures change is a very problematic one, since drinking cultures are slow to change and usually it is hard to discern the various factors affecting them. In this blog post, I will try to examine how the long reformation changed the church’s attitudes towards drinking on holy days in early modern Finland. This is not a comprehensive study but a short presentation of religious ideals and their practice in one rural part of Europe. When compared to other early modern drinking studies, it is easy to see that the same questions of drinking on holy days were present around Europe.[1] The laws and statutes regulating behavior on holy days in Sweden[2] were given as late as the 17th century, but their enforcement was quite strict. These regulations were first only a matter of church obedience but were later adapted to secular law and behavior outside the church. Drunkenness in church was criminalized in 1686 and otherwise in 1733.[3]

The Reformation was a long period with many different outcomes. In Sweden, the most important outcome was the use of confiscated church wealth and power in building a centralized state and government. The Lutheran Church became an integral part of the new state, and especially in the 17th century, the state paid considerable attention to religious uniformity. This period of Lutheran Orthodoxy also meant the unification of ecclesiastical and secular jurisdiction and court practices.[4]

According to B. Ann Tlusty, the reformation did not at first change the concepts on drinking and drunkenness. In late medieval Germany, drunkenness was connected to the cardinal vice of gluttony, since theologians saw overeating and drinking as a waste of God’s gifts.[5] This medieval understanding on sinful drinking was undoubtedly applied in Finland, and the practice of connecting excessive drinking with wasteful spillage continued after the conversion to Lutheranism. A Finnish hymn from the mid-16th century warns about drinking so long that one loses all their belongings and has to resort to begging and stealing.[6] The sermon and prayer book by a Finnish priest Laurentius Petri Aboicus, printed in 1644, connects overeating and drinking in almost every one of its dinnertime prayers, and warns how God can take away what he has given if it is used wrongly.[7]

Of course, sinfulness is not the whole picture of medieval or even Lutheran drinking, and many positive attitudes towards drinking were present. Even Laurentius Petri encourages moderate drinking, and reminds his reader to thank God of these gifts of food and various drinks. Both the secular and ecclesiastical authorities together with lay people saw drinking as an important part of occasional feasting and well-earned rest.

pic 1
Various Nordic drinking vessels in Olaus Magnus’ “Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus”, History of the Northern Peoples, 1555.

Some important changes happened during the 17th century relating to the sale of alcohol by the church. During the Middle Ages it was common to celebrate religious holidays by the church and drink together with other parishioners.[8] The first known attempt to regulate drinking during holy days in Finland was made in 1541 when King Gustavus Vasa forbade the sale of beer by the church. This was quite ineffective, as was the vague notion of the Church Order of 1571 not to hold markets during holy days. The control of ecclesiastical time and behavior became more efficient when the 1665 statute on Sabbath crimes made it possible to condemn violators of holy days in secular courts.  The statute forbade the sale of alcohol from the evening before the holy day until the end of mass. The officials recognized the medieval tradition of going for a drink after the mass, since other tradesmen and crafters were not allowed to open their shops during holy days. It is obvious from the court records that people did go to nearby taverns after the mass, sold drinks by the church, and some even skipped the mass to go drinking.

Both the Church Order of 1571 and Statute on Sabbath Crimes in 1665 had forbade indecent behavior in church, like loud noises or sleeping, whether they were the results of drinking or not. This reflects the traditional view of condemning drinking based on the consequences, not on drinking itself. Ecclesiastical attitudes towards inebriation changed at the end of the 17th century, and the Church Law of 1686 criminalized drunkenness in church. The law associated drunken churchgoers with people who have not confessed their sins or have been excluded from the communion, and violators were sentenced to pay a huge fine of 100 silver dalers. Altogether, from this point on drinkers were officially seen as unsuitable for communion and congregation, not just based on the results of drinking, but for drinking itself.

pic 2
Demons tease drinkers in a medieval wall painting from the church of Lohja

It is interesting how the new law was put into practice in rural local courts. Although the harsh fine is not visible in my sources, the principle of drinking as punishable in itself was applied to violations of church peace and holy days. In earlier cases, the accused was sentenced for the results of drinking; now the use of alcohol became punishable. In one case from the parish of Loimaa in 1693, a man had fallen asleep during the sermon, and the vicar had reported him to the court.[9] The man, Påhl Jöransson, could not deny that he had been drinking, although he tried to defend himself by saying that he had only taken some spirits because he felt sick.  The men who had been sitting next to him in church tried to defend the man by saying he had not disturbed anyone, but since Påhl had already admitted to the drinking, the court sentenced him to a relatively small fine of two marks and two Sundays in the stocks. [10]  It is possible that the vicar’s word weighed more than the words of men who might have been friends of Påhl, but the court specifically decided that the testimonies on sleeping were not relevant anymore, since the accused has confessed to drinking. Although most of the accused were taken to court for some kind of indecent behavior, the role of drunkenness in the court cases is very different from what it was before the Church law of 1686.

The change in legal practice is a clear one, but the change in lay people’s drinking habits took longer. The complaint about drinking parishioners was so common in the premodern era that it can be seen as a literary formula telling us more about the attitudes of priests than the actual behavior of people. The 18th century saw criminalization of drunkenness also outside the church and various ineffective distilling prohibitions. Legislation aimed to change religious and festive drinking, but it does not seem to be very efficient in the early modern period. Long into industrialization and the 19th century, the rural population in Finland had a very traditionalistic view on alcohol; it was still an important part of occasional feasting and well-earned rest – and still enjoyed on ecclesiastical holy days.

Jenni Lares is writing her doctoral thesis at the University of Tampere, Finland. Her thesis focuses on social meanings of drinking in early modern rural Western Finland. e-mail:, twitter: @jenni_lares, LinkedIn:


Primary sources

District Court Records, National Archives of Finland (NA), Helsinki.

Juopumuxest [On drunkenness], a hymn by Hemminki Maskulainen (c. 1550–1619), a Finnish priest and poet. Digitalized according to psalm book of 1701 in

 Selityxet Joca-Päiwäisten Huomen-Ehto ia Ruocaluku eli siunausten, yksinkertaisil saarnoill edespannut Laurent: Petri Aboico minist. verbi Dei in Loimijoki, 1644. A Finnish sermon and prayer book by vicar Laurentius Petri Aboicus. Digitalized in

 Church Law, 1686. Digitalized in Swedish and Finnish in


Hailwood, Mark 2014. Alehouses and Good Fellowship in Early Modern England. Boydell Press, Woodbridge.

Kallio, Kati; Lehtonen, Tuomas M. S.; Timonen, Senni; Järvinen, Irma-Riitta; Leskelä, Ilkka 2017. Laulut ja kirjoitukset: Suullinen ja kirjallinen kulttuuri uuden ajan alun Suomessa. [Songs and writings: oral and literary cultures in early-modern Finland] Finnish Literature Society, Helsinki. With an English summary. Published online in .

Kuha, Miia 2016. Pyhäpäivien vietto varhaismodernin ajan Savossa (vuoteen 1710). [The Observance of Holy Days in Early Modern Savo (Eastern Finland)] Doctoral dissertation with an English summary, University of Jyväskylä. Published online in .

Kümin, Beat 2007. Drinking matters. Public houses and Social Exchange in Early Modern Central Europe. Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke.

Tlusty, B. Ann 2001. Bacchus and Civic Order. The Culture of Drink in Early Modern Germany. The University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville.

Toivo, Raisa Maria 2008. Witchcraft and Gender in Early Modern Finland: Finland and the Wider European Experience. Ashgate, Hampshire.

Toivo, Raisa Maria 2016. Faith and Magic in Early Modern Finland. Palgrave MacMillan, Basingstoke.

[1] On general, see Kümin 2007, 80-81, 163; on Germany, see Tlusty 2002, 73, 75-76; on England, see Hailwood 2014, 101-107.

[2] Finland was a part of the Swedish realm from the Middle Ages to 1809, and the language for administration was Swedish.

[3] In England the criminalization happened more than a hundred years earlier, in 1606. Hailwood 2014, 25.

[4] On Lutheran Reformation in Finland, see Kallio et al. 2017, Kuha 2016, and Toivo 2016.

[5] Tlusty 2002, 72-73.

[6] Juopumuxest [On drunkenness].On the importance of psalms and singing in Lutheran Finland, see Kallio et al. 2017.

[7] Selityxet … 1644.

[8] Hailwood 2014, 5. In Central Europe this was still the case in 17th c., see Kümin 2004, 174-176.

[9] NA Loimaa 3-4. and 6.2.1693. Ylä-Satakunta, KO a13: 1v-2v.

[10] 1 daler i 4 marks, so this sum is far from the high fine of 100 dalers. Two marks was the most common punishment for church disturbances, but not everyone could afford it. If the offender could not afford the fines, they were changed to sitting in the stocks or imprisoned.

One thought on “Lutheranism and Drunkenness in 17th Century Finland

  1. Pingback: Drinking Studies Network: Online Symposium | Alcohol and Drugs History Society

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