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26.09.2016

Finland's oldest document turns 700 years old on 1 October 2016

Finland's oldest preserved document, King Birger's Letter of Protection to Womankind in Karelia is celebrating its 700th anniversary on 1 October 2016. The letter written in Latin on parchment has been dated on 1 October 1316 in Yninge. In the letter King Birger Magnusson (adm.1290-1319) gives protection to women in Karelia and states, that: ”all wives and women who live subjected to our castle of Vyborg or in the land of Karelia be they married, widows, nuns or virgins, shall enjoy peace and security like in our realm Sweden herself both in property and person so that our royal punishment will most severely meet the transgressors.”

The document is related to turmoils in the Swedish realm during the restless beginning of the 1300s. Only very few sources relating to the protection of women have been preserved. The Letter of Protection has been interpreted to be linked with the efforts of King Birger to establish his power in the eastern border of the realm, where Sweden conquered territories at the end of the 1200s. The battle of the areas with the Novgorodians continued, however, as far as to the Treaty of Pähkinäsaari in 1323 and it is not sure to what extent the area mentioned in the Letter of Protection belonged to the sphere of influence of King Birger at the time of writing the document.

The peace law can be interpreted as a part of social thinking and power politics. The document can be seen as King Birger's effort to strengthen his own power: the power used by families was restricted by supporting individuals' position, and they tried to raise the influence of the king above the provincial superiors. King Birger's aim to extend his legal power to the newly captured area is understandable: recognition of legal power proceeded hand in hand with the recognition of political power. Further, the maintenance of peace and admittance of protection to those demographic groups which did not participate in the war belonged to the main tasks of the king according to political ethics. From the current point of view, the letter also contains interesting viewpoints to women's position and to the society of that time.

The document was regarded as a copy for a long time and it was suspected to be a forgery. Suspicions faded when Adolf Iwar Arwidsson published the document in 1846 based on the original document which he had found in the Vyborg City Archives. From Vyborg the document was given to the State Archives, today the National Archives, where the document is still preserved. The document is written by a quill on the parchment sized 23,5 x 10 cm. A worn-out seal of King Birger has been attached to the strip clipped from the bottom of the parchment.

The exhibition of the National Archives at the Turku Book Fair celebrates the 700th anniversary of the Letter of Protection to the Womankind in Karelia by King Birger. The original document and other medieval documents and relics are displayed at the exhibition. Similarly, a new database on medieval documents from the National Archives will be published, and a panel discussion will be arranged with the theme ”King Birger's Letter of Protection to Womankind of Karelia 1316 – why is the Letter still topical? ” Participating at this panel are President Tarja Halonen, State Archivist Jussi Nuorteva and Associate Professor, PhD Kirsi Salonen from the University of Turku.

More information: State Archivist Jussi Nuorteva, firstname.lastname@arkisto.fi, +358 29 533 7001

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