The Finnish Folk Poem "Bishop Henrik's Murder Ballad"

by Irmeli Kuehnel

The Finnish medieval folk poem Bishop Henrik's Murder Ballad [Piispa Henrikin surmavirsi] relates the events surrounding an alleged crusade to the territory of Finland by the Bishop who was much later proclaimed the nation's patron saint by the Catholic Church. According to Church history, the Swedish King Erik and Bishop Henrik of Uppsala undertook a crusade to Finland with the object of converting the pagan Finns to Christianity.

The poem originated sometime between the years 1156-1158, although written records of the tale were discovered much later. Three main sources recount the ill-fated crusade and the ultimate martyrdom of Henrik. The earliest source, Ecce magnus presbiter, written in Latin, is a liturgy set to music that describes Henrik's arrival in Finland and his encounter with a nameless murderer whom Henrik intended to punish according to Canon law. The criminal attacks and kills Bishop Henrik.1

The second source, the Swedish legend of Saint Erik and Bishop Henrik, relates the missionary travels of King Erik of Sweden and Bishop Henry whose objectives were to bring Christianity to Finland and to establish the Church in the realm. According to the legend Bishop Henrik is murdered by the peasant farmer Lalli who pursued the prelate because he forcefully took food and drink from his home. Swedish scholars discount the existence of Bishop Henrik as a real historical figure in contrast with Finnish Church researchers who maintain that archeological evidence proves that Henrik lived and ultimately died in Finland.2

Oiva Linturi contributed a well-documented pro-gradu study in 1916 of numerous Finnish sources of Bishop Henrik's Murder Ballad.3 The work is significant in that it examines in great depth the various adaptations of the poem from a phonetic, lexical, and regional standpoint. Linturi's research presents the orthographic differences in each version and a linguistic comparison of the poetic variants. Six Finnish variations of the poem exist, representing the third source of the poem. The variants are numbered I through V. Version II has an A and a B copy. Linturi meticulously recounts distinctions in vowel and consonant length, discrepancies and similarities in orthography, and distinctions in vocabulary, all of which establish the geographical home of every manuscript.

Linturi also scrutinizes plot and character presentations. As Henrik travels to Finland, he decides to stop at the home of the peasant landowner, Lalli who is not at home during the visit. Instead Henrik confronts Lalli's wife Kerttu and demands food and drink. Kerttu begrudgingly allows Henrik to take food for himself and his horse, but she demands payment. Henrik pays for the provision, but the manuscripts vary on the sequence of events during this encounter and what Henrik actually provides as payment.

When Lalli returns, his wife Kerttu details the happenings during the visit of the Bishop. The individual versions of the poem describe Kerttu as a useless liar, who claims Henrik did not pay for the upkeep. Greatly angered by what his wife has told him, Lalli pursues Henrik and kills him in a rage. The various accounts of the murder describe widely differing events to include miracles that involve incidents like Lalli losing his scalp when he puts on the Bishop's miter and later takes it off.4

The figure of Lalli has been described as a murderous criminal in many of the sources.5 Nonetheless, other sources have elevated Lalli to the stature of a revolutionary folk hero who confronted the oppressive control of the medieval Church in Finland.6

In contrast to Lalli, whose character has been portrayed with negative and positive attributes,7 the figure of Kerttu has been consistently depicted as a lying shrew. Her stance as a peasant's wife, the female symbol of a medieval class that felt itself subjugated by the Church, has not received the same treatment as Lalli. Earlier research has contributed no close examination about the possibility that her reaction to Henrik's behavior and her motivation for not admitting that he had paid for the food may have been rooted in the same rebellious anger displayed by Lalli. The medieval Catholic Church viewed woman through the lens of misogyny as recorded by noted scholars on the Middle Ages like R. Howard Bloch,8 James A. Brundage,9 Georges Duby10 and Joan M. Ferrante,11 to name a few.

This preliminary article on the character Kerttu suggests that she appears to be a reflection of the woman hate espoused in the Middle Ages and that she has been tarred with the brush of misogyny that grew out of the teachings of the medieval Church. I intend to produce a follow-on study that examines Kerttu using the techniques articulated as "new historicism" by leading historians like Jeff Rider12 and Bonnie Anderson and Judith Zinsser.13


1 Mäntyjärvi, Jaakko. Ecce magnus presbiter. Chorus Cathedralis Aboensis, cond. Juha Kuivanen, Turku, June 2000.

2 Heikkilä, Tuomas. Biskop Henrik. Wikipedia. January 2008.

3 Linturi, Oiva, Äännehistoriallinen tukielma piispa Henrikin surmarunon kielestä [Study of the Phonetic History of the Language in Bishop Henrik's Murder Poem], Pro-Gradu Study, Helsinki University 1916.

4 Katajala, Kimmo. "Suomen Ensimmäinen Murhamysteeri" [Finland's First Murder Mystery] in Piispa Henrikin surmavirsi [Bishop Henry's Murder Ballad], Urpo Vento, Editor. Suomen Kirjallisuuden Seura. Vaasa, 1999. 16 pages.

5 Heininen, Timo. "Talonpoika Lalli - Paha Pakana vai vihainen viljeilijä?" [The Peasant Lalli - an Evil Pagan or an Angry Farmer?]. Tiede. Sanoma Magazines Finland. 2004.

6 Kuisma, Väinö. Lalli: Suomen kansallisimman ajan vapaustaistelija [Lalli: Freedom Fighter during Finland's most nationalistic era]. Finland, 2007.

7 Tietosanakirja [Encyclopedia], Finland, 2006.

8Bloch, R. Howard. Medieval Misogyny and the Invention of Western Romantic Love. Chicago, London: U of Chicago Press, 1977.

9 Brundage, James A. Law, Sex, and Christian Society in Medieval Europe. Chicago, London: U of Chicago P, 1987.

10 Duby, Georges. Die Frau ohne Stimme. Liebe und Ehe im Mittelalter. Berlin, Klaus Wagenrecht, 1988.

11 Ferrante, Joan M. "Biblical Exegesis." Women as Image in Medieval Literature from the Twelfth Century to Dante. Durham, NC: Labyrinth Press, 1985. 17-105.

12 Rider, Jeff. "Other Voices. Historicism and the Interpretation of Medieval Texts." Exemplaria 1 (1989): 293-312.

13 Anderson, Bonnie S. and Judith P. Zinsser. A History of Their Own. NY: Harper, 1988.