Open search
« Tuna 4 / 2019

The Estonian Language and Church Visitations in the 17th Century

Since the Middle Ages, church visitations in Estonia, in addition to their religious, economic, legal and other objectives and functions, had been places where people of different social standing and ethnic origin met, forums where they communicated and exchanged information. Visitations in particular provided the congregation with the opportunity to have their say in organising local church matters. Due to the diversity of their objectives, visitation files bring together fascinating and varied information that provides historians, art historians, linguists, folklorists and historians of religion with subject matter for potential research.

This article is based on records of church visitations from the 17th century. From the perspective of the historian and not that of the linguist, it considers the role of the Estonian language in so-called church examinations, focusing primarily on rural congregations. On the one hand, visitation records shed light on the use of the Estonian language in texts that were written primarily in German. At the same time, they reflect situations from everyday life that required multilingual communication. The 17th century was an intensive period from the perspective of the development of written Estonian. The requirement that church services had to be in the vernacular forced pastors of German, Swedish or other origin to learn Estonian. Many of them did not confine themselves to preaching in Estonian, rather they also engaged zealously in translation work. The article focuses on what Estonians themselves thought of the Estonian that was spoken in church and from the pulpit. Relying on visitation records, the kinds of problems generated by communication and attending to business in several languages are examined.

Several languages are found in records of church visitations that were conducted in Estonian territory. The documents were primarily drawn up in German, but there are also records in Swedish, and more rarely in Latin. The use of Latin terms and expressions in texts written in German was widespread. Words or sentences in Estonian crop up to a small extent. As exceptions, altogether entire sermons in Estonian are bound together with visitation records. For this reason, the records of early modern church visitations are also an important base of sources for researching the older history of written Estonian. They similarly reflect the linguistic situation that was typical of that time. In and of itself, little text in Estonian is found in visitation documents, primarily single Estonian words that were used in those days as terms or designations. Full sentences as citations are found rarely. They are admittedly scarce and of an altogether random nature, yet at the same time they are from ordinary life. They often describe some sort of real life situations and already for this reason, they merit thorough linguistic analysis in the context of the study of the older history of written Estonian.

The opinion of the peasant, the viewpoints that he has expressed, including what he thought of the Estonian used by the pastor and in ecclesiastical literature, can be heard through the mediation of what was written in the visitation transcripts. This fact makes visitation records particularly interesting. The fact that Estonian was a foreign language for pastors inevitably brought about discord and incomprehension in their communication with their congregation, not only because of a lack of knowledge of the language, but also in cases of ‘correct’ language proficiency. Church visitations provided the peasant with a place and opportunity to express his attitude. The Estonian peasant was not afraid to criticise the pastor’s knowledge of the language or to question the correctness of the Scriptures that he used. At the same time, it was characteristic of that time period that individuals for whom Estonian was not their mother tongue had the decisive say in deciding what ‘correct’ Estonian was, including its pronunciation. Thus the situation developed where the language of church teachings and prayers, and spoken Estonian both appeared to live their own lives. Peasants’ knowledge of church doctrines was tested during visitations. This primarily meant the reciting of memorised texts that were often in wording that was not natural to Estonian. The feedback received from peasants at church visitations unquestionably had influence. This was their little opportunity to exert pressure for the improvement and further development of written Estonian.