Chastisement or Violence? Attitudes towards the Misuse of Patriarchal Power in Modernising Finland (1750-1890)

Financed by: Koneen säätiö

Funding period: 2011-2013

Project leader: Jari Eilola

Research fellows: Jari Eilola, Anu Koskivirta and Ville Sarkamo



The early modern ideal of society was founded on hierarchical power relations, which were laid bare in the Lutheran Doctrine of Three Estates. The people had to respect the legal authorities as God. The master of a household was the embodiment of that power within his family. He had a responsibility to chastise the other members of a household for educational purposes. We will study the boundaries between accepted forms of chastisement (Sw. husaga) and forbidden domestic violence in pre-industrial Finland (ca. 1750–1890). The project aims to analyse how the husaga-institution changed during the process of modernisation. How were the limits between legal and illegal forms of chastisement defined in different times and places in Finland? What kinds of strategies could victims employ? What kinds of attitudes did local authorities and the common people have towards the master’s right to chastise, even physically, other members of his household? What kinds of conclusions does an examination of domestic violence permit one to draw about the changing relationships within the nuclear family (i.e. parental and spousal relations) in a period of social modernisation? Are Finnish historical values, ways of interaction or attitudes towards physical domestic violence something that one should be aware of when addressing domestic violence as a social problem in the twenty-first century?
The term ‘domestic violence’ refers both to legitimated forms of physical chastisement and to battery and homicides within households. The murder of a wife, child or servant hardly seems typical of most acts of domestic violence, but the investigation of domestic homicide is the best way of obtaining solid evidence about violence within the family. One can assume that the perpetrators of such crimes had a history of moderate forms of violence. These cases were studied as serious crimes in courts, and through this process attitudes towards violence were made visible. Such cases are also an important part of the picture, if one aims to estimate the extent to which people tolerated different forms of domestic violence.
In the context of pre-modern patriarchal relations, an examination of the motivational basis of domestic homicide also highlights a contradictory aspect of husaga: the master, father or husband had a duty to protect members of his household from hunger, serious illness or simply from the overwhelming burden of living. The logic behind many acts of domestic violence in pre-modern patriarchal society was obscure. This partly explains why those fathers who committed infanticide without any previous personal history of violence were found by the court to be non compos mentis. Irrespective of motive, being deemed guilty of killing one’s own child led to widespread social and judicial condemnation in Finland, especially during the period of Lutheran orthodoxy.