Medieval Scandinavia: The Finnish Peoples

By Beñat Elortza Larrea

In this seventh article of the series, Beñat Elortza Larrea discusses the main developments in the Finnish borderlands and the impacts of Swedish conquest.

The history of medieval Finland inevitably stands out among its Nordic counterparts; while this period oversaw the consolidation of Denmark, Norway and Sweden and the development of the Icelandic Commonwealth, Finland never was a unified political community in the Middle Ages. The period between c. 950 and c. 1320, in fact, was largely characterised by the expansionist attitude of the Finnish-speaking peoples’ neighbours, Sweden and Novgorod, which ultimately culminated with the Swedish conquest of Finland.


The territory of what now is Finland was primarily inhabited by Finnic-speaking peoples; these peoples shared a mutually intelligible language and a shared belief system, but there was no overarching political power that governed them. According to the sources, there were three main population groups that were regarded as distinct by outsiders: these were the Finns proper, who settled the south-western region of Finland Proper (Varsinais-Suomi); the Tavastians, who inhabited the historical provinces of Pirkanmaa and Kanta-Häme in central Finland; and the Karelians, who lived in the lands between the lakes Saimaa and Ladoga.

Unlike in Scandinavia, where population growth was considerable during the early Middle Ages, growth seems to have been smaller in Finland, possibly due to the inability to clear forested areas; rapid land rise, moreover, forced some northern populations, such as the Ostrobothnians, to abandon their territories and migrate southwards. The Sámi, whose nomadic lifestyle was centred on reindeer herding, inhabited the northern parts of Finland; unfortunately, little is known about contacts between the Sámi and their southern neighbours during the medieval period.


Likewise, not much is known about Iron Age Finns, as they had not developed a writing system prior to Swedish and Novgorodian colonisation; to make matters worse, there are very few written sources from medieval Sweden, which further limits our knowledge of Finland during this time. The majority of the population lived in coastal areas – in Finland Proper and Karelia – and along the lakeshores in Tavastia; there were also small villages along waterways and lakes, but the deep forests that covered most of Finland seem to have been mostly uninhabited, with the exception of temporary fur-trapping settlements.

Most of the permanent settlements were relatively small in size, and society does not seem to have been as stratified as in Scandinavia; villages were probably inhabited by members of the same kin-group, and agriculture was the central economic activity. How religious activities were conducted is not known, but parts of the Finnish polytheistic pantheon have survived in folk poetry, some of which was collected by Elias Lönnrot in the nineteenth century; the natural powers that these gods wielded suggest that the Finnish understanding of deities must have been similar to that of the pre-Christian Norse. When assailed by foreign foes, Finns elected ‘kings’, temporary military leaders to coordinate defensive efforts, and similar leaders must have been elected to conduct offensive raids too. Large-scale warfare, however, was not widespread; very few early medieval hill-forts have been found, as the majority of defensive structures were built after Swedish attacks had become prevalent. Following the revitalisation of trade in the Baltic from the eighth century onwards, hunting became increasingly important for the Finns, who could rely on a continued demand for furs.

The effects of stronger trading routes, nevertheless, were not merely limited to the fur-trapping sector; it is likely that some Finns were traders – and perhaps raiders – themselves, especially when we consider that many sailing routes skirted the Finnish coastline. These exchanges strengthened cultural contacts between the ‘Finns proper’ and the Swedes, who had settled the Åland archipelago. Over the tenth and eleventh centuries, Swedish settlers travelled eastwards, and began populating coastal areas in Finland proper; by the early eleventh century, in fact, Christianity was well established in some parts of the Finnish south-west. It is possible that magnates from Sweden or Åland occasionally requested tribute, but there was no direct political dominance over the Finnish peoples.

The consolidation of their kingdom during the eleventh and twelfth centuries, however, had provided the Swedish kings and aristocrats with newfound economic and military power; intent on acquiring more territory and engaging in proselytising activities, they turned their eyes eastwards. According to late medieval sources, the Swedes launched their first crusade against the Tavastians in 1150; the historicity of this crusade is dubious, but it is likely that large-scale forays were conducted against central Finland during the twelfth century. The Finnish peoples were, in fact, trapped between two expanding kingdoms, Sweden and Novgorod, who were often at loggerheads with each other. Incapable or unwilling to engage in a protracted conflict, both parties attempted to force the local inhabitants to attack their enemies, thus supporting war by proxy. The Tavastians in particular seem to have fought the Karelians, who were supported by Novgorod, relatively often. According to a later Swedish source, these wars were not limited to Finland: in 1187, a large Karelian fleet sailed into Lake Mälaren and plundered the Swedish town of Sigtuna.

Finland on the Carta Marina

The thirteenth century brought decisive changes to this endemic border warfare. After a period of consolidation, the Swedish Bjälbo kings asserted their authority to a degree hitherto unknown in the realm, and decided to secure their eastern borders once and for all. In the mid-1250, a large Swedish army marched into Tavastian territory and built a stone castle in the region; in the early fourteenth century, a new fortress would be built nearby, and the town of Hämeenlinna (Swedish: Tavastehus) developed around it. In the late thirteenth century, the Swedes launched yet another large-scale invasion, this time aiming to subdue the Karelians. After burning local villages and trading centres, the castle of Viborg (Finnish: Viipuri) was constructed in 1293 on the Karelian Isthmus. There were further Swedish attempts to consolidate their gains by building a new fortress, Landskrona, near Viborg, but this stronghold was stormed and destroyed by Novgorodian forces around 1300.

Although Novgorod had been primarily on the defensive during the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, a string of military victories in the 1320s suggested that these wars would continue for the foreseeable future, and both parties decided to settle the dispute through diplomacy. In 1323, Sweden and Novgorod signed the treaty of Nöteborg, thus establishing a formal Finnish border on the Karelian Isthmus. While the treaty recognised Swedish ownership over the territories of modern Finland, it divided the Karelians into two; through centuries of changing borders, this division of Russian and Swedish (later Finnish), Orthodox and Catholic (later Lutheran) Karelians has lasted to this day.

The consequences of conquest, of course, were not merely limited to changing borders and peace treaties, since the everyday life of the Finnish peoples was altered considerably as a result of these developments. Perhaps the most important of these changes was Christianisation; while coastal areas were partially Christianised by the eleventh century, inland Swedish conquests were followed by conversion if necessary. Christianisation, of course, was not merely limited to the simply spiritual aspects: the formation of parishes created administrative subdivisions, the payment of tithes necessitated a bureaucratic apparatus to collect taxes, and Swedish became the language of power. From the mid-thirteenth century onwards, Swedish settlers also arrived in Finland; most of these newcomers settled along the western coast, from Finland Proper to Ostrobothnia, but a few travelled further inland. These settlers brought technological innovations, such as heavy ploughs or field rotation systems, which allowed the locals to effectively expand agricultural lands into impenetrable forests.


From an administrative perspective, Swedish Finland was governed through castle counties (slottslän) and bishoprics. The main castles – Turku in Finland Proper, Hämeenlinna in Tavastia and Viipuri in Karelia – eventually expanded into towns, where a budding class of burghers and artisans would flourish. Unlike the royal administration, where the production of documents took place in Latin or Swedish, Finnish probably had a stronger presence in the ecclesiastical sphere: sermons in Swedish, after all, were for naught if the parishioners did not understand.

The formation of a somewhat homogeneous Swedish-Finnish political elite and the cohesive effect of Christianisation would have unexpected results from a Finnish nation-building perspective. After the Swedish Reformation in the mid-sixteenth century, the Finnish part of the realm predictably followed suit. Protestantism in general, however, focused on the translation of the Bible into vernacular, rather than the Latin version favoured by Catholics; as a result, Lutheran priest Mikael Agricola translated the text to Finnish, and wrote a primer – an instructional book designed to learn to read and write – to ensure that the Finns could read the religious texts themselves. Much later, during the Napoleonic Wars, Sweden would be forced to relinquish Finland to Russia in 1809. As the Lutheran population of Finland could not possibly remain under the authority of the Swedish prelates, an independent Finnish Church was established soon after the conquest. The seed sown by medieval Swedish conquest had at long last begun to sprout.

Beñat Elortza Larrea has a PhD from the University of Aberdeen, and he is currently finishing a Bernadotte postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Gothenburg. His research interests include state formation in medieval Scandinavia, military history from a social perspective, and maritime societies in the Middle Ages. Click here to visit his page on

Click here to read more from Beñat’s series on Medieval Scandinavia

Top Image: Detail from Egnazio Danti’s 16th century map of Scandinavia.