|Finland Table of Contents
The late medieval period was marked by the expansion of settlements along the coast and into the interior. The Finns gradually conquered the wilderness to the north, moved into it, cleared the forest, and established agricultural communities. This settling of the wilderness caused conflict between the Finnish farmers and the Lapp reindeer herdsmen, forcing the Lapps slowly northward. By the end of the fifteenth century, the line of settlement was about 200 kilometers north of the Gulf of Finland, and it ran along most of the coast of the Gulf of Bothnia, though less than 100 kilometers inland. The population of Finland likewise had grown slowly in this difficult environment; it numbered about 400,000 by the end of the Middle Ages.
The economy of medieval Finland was based on agriculture, but the brevity of the growing season, coupled with the paucity of good soil, required that farming be supplemented by hunting, fishing, trapping, and gathering. All but a small portion of the Finnish population earned their livelihood in this way.
Although the European institution of serfdom never existed in Finland, and although most of the farmers were freemen, they had little political power. Society and politics were dominated by a largely Swedish-speaking nobility. Finland was represented, however, in the Swedish Diet of the Four Estates (Riksdag)-- clergy, nobility, burghers, and farmers--that had advisory powers in relation to the king. The Finns also had some responsibility for matters of local justice and administration.
Catholicism was deeply rooted in medieval Finnish society. The church parishes doubled as units of local administration, and the church played the leading role in fostering an educated Finnish leadership and the development of the Finnish language. For example, the general requirement that parish priests use the indigenous language helped to maintain the speaking of Finnish. Turku (Swedish, Abo), encompassing the whole country, was the was diocese, and the bishop of Turku was the head of the Finnish church. In 1291 the first Finn was named bishop, and thereafter all incumbents were native-born.
The southwestern seaport city of Turku, the seat of the bishopric, became the administrative capital of Finland. Turku was also the center of Finland's mercantile life, which was dominated by German merchants of the Hanseatic League. Finland's main exports at this time were various furs; the trade in naval stores was just beginning. The only other city of importance at this time was Viipuri (Swedish, Vyborg), which was significant both as a Hanseatic trade center and as a military bastion that anchored Finland's eastern defenses against the Russians.
Source: U.S. Library of Congress