The politico-religious landscape of medieval Karelia

The politico-religious landscape of medieval Karelia

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The politico-religious landscape of medieval Karelia

John H. Lind

Fennia: 182: 1, pp. 3–11.


In historical sources the Karelians appear in the 12th century although archaeological excavations suggest that the amalgamation of groups of Baltic Finns, centered on the Karelian Isthmus, that came together from east and west respectively to form them originated in the late Iron Age and early Viking Age. Accordingly they were from the start recipients of impulses from both east and west, a phenomenon that continued throughout the medieval period and ended with their physical division between what became a politico-religious division of Europe between east and west, lasting until today. The article concentrates on the role played by the landscape, situated on an important passageway of international trade and close to two growing neighbouring powers, Sweden and Novgorod, that profited from this trade route but at the same time became ever more opposed to one another as result of the crusading movement of the Latin Church.

The role a landscape has played in the politico-religious context of a region of course varies according to which period of its history we are looking at. As far as Karelia in the Middle Ages is concerned, we can say that it is determined by these factors at least; the physical features of the land- scape, the climate, the pattern of settlement in the region, and the role the region has played in a larger historical context.

As regards the physical features of the land- scape, the position of the Karelian centre on an isthmus, the Karelian Isthmus, between Lake Ladoga with its many river connections to Russia and beyond to the Caspian and Black Sea regions, is undoubtedly of the utmost importance, linking as it does this vast territory with Northern and Western Europe via the Gulf of Finland. In the late Iron Age and well into the Middle Ages, this isthmus might even have been seen as an island with the Neva as its southern coast and the two outlets of the River Vuoksi into Lake Ladoga and the Gulf of Finland, respectively, as the northern coast.

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