Kvenland, known as Cwenland, Kænland or similar in sources, is an ancient name for an area in Fennoscandia. Kvenland is only known from an Old English account written in the 9th century, and from Icelandic sources written in the 12th and 13th centuries.

Since the 17th century most historians have located Kvenland somewhere around or near the Bothnian Bay, in the present-day regions of Swedish Norrbotten and Finnish Ostrobothnia. The traditional East Finnish name of this area was Kainuu, and it has been suggested that the Scandinavian name of Kvenland and Kainuu share etymological roots. The exact location and territorial extension of ancient Kvenland remain unclear.

Old English Orosius

A Norwegian adventurer and traveller named Ohthere visited England around 890 CE. King Alfred of Wessex had his stories written down, and included them in his Old English version of a world history written by the Romano-Hispanic author Orosius. Ohthere's story contains the first and only contemporary reference to Kvenland that has survived:

[Ohthere] said that the Norwegians' (Norðmanna) land was very long and very narrow ... and to the east are wild mountains, parallel to the cultivated land. Sami people (Finnas) inhabit these mountains... Then along this land southwards, on the other side of the mountain (sic), is Sweden ... and along that land northwards, Kvenland (Cwenaland). The Kvens (Cwenas) sometimes make depredations on the Northmen over the mountain, and sometimes the Northmen on them; there are very large [freshwater] mere amongst the mountains, and the Kvens carry their ships over land into the meres, and thence make depredations on the Northmen; they have very little ships, and very light.

As is emphasised in the text itself, Ohthere's account was an oral statement, made to King Alfred, and the section dealing with Kvenland takes up only two sentences. Ohthere's information on Kvens may have been second-hand, since, unlike in his other stories, Ohthere does not emphasise his personal involvement in any way.

Ohthere's method of locating Kvenland is difficult to follow, since it means that Kvenland can be understood to have been located around the northern part of either Norway, Sweden of Finland. Other, somewhat later sources call the land adjacent to the northern part of Norway "Finnmark". However, though Ohthere does not give any name for the area where his "Finnas", or Sami people, lived, he gives a lengthy description of their lives in and around northern Norway without mentioning Kvens.

Ohthere's mention of "meres", and of the Kvens' boats, is of great interest. The meres are said to be "amongst the mountains", the words used in the text being "geond þa moras". Though otherwise Ohthere only mentions mountains as lying essentially between the land of the Northmen and Sweden, it may be that, if his personal knowledge was indeed limited, in this instance something more like "in the wilderness" should be understood. Judging by Ohthere's limited description of broader Fennoscandian geography, it may be that he was referring to the huge lake district in today's central and eastern Finland and north western Russia, which would have been far into the wilderness from Ohthere's point of view. On the other hand, it may be that he intended to refer to the lake districts in northern or southern Norway. In the 9th century, the small lakes in the north were isolated and within the Sami region, but these were notably left unmentioned in Ohthere's discussion of the Sami. Moreover, there is a reference in the Orkneyinga saga to the southern Norwegian lake district, including Lake Mjøsa, an area which was inhabited at that time: the Orkneyinga saga tells how these inhabitants were attacked by men from Kvenland. Mention of the "very light ships" (boats) carried overland has a well-documented ethnographic parallel in the numerous portages of the historical river and lake routes in Fennoscandia and Northern Russia.

According to the philologist Irmeli Valtonen, the Ohthere "text does not give us a clear picture where the Cwenas are to be located though it seems a reasonable conclusion that they lived or stayed somewhere in northern Sweden or northern Finland".

The name "Kven" briefly appears later in King Alfred's Orosius. The Kven Sea is mentioned as the northern border for ancient Germany. Also Kvenland is mentioned again thus:

... the Swedes (Sweons) have to the south of them the arm of the sea called East (Osti), and to the east of them Sarmatia (Sermende), and to the north, over the wastes, is Kvenland (Cwenland), to the northwest are the Sami people (Scridefinnas), and the Norwegians (Norðmenn) are to the west.

It is widely assumed that Viking compass had a 45 degree rotation of cardinal points. If the list is corrected with that in mind, the Norwegians are said to be to the north west of Sweden, and the Sami people to the north. Both of these points are correct after the rotation. Kvenland is then situated to the north east of Sweden, and might be placed somewhere around the western half of present-day Finland or Swedish Norrbotten. Information of Kvenland being situated "over the wastes" northwards from the Viking period "Sweden" (corresponding roughly south-central part of the present-day Sweden) matches the idea of Kvenland being extended to Norrbotten.

Also to be noted is that there is no "Finland" mentioned anywhere in the original or updated version of Orosius' history.

Hversu Noregr byggdist and Orkneyinga saga

The more legendary of the two sagas mentioning Kvenland exists in two very different versions. They are known as Hversu Noregr byggdist and Orkneyinga saga. Orkeyinga is written around 1200 CE by an unknown Icelandic author. Hversu is only known to have survived in one single copy in Icelandic Flateyjarbók from 1387 CE, but may have been written earlier. Orkneyinga makes a bold claim that Norwegian rulers were descendants of the king Fornjót that "reigned over Gotland, which we now know as Finland and Kvenland". Hversu is more modest and only states that a descendant of Fornjót "ruled over Gothland, Kvenland (Kænlandi), and Finland". Distance in time and place had clearly generated confusion in Baltic geography among Icelandic writers or the texts have deteriorated when they have been manually copied over and over again.

Fornjót ("Ancient Giant") and his closest followers are purely mythological figures that are mentioned in other sagas as well, however without any reference to Kvenland. This might indicate that the writer copied them to the saga from other contexts. Noteworthy is also that Fornjót's great-grandson Old Snow is briefly mentioned in Ynglingasaga in relation to Finland only.

In spite of the frame being legendary, Orkneyinga contains a realistic description of Nór traveling from Kvenland to Norway. Based on saga's internal chronologies, this would have happened around the 6th or 7th century CE , but the dating is very insecure. Location of Kvenland/Finland/Gotland is given rather exactly:

-- to the east of the gulf that lies across from the White Sea (Gandvík); we call that the Gulf of Bothnia (Helsingjabotn).

Nordic geography is again only partially valid, since Gulf of Bothnia is not connected to the White Sea. The saga does not say that Kvenland was on the coast, but just east of the Gulf.

This is how Nór started his journey to Norway:

But Nor, his brother, waited until snow lay on the moors so he could travel on snow-shoes. He went out from Kvenland and skirted the Gulf, and came to that place inhabited by the men called Sami (Lapps); that is beyond Finnmark.

Having travelled for a while, Nór was still "beyond Finnmark". After a brief fight with Sami people (Lapps), Nór continued:

But Nor went thence westward to the Kjolen Mountains and for a long time they knew nothing of men, but shot beasts and birds to feed to themselves, until they came to a place where the rivers flowed west of the mountains. -- Then he went up along the valleys that run south of the fjord. That fjord is now called Trondheim.

Starting somewhere on the eastern coast of the Gulf of Bothnia, Nór had either went all the way up and around the Gulf, or skied across—it was winter, and the Gulf might have been frozen. Nór ended up attacking the area around Trondheim in central Norway and later the lake district in the south, conquering the country and uniting it under his rule. There is no mention of Kvenland after that any more. Again only a handful of words had been reserved for Kvenland mainly telling where it was or had been.

Nór's journey from Kvenland to Norway is missing from Hversu. In fact, Hversu does not even mention that Nór came from Kvenland at all, only stating that "Norr had great battles west of the Keel". The journey may have been lifted from some other context and added to Orkneyinga in a later phase by an unknown author that wanted to make the saga more adventurous. However, the conflict itself between Kvens and Norwegians remains a fact as verified by Ohthere even though it might not have ended in the conquest of Norway.

Egil's saga

"Egils saga" is an epic Icelandic saga possibly by Snorri Sturluson (1179-1241 CE), who may have written it between the years 1220 and 1240 CE. The saga covers a long period of time, starting in Norway in 850 CE and ending around year 1000 CE. It contains a short description of Egil's uncle Thorolf Kveldulfsson co-operating with a Kvenland king Faravid against invading Karelians.

Rather accurate geographical details about Kvenland's location are given in chapter XIV:

Finmark is a wide tract; it is bounded westwards by the sea, wherefrom large firths run in; by sea also northwards and round to the east; but southwards lies Norway; and Finmark stretches along nearly all the inland region to the south, as also does Hålogaland outside. But eastwards from Namdalen (Naumdale) is Jämtland (Jamtaland), then Hälsingland (Helsingjaland) and Kvenland, then Finland, then Karelia (Kirialaland); along all these lands to the north lies Finmark, and there are wide inhabited fell-districts, some in dales, some by lakes. The lakes of Finmark are wonderfully large, and by the lakes there are extensive forests. But high fells lie behind from end to end of the Mark, and this ridge is called Keels.

Saga's Finmark extended much wider than it does today, covering all of northern Fennoscandia all the way south to Hälsingland and Karelia. Kvenland is given here to exist along Finmark as well, most probably on the same borderline than other listed areas, which may indicate that Kvenland is situated in a rather southern location at least in this text.

Worth noting is that the saga is the only source that seems to clearly separate Finland and Kvenland, listing them as neighboring areas. However, Finland is not listed in all of saga's surviving versions indicating that it might be a later addition by someone who did not recognize Kvenland any more.

Saga says that "eastwards from Namdalen is Jämtland", but actually the direction is southeast. Also Hälsingland is southeast, not east, of Jämtland. Since it is widely assumed that Viking compass had a 45 degree rotation of cardinal points, saga's "east" seems to correspond to the contemporary southeast. In chapter XVII Thorolf goes to Kvenland again:

That same winter Thorolf went up on the fell with a hundred men; he passed on at once eastwards to Kvenland and met king Faravid.

Had Thorolf gone up to the mountains around his homeland Namdalen and then straight "eastwards", ie. southeast, he would have first arrived to Jämtland and then to Hälsingland. These are the same lands that were listed earlier in the saga. If the passage about goin "southwest" is taken literally and directly, continuing from Hälsingland across the Gulf of Bothnia Thorolf would have arrived to the southwestern tip of present-day Finland, center of Finland's Viking period population (see map).

Again, as with Ohthere, it must be noted that Sami people and Kvens are not discussed at the same time. The saga tells how Norwegians taxed the Sami people, but there is no indication in the saga that Kvens would have competed with the Norwegians of the Sami control or lived near or among them.

A lot of debate has taken place whether the saga provides truthful information of Iron Age Kvenland by mentioning that the Kvens had a real-sounding king and a law to divide the loot. The saga places the confrontation of Norwegians and Karelians on the 9th century. It is often maintained that Karelians actually extended their activities to Finmark only from the 12th century onwards, but there is no certainty on this issue. In any case, the saga-writer seems to have invented or confused key geographical details, like claiming Karelia to be right under mountains.

Other sources

Besides the three main sources, Kvenland or Kvens are very briefly mentioned in four Icelandic texts from the same era. One of the texts may be written in Norway.

Norna-Gests þáttr saga

Norna-Gests þáttr saga has a brief mention about the king of both Denmark and Sweden, Sigurd Ring (ruling in the mid-8th century), fighting against invading Curonians and Kvens:

Sigurd Ring (Sigurðr) was not there, since he had to defend his land, Sweden (Svíþjóð), since Curonians (Kúrir) and Kvens (Kvænir) were raiding there.

The short mention about Kvens has little other relevancy except that it is the only known reference to Kvens in a Swedish context, however the saga itself is written in Iceland. The text lets the reader understand that Curonians and Kvens were co-operating, even though their simultaneous attack may be understood as a coincidence. Curonians were a Baltic people living in present-day Latvia.

Saga does not mention Finland or Finns.

Historia Norwegiae

Historia Norwegiae is written sometime between 1160-75 CE in an unknown location, although eastern Norway is suspected. It contains a list of peoples in the north:

But towards north many pagan tribes—alas!—stretch from the east behind Norway, namely Karelians (Kiriali) and Kvens (Kwæni), corneous Sami people (cornuti Finni) and both peoples of Bjarmia (utrique Biarmones). But what tribes dwell behind them, have we no certainty.

Leiðarvísir og borgarskipan

Kvenland appears once in a list of countries found in Leiðarvísir og borgarskipan, which was basically a guidebook for pilgrims about the routes from Northern Europe to Rome and Jerusalem, written by an Icelandic Abbot Níkulás Bergsson in the monastery of Aþverá (Munkaþverá) in the late 1150s CE. The publication contains two descriptions of lands around Norway that the Abbot seems to have acquired for his book from independent sources.

Götaland (Gautland) is east of the River Göta (Gautelfi), and closest to it is Sweden (Svíþjóð), then closest is Hälsingland (Helsingaland), then Finland (Finnland); then come the borders of Russia (Garðaríki), which we mentioned earlier. But on the other side of Götaland is Denmark --

Closest to Denmark is little Sweden (Svíþjóð), there is Öland (Eyland); then is Gotland (Gotland); then Hälsingland (Helsingaland); then Värmland (Vermaland); then two Kvenlands (Kvenlönd), and they are north of Bjarmia (Bjarmalandi). From Bjarmia, uninhabited lands stretch in the north to the borders of Greenland (Grænland) --

The first description of the two is more correct. It lists Finland, but not Kvenland. The second one seems badly convoluted. It mentions Kvenland, but not Finland. Kvenland seems to be in the vicinity of Helsingland and Värmland, but then on the other hand north of Bjarmia; and yet north of Bjarmia is said to be uninhabited lands. Greenland is described as if it were connected to the continent.

Icelandic Annals

Icelandic annals have a late mention of Kvens clearly active in the north. Around 1271 CE, the following is said to have happened:

Then Karelians (Kereliar) and Kvens (Kvænir) pillaged widely in Hålogaland (Hálogalandi).

Whether the two tribes co-operated or just accidentally fought against Norwegians at the same time, is left open. However, the short mention seems to confirm that Karelians were not alone taking over the control of northern lands from Norwegians at the end of the 13th century. This is also the third reference to Kvens and Norwegians fighting against each other.

Possible other sources

It is sometimes speculated that Sitones mentioned in Tacitus' Germania from 98 CE already have a connection to Kvens. Similarly it has been suggested that the Vinoviloth mentioned by Jordanes in De origine actibusque Getarum in the 6th century CE could have been Kvens. A more potential reference to Kvenland is Terra Feminarum ("Woman Land") mentioned by Adam of Bremen in his Gesta Hammaburgensis Ecclesiae Pontificum (Deeds of Bishops of the Hamburg Church) written in 1075 CE, a possible mistranslation of the name Kvenland.

Another reference to a north-bound land of women is from an Icelandic manuscript from the 14th century that describes a kuenna land ("Woman Land") "north of India" and "near ... Albania" that would only have women with both reproduction organs. As the name appears in a geographical list of countries and Finland is nowhere to be found, it may also be a misunderstanding from an era that no longer recognized Kvenland any more. The text is however so convoluted, that relation to Kvenland is very speculative.


Based on the sources about ancient Kvenland and the Kvens, at least the following assumptions can be made with relative certainty:

  • Kvenland existed in Fennoscandia
  • Kvenland was in a some way comparable to Sweden and Norway during the late Iron Age and early Middle Ages
  • Norwegians and Kvens had occasional conflicts
  • Kvens had light boats
  • Kvens had no special connection to Sami people
  • The first indisputable reference to Kvens in northern Fennoscandia is at the end of the 13th century

Different interpretations

Kvenland and Kainuu

Like all countries lost in the history, Kvenland has generated many theories about its origin. However, the location of Kvenland around or near the Bothnian Bay has been an unchanging feature of most interpretations since the 17th century, when the Swedish historians Johannes Messenius and Olaus Rudbeckius first noted the concept of Kvenland in Old Norse sources. In 1650, Professor Michael Wexionius from Turku became the first one to associate Kvenland with the Finnish concept Kainuu. Ohthere's passage mentioning the Cwenas was noted during 18th century, by the Finnish historian Henrik Gabriel Porthan among others. Porthan believed that the ancient Kvens were Swedish, but many others came to view them as an ancient Finnish tribe. Nowadays Kainuu is a name of an inland province in north-eastern Finland, but the name was often used of the more western coastal area even in the 19th century. According to this view, names "Kven" and "Kainu(u)" may share common roots.

People of Kvenland were (and usually still are) seen as the Finnish kainulaiset tribe, known to the Norwegians as the Kvens, who supposedly were trading, raiding and taking tributes over much of the northern Fennoscandia. A problem in identification of the Kvens was the fact that the area interpreted as Kvenland was seemingly devoid of any archaeological signs of sedentary Finnish settlement during the life-time of Ohthere. Thus several historians have suggested that Kvens or kainulaiset actually lived in South Finland, although they regularly travelled in northern Fennoscandia as long-range wilderness utilisators, raiders, traders and tribute exactors, perhaps settling permanently there in some cases. This has not affected the localisation of Kvenland, however. As these Finnish groups were supposed to transgress the region known as Kvenland during their journeys towards north, the Norwegians, who were only dimly aware of their southern homeland, supposedly came to call them as the Kvens.

Different theories on the origins of the Kvens

In 1958, a Finnish historian, politician and Helsinki University professor Kustaa Vilkuna suggested that Kainuu or Kvenland was originally located in southern Finland, situated on the Gulf of Bothnia and covering just northern Finland Proper and coastal Satakunta. A small local area called as "Kalanti" (Kaland in Swedish) would have been a remnant of the earlier name Kvenland. Because of the trading and tribute-taking expeditions as well as settlement expansion of the kainulaiset, the territorial concept of Kainuu was gradually moved towards north. This idea was not generally accepted, and many other historians maintained that Kvenland was a northern region in the first place.

Another mid-20th century historian, Professor Jalmari Jaakkola, considered the Kvens or kainulaiset as long-range hunters and tribute-takers coming from Upper Satakunta, from the inland region surrounding present-day city of Tampere. This theory was supported by Professor Armas Luukko.

In 1979, Professor Pentti Virrankoski, Turku University, presented a hypothesis according to which Kainuu was originally the sedentary Iron Age settlement in Southern Ostrobothnia. After the settlement was supposedly destroyed by tribal warfare during the early 9th century, the kainulaiset became dispersed along the western coasts of Finland, leaving only place-names and some archaeological finds as their permanent traces.

In 1980, Oulu University professor Jouko Vahtola presented that there is no evidence of the name "Kainuu" being of Western Finnish origin and considered it to have Eastern Finnish roots. However, he suggested a common Germanic etymology for the names Kainuu and Kvenland. Like most of his predecessors, Vahtola viewed Kainuu/Kvenland as the name of the coastal Ostrobothnia, meaning roughly "low-lying land". Based on the archaeological knowledge of the north, Vahtola did not believe that there ever was an separate Iron Age tribe called Kvens. He considered the Kvens to be mainly Tavastians hunting and trading in the northern Pohjanmaa, thus partially reproducing the view of Jaakkola and Luukko (Upper Satakunta being a part of traditional Tavastia). This theory is nowadays widely adopted in Finland, Sweden and Norway, and it is cited in many studies and popular works. Supporters of this theory sometimes want to see Birkarlar as Kvens' successors in the north, but this is not a necessary conclusion.

Recently (1995) the Finnish linguist Jorma Koivulehto has given support for the theory of common etymological roots of the names Kainuu and Kvenland. He suggests a new etymology meaning roughly "marine gap-land", the "marine gap" being the northern sea-route on the Bothnian Gulf.

The increasing archaeological fieldwork in Northern Finland has cast some doubts on the idea of Kvenland having almost no sedentary settlements. Encouraged by the new finds, late Professor Kyösti Julku (Oulu University) presented a theory of the Kvens being early permanent Finnish inhabitants of Northern Finland and Norrbotten.

Some Swedish historians have suggested that the ancient Kvens were actually a Scandinavian and not a Finnish group, but these views have little support nowadays. The Swedish archaeologist Thomas Wallerström suggests that the Kvens/kainulaiset was a collective name for several Finnic groups participating in the west-east fur-trade, not just Southern Finns but ancestors of Karelians and Vepsians as well. In this case, the land of the Kvens would have extended from the Bothnian Gulf in the west to the Lake Onega in the east.

Alternative views on Kvenland

A very original view has been provided by a Finnish historian and Helsinki University professor Matti Klinge, who has placed Kvenland/Kainuu not only in southern Finland, but around the Baltic Sea as a kind of Finnish-Swedish "maritime confederation". Klinge presented a hypothesis of Kvenland as a naval power on the Baltic sea. This theory has not gained support among the mainstream history. Folklorist, Professor of Literature Väinö Kaukonen calls it "fantastic fabulation" and a "dream-wish".

Kvenland has also been associated with the legendary Pohjola, an other-wordly country in Finnish mythology ruled by a fierce witch, Louhi. There is no evidence that they have anything to do with each other.

Kvenland and Kvens later in historical time

Besides the above-mentioned texts, there is no reference to Kvenland in the medieval or earlier sources. There are also no other Icelandic sagas or old Norwegian sources that would mention "Finland" in a Norwegian context.

As a name for a country, Kvenland seems to have gone out of ordinary usage around the beginning of the second millennium, unrecognized by scholars by the 14th century. Finland as an independent geographical region, however not yet a state, ceased to exist in the 13th century along with the Swedish conquest that incorporated it to Sweden as provinces. Names "Kvenland" or "Kven" never appear in Swedish sources. However, Norwegians kept using the word "kven" at least for those Finns who started moving to northern Fennoscandia around the time of the Swedish conquest. Norwegians, unlike their neighbors, already used the word "finn" for the Sami people who were the indigenous people on the same area.

Today, the name Kven is used in Norway as the name of the descendants of Finnish speaking people that immigrated to present-day Northern Norway from the 16th century up to World War II.

See also


Further reading

  • Edgren, Torsten - Den förhistoriska tiden. Finlands historia 1. 1993.
  • Hallencreutz, C.F. - Adam, Sverige och trosskiftet. 1984.
  • Huurre, Matti - 9000 vuotta Suomen esihistoriaa. 1979, 1995.
  • Jutikkala, Eino, with Kauko Pirinen - A History of Finland. 1979.
  • Vahtola, Jouko - Suomen historia / Jääkaudesta Euroopan unioniin. 2003.
  • Zetterberg, Seppo / Tiitta, Allan - Suomi kautta aikojen. 1997.

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