Birkarls ("birkarlar" in Swedish, unhistorical "pirkkamiehet" or "pirkkalaiset" in Finnish; "bircharlaboa", "bergcharl" etc in historical sources) were a small, unofficially organized Finnish group that controlled taxing and commerce in central Lappmarken in Sweden during the 13th to 17th centuries. [Vahtola, Jouko. "Tornionlaakson historia I". Birkarlit, 'pirkkalaiset'. Malungs boktryckeri AB. Malung, Sweden. 1991. The article draws heavily from the material available in the book.]


The most probable assumption is that Birkarls were originally Finnish traders mainly from historical Tavastia. King Magnus III Birgersson is traditionally claimed to have granted their privileges to control the trade and taxes in the north in the later half of the 13th century, possibly just legalizing an already existing situation. Birkarls (bircharlaboa) are first mentioned in 1328, when they are listed as one of the settler groups in northern Hälsingland that covered the western coast of Gulf of Bothnia all the way up and around the gulf to Oulu River.

Origin of the name "birkarl" is probably in an ancient Scandinavian word "birk" that has been used in reference to commerce in various contexts.

In the late 16th century, claims about birkarls coming from Great Pirkkala (a parish in northern Tavastia) emerged, propagated by birkarls themselves in their battle to prevent the state from stripping their privileges. This is at least partly true, since men from Pirkkala appear as witnesses in a document from 1374 about local borders in northern Pohjanmaa. Later in the 19th century a Finnish term "pirkkamiehet" or "pirkkalaiset" was invented as a "domestic" name for birkarls. It never appears in any of the documentation or traditions, but is commonly used in Finland today to mean birkarls.

In total, some 20 theories are estimated to exist to explain the origin and name of the birkarls.

Sami trade and tax monopoly

The main purpose of the birkarl organization was to control the trade with Sami people and tax them. Sami people were traditionally taxed by Norwegians already in the Viking Age or even earlier. Later Russians started to tax them as well. After having southern Finland under control around 1250, Sweden became interested in the situation in the north. Eventually, some Sami people paid taxes to all three states. Birkarls were just one element in the colonial system taking benefit of the Sami area.

It seems that birkarls' privileges were more "de facto", than "de jure". No document has survived granting them official right to the tax and trade monopoly in the north, even though the state first supported and later tolerated the situation for centuries.

In practise, a birkarl owned the Sami people on his area, and they were treated as if they were property. Privileges to own Sami people usually went in the family. Later, birkarl privileges became merchandise as well.

Area of influence

Birkarls were active on Tornio, Luleå and Piteå River valleys, Tornio being their main area. Each of the valleys formed a separate "lappmark" with its own birkarls. Sami people south of Piteå were "Crown Samis" that paid their taxes directly to the king.

Birkarls living on their area of influence were very few, totalling only about 50 men still in the early 16th century.

Towards the end of their existence, also Kemi River valley was partly under birkarl influence in the 16th century. In the 1590s, they also tried to gain tax control of the sea Sami people on the Arctic Ocean.

Decline and end

Birkarls remained useful to the king as long as the state's hold on the north was weak. After the disintegration of the Union of Kalmar in the early 16th century, the situation in the north became more important. A major setback for birkals took place in 1553, when King Gustav Vasa terminated their right to tax the Sami people. Unable to continue their former lives, many birkarls became local tax authorities ("lapinvouti" in Finnish).

Birkarls' trade monopoly did not last much longer and was in the line of fire from 1570s. The state wanted to concentrate the trade into towns that were easier to control, making the need for birkarls obsolete. Having no official status, birkarl organization had little means to fight back, and it silently eroded away in the 17th century after administrative changes initiated by king Charles IX. Tornio, Luleå and Piteå all received their town charters in 1621 marking an official end to birkarls.

Kven speculation

It is often speculated in Finland that ancient Kvens which are mentioned in some Norwegian and Icelandic sources in the early Middle Ages, were an organization similar to birkarls. According to this theory, "Kvenland" would have then been the same area where birkarls later operated. The very small number of birkarls makes this connection unlikely. Swedish sources also mention birkarls to be settlers in their area of operation still in the early 14th century whereas Kvenland is mentioned to be a land comparable to Sweden and Norway already in the Viking Age.

It is however likely, that northern Norwegians generally called birkarl traders as "Kvens" in the Middle Ages and later. Olaus Magnus mentions both of the terms in his publication "Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus" ("A Description of the Northern Peoples") from 1555 CE. Those Finnish traders that went from Tornio to Norway, are told to have been called "Kvens".

Whatever the case, most of the Kven minority in present-day northern Norway has immigrated from the same area on which birkarls were active.


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