Post-classical history


Medieval Livonia was a land on the eastern coast of the Baltic Sea that was conquered in the course of the Baltic Crusades. At the end of the twelfth century, missionaries from the archbishopric of Bremen, along with merchants and crusaders from North Germany, established a foothold in the land of the Livs, a Finnic people living along the lower reaches of the river Düna (Latv. Daugava). As this nucleus gradually expanded, the name that originally derived from the Livs was extended to cover all of the Christian-controlled territory corresponding to modern Estonia and Latvia, including in the broader sense also the Danish possessions in North Estonia.

Main regions and settlements in Livonia

Main regions and settlements in Livonia

A conglomerate of small states developed in Livonia in the course of the thirteenth century. The largest was that of the Teutonic Order, which after 1346 comprised well over half the territory of Livonia. Considerably smaller were the independent territories of the archbishopric of Riga (mod. Rīga, Latvia) and its suffragans, the bishoprics of Dorpat (mod. Tartu, Estonia), Osel-Wiek (mod. Saaremaa and Lāānemaa, Estonia), and Curonia, or Courland. North Estonia belonged to the kingdom of Denmark until 1346, when it was ceded to the Teutonic Order. It was these institutions that exercised political power in Livonia after the conquest, although vassals (i.e., secular knights) grew in importance in the course of time. The first corporation of vassals was formed in Danish Estonia in the thirteenth century, while in the bishoprics the vassals’ corporations gained political weight during the fourteenth-fifteenth centuries. The Teutonic Order administered most of its territories through its own officials and thus had relatively few vassals. The population of Livonia has been estimated very roughly at 200,000-350,000 in the thirteenth century and approximately 650,000 in the middle of the sixteenth century [Heldur Palli, Eesti rahvastiku ajalugu aastani 1712 (Tallinn: Teaduste Akadeemia Kirjastus, 1996), pp. 12-17, 21-47].

The Crusader Conquest

By the end of the twelfth century, what was to become Livonia was inhabited by Finnic peoples (Estonians and Livs) and Baltic peoples (Lettgallians, Selonians, and Semgal- lians). Among the Curonians, both language groups were represented. All of these peoples were largely pagan; although the Greek Orthodox form of Christianity had spread to some extent among the social elite of the principalities of Gerzike (mod. Jersika, Latvia) and Kokenhusen (mod. Koknese, Latvia) on the river Düna, there was no Roman Catholic community or church organization.

In the 1170s the Danish church had evidently made efforts to send missionaries to this area: one Fulco was named as bishop of the Estonians, but there is no evidence that he actually visited Livonia. The eastern Baltic lands were of interest to Western traders as well as churchmen, as important trade routes connecting western Europe and Russia passed through them. At the beginning of the 1180s, an Augustinian canon called Meinhard (d. 1196) arrived with some German merchants at the lower reaches of the Düna. He was ordained as bishop of Livonia (or Üxküll) in 1186 by the archbishop of Bremen and along with the merchants and Livs, started to build the first stone castles in Livonia. The second bishop, the Cistercian Berthold of Loccum, fell in battle against the pagan Livs in 1198. It was only during the time of Bishop Albert of Buxhovden (1199-1229) that the arrival of crusaders became a regular event. In 1201 he also established Riga, the first town in Livonia. The leading role in these first crusades to Livonia was played by a small group of knightly families from North Germany, from whose ranks the bishops and their vassals were largely drawn.

The crusades to Livonia were supported by papal privileges. In 1171-1172, Pope Alexander III promised total absolution of sins to those who fell in battle against the Estonians and other pagans. Around 1195 a companion of Meinhard, the Cistercian Theoderic, obtained a crusade bull from the pope, as did Berthold later. In 1199 a crusade bull of Pope Innocent III gave to the crusaders in Livonia the same indulgence as was given to crusaders to the Holy Land. In order to facilitate the recruitment of crusaders, Bishop Albert consecrated Livonia and the cathedral built in Riga in 1202 to the Virgin Mary, a consecration that was approved by Innocent III in 1215.

During the first decade of the thirteenth century, Livonia became an accepted alternative destination to Outremer for crusaders from northern Europe. In 1202 Theoderic founded the military Order of the Sword Brethren (Ger. Schwert- brüder), which soon became an independent political power alongside the bishop and also a competitor in conquering territories. By 1207 the Livs were subdued and Christianized; the decisive factor was that one of their leaders, Caupo (d. 1217), had sided with the crusaders. The Lettgallians also supported the Christians of Riga against the Estonians in a new series of campaigns that began in 1208. The crusaders subdued the Estonian provinces one by one, gaining the upper hand over the Russian princes who were competing with them in conquering the territory. The attempts of the Estonians to form large coalitions against Rigans ended with defeats in battles at Treiden (mod. Turaida, Latvia) in 1211 and Fellin (mod. Viljandi, Estonia) in 1217.

The Danes sent a military expedition to Osel in 1206 and started to conquer northern Estonia in 1219, while Johan Sverkersson, king of Sweden, launched an unsuccessful campaign to western Estonia in 1220. The conquest was hampered by a dispute between German and Danish crusaders over the division of the conquered territories, which was further complicated by territorial disagreements between the church of Riga and the Sword Brethren. However, after an Estonian uprising in 1222 the crusaders were able to subdue mainland Estonia in 1224 and the island of Osel in 1227. The papal legate William of Modena visited Livonia in 1225-1226 with the task of settling the territorial disputes, but despite his decisions the Germans from Riga conquered all of the Danish territories.

In the southern part of Livonia, the Rigans occupied Kokenhusen in 1209, while Gerzike was forced into vassalage by the bishop of Riga. Eastern Lettgallia was finally subdued during the second half of the thirteenth century. Wars with varying success against the Selonians, Semgallians, and Curonians lasted almost up to 1300. In 1236 an army of the Sword Brethren, crusaders, and Russian troops from Pskov was severely defeated by Semgallians and Lithuanians at the battle of Saule. Thereafter the greatly weakened Sword Brethren were incorporated into the Teutonic Order, which also took over the Sword Brethren’s territories. According to the Treaty of Stensby, concluded in 1238, the king of Denmark regained possession of North Estonia. The Christian powers conquered all of what became southern Livonia during the second half of the thirteenth century, despite a major defeat at the battle of Durben (1260) by the Samogitians and Curonians and repeated uprisings in Semgallia, Curonia, and Osel. However, the southern and southeastern borders of Livonia were never quite secure.

Government and Institutions

Livonia had no internal political unity. In 1245-1246 Pope Innocent IV nominated Albert Suerbeer (d. 1273) as archbishop of Prussia, Livonia, and Estonia. His ecclesiastical province included all the Prussian and Livonian bishoprics except Reval (mod. Tallinn, Estonia), which remained a suffragan of the Danish archbishopric of Lund. The bishops (except for the bishop of Reval) were secular rulers in their own territories, but also exercised ecclesiastical jurisdiction over the lands of the Teutonic Order. The main institution through which the various Livonian states could cooperate was the diet (Ger. Landtag) where the order, the bishops, their vassals, and the larger towns were represented.

Although the diets came to be held quite regularly from the fifteenth century on, they did not develop into a centralizing institution, and the enforcement of their resolutions relied upon the will of the participants.

From the thirteenthto the fifteenth century, the main feature of Livonian politics was the Teutonic Order’s attempts to achieve hegemony and the resistance to this on the part of the archbishop of Riga, the Livonian bishops, and the town of Riga. Both sides repeatedly took their claims to the papal Curia, and there was intermittent warfare between 1297 and 1330. As a result of these wars, in which the enemies of the order were supported by the pagan Lithuanians, the town of Riga fell under the control of the Teutonic Order. In 1343-1345 there were revolts among the native Estonians in the Danish territories and in Osel-Wiek; in the course of suppressing the uprising, the Teutonic Order occupied North Estonia, which the king of Denmark sold to it in 1346. After further disputes, the cathedral chapter of Riga was incorporated into the Teutonic Order in 1393-1394. In 1396 the order conquered the bishopric of Dorpat, the last center of resistance in Livonia; the next year a meeting of all the Livonian powers held at Danzig ratified the order’s superiority in Livonia.

From the beginning of the fifteenth century, the Teutonic Order started to suffer defeats in its territories in Prussia, while the Livonian branch of the order was embroiled in internal conflicts. This situation enabled the cathedral chapter of Riga to return to its former Augustinian rule in 1426-1451, but thereafter it was again incorporated into the Teutonic Order. A treaty concluded in 1452 at Kirchholm (mod. Salaspils, Latvia) divided the lordship of the town of Riga between the order and the archbishop. This did not end the disputes or occasional outbreaks of violence over the ownership of the town.

The Teutonic Order in Livonia, like its branch in Prussia, was frequently at war with pagan Lithuania. Until the Christianization of Lithuania (1386), the order’s wars were considered as crusades, and Livonia was also visited by European noblemen who took part in the order’s campaigns. During the thirteenth century, attempts were also made from Livonia to expand the sphere of influence of the Roman Catholic Church eastward into the lands inhabited by the pagans of Votia and Ingria, leading to conflicts with Novgorod, in whose territory these lands lay (1240-1241, 1256). However, despite occasionally recurring military conflicts between Livonia and the Russian principalities, there was a balance of power on the eastern border of Livonia between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries.

This situation began to change during the second half of the fifteenth century, when the institutions of the crusade began to be used against schismatic Russia. In 1443-1448 the Teutonic Order fought against Novgorod, making use of the income from indulgences originally intended to support the union of the Latin and Greek churches. The pope approved this diversion of funds only after the end of the war. The balance of power changed when Novgorod became subject to the principality of Muscovy in the 1470s. In 1481 a Russian army raided the Livonian interior, something that had not happened for over a century. As the fear of the Russian threat developed in Livonia, a plan was made to gather money for war against Russia by the sale of indulgences. The preparations were time-consuming, and while Wolter von Plettenberg, Teutonic master of Livonia, fought against the Russians in 1501-1502, in Livonia money was gathered for the crusade against the Turks. However, Plet- tenberg was able to achieve some minor victories, and in September 1502 he won a victory near Lake Smolino. Thanks to the diplomatic support of Lithuania, an armistice was concluded in 1503 between Livonia and the Muscovite grand duke Ivan III Vassilevich, which basically recognized the status quo. The peace was prolonged with minor changes until 1554. After the end of the war, the pope permitted two campaigns to sell indulgences to support the war against the Russians. These campaigns were held in Livonia but mainly in Germany in 1503-1506 and 1507-1510.

In Livonia the preaching of the Reformation began toward the end of 1521, and over the next decades the Livonian towns became Protestant, while the nobility remained Roman Catholic until the first half of the sixteenth century. The Livonian branch of the Teutonic Order became independent after the secularization of the order in Prussia in 1525. Relations between the archbishop of Riga and the order were now oriented toward preserving a balance of power. In 1555 Archbishop Wilhelm von Brandenburg (1539-1563) named Christoph of Mecklenburg as his coadjutor and allied with the king of Poland, whereupon the order occupied the archbishopric in 1556. In 1557 the order concluded peace with the archbishop, at the price of acknowledging the coadjutor and forming an alliance against Muscovy with the Polish king. This alliance was insufficient to stave off the threat from the Russians, who had been making political demands on Livonia since 1554. In 1558 a Russian army conquered the eastern part of Livonia, including the bishopric of Dorpat. Under the last Teutonic master of Livonia, Gottfried Kettler, the possessions of the order and archbishop came under Polish control, and in 1561-1562 the order in Livonia was secularized. The town of Riga finally passed to Poland in 1582. The bishoprics of Osel-Wiek and Courland were sold by their last incumbent, Johannes von Münchhausen (died c. 1583), to the king of Denmark, who gave them to his brother Magnus, duke of Holstein (1540-1583). The town of Reval and the North Estonian nobility surrendered to the king of Sweden in 1561.

Society and Economy

The crusader conquest of the thirteenth century brought about significant changes in the social structure and economy of Livonia. The native elite partially perished in the fighting, but mainly they were forced down to a lower social level. Only a small number were included in the new social system. The new elite that was constituted after the conquest was made up of ministerial knights and gentry who came mostly from north Germany and Westphalia and founded Livonian vassal families. They often held possessions in different parts of Livonia at the same time.

Celibacy was the rule in the Teutonic Order and the other ecclesiastical institutions that ruled Livonia, and so there was continuous immigration from Germany to provide personnel. In the Livonian branch of the order, very few men were of Livonian origin; the majority of recruits came from Westphalia. The movement of people between the Prussian and Livonian branches of the order was small, although Prussians were strongly represented among the clergy of the order in Livonia. The cathedral chapters of the Livonian bishoprics were mainly drawn from members of the Livonian vassal families and from the sons of burgesses. Most of the cathedral canons originated from Livonia, while those of Prussian and north German origin were strongly represented. The secular clergy was apparently also mostly of Livonian origin. As the Teutonic Order tried to gain hegemony in Livonia, it attempted to influence episcopal elections and to appoint its own priests to the bishoprics. After the thirteenth century, most of the bishops came from Livonian vassal or burgess families; the exception was Reval, where the bishops were Danes until 1350. In the fifteenth century, three-quarters of the Livonian bishops were sons of burgesses, and almost half of them were of Livonian origin.

New institutions that arrived with the crusaders were the Christian Church and the towns. The first monastery to be founded in Livonia was the Cistercian house of Dünamünde (mod. Daugavgriva, Latvia), around 1205. It was followed by other Cistercian, Dominican, and Franciscan foundations. The network of rural parishes remained underdeveloped, especially in the southern areas. The foundation of towns in the thirteenth century was connected with merchants of Visby, Lübeck, and other German towns who were interested in good positions on the trade routes that led to the Russian centers of Novgorod, Pskov, and Smolensk. The basis of town life in Livonia was the Lübeck law-code, which was in force in Reval and the smaller towns of North Estonia, and the Riga law-code in the other Livonian towns. Only Riga, Reval, and Dorpat had any political importance; the small towns remained de facto under the control of their lords. The larger towns were also members of the Hanseatic League, with the exception of Narva, whose membership was blocked by Reval. In Hanseatic diets (Ger. Hansetage), the Livonian towns were represented by Riga, Reval, and Dorpat. In the sixteenth century, the percentage of town dwellers was about 7-10 percent in Livonia. About 10,000-15,000 people lived in Riga, 7,000-8,000 in Reval, and 5,000-6,000 in Dorpat [Norbert Angermann, “Die Bedeutung Livlands für die Hanse” in Die Hanse und der deutsche Osten, ed. Norbert Angermann (Lüneburg: Nordostdeutsches Kulturwerk, 1990), p. 98]. The population of the other towns was rarely more than 1,000. Besides the fortified towns there were many market villages (Ger. Hakelwerke) in Livonia, some of which had some urban features: Leal (mod. Lihula, Estonia), for example, did not possess urban law, yet it had a Cistercian nunnery, citizens, burgomaster, and a guild.

The elite of the Livonian towns was formed by the merchants who originally came from North Germany and Westphalia. Although a minority, they exercised power in community administration and monopolized the most prestigious and profitable professions (merchants and craftsmen with workshops). The majority of the urban inhabitants originated from among the local rural population. The key sign of social status was the linguistic difference between speakers of Middle Low German on the one hand and Estonian, Latvian, or Livic on the other: the upper classes were called “German” (Ger. Deutsch) and the common people “non-German” (Ger. Undeutsch). In Reval and Hapsal (mod. Haapsalu, Estonia) there was some population of Swedish origin, while in Narva and Dorpat there were some inhabitants who had come from Russia.

In Livonia, unlike Prussia, there was no colonization by German peasants; there was a number of Swedish peasants on the northern and western coasts of Estonia. Non-German peasants were the economic support of the social and political system. In the course of time their legal situation continuously deteriorated, especially from the fourteenth century onward. Through the medieval period the Latin texts use the word neophyti (neophytes) for the non-German peasants, and although the actual influence of Christianity on the medieval rural population has traditionally been considered as being relatively slight, some recent studies emphasize the substantial adoption of Christianity in its syncretistic popular forms. Peasants were burdened with payments in both cash and kind, as well as labor services. In the thirteenth-fourteenth centuries, peasants were still obliged to carry out military service, but later this obligation was replaced by payments. The peasantry was divided into many legal and social categories. The majority were hakenburen, among whom duties increased and serfdom developed most quickly. A small group of peasants, who may in part have been descendants of the preconquest elite, held their farms according to feudal tenure and were obliged to perform military or postal services. The development of serfdom by the end of fifteenth century led to conflicts between the nobility and the towns, which were keen to have immigration from the countryside to provide workmen. In the towns the deterioration of the situation of the non-Germans occurred in conjunction with the development of serfdom in the countryside.

The basis of the Livonian economy was agriculture. The production of cereals (rye) was the main agricultural activity, although their export was largely local and sporadic until the fourteenth century. It was only from the end of the fifteenth century that cereals became an important and regular export article to western Europe. The economic role of the larger towns was to act as intermediaries in the Russian trade of the Hanseatic League. Until about 1400, Riga was the main trade center for Lithuania, as Reval was for Finland and the regions around the Gulf of Bothnia. The main import article was salt, most of which was taken on into Russia. Other articles exported to Russia were cloth, luxury goods, wine, precious metals, and salted fish. The main goods exported to western Europe were furs and wax. By the fifteenth century at the latest, the Hanseatic Kontor (commercial enclave) in Novgorod was under the actual control of the Livonian towns. TheKontor was closed during the crisis in Livonian-Russian relations in 1494-1514 and did not regain its earlier importance after that. The medieval trading system of Livonia was transformed during the time of continuous warfare in the second half of the sixteenth century, when many Livonian towns were ruined and non-Hanseatic trade and shipping became dominant in the Baltic region.

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