By Katy Miller-Korpi
Maps: Andersen A., Livonian
Brothers of the Sword, http://www.conflicts.rem33.com/images/The%20Baltic%20States/schwertbruederorden.htm
Atlas of World History, London, 2000
F.W., Historischer Schul-Atlas,
Livonian Confederation was a loosely organized alliance between the Roman
Catholic Church, crusading German knights, German merchants, vassals, cities
and existing indigenous peoples in the area which is now Latvia and Estonia. In the late 12th century
a German monk, Father Meinhard, came to the area
with both spiritual and economic ambitions. His goal was to bring
Christianity, in the form of Roman Catholicism, to the tribal peoples. Also, the
value of the strategic location of the Baltic area between the Roman Catholic
world and the Byzantine world, and the possibility for economic exploitation
of this region was not lost on the powers of the Roman Catholic Church.
Following Father Meinhard, the Confederation
existed for almost three and a half centuries. In 1561, as a result of the
invasion of Ivan IV and internal political instability, the Confederation
came to an end and its lands were divided amongst the surrounding countries.
The Baltic Germans did however, establish themselves
as the ruling, elite class which held ramifications for this region even into
the twentieth century.
strategic location of the Baltic areas has made them a prime target for other
nations’ expansionist ambitions. With shores on the Baltic sea and important
rivers such as the Daugava in Latvia, commerce was one of the
prime attributes this region had to offer. Prior to the coming of the Germans
in the 12th Century, the Vikings developed trade routes through these areas
to Russia and Byzantium. Even after
the Viking era came to an end, the connection to the east was used by the
native population in their own trade ventures. Besides providing an access to
the east these areas had natural resources that were desirable to foreign
marketers. Amber found on the shores of the Baltic Sea,
along with wax, the by-product of bee-keeping, grains, fur and forest
products needed for ship building, were some of the natural resources that
attracted merchants to this region.
diverse tribes of people lived in this region. The Estonians were in the
northern region, and in the middle and southern sections of the region were
the Livs, Lettgallians, Selonians, Semigallians and the
Couronians. These tribes existed as separate entities
and all lacked a real hierarchical structure, which made them more
susceptible to conquest. Of these peoples, the Estonians and the Livs spoke Finno-Ugric languages while the tribes in the
south spoke Indo-European languages. The diversity of language increased the
difficulty for these peoples to form alliances.
ancient religion in this area took the form of animism and ancestor worship.
First contact with Christianity appears to have been through the missionary
activity emanating from Constantinople.
Unlike the Roman church, the missionaries from Constantinople
did not come with political ambition or military might. The missionaries
themselves were not tied to the aspirations of their emperor or patriarch.
These men lived simple lives in huts, often learning the language of the
natives in order to win them to the faith. In Estonia there is evidence that
all strata of Estonian communities had been impacted by these early contacts
The Coming of the Roman Catholic Church and the Crusades
in the form of Roman Catholicism was first brought to the Baltic littoral by
a German priest, Father Meinhard around 1160.
Father Meinhard’s objective was to convert the
"pagan" Livs and establish a foothold for
the Roman Catholic church in the region. Proclaimed the first Bishop of Ikskile, Father Meinhard establish his first church at the mouth of the Daugava
River. His attempts to
win over the Livs were not met with success. In an
attempt to entice them into the faith, he commissioned the building of a
castle to provide the native population with a stronger fortified position.
In return, the Livs were baptized in the Daugava
River. However, this
conversion was short lived, and legend has that after the castle was
completed the local population returned to the Daugava
to wash their baptism off. These failures convinced Meinhard
that a more aggressive approach was needed. This came in the form of the the first Baltic crusade sanctioned by Pope Innocent III.
Meinhard was followed by the second Bishop of Ikskile, Bishop Berthold in 1198. Berthold arrived with a
contingent of German soldiers. These soldiers were given indulgences by the
Pope in payment for their taking part in the crusade. Past debts forgiven and
the promise of land were some of the inducements offered to these men. With the
intent of forcibly converting the Livs, Berthold
took an active role in the fighting and was killed before his first year as
Bishop was completed. Berthold was replaced by Albert von Buxhovden
Albert proved to be a better strategist and politician than his predecessors.
He was able to succeed in the conversion and subjugation of the native
populations. Unlike Berthold, Albert employed a more tactical method to
reaching his goals. Albert’s strategy in converting the Livs
included the taking of hostages. Approximately thirty men from Liv villages were abducted and shipped to Germany to be
educated in the doctrines of the Catholic Church and the ideology of the
west. Albert made a total of thirteen trips back to Germany to
recruit soldiers for his crusades. To these knights Albert gave land grants
called "fiefs" which established the presence of German landholders
and vassals in the Baltic littoral that lasted for hundreds of years.
1201 Albert began the construction of the city of Riga. Albert used Riga as the center of trade and military
expansion. The location of the Baltic littoral was of prime significance for
the monetary and political objective of the Catholic Church. The play for
power over these issues was a constant destabilizing factor amongst the
church, the soldiers and the cities. One of the indicators that unification
was never established was found in the coinage used. Each group had their own
coins minted with different weights and silver content (Urban, Medieval
Numismatics). German merchants in the cities increased their economic
power base by joining the Hansa
League. The League regulated trade and trade issues for ports and
merchants throughout the region of the Baltic sea.
Riga became a
member in 1282.
order to unite and control the various factions of the German military forces
Albert founded the "Swordbrothers" order of knights. Pope Innocent
III confirmed the order in 1204. With the aid of the Swordbrothers,
Albert was able to subdue the Livs in 1207. With
their subjugation came a new tax base for the Catholic church and soldiers
for the conquest of the remaining tribes. In 1209 the Swordbrothers
conquered the Selonians. Because the Selonians had major control over the trade on the Daugava, they were an important addition to the growing
confederation. With these two tribes subdued, Albert and the Swordbrothers set their sights to the rest of the Baltic
1208 to 1227 the Swordbrothers fought with the
remaining tribes. The loose configuration of the tribes helped to undermine
their efforts to repel the advances of the Swordbrothers.
In 1214 the Lettgallians fell, leaving the
Estonians as one of the last remaining strongholds of native populations. The
Estonians turned to Russia
for support against the German onslaught, and in response Albert turned to Valdemar II of Denmark to assist him in his
final push for military domination. In 1219 Danish forces took control of
With their superior military technology and greater military numbers, the
Germans and the Danes were able to overpower the Estonians. The last
remaining northern stronghold existed on the island of Saaremaa.
The tenacity of the Estonians living on this natural island fortress thwarted
the military advances of the Germans and the Danes. In 1220 the Swedes
attempted to establish themselves on the island of Läänemaa, but were
decimated by the Saaremaa Estonians. All of the Estonian territories, including
Saaremaa, were subdued by 1227. In 1229
Albert died leaving the Couronian and Semigallian tribes yet to be conquered.
1236 new recruits to the order arrived in Livonia
Eager to engage in conquest, they unadvisably
ventured into the southern regions of the Semigallians
in an attempt to bring this tribe into the Confederation. The experienced
members of the order had advised the new recruits against waging warfare in
the southern region during the summer. The Semigallians
lived in an area of marshes. This terrain enabled them to wage a guerilla-style warfare against the German knights. If
the recruits had followed the advice of the more experienced crusaders and
waited until winter when the marshes froze over, they may have been able to achieve
their goal. Instead, they suffered catastrophic losses and almost all the
German soldiers were killed. This defeat brought about the end of the order
of the Swordbrothers. To recoup, the remaining
knights joined with the Teutonic Knights
to form the Livonian Order of the Teutonic Knights. This order helped to
maintain stability within the confederation by squelching uprisings of native
populations. Their defeat by the Lithuanians and Russians in the late 15th
century brought Teutonic expansion to an end.
Political and Social Structure
crusaders were never able to capture the lands and tribe in what is now Lithuania.
The subjugation of the Couronians occurred between
1230 and 1231. The Semigallians were able to resist
would be conquerors until 1264. With their defeat, the boundaries of
the Livonian Confederation were set, and the Germans established themselves
as the ruling elite. In the rural areas, the knights who had been given land
became the new nobility. In the cities, the bishops, merchants and ruling
members of the order were the power holders. Also, within the ranks of the
German community were the clergy. These men were usually new recruits from Germany. They
lived in both cities and rural areas. Many of these men were employed by the
landed gentry on their estates. Thus, they had a vested interest in their
employer’s prosperity rather than in social justice or the spiritual well
being of the native peoples. For the most part, these men held no significant
power within the structure of society.
the various tribes were conquered, tribal leaders were established as vassals
and given small portions of land in return for their military service to the
Germans. In the native populations some peasants had small amounts of land,
or enough money to buy exemption from taxation. For the first time, the
development of an artisan class was also emerging in the rural areas. For
these men, their craft was able to keep them free from obligation and loss of
economic freedom. The majority of the natives, though, fell into the category
of landless peasants. For most of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries
peasants were not enserfed (hereditarily tied to a
specific estate). They were able to rent or own small farms on the property
of the larger manors. The peasant farmers would work not only their own small
plot of land, but worked the land of the overlord as well. Besides payment by
physical labor, most peasants were required to pay rent, sometimes twice a
year. By the end of the fifteenth century the increasing tax burden on the
small peasant farms resulted in their being swallowed up by the surrounding
estates. Increased restrictions and the burden of debt often became too great
for the over-worked peasants. For some, this set the stage for hereditary enserfment. For others, the cities offered relief from
the harsh life in the country and the burden of debt to the vassal overlords.
Those who were able to take refuge within the cities found employment as
artisans, crafts people, and in various support positions. With the influx of
indigenous peoples to the cities, came also another source of destabilization
of the city’s social and political structure.
estate owner’s ability to exert control over the peasants was tempered by the
sheer numbers of the peasant population. Although they could not command a
peasant to pursue a course of action, such as marriage, the owners could use their
power as a means of influence by refusing their permission. Also, estate
owners did not have the authority to break up families through land
redistribution. For the most part, they did not interfere with peasant
customs unless they came into direct conflict with their estate’s economic
requirements. They did however, have the right to mete out corporal
punishment, but excessive abuse was not generally approved. Livonian land
owners spoke either German, while the native populations spoke their own languages.
This diversity of language enabled the peasant either to ignore or disregard
the orders of his overlord. Even with the threat of punishment, this was one
way in which the peasant could exercise a small amount of control over his
over territory was the driving political agenda for the church, the Livonian
Order, the cities and the vassals. Power struggles between these groups
helped to determine the course of the confederation and undermine its
stability. In the thirteenth century, as new territories were acquired, the
formula for dispersing the lands was one-third to the Livonian Order and the
remaining two-thirds to the church. However, this was more theory than
practice. In actuality, the Order acquired more than their designated allotment,
and thus controlled more lands than the church.
the later half of the thirteenth century onward,
cities became an important political and economic base of influence. Both the
Archbishop of the Catholic Church and the Master of the Livonian Order had
residences in Riga.
This close proximity of the two most powerful forces in the confederation
lent itself to constant dispute and disruption of society. As the prosperity
increased, the issue of control also increased. From 1297 until 1330 the city
siding with the Archbishop, was at war with the order. Other cities grew up
within the confederation and were assigned bishops, thereby increasing the
control of the church.
an attempt to resolve the conflicts between the power holders, at the
suggestion of the Archbishop of Riga, the Livonian diet (Landtag
in German) was formed in 1419. Those who comprised the diet were the
Archbishop, Livonian Bishops, the ruling members of the Livonian Order, all
vassals, and finally, representatives of the Livonian cities. Their attempts
to find resolution to their differences were not successful. The
consolidation of power was never achieved. In the end, the Livonian Diet did
not have any significant impact on the course of the confederation.
The Reformation and the Currents of Change
Reformation was in a sense the beginning of the end of the Livonian
Confederation. The already unstable political and military condition was
exacerbated by the changes brought by the Reformation. The transition from
Catholicism as the main form of Christianity to Lutheranism was not a
grass-roots movement. Three influential men of Riga were the first proponents of this new
form of faith. One of these men, Sylvester Tegetmeier
(d. 1560), has been called the "Father of the Livonian
Reformation"(Packull, p.343) because of the
crucial role he played in the transmission of this new ideology. With Tegetmeier were Johann Lohmiller
(d. 1560) and Andreas Knopken (d. 1593). The zeal
of the reformers and their followers not only wreaked havoc on the properties
of the Catholic church in Riga, but also set in motion the upheaval of one of
the major Livonian powers.
were the conditions that allowed the Reformation to take hold in Livonia? The political
powers and economic control of the Catholic church had created manyadversaries within the ranks of the Vassals.
Merchants, property owners and artisans in the city of Riga also resented the appropriation of
their assets by the church. The issues of money and power, not faith, were
the flames that fueled religious change. By 1550 Lutheranism held the upper
hand in Livonia.
the peasants of Livonia
there was really no choice over what form of Christianity they participated
in. For the peasant on the manor, those decisions came from the top down.
Peasants were required to attend church on fear of reprisal. For most, their
lives were still governed by a mixture of pagan and Christian practices. One
of the tenets of the Lutheran church is having the Word of God accessible in
the language of the native populations. As early as the 1520’s, the first
Latvian Language congregation was founded in Riga. The Reformation brought with it the undercurrent
of change for the common man, although not realized at the time. The
importance placed on the individual language of a people also communicates a
value for each individual. Belief in this concept has been instrumental in
the pursuit of freedom by serf and slave the world over.
The End of the Livonian Confederation
territories that comprised the Livonian Confederation had always held an
attraction to foreign powers. The sea ports and the commerce they brought,
and the stable agrarian economy with a strong work force were factors that
appealed to Livonia’s
neighbors. By the sixteenth century the surrounding countries were
solidifying their power structure and looking for ways to expand their
territories. The weakened Livonian Confederation was a prime target for these
ambitions. In the east, in the area of Russia
known as Muscovy, Ivan IV (Ivan the Terrible) set his sights on Livonia. Sweden, across the sea to the west, also
a prime candidate for their hopes of expansion. Finally, in the south, Poland, which
was nearing unification with the Lithuanian Grand Duchy, was looking for a
means to broaden its sphere of power. In 1558 Ivan IV was the first to make a
move by taking the two northern cities of Narva and
action allowed the other powers the opportunity to intervene. In 1560 Ivan
dealt a crippling blow to the Livonian Order in the Battle of Ergeme. Chaos ruled the confederation as peasants took
the opportunity to rise up against their overlords, and the various territories
looked for protection from their stronger neighbors. When the dust had
cleared, The Germans in the northern region of Estonia
sought protection and came under the jurisdiction of Sweden. The
territories not under Russian rule ceded themselves to Poland and Lithuania,
and some of the territories in Courland went
to the Danes. By 1561 the Livonian Confederation was essentially disbanded.
factors aided the ultimate demise of the Confederation. The Reformation had
weakened the power base of the Catholic church. The constant struggle for land
and power had undermined any attempt for unification of the various power
holders that might have strengthened the chances for survival. Forced
subjugation of the various tribes and language groups created an environment
ripe for revolt. Finally, the main fighting force, the Teutonic Knights, was
never to regain its former strength after its losses to Poland-Lithuania.
legacy of this almost 350 year rule by Germans over the native populations of
Latvia and Estonia left
a lasting legacy of animosity between these peoples. For centuries following
the Livonian Confederation, ethnic Germans occupied the elite positions in
these societies. Even into the nineteenth century, if a Latvian or Estonian
had the opportunity to improve his economic position it would mean
assimilation into the German speaking community. It wasn’t until the end of
the nineteenth century that Latvian and Estonian nationalistic movements
challenged the social structure of their societies. In the 1940s it was on
the basis of past German rule and presence in the Baltic countries that
Hitler claimed a right to these lands.
James A. The Chronicle of Henry of Livonia,
A Translation With Introduction and Notes, Vail-Ballou
Press, Inc., United States,
Primary source with informative introduction and footnotes.
Andres. Characteristics of Warfare in the Times of Henry of Livonia and Balthasar Russow, Lithuanus, The Lithuanian Quarterly, Volume 36, No. 1,
Goes into the nature of the social structure especially regarding the
Werner O..Sylvester Tegetmeier,
Father of the Livonian Reformation: A Fragment of His Diary, Journal of
Baltic Studies, Vol. IXVI, No. 4, Winter 1985.
Charts the path of the Reformation specifically in the cities. Goes into the
economic implications of the Reformation.
Andrejs. The Latvians, A Short History, Hoover Institution Press, Stanford, Calif.
Information regarding the crusader in the formation of the Livonian
Toivo U., Estonia and the Estonians, Hoover Institution Press, Stanford, Calif.
Good basic historic information from the perspective of Estonian history.
6. Winter, William L. The
Baltic as a Common Frontier of Eastern and Western Europe in the Middle Ages,
Lithuanus, The Lithuanian Quarterly, Volume 19,
No. 4, Winter 1973
Overview of society, economics and political structure of the Baltic
countries during the medieval time.
http://members.tripod.com/~Essays/history/BALTICS.TXT, "The Baltics: Nationalities and Other Problems"
Some mention of the Danes in Estonia
and the Teutonic Knights. Tries to trace the ethnic background for the
Latvians and the Lithuanians. The bibliography holds some hope for textual
"Medieval Livonian Numismatics"
Through the tracing of Livonian coins assumptions can be drawn on the nature
the Confederation. Both economic and trade issues between the various regions
are discussed. This was my best source of information. The reference page has
many article references that will useful in locating more information.
http://www.latnet.lv/info_Latvia/History.html#Middle Ages,"History of Latvia"
Basic history of Latvia. One paragraph dealing with the crusades. Touches on
the social and economic structure of the Confederation.
published at http://depts.washington.edu/baltic/papers/
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