Interreg V-A — Estonia–Latvia

Livonia - land and inhabitants


Livonia was an alliance of countries run by the Roman Catholic Church after the crusades that were organised during the 13th century.  In legal terms, it was only established in the late 15th century after a long-lasting battle among the archbishopric of Rīga, the Livonian Order of Knights and the city of Rīga.  The name of Livonia initially represented the territory that was populated by the Liv people.  During the 13th century, there were 400 to 500 knights who lived in Livonia, with the number shrinking to 195 knights in 1451.  The territory of Livonia covered two-thirds of Kurzeme, all of Zemgale, one-third of Vidzeme and Latgale, and most of Estonia.  The country was divided up into 25-28 administrative districts with approximately 60 stone castles.

The Livonian Order

The Livonian Order was a branch of the Teutonic or German Order.  Teutonic knights were directly subordinated to the pope, which means that it could be seen as a Roman Catholic army.  The word "order" comes from the Latin ordo, which refers to mandatory procedures that are traditional or based on written rules.  The slogan of the German Order included universal principles of Christian life:  "Helping sick and poor people, guarding the Christian church and disabled people, and healing sick people and our own souls." In 1237, the remains of the Order of Brethren of the Sword were added to the German order after a loss in a battle with Lithuanians, thus establishing the Livonian branch of the order.  The Brethren of the Sword were known as quarrelsome knights.

Conquering Baltic lands

The brethren of the German Order arrived at the lands that were alongside the Baltic Sea in 1230, starting to subject Prussian lands to Christianity.  In 1234, the pope proclaimed that all of the Prussian lands belonged to the throne of the pope in Rome.  The knights acted just like Baltic tribes during wars, pillaging the property of the enemy, destroying fortifications, killing men and taking women and children hostage.  Still, the order never tried to destroy all pagans.  Local tribes successfully opposed them, with the knights being defeated in all major battles during the 13th century, including the battle of Siauliai in 1236 and the battle of Durbe in 1260, when the forces of the knights were all but destroyed.  After the battle of Durbe, residents of southern Kurzeme abandoned Christianity and launched a war against the order.

A peace treaty between Courlandians and the Livonian Order

The council of seniors of the Courlandian territory concluded a peace treaty with the Livonian Order in 1267.  Rebellious Courlandians were forced to take part in the construction of castles for one month each year.  They did not lose their personal freedom or property rights, and the rule was that the Courlandians could inherit any unowned land which they settled.  The only form of subordination related to paying money to the rulers and engaging in indentured servitude.  Farms with one horse had to contribute approximately 140 litres of grain each year, and each Courlandian had to spend two days each summer to harvest hay on behalf of the brethren of the order, as well as two days each winter to prepare firewood.  Like all Christians, the Courlandians had to support clergymen by contributing one-tenth of their hunted animals, fish and honey.  A special privilege that should have encouraged the Courlandians in their battle against pagans was their liberation from having to turn over one-tenth of their war booty to the order.  They were also allowed to keep two-thirds of any cargo from sunken ships that floated ashore.

Christianity and paganism

Christian aristocrats respected the inviolability of ancient sacred grounds.  A document from 1252 says that firewood could be chopped in any forest except a sacred forest for the needs of clergymen.  One year later, an agreement on dividing up Kurzeme between the order and the bishop stated that sacred forests and the sacred lake of Pape would not be divided up.  That means that in line with pagan traditions, sacred forests were the place where departed spirits and female goddesses resided, and human activity was totally prohibited there.  Destruction of pagan sacred locations was mentioned in Latvia for the first time only during the 17th century.  During the Livonian period, locations were "re-Christened" by building chapels or churches alongside them.

The lives of the brethren

Members of the Livonian Order lived in small communities or convents in castles.  Officials who managed the convents were also bosses of districts and commanders of military units.  The castles were ascetic fortifications which, in visual and functional terms, could be described as armed cloisters.  The largest ones in Latvia were in Cēsis, Rīga and Kuldīga.  The brethren spent at least five hours a day at prayer and at worship services.  All issues that affected the life of the community were discussed by the brethren.  They joined together in meals in the dining room and slept in a single bedroom or dormitory.  The food was humble, mostly bread, porridge, salted meat and beer.  Larger castles also had infirmaries to treat sick people irrespective of their caste or their financial status.  Brethren who lied, tattled, ignored fasting periods or behaved violently toward secular people were punished with imprisonment and flogging.  The most serious punishments involved expulsion from the order, and this applied to brethren who fled a battlefield, mocked God or were homosexuals.  Expelled brethren spent the rest of their lives in prison or in poverty.  Local residents, in turn, could become members of the order.

The Reformation and the beginning of the end of Livonia

Reformation during the 1520s led to political and social changes in Livonia, as well as different ideas and values.  This destroyed the Livonian order and the public system.  After 40 years of war, moral turpitude, denial of religion and chaotic political intrigues, a totally new political force that was impossible in the land of the order emerged -- the German aristocracy.  It proudly declared itself to be a community of knights, though the truth is that its success was based on a betrayal of the ideals of true knights.  The new ideal was a wealthy person who did not do physical work and could satisfy all of his ideals.  Closest to this ideal were aristocrats in the archbishopric of Rīga, and men who leased land from the order tried to compare themselves to the noblemen.  Such men dreamed of taking private ownership over leased land that would be processed by indentured servants.

Wars and intrigues weakening Livonia

A massive army sent by Tsar Ivan the Terrible from Muscovy invaded Livonia in 1558.  The tsar's armies were far weaker than the Livonians, and the forces of the order and the archbishopric would have been able to repel the forces that sought to pillage and grab land on behalf of Ivan if only the invasion had not been used as an ideal conspiracy by knights of the order who were traitorous.  They were led by Gotthard Kettler from the Daugavpils, who became a master via intrigue and promises that people could easily obtain property, and this hindered the military activities of the Livonians against the Muscovites.  In August 1559, Kettler and the Polish king concluded a mutual defence agreement, allowing the king to use the most important castles of the order in return for military assistance.  A secret codicil to the agreement said that Kettler would receive all of Livonia or a part thereof as a secular duchy in return for his readiness to sell his soul to the Poles.

The end of the Livonian Oder

The legal end to the Livonian Order came on November 28, 1561, when Livonia became a province of the Polish-Lithuanian Empire, and Gotthard Kettler became the local ruler of the Lutheran king.  He was subordinated to the Polish state and was known as a duke.  On the same date, the Polish king approved demands from Livonian aristocrats -- the so-called privilege of Sigismund August, which ensured German hegemony in the territory, jobs in the governance system and the courts, and confirmed ownership of the old properties of the noblemen.  Later Kettler liberated the aristocrats from taxes and their legal authority over farmers, proclaiming that the estates were fully the private property of the noblemen.  Kettler was very generous when it came to his fans and civil servants, handing out the land of the order and the farmers with all of the farmers.  By the end of the century, the state owned less than one-third of the land that it had possessed in the mid-16th century.

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