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Estonia - Early History - 1200-1710

Estonia's struggles for independence during the twentieth century were in large part a reaction to nearly 700 years of foreign rule. Before 1200 the Estonians lived largely as free peasants loosely organized into parishes (kihelkonnad ), which in turn were grouped into counties (maakonnad ). In the early 1200s, the Estonians and the Latvians came under assault from German crusaders seeking to impose Christianity on them. Although the Estonians' resistance to the Teutonic Knights lasted some twenty years, the lack of a centralized political organization as well as inferior weaponry eventually brought down the Estonians in 1227.

The Germans, moving from the south, were abetted by Danish forces that invaded from the north and captured Tallinn. Together with present-day Latvia, the region became known as Livonia; the Germans and Danes settled down as nobility, and the Estonians were progressively subordinated as serfs. The first settlers in the territory of modern Latvia were Livonians, or "Libiesi." Whereas the Latvians originated from the Indo-European family, the Livonians were akin to the Estonians and the Finns and formed a part of the Finno-Ugric complex of nations. The Livonians were once heavily concentrated in the northern part of Latvia's present-day provinces of Kurzeme and Vidzeme, but today only about 100 individuals retain their ancient language.

Livonia was little known to the rest of Europe till 1158, when some merchants of Bremen, on their way to Wisby, in Gothland, in search of new sources of commerce, were thrown upon the coasts of Livonia. The country was afterwards frequently visited by the people of Bremen, who soon formed settlements there. An Augustine friar, Meinhard, with other Germans, emigrated thither about 28 years after. He converted the inhabitants to Christianity, and was their first bishop.

The third bishop after him, by name Albert, who advanced as far as the Dwina, first firmly established the foundations of the spiritual authority. He built the city of Riga, in the year 1200, and made it the see of the bishopric. At the close of this century, the Danish king, Canute VI, made himself master of these provinces, which were, however, given up by his successor, Wladimir III, for a sum of money, to the Teutonic knights, with whom the order of Brethren of the Sword, founded by Albert, in 1201, had been united, so that the dominion of the Teutonic order comprehended all the four provinces pf Livonia, Esthonia, Courland and Semigallia. The Teutonic order was, however, too weak to hold them against the Russian czar, John II Wasiliwitch, who was bent upon reuniting them with the Russian empire, and the state was dissolved.

Esthonia then placed itself under the protection of Sweden; Livonia was united to Poland; and Courland, with Semigallia, became a duchy, under Polish protection, which the last grand master of the Teutonic order held as a Polish fief. During 1343-45 an Estonian peasant uprising against the German and Danish nobility prompted the Danes to relinquish their control of northern Estonia to the Germans. After this resistance was crushed, the area remained generally peaceful for two centuries.

Commerce developed rapidly because Estonia's larger urban centers at the time -- Tallinn, Tartu, Pärnu, and Narva -- were all members of the Hanseatic League, an organization established by merchants of various, mostly German, cities to protect their mutual trading interests. Still, foreign rivalries over the strategic Livonian region began to reemerge in the mid-sixteenth century as the fighting capacity of the Germans diminished and that of neighboring Muscovy began to increase. The ensuing twenty-five-year struggle for control of Livonia was precipitated by an invasion by Ivan IV (the Terrible) (r. 1533-84) in 1558. The advancing Russians wiped out the disintegrating forces of the Teutonic Knights and nearly succeeded in conquering the whole area. However, Swedish and Polish intervention reversed the Russian gains and forced Ivan eastward, back behind Lake Peipsi. Peace between Sweden and Poland in Livonia was also slow in coming, with Sweden eventually winning most of the territory by 1629. By this time, decades of war had caused huge population losses (in some areas, over 50 percent), affecting urban and rural areas alike.

Under Swedish rule, northern Estonia was incorporated into the Duchy of Estland. The southern part, together with northern Latvia, became known as Livland. This division of Estonian lands would last until 1917. The German-based nobility in both areas retained and even strengthened its position under Swedish suzerainty. Meanwhile, the Estonian peasants saw their lot worsen as more and more of their land and output were appropriated by seigniorial estates. Still, during the Swedish era, Estonian education got its start with the founding of Tartu University in 1632 and the establishment of the first Estonian parish schools in the 1680s. Although the population also began to grow during this period of peace, war and suffering once again were not far away. Swedish hegemony during the late seventeenth century had become overextended, making the Swedes' holdings a prime target for a newly expansionist Russia.

The Russian provinces upon the Baltic, viz. Livonia, Esthonia, Courland and Semigallia, early belonged to the Russian states, as tributaries, while they retained their own institutions, and were never protected by the Russians from hostile inroads. During the period when the Russian empire was in a state of confusion, they became independent, but were again reduced to subjection by Peter the Great.

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Page last modified: 06-11-2012 17:15:15 ZULU