Development of towns in the 14th–15th centuries. Church life in towns

Despite the above-mentioned problems and setbacks which affected entire Livonia, the towns probably developed rather stably. Starting from the first half of the 14th century, life in towns can be more easily followed in written sources (the surviving material, however, mostly concerns medieval Tallinn). The number of citizens increased, fortifications and networks of streets were built. Taking German towns as an example, Livonian towns were ruled by town councils that consisted of burgomasters and councillors who came from the uppermost strata of the town merchants. The number of town council members depended on the town’s size: new members were co-opted when necessary. The council was the highest judicial organ in town, taking care also of communal and welfare problems, confirming real estate, inheritance and rental transactions and representing, through its messengers, the town in matters of external policy, especially in solving economic issues with other towns. From the point of view of legislation, it should be mentioned that the town law was not in force in the Tallinn Toompea (in the castle initially belonging to the Danish vice-regent, later the Order’s castle) or in the Tartu Episcopal castle where local land law was used.

During the 14th century, the guilds and merchant associations, and religious brotherhoods began to play a significant role in town life. The rudiments of such associations probably emerged already in the 13th century, but there is no written proof of that. Both in Tallinn and Tartu, Great Guilds were established for merchants and smaller guilds uniting artisans. The guild statutes that strictly regulated their life, especially their common parties and religious ceremonies, had to be confirmed by the Town Council. The citizens’ associations were thus under constant control of the council. The latter paid more attention to the opinions of associations consisting of wealthier citizens. Very little documentary material has survived about the religious brotherhoods. Of some, only the name is known (brotherhoods of Corpus Christi, St. Anne, St. Mary, Job, 10 000 Knights, St. Gertrud, St. Victor, Rochus). Professional corporations had the function of religious brotherhoods as well.

The Brotherhoods of Blackheads in Livonian towns were unique phenomena in the entire Europe. These were associations of bachelor merchants which functioned in Tallinn, Tartu and Riga. It can be assumed that they were formed in the late 14th century and might have been inspired by the so-called Castle Blackheads who had the duty to serve and protect the castles of the Order and bishops. The origin of the Blackheads’ name has not yet been clarified, but it has probably nothing to do with the image of the dark-skinned St. Mauritius, the brotherhood’s patron saint.

From the 14th century onwards, the life of the major Livonian trading towns was increasingly determined by the Hanseatic League. This association of German trading towns played the leading role in Baltic and North Sea trading and in commercial ties with Novgorod during the 13th–16th centuries. Of Estonian areas, Tallinn, Tartu, Viljandi and Pärnu belonged to the League. Tallinn and Tartu contributed especially to the enhancement and protection of trade and sent their representatives to the Hanseatic diets. One of the most remarkable undertakings of the League in the 1360s was the Hansa’s war with Denmark which broke out because of Danish attempts to restrict the privileges of the League’s merchants on its territory. The war started with Denmark conquering and ravaging Visby which was also meant as an act against Sweden. The Hanseatic towns, including Tallinn, collected a special tax collected on each pound of transported goods and set up a unified navy. The war ended with the League’s victory, and Tallinn profited from the fall of Visby, because of its increased share in the transit trade with Russia.

The economic development of the Livonian towns, especially Tallinn, can be followed in more detail from the first half of the 15th century. This is partly due to the fact that at that time the amount of written administrative and business transactions increased notably: there are the town council’s account books and rent rolls, correspondence with other towns, primarily with League members, but also with landowners. These sources reveal the considerable economic and political independence of towns.

Some separate undertakings also bear witness to economic success. One example was the founding of the Pirita monastery near Tallinn in 1407. It was established on the initiative of the citizens of Tallinn who took the St. Bridget monastery in Vadstena in South Sweden as a model. The monastery was primarily meant for the unmarried daughters and widows of merchants. The abbey, larger than any church in Tallinn, was consecrated in 1435. The Cistercian St. Michael’s nunnery within the Tallinn town walls had been built already in the mid-13th century, but its occupants mainly came from the Harju–Viru nobility. The Pirita monastery could therefore be regarded not only as a sign of the growing self-confidence of the merchants and the popularity of the cult of the saints, but also as an attempt to solve a specific problem of the citizens, especially of the merchants — to guarantee the widows and unmarried daughters a life suitable for their status.

Due to the shortage of surviving pre-Reformation period materials, not much is known about Livonian church life. The political activity of bishops and cathedral chapters is rather better known, as are the economic affairs of the church as a whole which are also reflected in secular documents. By the second half of the 15th century, Estonian areas had Cistercian monasteries in Padise, Kärkna, Tallinn and Lihula; Dominican friaries in Tallinn and Tartu; Franciscan friaries in Tartu, Viljandi and Rakvere, and the Birgitins in Tallinn who obeyed St. Augustine’s rule. As mentioned above, various orders that were widespread in Western Europe, e.g. the Benedictines, Carthusians etc., never reached Estonia. The economic foundation of the country was evidently not strong enough to maintain a large number of monasteries. And the Benedictine order, for example, happened to be at low ebb in the 13th century when it would have been the best time for missionary activities in Livonia.

Considering the patron saints of churches and altars, medieval Estonia mostly venerated the saints who were popular in the Hanseatic region, and the favourite saints of the Teutonic Order (St. Mary, St. Nicholas, St. George, St. Catherine, St. Anthony, St. Barbara etc.). More data is available about church life in towns which was quite similar to that in German towns, like indeed the entire municipal administration. The guilds and brotherhoods were closely connected with the church, their members jointly attended services, maintained one or more altars or clergymen, and bought the necessary sacred vessels and altarpieces. The conflicts between the mendicant friars and parish clergy, quite analogous with similar conflicts in Western Europe. The popularity of the mendicants amongst people from very different social backgrounds sometimes led to fierce conflicts, the most well-known of which was the Tallinn school dispute where the Dominicans and the cathedral chapter argued for years about the right to run a school for laymen.

The financial system of the church in towns (more precise data is again available about Tallinn) increasingly intermingled with that of the whole town. The capital donated to the church by citizens or corporations earned interest which was then used according to the wishes of the donator (maintaining the clergy, acquiring property for the church, supporting a family member of a donator, etc.). Since similar financial dealings were only valid after being confirmed by the town council, the control of the council over church duly increased.

There is little information about the religious life of Estonians, but it may be assumed that the Catholic church took rather a keen interest in the non-Germans, at least in the towns. In all churches of Tallinn, besides Low German, sermons were also preached in Estonian. Not much is known about other towns, but the situation there was probably rather similar. Customary pagan rites for weddings and funerals and the worshipping of various objects of nature continued throughout the Middle Ages, but by the 15th century such customs were closely intertwined with Catholicism. At that time local people started using predominantly Christian names.

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