Emergence of Old-Livonian towns and the developing trade

A separate problem is the formation of the towns in Old Livonia, and their impact on the country’s socio-economic and political situation. Although in the 13th century there were several settlements of military-political and ecclesiastical importance — Tallinn, Tartu, Otepää, Lihula, Haapsalu, Viljandi, Pärnu — clearer sources about towns at that period still refer only to Tallinn and Tartu. In the long term, the location of several other above-mentioned settlements turned out to be economically and geopolitically unfavourable. Otepää, for instance, was too close to the often hostile Russian principalities and too far from waterways; Lihula was not a deep enough natural harbour for cogs.

As for both Tallinn and Tartu, it may be assumed that the original town settlements around the castle (in Tallinn around the Order’s castle and the bishop’s residence, in Tartu around the bishop’s castle) were formed in the mid-13th century, but there are no more detailed sources to characterise such early settlements. Estonian history books offer flamboyant suggestions about Scandinavian and Russian covered markets in the Tallinn lower town, long before the Danes won the 1219 battle against the Estonians near Tallinn. Still, so far no proof of such trading settlements has been found in any archaeological data or written sources.

Both Tallinn and Tartu got their town charters probably in the mid-13th century; Tallinn used the Lübeck Law, Tartu used the Riga Law. The town law legally separated the town territory from the surrounding rural areas and guaranteed the citizens a fixed legal status. The charter also united a town with others having the same rights and facilitated mutual relations. Tallinn, for example, thus had intensive relations with Lübeck throughout the Middle Ages primarily because of solving legal matters, since Lübeck Town Council was the supreme legislative body for all towns using the Lübeck Law.

The precondition for the prosperity of Tallinn and Tartu was the chance to further trade. This was in direct relation with the geographical position of these towns — Tartu was in the centre of the country with water traffic from the West to Pskov and Novgorod; Tallinn’s position enabled it to control the trade on the Neva River. Trading with Russia, especially Novgorod, had attracted German merchants already in the early stages of the German Eastern colonisation. Neither city could entirely rely on local resources for their development, and the chance to act as trade mediators between Russia and the West was of vital importance to both. The trading items remained almost the same throughout the Middle Ages, and partly also later. Russia mostly exported fur and wax; Estonia exported grain and linen. Salt, textiles, herring, wines, spices etc. were imported from the West.

The merchants in Estonian towns, and the artisans of more refined arts, mainly came from Low German areas. At the beginning of the colonisation especially, the towns’ new citizenship largely consisted of German merchants who arrived via Gotland. A significant part of the townspeople — half or even more — was made up of Estonians. Others included Finns, Swedes, Russians, etc.

Our knowledge of life in 13th century towns is mostly derived from the Lübeck Law. The Lübeck Law protected citizens’ property rights, especially those under tutelage (i.e. minors and women) regulated the court system and trading conditions and tackled issues concerning the order and cleanliness of towns. The chief form of punishment in the Middle Ages were fines, less frequently also corporal or capital punishment or exile. The 13th–14th century sources do not offer any evidence for discrimination of citizens on the basis of ethnicity, and the town community seemed to be quite homogeneous.

A specific problem are the relations between towns and landlords. As a general rule, the latter tried to encourage towns, especially granting trading favours (e.g. exemption from duty) in order to help their development, on the other hand they wanted to keep towns under their control. The power of the Danish vice-regents in the Tallinn lower town in the 13th century became ever weaker. The next landlord, the Livonian branch of the Teutonic Order, started to interfere in town matters only in the late 15th century–early 16th century. In Tartu, the bishop as a landlord made an occasional attempt to have his say in matters concerning the town’s legislation, but the result was mostly only a conflict with the town.

Details about this article