Internal affairs in 15th century Old Livonia: nobility, clergy and peasantry

The 14th century witnessed sharp disagreements between the ruling powers in Livonia that often led to armed conflicts, especially between the Order and the town of Riga. The 15th century, on the other hand, may be regarded as a period of consolidation when the class distinctions were fixed. The role of indigenous nations diminished rapidly.

The Livonian diet was regularly held from the 1420s–1430s. These assemblies included the Master of the Order, the bailiffs and commanders and other functionaries, senior clergy and Tallinn, Tartu and Riga representatives who discussed political, economic and religious issues of the entire country. At that time, the Livonian authorities began to take a keener interest in regulating church affairs. Filling senior clergy positions had naturally always been politically important, but now the everyday undertakings of the church came under scrutiny as well. Both the religious and lay authorities required the clergy to be more efficient in their congregational duties, adopt a stricter lifestyle and learn the local language. Such demands were by no means unusual — the Catholic church had demanded more efficient work and better education for the clergy already during the Carolingian times, and even more so after overcoming the setback in the 10th–11th centuries. Such issues had not been so acute in Livonia before, probably because of the difficulties in internal affairs during the 13th–14th centuries.

The wish to achieve control over local church matters, to a smaller or larger extent, influenced the behaviour of the Livonian political forces throughout the Middle Ages. Major disagreements between the Livonian branch of the Teutonic Order and the local bishops often ensued because of an attempt to incorporate the bishoprics, i.e. achieve a situation where a bishop would be a member of the Order. The Order managed to incorporate the Riga archbishopric by the end of the 14th century; in Tartu it failed. Battles over the Tallinn archbishop’s post raged all through the 15th century, with the Order never fully succeeding.

Whereas in the 13th century popes attempted to interfere in Livonian matters, in the 14th–15th centuries the curia no longer displayed any keen interest towards Livonia. To settle their disagreements, the Teutonic Order and local bishops had to turn to the papal curia themselves (i.e. through their procurators in Rome). This might have been a sign of Livonia’s gradual provincialisation — in the 13th century and maybe also in the first half of the 14th, the Livonian colonial powers were closely linked with influential political and church authorities (popes and their legates); by the 15th century, new political power centres had emerged in Europe and Livonia receded into the background. This tendency did not affect the Hanseatic League towns which continued to enjoy success and an extensive network of external relations until the outbreak of the Livonian War.

Peasants’ rights were gradually restricted during the 15th century. While in the 13th–14th centuries it had mainly meant taxes and legal dependency, in the 15th century both the ecclesiastical and lay authorities passed various laws meant to prevent peasants from escaping and guaranteeing the fugitives’ capture. There are records of selling or exchanging peasants, either with or without land. This situation nevertheless did not exclude the existence of different strata amongst the peasantry. In the final years of the Order, there was still a small number of holders of smaller fiefs who rapidly began to merge with free peasants. The latter did not have feudal contracts to maintain their own farms nor the related special duties, but they had to pay, in money or produce, to exempt themselves from the obligation of dues or services. By the early 16th century, most of the peasants had become serfs.

The cities mostly refused to give up the escaped peasants because the constant negative birth rate had caused a situation where labourers were in great demand. Although the upper echelons in a city consisted of Germans, the share of Estonians was fairly large. Whereas in the 14th century the Estonians could still become citizens, in the 15th century their number was strictly restricted. The chief measure in preventing Estonians from becoming citizens was raising the citizen tax. Therefore, the position of Estonians in towns steadily worsened, as did the legal status of peasants in the country.

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