Spread of Christianity and religious orders

Estonians were baptised by the German and Danish priests mostly during the second and third decades of the 13th century. The sacrament of baptism was often administered in a hurry, and within the formal baptising ritual, the essence of Christian teaching probably remained quite obscure. But it seems logical, though, that it was not altogether abandoned after baptism. The more so that the tradition of preaching in West Europe was rapidly spreading at that time and new orders of mendicant friars emerged.

Among religious orders, Cistercians and Dominicans played the most important role in Livonia. The activity of the Cistercians in the Christianisation of the Baltic Sea area nations had already started in the 12th century with the Christianisation of the Vend areas (modern Northern Germany), populated by the Western Slavs. Cistercians were the ones to establish the first monastery in Dünamünde (Daugavgriva) in Livonia in 1205–1207 which became a sort of diplomatic centre. Several key figures in Livonia’s Christianisation, like the bishop of Livonia, Bertold, and the Estonian bishop, Theoderich, also belonged to the Cistercian order. Other older orders, e.g. the Benedictines, never reached Livonia.

Throughout the Middle Ages, orders of mendicant friars, especially the Dominicans, played a significant part in Livonian religious life. The fact that they reached Livonia only a dozen or so years after the founding of the order, is largely due to the efforts of Modena bishop Guillelmus. He had met Saint Dominic, and was an especially ardent supporter of the order. Both the Tallinn and Riga Dominican monasteries were founded in the late 1220s and beginning of the 1230s mainly on his initiative. Although these first monasteries did not survive, the order nevertheless did not abandon its missionary activities in Livonia, despite the complicated political situation. Starting from the mid-13th century, the Tallinn and Riga Dominican monasteries functioned regularly. Around 1300, Dominicans managed to set up the first monastery in Tartu.

Since the order’s aim was to convert pagans and heretics (hence the official name — Ordo Fratur Praedicatorum — order of the preaching friars), the friars usually learned the local language and were busy preaching and administering sacraments. The mendicant friars (both the Dominicans and the Franciscans) were rather popular amongst people also because of their principle of apostolic poverty. Such orders became wealthier in later centuries, but in the 13th century their marked poverty and abstemiousness clearly set them apart from various richer orders with a less rigorous way of life.

Although the friars normally established their monasteries in the towns, they went round preaching and doing pastoral work also in the countryside. Their significance in the religious education of Estonians cannot be overestimated. The more so that the country churches were sometimes located at large distances and there were not enough priests and vicars to fill the posts. The Franciscans founded their monastery on Estonian territory as late as the second part of the 15th century. The Dominican order was therefore the dominant order in Livonia throughout two centuries.

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