Parish and County

Starting from the 13th century at the latest judging by the written historical resources available on Estonia, the parish was the principal administrative unit. The parish was most likely a contractual association of villages that had formed towards the end of the 1st millennium. Parishes lost their significance as administrative units with the emerging of manorial estates and became church districts. New churches were constantly built and, thus, new church parishes emerged. At the early 13th century there were about 45 parishes, by the end of the century there were 59 of them, in the late 16th century the number was 83, in the late 17th century – 102 and in 1925 – 107. The order issued by the Provisional Government of Estonia prescribed that parishes perform but religious functions starting from 1919. Starting from 1925, the parishes even as church districts were no longer territorial units and Lutheran rural congregations were turned into religious societies unconnected with any specific territory. Yet, in the public consciousness parishes have maintained the ancient primeval meaning to this day – they stand for the territorial and tribal connection manifested in the language, national costumes, customs, traditions, solidarity. The community days taking place in many places all over Estonia are a proof of that. There have been proposals to base the administrative-territorial reform on the old-time parish network but it differs from county to county and, for example, in Saaremaa, there are almost as many parishes as there were rural municipalities in 2006.

The association of parishes formed the county – a sovereign administrative and political formation. Based on its territory, population and sovereign power, Professor Jüri Uluots characterised the county as a separate sovereign, independent and free state putting sometimes the word “state” in inverted commas, thus, drawing attention to the conditional use of the word. In the early 13th century, there were eight large counties in Estonia (Harjumaa, Järvamaa, Läänemaa, Revala, Saaremaa, Sakala, Ugandi and Virumaa) and six small ones in the central part of Estonia consisting of one parish (Alempois, Jogentagana, Mõhu, Nurmekund, Soopolitse and Vaiga) where the attacks of the enemy did not reach right away when they invaded the area inhabited by Estonians. The significance of the counties is also illustrated by the fact that the Finns call the whole territory of Estonia Viro after the county of Virumaa and the Latvians call it Igaunija after the county of Ugandi. Even after the World War II new counties were formed on the territory of the then Estonian SSR (Table 1). In 1946, the county of Hiiu was separated from the county of Lääne. In 1949, the county of Jõhvi was formed in the eastern part of the county of Viru, and the county of Jõgeva (Jõgevamaa) was formed on the territory separated from the northern part of Tartumaa and north-eastern part of Viljandimaa.

Estonian counties in 1880-1950 and since 1 January 1990
since 1 January 1990
Harjumaa HarjumaaHarjumaaHarjumaa



Läänemaa LäänemaaLäänemaaLäänemaa
VirumaaVirumaaLääne - Virumaa


Pärnumaa PärnumaaPärnumaaPärnumaa

Saaremaa SaaremaaSaaremaaSaaremaa
Tartumaa TartumaaTartumaaTartumaa

Viljandimaa ViljandimaaViljandimaaViljandimaa
Võrumaa VõrumaaVõrumaaVõrumaa

Table 1

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