Sexual freedoms and absence of taboos in 18th century Livonian village society

In 18th century Livonia, the likely fictional concept of ius primae noctis (right of the first night) was ruled out not only by the law of the time, but also by the fact that many brides had already had their "first night" before they ever reached the altar, writes history professor Mati Laur.

The 18th century exists in Estonians' historical conscious as a foggy so as not to say dark period. "The Good Old Swedish Times" were over and Tsarist rule had arrived. The peasant of the era is usually depicted naked from the waste up, being treated to lashes in the manor stables, Mati Laur, professor of history at the University of Tartu, writes (link in Estonian) in Tuna magazine.

But recent studies have shown that the transition from the Swedish era to the Russian one was far less earthshaking than our recent historical progression model, still based on the concept of "eras," suggests. The Swedish period's laws, administrative structure and the social makeup of society were carried forward without major changes, which allows us to rather talk of the 18th century as the "extended Swedish period."

The military incorporation of Livonia and Estonia into the Russian state did not see these lands meld into one with Russia. On the contrary, these territories maintained and developed a very different social order when compared to internal governorates.

Even though the history of the peasantry made for a high-priority field of study both in the 1930s and the relatively more relaxed 1960s and 70s during the Soviet era, the rural population's sexual behavior was excluded altogether. Thorough demographic studies of the time touched on the subject only in passing. Sexual behavior had to wait its turn, more so as thorough and in-depth treatment of these topics only arrived in the West in the late 1980s and early 90s, primarily as the result of the "cultural turn" in history.

For a long time, assessments of the sexual behavior of the peasantry relied on folklore. Ülo Tedre (1928-2015), considered to have been one of the leading experts on the subject, has suggested that runic verse folk songs lack "romantic lyric poetry in the narrower sense." Aspects of physical love are treated either as deviations from the moral norm or in a hidden or roundabout manner.

Ants Hein, who has compiled a very thorough compendium of Estonians' matchmaking and marriage customs, does not hold records born out of Jakob Hurt's campaign to collect folklore to be overly trustworthy when going back further than the middle of the 19th century. Those records virtually do not treat with the truly old and traditional, at most reflecting its last breaths, Hein claims.

When it comes to folklore compendiums, the fact that those contributing the information wanted to make themselves look as decent and proper as possible needs to be considered. This was expressed in the most striking way by schools adviser Märt Raud: "Estonia's romantic past towers at an unreachable moral height. I know no other people to have reached such lofty peaks in sexual abstinence." That is why Hein prefers a so-called bystander's perspective, brought to us by local Baltic German writers and those who passed through Livonia and Estonia.

But we might take a step further and try to understand the 18th century Livonian peasantry based on their own words from statements given during court cases from the era dealing with sexual misconduct.

Professor Laur's principal source material comes from 18th century county courts' archives and is based on what the peasants themselves told the court. His findings are summarized below.

Premarital sexual relations among the peasantry

We do not know how many of Livonia's (Livland's) peasants began their sexual life before getting married. According to demographic studies, 8 to 11 percent of brides in Estonia in the 18th century were pregnant at the time of their wedding ceremony. On average, two percent of children in Estonian rural congregations in the 18th century were illegitimate children.

While historical demography is laconic, folklore and ethnology have provided a much more idealized picture of the beginning of sexual relations in pre-modern peasant society as opposed to the actual situation.

Folklorists and ethnologists have so far emphasized the importance of premarital ehalkäimine (night courtship, sometimes referred to as bundlingKiltgang in German) and have seen this custom as a primary social institution on the road to marriage. However, we do not have any record of ehalkäimine from the 18th century Livonia. Also court records do not corroborate the descriptions found in folklore of how decorous and decent the custom of ehalkäimine was in 18th-century Livland.

By way of comparison, õitsilkäimine – the night-time grazing of horses – started on St. George's Day (April 23) and lasted until the end of summer. Ehalkäimine took place (if at all) at the homestead, and if not directly under the eyes of the girl's parents, then at least within earshot. In contrast, during the õitsilkäimine they were away from the village and in a much more private setting. And in contrast to the ehalkäimine, sexual relations during the õitsilkäimine are repeatedly recorded in court records.

Plenty of examples can be found from court records where both the boy and the girl had many irons in the fire before getting married. The premarital attitudes and relations of Livland's peasantry were far from steadfast monogamy.

August Wilhelm Hupel (1737–1819), the pastor of Põltsamaa's church and one of the more renowned disseminators of Enlightenment ideas in the Baltic lands, presented the claim in his article "Ueber den Werth der Jungfrauschaft unter Ehsten und Letten" ("On the value of virginity among Estonians and Latvians"), which was published in 1791, that preserving virginity was not all that valued among the peasantry because Estonians and Latvians had no idea whatsoever of virginity. Hupel's "discovery" can be interpreted as a reference to the peasantry's low level of education and culture. Yet greater sexual freedom and the absence of taboos, which other estates of society could not allow for themselves, compensated for that.

Court records corroborate that village society related understandingly to premarital intercourse, provided that it took place after the couple had agreed to marry and that it remained monogamous, but it was not necessary that a woman enter into marriage as a virgin. It was expected that she would only be involved in the kinds of sexual relations that would later be legitimized by entering into marriage. Even the mere suspicion that one's bride might have conceived a child with some other man was sufficient grounds for terminating their engagement or refusal to marry.

While village society already considered the bride and bridegroom to be a married couple after the marriage proposal ceremonies (kosjadAnsprache in German) had been performed, the church admonished the bride and bridegroom to avoid initiating sexual relations before the church marriage ceremony had been completed. However, there is not a single archival source that affirms that couples would have waited until their wedding day before engaging in sexual relations. Considering the customs and mentality of the peasantry of that time, there was also no reason for such restraint.

The wedding celebration was accompanied by the wedding night – the definitive confirmation of marriage. The wedding customs of the Estonian peasantry pay almost no attention to the wedding night. There is also minimal eroticism in the wedding songs found in Estonian folklore collections.

In considering sexual relations between Estonians and Germans, ius primae noctis (right of the first night) cannot be ignored; however, if ius primae noctis had really existed, it would have completely contradicted the norms of that time, which had been established by both the church and the state. It was not only the legal order of that time that ruled out ius primae noctis in 18th-century Livland, but also by the fact that a large proportion of Estonian brides had already had their "first night" before reaching the altar.

Sexual Relations between Estonians and Germans

The church prescribed rules for sexual behavior and they applied equally to all Christians, without distinction between Estonians and Germans, townsfolk and countrymen, free persons and serfs. Sexual relations were permitted only within marriage. The church and the state authorities, which operated hand in hand with the church, not only condemned premarital and extramarital intercourse, but also punished offenders for such transgressions. Intimate relations that transcended the boundaries of class and nationality were brought before the court for primarily two reasons: either an illegitimate child was born from such intercourse, or such relations provided grounds for initiating divorce proceedings.

In 1723–1725, the Tartu Landgericht (county court) and the Riga Hofgericht (court of appeal) deliberated the adultery committed by Carl Gustav von Orfeld, the lord of Reola Manor in Tartu County, with a maid serving at his manor and with a married peasant woman. While the former relation was presumambly consensual, which the maid admittedly tried to present in a different light before the court, the latter incident was a case of sexual violence. Although the manor lord denied it, the court found Orfeld guilty and sentenced him to death. His marriage was divorced.

The bringing of false charges against manor lords also indicates that peasants could bring action in regard to violence that had been perpetrated against them. We also find consensual relations or those that tend towards prostitution. Those Germans who established intimate relations with Estonians were prevailingly not nobles but rather manor servants and artisans belonging to the lower classes. Unlike sexual relations, marriages that transcended the boundaries of class and nationality were very rare.

The interrogation files of unmarried mothers are not particularly reliable. The relative proportion of Germans named as fathers of illegitimate children is statistically quite large – about one fifth, but Germans were often falsely reported as the fathers of illegitimate children as a means for sparing the actual peasant father from punishment. In most cases, the named Germans had already left the locality and were beyond the reach of the court.


As we have seen, the court materials of the 18th century create a much different picture of the sex life of the peasants of Livonia than folklore and the approaches based on it, which have offered an ideal rather than an actual picture of the beginning of sexual relations in pre-modernist peasant society, including the allusions to the fiction of the Enlightment, ius primae noctis (right of the first night).

The premarital attitudes and relations of the Livonian peasantry were far from steadfast monogamous and were far from being abstaining from sexual relations, quite the opposite.

The two research articles by Professor Mati Laur, "Premarital sexual relations among the peasantry in 18th-century Livland" and "Sexual Relations between Estonians and Germans in 18th-Century Livland," appeared in Estonian with English summaries in the 99th and 100th issue of the historical culture magazine "Tuna."


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Editor: Kristina Kersa, Marcus Turovski

Source: Tuna

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