Risk, emotions and hospitality in 13th century Estonian sauna

Drawing of a knight making a gesture of homage.
Drawing of a knight making a gesture of homage. Source: British Library MS Royal 2 A XXII f. 220

Estonia celebrates the Year of the Sauna in 2023, which coincides with the 800th anniversary of a Christian miracle story that happened in a sauna in 1223. Wojtek Jezierski, associate professor at the University of Stockholm, talks to ERR News about the significance of the story and his recently published book on the Christianization of the Baltic Rim.

In an interview with ERR, Jezierski describes the stories of martyrdom and hardships, or Christian miracles, as being "the Ryan Gosling memes of the medieval world." These were staple stories, he says, that became "emotional drivers" for many generations of missionaries and crusaders shaping the self-image of Christians.

"Did they in fact happen?" Jezierski smiles at the question, "Do we know what the original stories were? They were all over the place duplicating each another. A couple of decades after a story was popular in Spain it would resurface again in Germany, Poland or Sweden."

Interestingly, however, this is not the case with the sauna miracle story from Saccalia (an ancient county of Livonia comprising the present-day Viljandi County and portions of Pärnu and Valga counties), which Jezierski says is one of the most fascinating texts transmitted to us from the 13th-century Livonian mission.

While most of the miracles in Henry's Chronicon reproduce the themes of miracle stories circulating in Europe at that time, this one has no counterpart anywhere else: "What makes the story unique, Marek Tamm from Tallinn University argues, is that we do not know of any other version of it from anywhere else. It seems to have originated in Livonia (the modern-day southern regions of Estonia and Latvia), which is remarkable in and of itself," Jezierski says.

"Did it actually happen? Something must have happened locally, and it gave rise to the story; we just do not know all the details," he says.

Livonia, 1223

"When it comes to the 13th century history of Estonia and Latvia, we basically have two narrative texts to go to: The Chronicle of Henry of Livonia and The Livonian Rhymed Chronicle," he explains.

Henry's Livonian Chronicle (Heinrici Cronicon Lyvoniae) is a Latin account of events from 1180 to 1229. Henry, a clergyman, composed it around 1229 and it is the earliest written chronicle of Livonia's history. The second narrative, Livonian Rhymed Chronicle (Livländische Reimchronik), was written by an anonymous author 70 years later in Middle High German verse and covers the years 1180 to 1330.

"First of all, Henry begins to compose his chronicle only two years later," Jezierski explains the context of the story. "Whatever happened, or was conveyed to him, it was in his best interest to present it as there were actual miracles happening in the region."

"He is communicating at the time with the emissary from Rome, a papal legate William of Moderna, whom the pope sent to Livonia to supervise the northern crusade and to obtain a portion of Estonia and Latvia for the papacy. Henry writes the chronicle of the region's Christianization supposedly for William and I can see him willing to say, 'We too have miracles here; God is intervening in this region.' So, the story appears in this context, and it is just two years old," Jezierski explains.

In the story, a German merchant travels to Sakala County (Latin: Saccalia) during a time of unrest. "Several tribes breached a truce with Christians, sparking major pagan revolts. The natives are washing off their baptism and vow to fight Christians to the death," Jezierski continues.

Map of the Baltic Rim, 1000 - 1300. Source: Wojtek Jezierski/Mappa Mundi Cartograohy, 2022

During the uprising of 1223, all Christian strongholds in Estonia, with the exception of Reval (Tallinn), fell to the Estonians.

However, in 1224, events unfold swiftly: the crusaders recapture all the major fortresses; Roman Emperor Frederick II declares Livonia subordinate to the Roman Catholic Church and the Holy Roman Empire; Pope Honorius III appoints William of Modena as papal legate for the region; and the Livonian Brothers of the Sword establish their headquarters in Fellin (Viljandi), the seat of Sakala County. In the years that follow, Willem negotiates a compromise between the two factions, the church and the Livonian Brothers of the Sword regarding the division of conquered Livonia.

"The miracle happens when the German visits the home of an Estonian couple in 1223," Jezierski continues. "They murder him, only to learn a few months later that the woman was pregnant and their newborn child bears the exact same scars as the wounds they inflicted on the German merchant, thus revealing, in a sense, that they committed murder. God sends vengeful Christian troops to execute the farther," Jezierski tells the shorter version of the story as it appears in Henry's chronicle.

In Livonian Rhymed Chronicle the miracle is acquiring much more detail, with the murder now taking place in a sauna. "I had always wondered how this was even possible, given that he had hatchets hidden under both arms. How do you enter the sauna and undress while holding two axes under your arms?"­­­ Jezierski smiles.

A not-so-wealthy German merchant, who makes his living by going from village to village selling needles, comes to Poderejal (Estonian: Riidaja) and seeks the friendship of an Estonian couple. He is invited to take a bath with them, at which point he is murdered. While in Henry's version, Christian troops executed the father after a miracle revealed the murder, in the later chronicle, God causes a premature death of a child a year and a half later.

Jezierski argues that the story in the rhymed chronicle is best understood as an attempt to "emphasize" with the locals, especially in comparison to Henry's chronicle, which is regarded as a reliable historical source but, according to the scholar, lacks any local perspective.

It seems like a stretch to say that that story "empathizes" with the native population, but Jezierski makes his case with great care throughout the book, "Risk, Emotions, and Hospitality in the Christianization of the Baltic Rim, 1000-1300."

"My reading is that inviting someone to the sauna is an act of extraordinary hospitality. You would have to undress yourself and if you were a guest you would have to trust another person completely. In this later version, the host of the German merchant takes advantage of the situation and kills him."

The most controversial part of the book, Jezierski says, is the introduction of the possibility of treachery within the discourse on hospitality. "I have a very sinister or dangerous view of hospitality," he says. "In general, relations between hosts and guests are amicable, and I believe many will find that I have exaggerated the dangers associated with hospitality and overemphasized the lack of trust."

The Miracle of Inhospitality

"Let's be honest, the Teutonic knights were colonizers. Sure, they lived there, but they were invaders who came from elsewhere, essentially invading the region, and the question I wanted to address in the discussion of the miracle, which is part of a larger argument, is how did they engage with the colonized, the native people?" Jezierski explains.

"What has not been sufficiently explored is what type of relationships there were between them; were the missionaries and crusaders fearful of the natives, or were they joyful because they were converting locals to their religion? Emotional perspective is one of the main frameworks for me. The second theme of the book is hospitality," he says. "How did these groups interact through the practice of hospitality? What does it mean to be invited? What does it mean to say that you are invited to convert the region?"

While the miracle story is related in both chronicles, only the latter version places it in a sauna. "This is my reading of it" he says, "the term hospitality does not appear even once in Henry's chronicle and in general it is a very rare word in medieval contexts that does not come up that often. Nonetheless, the author of the Livonian Rhymed Chronicle places a considerable emphasis on it."

"No colonizer will admit to violating other peoples or invading another territory. They will claim that they were invited, or that God sent them there to justify their presence, so the theme of hospitality is an important one to investigate how these groups approached each other," he said.

The story depicts the complicated interaction between Teutonic knights and the native population, who are bound to live together in a continuous state of heightened emergency, with a full sense of their vulnerability and lack of safety. He argues that these dimensions of emotions and hospitality are the overlooked theoretical frameworks through which to understand the formation of Livonia.

"Standard accounts of the Christianization of Livonia describe a clash of cultures and the imposition of Western culture on local cultures, or alternatively, peaceful intercultural exchanges. The point I am making is that there was a constant back-and-forth across cultures instead and that this back-and-forth adjustment is mostly facilitated through emotions," he says.

In the conclusion of his book, Jezierski argues, in concord with several other revisionist historians and anthropologists, that "despite our best effort – and despite missionary and crusader authors' best efforts – to reify cultures (both pagan and Christian cultures), in their medieval reality cultures did not meet other cultures. Civilizations did not confront barbarism. Instead, men met other men and women."

"True, Christians had superior weapons, could build castles, etc., but as in any colonizing context, the colonizer must approach or adapt to the natives. It is not necessarily intentional; people must have relationships with one another," he says.

"Let us consider the story of troubled hospitality once again: the German guest comes to the Estonian host, to the locals, and he is murdered, so the underlying motif of the story is 'they do not want us here, they want to kill us.' However, we should also read in the minds of the colonizers, 'Okay, we are like guests here, and those people are like hosts, they live here, and yet we have the right to convert them to Christianity, baptize them,' etc. I propose that we think of this relationship between colonizers and colonized as one of very difficult hospitality, which can be quite dangerous at times, but we have to conceptualize this relationship in some way or another, and hospitality is one way of thinking about it," Jezierski explains his argument.

How do you study the history of emotions? How do you know what was going on emotionally 800 years ago?

"How much time do we have?" Jezierski smiles in response. "It is a big discussion and a difficult one. The problem is that we only have one side of the picture, we only hear the Christians, the colonizers, the crusaders, who write their story. We really don't know anything about how the local population felt about it, because they have not left any texts to interpret."

Studying these chronicles, Jezierski says, he can say something about the mentality of Christian colonizers, or how they construed their self-image and related to each other, and to some extent to the locals, "I can only say something about that."  

Emotional attribution in the Livonian Rhymed Chronicle. Source: Wojtek Jezierski
Emotional attribution in the Chronicle of Henry of Livonia. Source: Wojtek Jezierski

"What is telling, however, is that we have a whole lot of projections. It is not only that they feel hatred, it is more like: 'they [locals] must be feeling hatred towards us.' So there is a lot of assuming going on what others are thinking and feeling."
This animosity, which is evident from the story is largely the result of colonizers' projections, he says.

"One method to study emotions would be comparing the two chronicles in terms of how the authors attribute feelings to us [the intended audience, the Christians] and what emotions they attribute to the others. Is there a wall of empathy?"

Empathy walls in Berkeley, California, and the walls in Livonia in the 13th century

Jezierski borrows the term empathy wall from the work of Arlie Hochschild, professor emerita of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, who describes an attempt to overcome an "empathy wall" in her book "Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right (2016)."

Hochschild's work is based on five years of research in Louisiana's oil and petrochemical belt, where she interviewed Trump supporters in the face of the 2016 presidential election.

"Coming herself from a liberal cultural environment, the University of California, Berkeley, she realized that she could not fully relate to the emotions of people she was talking to or understand their point of view. 'It is like an empathy wall I cannot cross,' she says in her book. 'What is the empathy wall? And why can't I, a liberal upper middle-class American sociologist from California, relate to them and fully empathize with them?' I have used this concept from contemporary American politics in my work," Jezierski explains.

"We have the two chronicles and the same set of emotions, but they are attributed in different ways, he says. While German crusaders [in Livonian Rhymed Chronicle] treat natives as being like themselves, when we read Henry, we see that he is putting up these walls all the time: 'locals cannot feel joy, they cannot feel grief or compassion (supposedly only Christians can), they can only have negative emotions.' While for crusaders the locals are like us, in Henry's narrative they are not, and the message is: we just have to fight them," Jezierski explains.

The fact that the hospitality theme at all appears in the rhymed chronicle is telling; it is an attempt to put themselves in the shoes of others, Jezierski continues. "And this putting on the shoes of the locals – the Teutonic knight in the shoes of a native – happens through this troubled, complicated, risk-driven discourse of hospitality."

Jezierski argues that the significance of the sauna as "a location of uncertain host-guest relationships" has been largly neglected when analyzing the scope of cultural practices associated with sauna in the region.

Maali Talu sauna in Estonia. Source: Alina Birjuk

Rather, the sauna's appearance in the chronicle is a sign of soft power and the convergence of horizons: "In this story about a miracle, the requirement of hospitality went much beyond just politeness or respect. This appealed to the most primitive, often pagan, local concepts of the sacred, which entered the Livonian Rhymed Chronicle."

Less dramatic story of sauna hospitality in Estonia in the 1230s from Dorpat (Tartu)

Jezierski also tells about another contemporary sauna story, which occurred in the 1230s in Estonia, but was recorded 400 years later, in the early 17th century by the provost of the church in Fellin (present-day Viljandi), Dionysius Fabricius.

Although not the miracle story, it reveals the sauna hospitality practices of Estonians in the first half of the 13th century.

The God-centered medieval Christian worldview has become more humanistic over the course of four centuries. In his chronicle, Fabricius tells a story about two monks living in Kärkna Abbey near the city of Dorpat (present-day Tartu), which has a sauna on its premises.

"According to the story, when the monks ran out of food and money, they sent a letter to the pope pleading for financial aid or requesting that Bishop Herman of Tartu helps them. The pope dispatched an Italian brother to investigate their predicament, and as the monks prepare a sauna for their guest, the Italian takes a note, 'This is how they mortify themselves! It must be some form of religious discipline they practice!' In the eyes of the Italian brother, these two monks were extremely tough and who could stand the heat," Jezierski tell the story.

"These people deserve all the money!" the chronicle is also poking fun at the Italian monk, Jezierski says, as the Estonians were intentionally making it difficult for their guest by making the sauna steamier than necessary.

The sauna tradition often-sparked travelers' astonishment, Jezierski says. One of the earliest medieval observations, Jezierski discusses in his book, was made in the 10th century by Ibrahim Ibn Ya'qub al-Turtusi, a Muslim or Jewish merchant, who gives almost an ethnographic description of the steamy, hot saunas in the north.

"The sauna culture was not that prevalent for people from the south," Jezierski says, "and usually accounts of travelers from southern Europe, from below the Alps, who visit Poland and Livonia would be expressing bewildering at the local sauna customs. So the Italian monk truly takes the practice of sauna as a form of religious purification." Nonetheless, the Dorpat story also reveals a recognizable and rather contemporary Estonian sense of pride in inviting guests to sauna, the steamy part of which is occasionally (and purposely) exaggerated.


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