Swedish superpower's loose grip gave Baltic German nobility a free hand

Livonia. This map is from Atlas Maior, Sive Cosmographia Blauiana, by Joan Blaeu.
Livonia. This map is from Atlas Maior, Sive Cosmographia Blauiana, by Joan Blaeu. Source: CC0

The near-constant conflicts between the Swedish empire and its neighbors pushed the organization of local life in seized lands to the background, allowing Baltic German nobility in Livonia to consolidate its power. Surprisingly, a doctoral thesis defended at the University of Tartu suggests that in the first half of the 17th century, local nobility attempted to shield peasantry from excessive state burdens.

According to Ilmar Tammisto, who defended the dissertation, the archival materials he examined differ from the national conception of history in several important respects.

"To protect the peasants from the excessive demands of the Swedish crown for example, the local nobility often raised the peasants' concerns at the Diets. During this time, the focus of the state was mainly on accumulating as much of the province as possible; practically never did any Swedish statesman care where the money or the goods came from or at what price," he said. In the 1680s and 1690s, when the Swedish authorities took the issue of the peasantry seriously, the situation began to change.

The Estonian territory at that time was progressively absorbed by Sweden: in 1561, King Erik XIV accepted oaths of allegiance from the city of Tallinn and the nobility of Harju and Viru Counties and by 1629, Gustavus II Adolf had annexed the enitre province of Livonia, which spanned the present day southern Estonia and northern Latvia.

Following the change of power, the new authorities moved methodically to establish themselves, including overhauling the legal system. However, due to a dire lack of resources, the process was met with major obstacles right away. Among other things, the crown lacked the military strength required to defend the province. As a result, the province was able to negotiate for greater autonomy in local matters than the authorities had hoped for.

The central administration of the Livonian province in Riga is a clear example of the capacity of the state apparatus of the time. "Despite administering a territory nearly the size of present-day Estonia, the governor-general's office (residierende Landräte) in Riga employed only 10 to 15 people. Although there were state representatives in smaller units of the province, the civil administration was so thin that expecting it to organize provincial life effectively would be naive," Tammisto explained. Other European countries had similar issues, he said.

Money and other resources were limited making it difficult to establish and sustain the bureaucracy required to expand the function of central government. The interests of the state and the local elite often overlapped, so it was easier to delegate the provision of many public goods to the nobility.

"Sweden's belligerent foreign policy during the 17th century also had a significant impact on Livonia. It was entangled in several European conflicts, including the Thirty Years' War, which gave the local nobility an additional reason for greater freedom of action," the historian explained. As Sweden concentrated its military strength on Germany, it became increasingly reliant on the local nobility to defend Livonia.

State within state: The self-governing institutions of the local nobility

The Swedish state permitted a vast network of institutions managed by the local nobility to emerge in the 17th century Livonia, which Tammisto refers to as the nobility's self-governance. These institutions can be divided into three types.

  • The first of these were nobility-centered bodies, such as the Livonian Diet (Landtag), the land council of the nobility (Landratscollegium), and others.
  • The second included institutions set up to deal with a more specific area or problem, e.g., the guardianship courts (Waisengericht), or an office to oversee and supervise the construction of roads and bridges (Hakenrichter). Although such institutions were set up in cooperation with the public authorities, the nobility did not receive any financial support from the state to keep them running, e.g. the cavalry unit of the nobility (Adelsfahne) and the overseer of church affairs (Oberkirchenvorsteher) among others.
  • The last group was made up of the land courts (Landgericht), the state institutions which were run by politically active local noblemen and the Tartu court of appeal. They were partly or fully financed by the Swedish state, but were at least to some extent controlled by the local nobility.

Tammisto's work relies mainly on these unpublished primary sources, the most important of which, according to him, are the summaries of Livonian diets, which were at the centre stage of the interaction between the Swedish state authorities and the local nobility, and all significant initiatives had to be approved by the diet.

In essence, these institutions of self-governance created a parallel administrative structure alongside national institutions. Although in some ways they were an extension of state power, the resulting social order satisfied both parties most of the time. At the same time, the nobility' efforts to safeguard their own welfare and that of the province stand out.

The nobles often complained, among other things, about the tardiness with which the authorities issued various laws or decrees of general application. In early medieval society, only the sovereign had the authority to make such decisions; however, the state's capacity to do so in reality was limited. "Hence, a situation in which the subjects themselves must petition the state to solve their problems through state regulations," Tammisto said.

In Livonia, for instance, maintaining the service of the soldiers sent to the country posed a serious challenge. Therefore, soldiers often used what they thought to be their rights in order to claim what was rightfully theirs.

However, there were also issues of violence among people in the countryside. "It turns out, for example, that most of the nobility were as bothered by duels as they were by state power. People did not want to live in a world where they have to be ready to fight to the death at any time. The nobles preferred a well-regulated legal system," the historian said.

Also, the nobles pushed against imposing additional public burdens on their peasantry, which would have entailed additional labor. "The state authorities would have wanted peasants to perform a certain number of days of labor annually to build state defenses. This was in addition to all the other estate-related tasks they had to complete," Tammisto explained. In a similar vein, the nobility complained about state officials who had taken more than the stipulated amount from serfs and they wanted to prosecute soldiers who had attacked their peasants.

The nobles' concern is also understandable. Serfs constituted an important part of the nobility's capital, being their direct property. The state should therefore not have legally interfered in this ownership. In other words, protecting the peasantry from state demands was part of the nobles' struggle to maintain their privileges.

Although the state authorities had been mainly in favor of the rise of the nobility for nearly half a century, they also continued to increase their own influence pragmatically. It used the institution of the governors as one of its instruments of its own power.

In 1643 the nobility was granted the right to elect six, in 1648 this was increased to 12, representatives to the land council, the task of which was to assist the governor general (residierende Landräte) in Riga in all matters pertaining to the administration of Livland. More importantly, 1643 was the year in which the first official diet was held.

"Baltic German historians, in particular, have previously emphasized how in Livonia the ruling class constituted a relatively homogeneous social stratum. However, even before the institute of self-governance was established in 1643, the state authorities had a clear intention of involving mediators through whom the state could make demands on the rest of the nobles. In exchange, they received special treatment from state officials and were assigned more lucrative positions. Some of them were elevated to the rank of barons," Tammisto went on.

In the grand scheme of things, the plan was successfully implemented. Several documents, for instance, revealed that when reporting to Stockholm, the governor general of Livonia emphasized the significance of the land councilor's sassistance. In certain instances, however, the land councilors maintained solidarity with the rest of the nobility and refused to comply with the state authorities' demands.

Patriots of their land

Tammisto pointed out that the view on the Baltic-German nobility as selfish and greedy, which was cultivated after Estonia's independence and later received additional wind in the sails during the Soviet era, is somewhat one-sided and biased.

On the one hand, the nobility's behavior unquestionably represents their guild interests. They attempted to elevate their position at the expense of peasants, townspeople and other nobles. "On the other hand, their interaction with the state demonstrates how they recognize and are aware that Livonia is their fatherland. At least the more politically active nobility had a clear desire to make life better in Livonia. They were patriots of their land," the historian said.

This also explains the nobility's frustration after 1674, when Sweden was plunged into five years of exhausting warfare. The resulting demands on the power of the state were significantly greater than ever before. Although the nobility again hoped to be given the opportunity to promote the self-governing institutions they had already established, the state authorities felt confident enough to brake their promises.

In addition, to solve its financial issues, Sweden began to nationalize the manors owned by the nobility in Estonia and Livonia, which had been largely unaffected by the reduction of estates. In Livonia, for example, up to three-quarters of all estates were transferred to the state. Due to the fact that the specific equilibrium between the nobility and the state was mainly established by unwritten agreements, it was impossible to directly protest this.

"It was a rather ugly ending of a mutually beneficial relationship, which contributed to the Livonian nobility's growing mistrust of the state authority. In the 1860s, when a wave of Russification swept through Estonia and Livonia, the nobles were eager to draw parallels between the situation and the end of the 17th century. It could be said that the Baltic German nobility were left with memories of a bad rather than a good Swedish era," Tammisto said.

The historian pointed out that the number of studies devoted to the Baltic Germans and the Baltic German nobility has increased exponentially in recent years. However, most of them cover the 18th to the 20th centuries and focus on cultural history, such as the Baltic German literati. The political history of the nobility, however, has remained largely neglected by Estonian historians.

"All of these noble institutions, as well as their political activity, were essentially out of reach for the peasantry. Perhaps the renewed interest today indicates that enough time has passed since that time. There is no personal hook to the subject, nor do many people harbor prejudices from their schooldays. Estonian society may finally be mature enough to approach the subject in this way," Tammisto added.

Tammisto's dissertation on the relationship between nobles and state power is available in its full in the University of Tartu's digital archive (it is written in Estonian, but there is an English language summary at the end of the paper, pp 356-363).


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Editor: Kristina Kersa

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