Early Latvian statehood and civil order before the Crusades

There were and there is right now a discussion about the question of early Latvian statehood’s. The nationalists insist that there were real Latvian kingdoms with kings and castles. The skeptics see this as much as fantasy and try to solve this question more on the middle ground, that there was an existing statehood’s but they cannot be compared to the kingdoms in Western Europe and neither in Eastern Europe. The early Latvians were on the first basic steps to form a feudal kingdom but the Crusader invasion halted this advance.

As we found out in previous posts the main centers of early Latvian people were wooden fortresses and towns around them. The all forms of ruling were concentrated in those fortresses. Fortresses had their own districts they are called pilsnovadi in Latvian. In most cases they were not large in size that’s why I call them micro-states. At the end of the 13 century a new administrative form appeared-  parishes (pagasti in Latvian). The name comes from Russia where the word  погостиь means the rights of rulers regale basically meaning fee paying to the ruler. From that the Russian word погост evolved as the territory for fee collecting. It was called mark in German. Parish consisted of many villages which were subjugated to fortress districts. There is 450 known castles and fortresses today. Manny fortress districts united in larger territorial unions called lands in German chronicles (terra, land). At Courland there were nine lands called Vanema, Bandava, Ventava, Piemare, Duvzare, Megava, Pilsāts, Ceklis and the Land between Skrunda and Semigallia. At Semigallia there were seven lands- Silene, Žagare, Dobene, Spārnene, Tērvete, Dobele and Upmale. Within Dobene and Spārnene there were smaller administrative units called provinces (in Dobene- 16, Spārnene- 19). There is no complete amount of Livonian and Latgalian lands known today we can guess that there were many. There was no unified state which would unite all tribes in Latvia.

Despite that there were small statehood’s or micro-states. In Western Courland the king (rex in the chronicle) Lamekin is said to be an king of Ventava. The chronicle of Rimbert calls Kursa as as the kingdom (regnum) with five civitats (civitās) the districts in it. In Latgalia there were rulers acknowledged as kings. The most largest state was the state of Jersika (regnum Gercike). Its ruler was Visvaldis (The ruler of all ) he also was the warlord or unified Jersikian- Lithuanian army. Visvaldis took rule of many territories which stretched from river Daugava to river Gauja. The state was consisted of many fortress districts so the state of Jersika can be called as a confederation. Some districts on the right bank of river Aivekste formed their union called Lettia. The neighbor of Jersika was the state of Koknese ruled by a king or Duke Vetseke. The Tālava was called in many sources differently from simply a province to land union. It was ruled by Tālibalds and his sons. Tālava consisted large territory at the Gauja river basin. There are no sources of Selonian kings and states there were four castles in Selonia. Chronicle of Henry of Livonia says that there were many Livonian kings and four Livonian lands. The land of Daugava, Turaida, Metsepole and Idumeja. Ako was recognised as the mightiest Livonian ruler and bitter fighter against Crusaders. The Kaupo recognised as the king on the other hand was very friendly to Crusaders and even took the legendary trip to Rome to meet the Pope himself.

There was an organized society in Latvia within the early type states. It was based on a confederation of lands and fortress districts. But there were no state organizations like in Lithuania which could unite all Latvian tribes. The Lithuanians managed to settle their differences and at the time of Crusader invasion was ready counter the Crusader threat.

Senlatvijas karte

The map showing early Latvian statehood’s

According to the archaeological findings and written sources the early Latvian society was socially divided. The Latvian Pagans occasionally placed the most worth belongings in the dead man’s grave. From that the archaeologists can tell the social status of the berried man. The graves with weapons and jewels were probably belonged to Noble’s. They could be the elders of the village or even districts. Other social class according to archaeologists was the members of warhoods who took a prominent position in the states military. Third class was the free peasants of the village who took part in wars, but was second handed in state politics, because all decisions were made by Noble’s. The Fourth Class with poor grave inventory was the prisoners of the war and other unfree peoples.

The leader of the early Latvian states was the rulers (valdnieks) or the kings (ķēniņš) as named in chronicles. The taxes were collected by special taxman’s. The amounts of taxes were measured in ploughs or horses.

There were also early forms of parliament. The ruler could not make military decisions without consulting the members of war-hood. The meetings of nobles decided the state’s internal and external questions. There were also records of meetings between the elders which could make the same decisions as the war nobles like signing a peace deal with the Crusaders.

The early Latvians were not an uncivilized barbarians, but were at much lower levels than the rest of Europe’s feudal nations.  That’s why early Latvians could not fight with German Crusaders equally.

Selected Sources

Vasks,Andrejs. Vaska,Baiba and Grāvere, Rita. (1997) Latvijas Aizvēsture 8500 g. pr. Kr.-1200. g pēc. Kr. Riga. Zvaigzne ABC.

Apals, Jānis and others. (2011) Latvijas senākā vēsture : 9.g.t. pr.Kr. – 1200.g. Editor: Mugurēvičs Ēvalds. Riga : Latvijas vēstures institūta apgāds.

Šnē, Andris. (2002) Sabiedrība un vara: sociālās attiecības Austrumlatvijā aizvēstures beigās. Riga. Intelekts.


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