The beginning of Feudal order in Latvia

Almost in all historical literature the civil order in Medieval Europe is called Feudalism. There were many ways to describe this concept. Marxist historians described Feudalism as social order which changed the order of slavedom common in Roman Empire and ultimately was changed by Capitalism. But we cannot put clear equality between the Middle Ages and Feudalism. The western liberal historians describe Feudalism as the practice of using the power and form of government which was based on juridical relations between seniors and vassals, making land feuds. In the feudal form of government there were three main social classes-the Clergyman, the Knights and the Peasants. On top of the pyramid was king. But the king was dependent on his vassals and the Church. The Senior was the prime land owner, he feud his land to vassal making him subject of senior. The vassal must help the senior in any circumstances or his land would be taken away. The vassal could feud his land to other vassal making complex land owning system. The vassals could only broke their vows to senior if he abuses the terms of the agreement. For instance- if the king abuses his powers his vassals can break their vows to him. Therefore king would be left without an army and risk losing his throne. Even worse was the situation if the king makes conflict with the Church. The Pope could exclude him from the Church making his vassals free from following the king’s orders. There was nothing worse to be excluded from the Church; it would mean complete rejection from society and possible death.

In one of the previous posts we examined the civil order in Latvia before the Crusades. Latvian land was considered in small confederation based on lands and fortress districts. It was the earliest form of rule, not yet ready to be called a Feudal type of governing. The form of rule was close to such tribes as the Celts in ancient France before coming of Caesar. Like Celts the early Latvians were not ready to meet the new form of rule bought by foreign invaders. The Crusaders were forced to make Feudal government in Latvian land from the scratch.

In year 1201 Bishop Alberts came to Latvia to begin his episcopacy. He needed vassal for his future commitments. The Chronicle of Henry states that in this year Bishop accepted two guests- Daniel noble man and Konrad from Meiendorp and feud two castles Lielvārde and Ikšķile to them. This is considered the first written source which states the first Feudal practice in Latvian land. No one officially gave the Bishop the right of feuding conquered Latvian lands. The Livonian rulers were not asking for Bishop’s help to secure their lands. It was only the right of the conqueror to feud his land to land to others and Bishop Albert’s was considered as the conqueror. In this case the Bishop Albert fully acknowledged himself as the secular ruler, it was only understandable in this situation when the Church was only intuition to lead a Crusade in Latvian land.  The Chronicler Henry called him princep (principem), meaning as the most prominent civilian. Princep was the official title of Roman Emperor. During his rule Bishop Albert did everything to prove that he suits this title by all means necessary.

Konrad only moved into his Ikšķile castle in the summer of the year 1206 when Crusaders fully assumed control of the palace.  Next year the Bishop Albert came to Germany to meet king Filip. He asked to feud the Livonian land to him. He was not so powerful to claim the conquered land of his own so he offered is at feud to most powerful ruler. Filip promised to send him a hundred marks per year, but never kept his promise. But this made Latvian land property of the Holy German Empire of Rome. When Filip died, Albert following the practice that right of feud must be asked to new heir of senior visited the king Henry the son of legendary Kaiser Fridrich II who lived in Sicily. He gave full rights to the Bishop.  Also the Church in 1219 in Pope Honorious III person officially acknowledged Bishop Albert as the Ruler of the newly conquered lands. At 13th century German Kaisers were caught up in the constant political struggle and could not fully influence the inner politics in Livonia, therefore the formal Livonian subjects never again restored feud rights with German Kaisers, or took part in the German Reichstag. Only the Crusader orders asked for feud rights.

The Crusader orders wanted their part of land too so Albert had to cope with their interests. In 1207 he was forced to feud the third part of the Livonian land to the Order of the Brothers of Sword. The Order wanted more than Bishop could offer and this marked the future land conflicts with the Church and the Order. But Albert had no choice- he needed the Crusaders for his wars and made the Order as the second ruler of the Latvian land. The Order was vassal of the Bishop but as it rose more powerful the Order took more lands from the Bishop. In the future the predecessor of the Order of the Brothers of Sword the Livonian Order acquired the most land in Livonian Confederation. The Bishop Albert was the last powerful Bishop in Latvian land, after his death the Crusader order took the prime control of Latvian lands. There was episcopacy’s but far too small to counter the order’s interests. In this case the one with most number soldiers and castles won.

Selected Sources:

Šterns,Indriķis. (2002) Latvijas vēsture, 1180-1290: krustakari. Riga: Latvijas vēstures instūta apgāds.

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


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