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European Kingdoms

Barbarians

 

Estonian Tribes (Eesti) (Aestii)
Incorporating the Alempois, Harria, Revalians, Sakalans, Setos, Sosols, & Vironians

The Early Baltics were gradually recovering from the retreat of the continental glaciers at the end of the most recent ice age when the first hunter-gatherers arrived in what would become Estonia, around 9000 BC. Habitation for several millennia proved to be sparse and temporary. At the beginning of the third millennium BC, Ugric-speaking people migrated in from the east, descendants of Uralic-speakers around the Ural Mountains. They quickly came to dominate a swathe of territory between modern Finland and the eastern side of the Urals. Those who settled between Lake Peipsi and the southern coast of the Gulf of Finland provided the ancestors of the Finno-Ugric Estonians.

FeatureBetween about 2500-2000 BC, another wave of migrant tribes arrived in the region from the south. These were the Indo-European proto-Balts, ancestors of the Balt tribes. They brought with them cattle breeding and rudimentary tillage skills (field cultivation only flourished from the sixth or fifth century BC thanks to the advent of the Iron Age). Perhaps not long after the arrival of the Balts, the Vistula Venedi began dominating the entire course of that river. Germanic tribes migrating to the southern Baltic coast in the first centuries BC and AD pushed the Balts into southern Estonian lands (for more detail on the early formation of Estonia, see the feature link, right).

In the first century AD, Roman writers referred to the people of the eastern Baltic Sea as Aestii, meaning 'east men'. However, these are described as being like Suevi, although they speak like Britons. That classes them very distinctly as northern or eastern Celts: Belgae or Venedi rather than Finno-Ugric tribes which the Romans would certainly have noted as being different. Even so, the name Aestii is frequently attached to the early Estonians and would seem to have provided the origin of 'Estonia', possibly through the later Germanic conquest of the region.

During the first millennium AD, three important cultural regions emerged: northern Estonia, southern Estonia, and western Estonia, together with the islands. The origins of the modern Estonian counties were formed during this period, and these regions maintained their own security and looked after their own interests. The main county in the north was Rävala. Its main settlement was near a castle called Lindanise (Kolyvan in Rus sources) which was used mainly as a defensive refuge, although it may have traded with Scandinavian and Russian states from around AD 1000 onwards.

By 1170 some of the native tribes could be identified by name, such as the Alempois of central Estonia (roughly the south-western part of Järva County plus parts of eastern Pärnu County), the Harria in the north (namesakes of Harju County), the Osilians and Rotalians (of Saaremaa and Läänemaa), the Revalians (namesakes of Rävala County), the Sakalans (with a centre in Viljandi, who are believed to be the Sosols of the Old East Slavonic chronicles of the Rus), the Ugaunians or Unguenois (the Estonian name for what the early Rus referred to as the Chudes), and the Vironians around modern Viru (which consisted of five clans by 1219). The Seto ethnic group in the south-eastern corner of Estonia and the north-west of the modern district of Pskov differed appreciably from the rest, possibly constituting an ethnically distinct group. Each tribal region (or parish once Christianity had been introduced) in Estonia was headed by a council of elders.

Seto People of Estonia

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information by Gediminas Kiveris and Merit Pai, from Life in Estonia, from The History of the Baltic Countries, Zigmantas Kiaupa, Ain Mäesalu, Ago Pajur, & Gvido Straube (Eds, Estonia 2008), from Eric's Chronicle, from the 15th Yearbook of the Estonian Learned Society in Sweden, 2010-2014 (Eesti Teadusliku Seltsi Rootsis aastaraamat XV. 2010-2014), Ants Anderson (Ed, Stockholm, 2015), from Guide to Castles in Estonia, Mart Helme (Kunst, Estonia, 2003), from The Four Oldest Churches of Tallinn (Morgan Studio, Estonia, 2006), and from External Links: Archaeology: The First Vikings, and The Balts, Marija Gimbutas (1963, previously available online thanks to Gabriella at Vaidilute, but still available as a PDF - click or tap on link to download or access it), and Rurik of Novgorod and the Varangian DNA, and History of Estonia (Country Studies), and The Missionary Man: Archbishop Anders Sunesen and the Baltic Crusade, 1206-21, Torben K Nielsen (Crusade and Conversion on the Baltic Frontier 1150-1500, Routledge, 2001, available via Taylor Francis).)

1st century AD

The Roman historian Tacitus mentions the Aestii. He says, '...they worship the Mother of the gods. They wear, as emblem of this cult, the masks of boars, which stand them in stead of armour or human protection and ensure the safety of the worshipper even among his enemies. They seldom use weapons of iron, but cudgels often. They cultivate grain and other crops with a patience quite unusual among lazy Germans'. This alone suggests that he is not referring to Estonians as they are well clear of any Germanic settlements.

Map of European Tribes
The Finno-Ugric tribes of the first centuries BC and AD sat largely to the north-east of the continental Germanic tribes and east of those in southern Scandinavia (click or tap on map to view at an intermediate size)

He continues: 'Nor do they omit to ransack the sea; they are the only people to collect the amber - glaesum is their own word for it - in the shallows or even on the beach [more a practice of Latvians, Lithuanians, and Prussians than Estonians]. Like true barbarians, they have never asked or discovered what it is or how it is produced. For a long time, indeed, it lay unheeded like any other jetsam, until Roman luxury made its reputation. They have no use for it themselves. They gather it crude, pass it on unworked and are astounded at the price it fetches...'

The Roman Iron Age is a relatively peaceful period in Estonia and Latvia. Only a few hill forts of later periods have yielded some finds which date to this period, suggesting that the few strongholds are used rarely and only in times of need. The aforementioned Germanics, located along the southern Baltic coast, eventually migrate towards the Roman empire, leaving tracts of land either depopulated for a time or entirely empty.

254

By this time, the Suevi have formed a wide-ranging confederation of tribes that are all known individually but which are counted as being Suevi. The vast number of tribes included in the confederation include the Aestii, Angles, Aviones, Buri, Cotini, Eudoses, Gutones, Hermunduri (who have virtually ceased to exist as a recognisable independent people), Langobards, Lugii (a name applied to several tribes: the Harii, Helisii, Helveconae, Manimi, and Naharvali), Marcomanni, Marsigni, Quadi, Naristi, Nuitones, Osi, Reudigni, Semnones, Sitones, Suardones, Suiones (Swedes), and the Warini.

FeatureAt some point between the third and fifth centuries AD, the ancestors of the later Vironians settle the area around the present theatre hill in Rakvere. The settlement is protected by a stronghold called Tarvanpää which is erected on Vallimägi. It remains active until Estonia is conquered by crusaders, after which it is rebuilt in stone as Rakvere Castle (see feature link).

c.500

Describing a Europe of about AD 500, the Old English poem Widsith mentions several Germanic peoples, not all of whom can be properly identified, alongside more obvious peoples such as the Angles, Burgundians, Danes, Finns, Geats, Jutes, and Ostrogoths. A King Caelic is mentioned for the Finns, a presumed reference to Kaleva or Kalev, a national figure for both Finland and Estonia.

Kalevipoeg
The Estonian artist, Oskar Kallis, depicted Kalevipoeg in his traditional form of a giant, perhaps mixed with a little Viking, in this pastel from 1915, but the giants of legend are usually accepted as being descriptive forms of earlier, pre-Christian peoples

The national epic of the later nation state of Estonia, Kalevipoeg (Son of Kalev), tells of a time in which Christianity is pushing Kalev and his pagan sons to the edges of society where they stubbornly resist conversion and are eventually ostracised completely.

early 6th century

An Aestii mission visits the court of the Ostrogothic king of Italy, Theodoric the Great, bringing with it gifts of amber. This occurs in the middle of a kind of golden age for the Finno-Ugric and Baltic peoples, as they experience a period of relative wealth and prosperity earned through strong trading contacts.

c.600

The Finnic-speaking tribes of the Baltic coast are beginning to change. They share the strong trading connections of their Baltic neighbours (such as Lats and Lithuanians), but possibly experience some conflict as a result.

Around this time, the Ungenois people of southern Estonia erect a fortress by the name of Tarbatu on the eastern side of the Dome Hill (Toomemägi - approximately where the Astronomical Observatory now stands). Presumably this is in response to an external threat, probably to their newly-acquired wealth. In fact, the threat may be the Balts themselves. The numerous Baltic tribes are currently ruled by powerful chieftains and landlords, a system which remains in place until the beginning of recorded history in the region.

Among the Baltic tribes the Prussians and Couronians continue to play leading roles. In the previous century or so, the Lets have expanded their territory to cover much of what is now northern Latvia, replacing the previously dominant Finno-Ugric tribes there, the early Estonians. The Finno-Ugric Livs remain in position, though, so that they are eventually absorbed into Latvia.

Map of the Baltic tribes around AD 1000
By about AD 1000 the final locations of the Baltic tribes were well known by the Germans who were beginning their attempts to subdue and control them, although the work would take a few centuries to complete and the Lithuanians would never be conquered by them (click or tap on map to view full sized)

early 7th century

King Ingvar, son of Eystein, ventures into Estonia to pillage from the 'eastern pirates' in retribution for attacks on Sweden. When he arrives at an unidentified place named Stein, he is attacked by a great Estonian army which had been assembled much further inland. The Estonians overwhelm the Swedish force and Ingvar falls. The surviving Swedes withdraw and Ingvar is buried in a mound on the Estonian shore.

The problem of 'Eastern Vikings' as they come to be known, will only escalate. It is primarily the coastal strip of Courland (now in Latvia) and the island of Saaremaa which are home to these 'pirates', with them proving to be every bit as militaristic as their Scandinavian Viking opponents.

700 - 750

Two ships filled with Viking warriors who have been killed in battle are uncovered by archaeologists on the island of Saaremaa in 2008. The carefully stacked remains of thirty-three men have been buried in the ship that had brought them from Scandinavia to Saaremaa more than a century before the Vikings are thought to have been able to sail across such distances. They are almost certainly Swedes who have been conducting a raid but have been defeated by the island's determined defenders - a sign of many battles to come.

Map of Eastern Europe AD 862-882
Viking remains found on Saaremaa
Two ships were filled with Viking warriors who were killed in battle between AD 700-750, proof of a Viking raid more than a century before the Vikings are thought to have been able to sail such distances, while above is a map displaying early Rus strongholds, with one bordering Estonian lands (click or tap on map to view full sized)

862

Viking interest and exploration into the Slavic lands to the east of the Baltic states has been building up for some time. According to tradition, in this year a Kven Viking named Rurik founds the 'Rus' state with his headquarters at Novgorod and with a population that is made up of Eastern Slav, Finno-Ugric, and Baltic people. His brothers Sineus (Signiutr) and Truvor (Thorwardr) govern the Slav centres at Beloozero (modern Belozersk) and Izborsk (bordering the Eesti) respectively (see map, above).

900s

The ancient Iru stronghold which lays not far from the later city of Tallinn is abandoned by the ancestors of the later Harrian Estonians in favour of a new fortress on the mound of Toompea (the high hill about the later Old Town (Vanalinn) area of Tallinn). The new fortress is not a permanent residence, but is a place in which to take refuge in times of trouble.

1030 - 1061

The Ungenois centre around Tartu is occupied for a short time after it is conquered by Prince Yaroslav I the Wise of Kyiv in 1030. Tribute is possibly paid until 1061, when a Kievan chronicle notes that Yuryev is burned down by another tribe of Ugaunians (Chudes in the Slavic language).

That act could be the culmination of increasing resistance against the Kievans. In 1060 they launch a military campaign against a tribe which the Old East Slavic chronicles call the Sosols, believed to be the Sakala people to the west of the Ungenois. They too are forced to pay tribute. In 1061 they rise up against the Kievans to destroy the Kievan fortress of Yuryev (either contradicting the claim that this is done by the Ungenois or, possibly, in alliance with them even though the two are usually inimical to one another). The Sosols at least then go on to threaten Pskov on the eastern edge of Seto territory.

Sviatopolk I 'the Accursed'
Yaroslav of Novgorod was the lone survivor of the attempted massacre of he and his many brothers by another of them - Sviatopolk (shown here) - who was killed by Yaroslav himself after just four years in command

1154

The world atlas by the Arabic geographer Muhammad al-Idrisi is commissioned by the Norman king of Sicily, Roger II. It contains an entry for a place which is normally identified as Tallinn, describing it as a small town with a large stronghold.

1167

FeatureIn the course of forming the bishopric of Lund in Sweden, the monk Falco of France is appointed bishop of Estonia. It appears that an Estonian-born monk with the clearly Germanised name of Nicolaus von Jeroschin is appointed to be his assistant, although their attempts to establish Christianity in Estonia are not especially successful in the early days of such attempts. However, it does seem that they establish at least one chapel, that of Saha.

1167 - ?

Falco / Fulco Ocist

Bishop of Estonia for the bishopric of Lund in Sweden.

1170

Denmark is fast rising as a great military and merchant power, and it is in its interest to end the Estonian and Couronian pirate attacks which threaten its Baltic trade. These come from the island of Ösel (Saaremaa, the richest area of Estonia) and the later province of Courland respectively, and the people of both of them are known collectively as the notorious Eastern Vikings. To that end, a Danish fleets now makes an attack against Estonia. In this year an intense two-day battle at sea ensues off the coast of the island of Gotland (although three days of fighting is also given).

By now, some of the Finnic tribes which later make up the state of Estonia can clearly be identified, such as the Alempois (central Estonia), Harria (in the north), Ugaunians or Ungenois (Chudes or Chuds to the early Rus), Sakalans (in the south-west), and Vironians (modern Viru in the south). Each tribe, or parish, in Estonia is headed by a council of elders.

Tallinn (Reval)
Unlike this much later representation of pre-industrialisation Tallinn, the early city was little more than a defensive structure on the dome hilltop and a small settlement at its base

c.1185

Sverris saga says that King Sverre's brother, Erik, spends three years around 1185 looting Estonian coastal areas and then sails back to Svitjod in Svealand, to King Knut Eriksson of the Swedes, to whom he is related. Svitjod would seem to be Sigtuna, the most important centre in Svealand.

1187

FeatureThe 'pagans of the Eastern Sea' (Estonians of Saaremaa, Couronians, and Sambians (Zembs) of Old Prussia) conquer Sigtuna, the most important town of the Swedes, which they then burn down. The Swedish Eric's Chronicle of 1335 blames the Finnish Karelians for the attack. More recently, Professor Kustaa Vilkuna has suggested that the raid is in revenge for Sigtuna's merchants having intruded upon Kven fisheries on the River Kemijoki and the hunting grounds of the Karelians. The medieval naming of a settlement in the village of Liedakkala by the River Kemijoki as 'Sihtuuna' may be additional confirmation of this.

1194 & 1197

Danish fleets makes a second attack on Estonia in 1194, and a third attack follows in 1197. The efforts probably fail to end the problem of raiding by 'Eastern Vikings', leading to more direct action in 1206.

c.1200

The Chronicle of Henry of Livonia describes a clearly non-Slavic tribe called the Vindi (German Winden, English Wends). They live in Courland and Livonia, clearly as the northernmost remnants of the Venedi. The tribe's name is preserved in the River Windau (in Latvian this is the Venta), which has the town of Windau (the Latvian Ventspils) at its mouth. It is also preserved in Wenden, the old name for the town of Cēsis in Livonia.

Wends
A personification of the early Wends was presented by a gospel book of 990 which showed them as the Sclavinia (early Slavs, of which the westernmost groups were known as Wends), plus Germania, Gallia, and Roma, all of whom were bringing tribute to Holy Roman emperor Otto III

At the start of the second millennium, there are two countries or people occupying this region, called Ventava (the Ventspils area) and Vanema to its east. It is unclear whether these are names that relate to the Venedi or not, although given the location it seems likely. In possibly opposition to this is the fact that 'vene' words are in common use across the north both today and two thousand years ago, and even further south (witness the Vindilici of Raetia and the Veneti of Italy). Even the modern Estonian word for Russians is 'Vene', suggesting that the word existed before the Russians, perhaps being used to denote previous neighbours in the same territory.

1201 - 1202

Bishop Albert from Bremen in Germany lands in the Baltics with his followers at the mouth of the River Väina and founds the Livonian town of Riga (in modern Latvia). Europeans are becoming hungry for land at this point, and others follow the lead set by the German bishops in invading the pagan Baltic territories. In 1202 Bishop Albert founds the Order of the Knights of the Sword for the purposes of conquest and Christianisation in the Baltics. This marks the beginning of the Northern Crusade.

1206

The Danish king, Valdemar II, and Archbishop Andreas Sunonis (Anders Sunesen), launch a raid on Ösel (Saaremaa). The islanders are forced to submit and the Danes build a fortress there, but they can find no volunteers to man it. Relinquishing their brief occupation of the island, they burn the fortress and leave the island.

However, they lay claim to Estonia as their possession, which claim the Pope recognises. Andreas Sunonis (Sunesen), archbishop of Lund, is granted the position of governor of Ösel and Estonia itself, despite having no territory to govern. His position - as vice regent of North Estonia is confirmed in 1219.

Livonian Knights
The Livonian Knights - otherwise known as the Livonian Brethren of the Sword, the Order of the Knights of the Sword, or more simply as the 'Order' or 'Brethren' - did the dirty work of extinguishing resistance to the German crusaders and their imposition of order on the Estonian and northern Balt tribes

1208 - 1210

The Estonian counties fight various battles to regain lost land from invading forces, ending in their biggest victory at the River Ümera. It is around this time that a particular Estonian chief (or 'elder', a more accurate term for the role played by the leaders of each parish) emerges from Lehola (land of the Sakalans in the central-south of modern Estonia).

One of the very few elders to be named at any period, Lembitu makes an attempt to unite the various Finnic tribes in Estonia to fight against the Order of the Knights of the Sword and German crusaders. He raises an army which numbers several thousands and raids south and east, reaching Pskov in the territory of Novgorod, below Lake Peipsi. The Unguenois and Sakalans also fight their own separate battles, primarily against Riga and Novgorod.

c.1210 - 1217

Lembitu

Estonian chief from Lehola (Sakalans). Killed in battle.

fl 1212

Meeme / Meme

Estonian chief of the Sakalans.

1215 - 1217

Lembitu's stronghold at Suure-Jaani is taken by Germans and Lembitu himself is imprisoned. By 1217 he is released, only to raise a new Estonian army of around six thousand. That army is defeated and Lembitu is killed at the Battle of St Matthew's Day on 21 September 1217, along with Wottele and Maniwalde of the Sakalans.

? - 1217

Wottele

Estonian chief of the Sakalans. Killed in battle.

? - 1217

Maniwalde

Estonian chief of the Sakalans. Killed in battle.

1217 - ?

Unnepeve

Estonian chief of the Sakalans.

1219

A Danish fleet arrives, led by Valdemar II. On 15 June, he attacks the trading town (which will later become Tallinn, meaning 'Danish City') and the fortress which sits on the hill above it called Lindanäs. The battle is a hard-fought one and the Danes are close to admitting defeat when, according to tradition, a red cloth with a white cross falls from the sky, inspiring them to fight on and conquer the town.

The Danish capture of Tallinn in 1219
This painting contains a somewhat romantic depiction of the Battle of Lyndanisse and the discovery of what would be accepted as the Danish national flag, falling from the sky (Archbishop Andreas Sunonis of Lund, soon to be vice-regent of North Estonia, advises the seated King Valdemar II about the victory to come)

The Danes adopt the flag as their own, and it remains the world's oldest national flag. They also establish a stone castle on Toompea, the dome of rock overlooking Tallinn. Valdemar appoints Bishop Andreas Sunonis as the first regent of Tallinn (and North Estonia).

In the same year the Order of the Knights of the Sword raid Vironian lands, aided by contingents of recently christened Lets, Livs, Sakalians, Ugaunians, and 'Jervians' (presumably people of the Alempois). The raid continues for five days, killing and pillaging Vironian people and settlements, before several elders - including Kyriavan and Thabelin - request a truce. Kyriavan admits - without having much of a choice - that he is ready to accept the Christian god. The other Vironian elders also accept Christianity and the German crusaders take the customary hostages in the form of the sons of elders to ensure that the truce is maintained.

? - 1224

Kyriavanus / Kyriavan

Estonian chief of the Vironians. Surrendered to Danes.

? - 1224

Tabelinus / Thabelin of Pudiviru

Estonian chief of the Vironians. Hanged for pro-Germanism.

1220 - 1226

Despite the Danes having conquered Lindanäs in northern Estonia, their control certainly does not extend to western Estonia. Neither does that of Livonia to any great extent, as the fiercely independent and powerful 'Vikings' of Saaremaa are still a force to be reckoned with. Now they cross the Moonsund with a great host and liberate Rotalia County in western Estonia from the people of Svealand, who have conquered Lihula Castle. How long they remain there is unclear, but the fight against the Swedes continues in 1226 when the men of Saaremaa sail back home from Svealand with a great deal of loot and a large number of prisoners.

Vastseliina Castle in Estonia
Vastseliina Castle (now in Võrumaa in Estonia but in the thirteenth century still part of Livonia to the south of the Vironians) was finally destroyed by the Russians during the Great Northern War which ended in 1721

1224

Tabelinus of the Vironians is hanged by the Danes for being suspected of becoming too pro-German in his allegiances, having already accepted baptism from them. The role of the elders is effectively terminated, as Danish and Livonian authority is confirmed in North Estonia and southern-central Estonia respectively.