Saaremaa in written source PDF Prindi
Saaremaa in written source

  • Saaremaa in the Viking Age

  • Saaremaa 1100 - 1227

  • Saaremaa in the 13th and 14th Centuries

  • In order to understand the landscape one sees, the picture is made much richer by a knowledge of the history of the place. The following is from Marika Mägi's At the Crossroads of Space and Time. Marika Mägi has done considerable archaeological work on Saaremaa, and her findings are reinterpreting much of what was heretofore held as dogma in archaeological circles.

    Only a few writings concerning prehistoric Estonia have survived up to our days. Estonian society itself was obviously still in a pre-literate stage during this period and the chroniclers, usually of southern origin, only seldom came to mention this "faraway end of the world". The few brief descriptions that exist are often of doubtful value, written during or after milirary campaigns by hostile enemy chroniclers.

    Even if Estonians did have a tradition of epic ballads comparable to Scandinavian sagas, none of them have been preserved. After the country was conquered by foreign powers, the local nobility was gradually assimilated to German culture during the following centuries. Historians believe that especially after the uprising of St. George's Night in 1343, language became the main signifier of social status here: peasants and other lower classes spoke Estonian, whereas the aristocracy spoke German. Linguistic segregation probably started even before the uprising, i.e. at about the time when Scandinavian sagas were written down. In Estonia , where the political situation did not favor the development of local culture, a similar interest in oral tradition would have been out of question.

    Saaremaa in the Viking Age

    On Scandinavian runic stones, Estonia has been mentioned several times, usually in the context of Scandinavian heros who perished there. Often different regions of Estonia are mentioned (uirlant - Vironia, the northern part of present Estonia, iflant - Livonia, isilu - Saaremaa (Ösel), etc.) or the name "Estonia" in some form appears in surnames (aistafir, aistulf, aistr, aists, estulfr, est(t)mon, estr, est). In one case, on the so-called Frugarden stone in Västergötland, the toponym has been given in the plural - i estlatum which gives grounds for presuming that estland could have been used to signify different regions of Estonia. Eistland might also have meant both a certain region in Estonia, or the whole country.

    In most of the Scandinavian sagas, Saaremaa is called Eysysla, ey standing for an island and sysla for an administrative unit. The name Saaremaa in Estonian means approximately the same: saar is an island and maa is land, district. Sysla has been the name used for administrative districts especially in southern Scandinavia and thus the application of the term for an Estonian island is fairly unexpected. In contrast, the name Adalsysla was used to signify the land opposite of Eysysyla, Saaremaa, i.e. either western Estonia or possibly even the whole of mainland Estonia.

    In the case of Saaremaa, Eysysla should probably be translated as a "district of islands", indicating thus Saaremaa as the main island, but also Muhumaa and the Sõrve peninsula, which at the time formed a separate island, and also the small islands and islets along the coastline of Saaremaa, most of which have become a part of Saaremaa as the land has risen. One can collate this with the 13th century chronicle of Henry the Livonian, who uses the term Osilia to signify all the above-mentioned islands.

    It can be presumed that the old name used for Saaremaa - Kuressaar - meant only the main island, whereas Saaremaa stood for the whole archipelago. The names have prompted the theory that in early medieval sources the terms Couronia and Couronians were used for the Osilians too. It must be said that nowadays, including the present study, the name Saaremaa is also understood as standing for the whole district of islands.

    In the early medieval written sources of Scandinavia, Saaremaa is mentioned in connection with Viking raids. In the end of the 10th century there was a battle between the Norwegian jarl Erik, who was ravaging the coasts of Saaremaa, and a four-ship group of Danish Vikings sailing in the same waters. In the Njall saga there is a description of a battle that took place in 972 AD between Icelandic and Estonian Vikings. The battle was fought somewhere near the northern coast of Saaremaa and was won by the Icelanders.

    About 1008 AD Olaf the Holy, who later became the king of Norway, landed on Saaremaa. The Osilians, taken by surprise, had at first agreed to pay the tax he demanded but then gathered an army at the time of the negotiations and attacked the Norwegians. Olaf nevertheless won the battle. Around the year 1030 a Swedish Viking chief called Fröger was killed in a battle on Saaremaa.

    The most detailed description of Viking Age Estonia can be found in the saga of the young Norwegian prince Olaf Trygvasson written by Snorre Sturlusson. In 967 when Olaf was three years old, he was travelling with his mother Estrid and many companions to Novgorod. On the way, Osilian pirates attacked the ship. Both Olaf and his mother were taken prisoners and sold into slavery. Olaf was resold to different owners many times before he was bought on a market by his uncle and thus regained freedom. Years later, Estrid was also freed.

    There are a few general descriptions of Estonia in other sagas, but these are often mythical in nature. In the east jötunds, trolls and dragons were believed to dwell. The chronicle Gesta Hammaburgensis ecclesiae pontificium by Adam of Bremen describes among other topics a big island in the Baltic Sea called Aestland. The inhabitants of this faraway land do not believe in the Christian god but worship dragons and birds, to which they make human sacrifices.

    Saxo Grammaticus tells that the home of the best-known berserk of Ancient Scandinavia - Starkadr - had been Estonia. In a later episode he mentions that Starkadr took part in looting raids to Couronia and Estonia.

    The sossols mentioned in Old-Russian chronicles who were asked to pay a tribute of 2000 grivnas to the Novgorodian prince Izjaslav in 1060 are usually believed to have been Osilians. The sossols chased the tax-gatherers away and launched a miliatry campaign next spring that took them as far as Pskov. In the course of the campaign they conquered the stronghold of Jurjev (present Tartu) and burned down the nearby horomõ, a supposed early town.

    Saaremaa 1100 - 1227

    Since the 12th century, chroniclers' descriptions of Estonian, Osilian and Couronian raids to the coasts of Sweden and Denmark have become more frequent. In the XIV book of Gesta Danorum, written from 1185 to 1222, Saxo Grammaticus describes a battle on Öland that took place in 1170, where the Danish king Valdemar fought with Couronian and Estonian pirates.

    The ravaging and burning of Signtuna has also been connected with Osilians, but different sources do not agree on this point: Karelians, Couronians, Estonians, Novgorodians (or just generally "barbarians from the East") have all beeen considered responsible for the attack. It has been suggested that warriors of various ethnic origin took place in the raid, it is very unlikely that the raid can be attributed solely to Novgorodians as there is no mention of the raid in Novgorodian chronicles.

    In the Chronicle of Henry the Livonian there are numerous references to Osilian piracy. This chronicle is the most detailed, comprehensive and quoted source on prehistoric Estonia, including Saaremaa. It is a typical missionary chronicle, where the monk Henricus describes the events of the Crusade that was carried out by the Order of the Brethern of the Sword in present Latvia and Estonia. The chronicle embraces events from 1184 to 1227, concluding with the so-called Fight for Freedom from 1208 to 1227 that marked the end of the prehistoric period in Estonia. The chronicle, written at the request of the Order from 1224 to 1227, was clearly biased and unconditionally supports the Catholic Church and its forces against heathens. The local peoples are described with much contempt whereas the military actions of the Germans are always praised as victorious, great losses in battles with Estonians are only attributed to the Swedes and Danes.

    However, the chronicle has been widely used by Estonian and Latvian archaeologists and historians as it is the main source for these events and especially because it is the only text describing the local society before the conquest of Estonia. Henry the Livonian, though, paid little attention to the social relations and political system of his enemies. As the majority of the events described in the chronicle took place in Latvia and southern Estonia, but perhaps because of language problems or probable personal connections of the author - Henry the Livonian could speak Latviana and is cometimes even believed to have been Latgallian - the description of the tribes who lived in what is today Lativa was much more detailed than that of the Estonians.

    The Osilians are mentioned in the chronicle mainly in connection with their leading position in military actions, some of which indicate more serious politcal motives than just looting. Saaremaa is directly mentioned usually in paragraphs dealing with Osilian piracy and some other military events. Information concerning the politcal and social organisation of the Osilians is very scarce, consisting of a few notes in the final chapter of the chronicle that speaks of the conquest of Saaremaa. Therefore, the majority of historians have automatically attributed the information that Henry the Livonian has written about the rest of Estonia also to Saaremaa. However, the differences that are apparent both in the chronicle and in archaeological material suggest that the grounds for such assumptions are weak.

    In 1203 some inhabitants of Riga, who were sailing back from Germany, encountered a fleet of sixteen ships and five hundred Osilians that were ravaging the southern coast of Sweden, which at the time belonged to Denmark. Later, in the harbor of Visby, the Germans attacked three Osilian ships that had arrived there. Three years later the Danish king Valdermar II and Andreas, the Bishop of Lund, landed on Saaremaa and built a wooden fort there. As the majority of the army had to leave soon and there were no men who were willing to say in the fort, the fort was burned down and the conquerors left without having accomplished anything.

    During the war in the beginning of the 13th centruy, the Osilians, sometimes allied with other regions, often raided mainland Estonia and areas of present Latvia. Besides that, they initiated several counterattacks with joint forces from the mainland against the conquerors. In 1215 nine ships sailed from Riga ro Germany and were forced to seek shelter from the storm in the so-called New Harbor on Saaremaa where they were attacked by the Osilians. The Germans together with the Estonian bishop Theodorich escaped the siege only by a lucky chance. In 1216 the Order and the bishop joined forces to go over the frozen sea to Saaremaa where they ravaged and besieged a fort with little success. Henry, who usually describes only the great victories of the Germans, surprises the reader with a scene where panic breaks out among the retreating troops of the Order, caused by a random cry "Maleva (the term used for the ancient Estonian army) is coming!". Some of the warriors collapsed and died of cold and fatigue as the army fled in haste. In revenge, the Osilians raided areas under German rule in Latvia the following spring.

    According to Henry, the Osilians were defeated in a battle that took place at Järvamaa in central Estonia in 1220. In the same year the Swedish king Johan, accompanied by jarl Karl and the bishop Karl of Linköping conquered Lihula in West-Estonia. As this action was clearly in conflict with the political interests of the Osilians, they attacked the stronghold in the same year, conquered it and killed the entire Swedish garrison. In 1222 the Danish king Valdemar II organized the second conquest raid to Saaremaa, this time erecting a stone fortress and manning it with a strong garrison. The Oilians also destroyed this fort in a few months.

    It is surprising that despite ongoing war in Estonia the Osilians continued their looting incrusions to Scandinavia. The Papal legate Modena Wilhelm met Osilian ships returning from a raid to Sweded in 1226. In 1227 the Order, the town of Riga and the new Bishop of Riga organized a new attack against Saaremaa in the course of which the Muhu stronghold was completely destroyed and the armies started to besiege Valjala, which has been described by Henry as the center of Saaremaa. The stronghold surrendered quite rapidly and the Osilians accepted Christianity. With this event Henry ends his chronicle.

    Saaremaa in the 13th and 14th Centuries

    The post-conquest centuries offer a slighly richer variety of written records concerning Saaremaa. In spite of the acceptance of Christianity, it is not possible to speak of the final surrender of the Osilians in 1227. Military conflicts between the Germans and the Osilians continued thruout the 13th century, with the consequence of new treaties that were more or less favorable to the Osilians. Saaremaa has also been mentioned in several other documents, e.g. in connection with the so-called Osilian Civil War at the turn of the 13th century or in association with the changes in the land tenure on the island.

    The happenings on 13th century Saaremaa are partly reflected in the Older Rhymed Chrconicle of Livonia that was completed at the request of the Order in the end of the 13th century. In the opening part of the chronicle it describes the wars that had taken place on the territories of presnet Latvia and Estonia at the beginning of the century. Several events that had occurred on Saaremaa, as for example the fall of the Kaarma stronghold in 1261, are known only from this source.

    After the conquest of 1227 Saaremaa was divided between the victors. The division, or rather the tribute exacted from the island, was established according to the amount of ploughlands, without the presence of any representatives of the victors. The amount of ploughlands in one or another district is only sporadically known, thus 200 ploughlands were mentioned on the island of Muhu and altogether 600 ploughlands in the Kilegund district.

    The next written sources mentioning the island were the Osilians' treaties, concluded with the Order of the Brethern of the Sword, later with the Livonian branch of the Teutonic Order, after the Osilians' more or less successful military struggle with these two powers during the 13th century.

    After the defeat of the Order of the Brethern of the Sword in the Battle of Saule in 1236, military action on Saaremaa broke out anew. In the course of the campaign all the clerics on the island were killed and the bishop Heinrich himself had a narrow escape. The result of all that was a treaty that was concluded with the Master of the Order, Andreas Velven, in 1241.

    According to the treaty the Osilians undertook to give the overlord ½ pund (about 84 kg.) of rye per ploughland a year and provide a living for parish clergymen. The Osilians themselves, or more probably their leaders, were responsible for collecting tax revenues and delivering them to the harbors from which they were sent to Riga or West Estonia. The arrangement of tax collecting was obviously based on a previously existing taxation system. If the overlord was short of sea vessels, the Osilians were supposed to rent from Saaremaa the boats and pilots needed for the transportation of taxes.

    Once a year, at the time of collecting the taxes, the Osilians agreed to receive the bailiff, who at the time also had the right to act as judge in secular court proceedings. In addition to the aforementioned clauses in the part concerning court proceedings, the treaty determined the punishments for crimes like infanticide, murder, pagan offerings and eating meat during Lent.

    It is quite likely that, to an extent, warfare in Saaremaa continued also after the 1241 treaty but there are no written records that would confirm this. In the treaty that was signed by the Osilians and the Master of the Order, Anno Sangerhausenn, in 1255, there are allusions to an uprising that had taken place in the meantime. The treaty includes several additional rights granted to the Osilians. A change in the balance of power is also implied by a document from 1254, where Kihelkonna was redivided equally between the Order and the bishop of Ösel-Wiek. Some changes in the border between these two powers in the eastern part of Saaremaa were also documented in the treaty.

    The treaty of 1255 included some interesting clauses concerning the ownership and inheritance of land, the social system and religious rules. Thus it was laid down that if a landowner was exiled from Saaremaa, his heir must seek from the (German) overlord permission to come into the inheritance. If a landowner had killed and was thus obliged to pay wergeld for it to the overlord, on the occasion of his death someone in his family (an inheritor) had to pay it, or the land would be vested in the overlord. The latter appropriated the land also in cases when somebody had killed a landowner in order to inherit his land. The treaty also fixed that suicides would be left unpunished.

    It was constituted in the treaty that the overlord had no claims to the inheritance, i.e. lands, of the thralls (haereditas servorum), if these lands had been vancant on Saaremaa before that year. Herbert Ligi, while indicating the possibility that the serfs had been economically and socially dependent peasants of Saaremaa, believed that they were probably foreign captives or their descendants to whom the Osilians had given some land.

    The representatives of the new overlords, the master of the Order, and the bishop of Ösel-Wiek, could until 1261 remain on Saaremaa only during the tax-collecting period when supreme jurisdiction was also in their hands. The period was determined in the treaty of 1255, and ran every year from St. Michael's Day until Easter. The rest of the year supreme jurisdiction was in the hands of the Osilians themselves. When asked, the Osilians had to support the overlord in military actions, on horseback in winter and with ships in summertime.

    It is worth noting that the treaty of 1251 was sealed with the Osilian coat-of-arms and it included the names of eight Osilians: Ylle, Culle, Enu, Muntelene, Tappete, Yalde, Melete and Cake. Many other Osilians, probably their retainers, had accompanied them. It is probable that these men were the chiefs of Osilian administrative units (which in most cases equalled parishes). As far as is known, Saaremaa with Muhu and Sõrve consisted of eight administrative units.

    Warfare continued in 1261 when the Osilians had again renounced Christianity and killed all the Germans in the couny. That resulted in a raid of the united forces of the Order, the Bishop, Tallinn Danes, mainland Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians. The battle took place at the Kaarma stronghold, the Osilians were defeated and the stronghold conquered. In a short while delegates from other parts of the island arrived at Kaarma and a peace treaty was signed.

    The treaty itself has not been preserved, but soon thereafter, the Order built a stone fort at Pöide, in the center of its lands on Eastern Saaremaa. It is believed that the treaty gave permission to the Order and the Bishop to reside on the island thruout the year.

    In 1298 the co-called Osilian Civil War broke out between Konrad I, the Bishop of West Estonia and Saaremaa, who supported the Bishop of Riga, and the Teutonic Order. A large number of letters from both sides has been preserved, most of them plaints with contradictory contents. The letters mention Osilian vassals some of whom supported the Bishop, some the Order. We can draw the conclusion that the Osilians participated on both sides, in line with their overlords' allegiances. It was the first case mentioned in written sources when the Osilians did not act together in a war, but displayed loyalty to their overlords.

    In the beginning of the war, probably after the lootings of the Order on the Bishop's lands, the Osilians and the Clerics of Saaremaa sent a joint delegation to the Bishop who was in Lihula, and threatened to choose a new overlord if he could not defend them against the Order. The bishop, short of military forces, advised the Osilians to undertake their own defence. While the Osilians took the advice, the Order accused the Bishop of trying to incite the Osilians to revolt. The 80 Osilians who had come probably to negotiate in the Order's stronghold at Pöide, were disarmed and imprisoned. Some of the Osilian vassals allied with the Danes from Tallinn in a battle against the Order that took place in western Estonia, but they were defeated. The forces of the Order than sacked the Bishop's lands on Saaremaa. In the year 1300., all those who had sought refuge in the Kaarma church were killed and the church was desecrated. The majority of the campaign took place in maintland Estonia, though, and continued until the peace treaty in 1302.

    From the beginning of the 14th century, it is known that in the course of further conflicts between the Order and the bishop, pirates from Riga raided the lands of Kihelkonna that belonged to the Order.

    The following written sources about Saaremaa are connected with the uprising of St. George's Night in the middle of the 14th century. Estonian historians have interpreted the uprising differently: as a struggle of peasants against feudal lords, as the last fight for freedom of Estonians against Germans, or as a rebellion of feudal vassals, among them those of Estonian origin, against the Order. It seems to be especially plausible for Saaremaa that vassals of Estonian origin started and headed the revolt.

    By the 24th of July in 1343 the Osilians had again killed all the Germans on the island, drowned all the clerics and started to besiege the castle at Pöide. After the surrender of the castle, the Osilians, despite their former promises, killed all the defenders and levelled the castle. In February 1344, Burchart Dreileben led a war campaign over the frozen sea to Saaremaa. The Osilians' stronghold (which one is not known) was conquered and Vesse, their leader, hanged from a siege engine. Without achieving anything further, the troops of the Order left the island.

    The next campaign of the Order took place in the early spring of 1345. Written sources depicting the last campaign are contradictory, ranging from the description of a complete victory of the Order in the Later Rhymed Chronicle of Livonia, to a recital of losses by the Order which resulted in what was, for the Osilians, a comparatively favorable treaty in the Chronicle of Wartberge. The latter version is consistent with the brief record in the Chronicle of Novgorod that the Order had been defeated on Saaremaa and withdrawn its troops from the island. The conclusion of the treaty was obviously initiated by the leaders of the Osilians as the best solution in the political situation that had developed.

    In summary, taking into consideration the specific character of the 13th to 14th century history of Saaremaa, it is logical to suggest that the local elite of the island kept their privileges, lands and power even after the conquest, and feudalised completely during the next centuries.


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