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Estonian small towns in the Middle Ages: archaeology and the history of urban defense

Map of Livonia from the 16th centuryEstonian small towns in the Middle Ages: archaeology and the history of urban defense

By Rivo Bernotas

Ajalooline Ajakiri: The Estonian Historical Journal, Vol.3 (2013)

Abstract: Town defenses are central elements of townscapes. The defensive purpose of their construction was as important as their significance as a town symbol. The purpose of the current article is to summarize the material gathered from the excavations of the medieval town walls from the Estonian towns of Viljandi, Haapsalu, and Narva, to discuss when they were erected, and to analyze what their place was in Old Livonian and Baltic contexts. Although fortifying the towns seemed to have been quite widespread in Old Livonia, the similar trend was not followed in adjacent areas such as in Scandinavia. According to the information discussed in this article, it might be concluded that the average development from rudimentary urban settlement to walled medieval town in the Estonian territory took around 50–100 years. The town walls were erected in the Estonian territory probably in the fourteenth century. The tendency to dispense the towns into typologies on the basis of the landlord does not seem to find much support. It might be suggested, that walling the towns in the Old Livonian area was a phenomenon of Western European culture represented by German settlers, rather than a widespread tendency around the Baltic.

The main period for the construction of urban defenses in Europe was during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The contemporary Estonian area – the northern part of medieval Old Livonia – was conquered during the Livonian Crusades by the Danes and Germans at the beginning of thirteenth century and subsequently divided into feudal principalities by the lands of the Bishopric of Tartu (Dorpat), the Bishopric of Saare-Lääne (Ösel-Wiek), and the lands ruled by the Livonian Order. The northern parts became a Duchy of Estonia (1219–1346) under the Danish reign. There were six stone-walled towns located in this territory. Now the aboveground parts of the walls are preserved only in sporadic fragments. The exception here is Tallinn (Reval), the only town with almost fully-preserved medieval fortifications, and understandably it has attracted the attention of most researchers so far. Recently articles have been published from the archaeological point of view covering the town walls of Tartu and Uus-Pärnu (Neu-Pernau). The walls of small towns – Viljandi (Fellin), Haapsalu (Hapsal), Narva – are preserved only in the ground and written sources are rare, therefore in addition to pictorial and cartographic material they must be studied by archaeologists. The archaeological investigation of the medieval walls of Estonian small towns has unfortunately so far been scarce. The publications cover predominantly specific excavations, although for single cases more detailed reviews have been published. In most cases, the research was conducted as archaeological monitoring, with periodic instances of archaeological excavations.

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