To Be or Not to Be… a Christian: Some New Perspectives on Understanding the Christianisation of Estonia
By Tõnno Jonuks and Tuuli Kurisoo
Folklore: Vol. 55 (2013)
Abstract: The Christianisation of Estonia has been a subject of extensive research already for a couple of centuries. Archaeologists generally agree that some elements of Christian religion were present in Estonia already prior to official Christianisation at the beginning of the 13th century. Still, speculations about what those elements were and what they meant have been avoided. We suggest that the materiality of Christianity is wider than traditional cross pendants, and other objects carrying Christian symbols should be considered as well. As a conclusion, we outline some Christian elements that were probably used by local people before the official baptism; to describe these people, a new concept – prehistoric Christians – has been taken into use.
Introduction: Christianisation can be regarded as one of the most important research issues in the studies of the history of religions in Estonia. It became an actively debated issue in Estonian religiosity already during the 18th-century Enlightenment, when Baltic-German scholars developed the first general approaches to Estonian and Livonian history. Since then it has remained the fundamental issue in a majority of studies concerning the religions of ancient Estonia. Christianisation is a crucial issue not only in Estonia, but could be regarded as one of the main topics also in the whole of northern Europe. It certainly has several reasons in addition to religious change, and for a researcher one of the most important of them is differences in sources. It is common that writing skills (at least in today’s meaning) spread together with Christianity, which also brought along literary sources more informative than the previous limited inscriptions or archaeological remains.
But Christianisation also meant a new administrative system, in many senses new nobility and new, urban culture. Such a difference was especially dramatic in Estonia but could also be observed all over northern Europe. In addition, Christianity carried a new kind of identity, in which the earlier, originbased cognition was replaced by a new, world-based religion. In conclusion, all of this indicates that Christianisation led us to a new period of history, which also justifies such a great interest in the origin of the process.
But the issue of identity is also important in studying the Estonian nationality. The first researchers, the Baltic-German enlighteners in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, created an approach of a cultural gulf before and after Christianisation, pointing at free and pagan Estonians before the violent Crusade. As this is also the core of Estonian Grand Narrative, Christianisation, often seen as hostile and alien, has become a milestone in studying the Estonian identity.