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New Medieval Books: The House of Hemp and Butter

The House of Hemp and Butter: A History of Old Riga

By Kevin C. O’Connor

Northern Illinois University Press
ISBN: 978-1-5017-4768-7

Detailing the medieval and early modern history of Riga, now the capital city of Latvia. Founded in the twelfth century, the city’s story is one where Germans and other Western Europeans came into contact with the peoples of the Baltic – whether it be in war, trade or religion.


While the book both directly and indirectly addresses any number of disputed issues, it is less a fundamental reimagining of Riga’s past and more a work of synthesis that owes a great debt to those historians who preceded me. What I present here are stories of Riga, woven together into a chronologically ordered narrative. Telling these stories has meant keeping at least four balls in the air at the same time: an examination of Riga’s German-dominated political, religious, and military institutions; sketches of the city’s physical changes over the course of five hundred years; a spotlight on Riga’s oppressed Latvian community; and, in every chapter, discussions of the larger Baltic and European contexts in which Rigans lived, worked, fought, and prayed. A fifth ball is the looming presence of Russia.


Who is this book for?

While this might appear to be a history of just one city, it goes beyond that and those interested in the Baltic region, the Crusades, the Hanseatic League, conversion to Christianity, and German, Polish, Swedish or Russian history will find something to read here. Riga is one of those unique places where many different European peoples interacted.

“There can be no doubt that O’Connor achieves one of his major aims with his wonderfully colourful and evocative story: medieval and early modern Riga must surely now be put alongside the trading towns of northwestern Europe in any subsequent history. With expert sure-footedness, the author carefully avoids the glaring excesses of Latvian, Russian, and German nationalist narratives to deliver a thoughtful and captivating synthesis that will appeal to both specialists and the general public in equal measure. ” ~ review in Baltic Orthodoxy


“O’Connor tells his story well, using a wide focus which embraces notable individuals and the social and cultural life of the city and its people as well as providing clear background information on political and historical events. The detail of his brisk and wide-ranging narration sometimes obscures the larger historical outline, but this is an absorbing and engaging account.” ~ review in the Journal of European Studies

The author

Kevin C. O’Connor is Professor of History at Gonzaga University. He specializes in Baltic and Russian history.

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