The Baltic
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The Baltic

A History

Michael North, Kenneth Kronenberg

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The Baltic

A History

Michael North, Kenneth Kronenberg

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About This Book

In this overview of the Baltic region from the Vikings to the European Union, Michael North presents the sea and the lands that surround it as a Nordic Mediterranean, a maritime zone of shared influence, with its own distinct patterns of trade, cultural exchange, and conflict. Covering over a thousand years in a part of the world where seas have been much more connective than land, The Baltic: A History transforms the way we think about a body of water too often ignored in studies of the world's major waterways.The Baltic lands have been populated since prehistory by diverse linguistic groups: Balts, Slavs, Germans, and Finns. North traces how the various tribes, peoples, and states of the region have lived in peace and at war, as both global powers and pawns of foreign regimes, and as exceptionally creative interpreters of cultural movements from Christianity to Romanticism and Modernism. He examines the golden age of the Vikings, the Hanseatic League, Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, and Peter the Great, and looks at the hard choices people had to make in the twentieth century as fascists, communists, and liberal democrats played out their ambitions on the region's doorstep.With its vigorous trade in furs, fish, timber, amber, and grain and its strategic position as a thruway for oil and natural gas, the Baltic has been—and remains—one of the great economic and cultural crossroads of the world.

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Vikings, Slavs, and Balts

Focus on Wolin

In the tenth century, Wolin, which is situated at the mouth of the Oder River, was the commercial center of the Baltic region, with a harbor, a settlement of fishermen and craftsmen, and a cemetery with richly ornamented tombs. Along a stretch of four kilometers stood large houses, many ornamented on plots of equal size, which could be reached by walking along narrow alleyways paved with wooden planks. The town was home to smithies, glass and comb makers, amber workers, potters, and boat builders. Because Wolin was well situated along trade routes, its trading partners stretched from the Rhineland in the west to Lake Mälaren in Sweden to Russia in the east. It was a seven-day overland journey from Hamburg. But merchants and travelers could take a boat from Schleswig or Oldenburg, which would get them to Novgorod in two weeks. The chronicler Adam of Bremen described Wolin’s heyday:
It is truly the largest of all cities that Europe has to offer, in which live Slavs and other tribes, Greeks, and barbarians. Even the foreigners from Saxony have received equal settlement rights, although they may not openly profess their Christianity during their stay. They all still remain captive to their pagan heresies; other than that, it would be hard to find another people more honorable and friendly in their way of life and hospitality. The city is full of wares from all the peoples of the north; nothing desirable or rare is unobtainable. Here there is a beacon, which the inhabitants call the Greek fire.1
The mythic city of Vineta was to be sought in Wolin; however, Wolin was unable to maintain its independence in the face of Polish kings, who controlled the mouth of the Oder. The city lost much of its importance after incursions by the Danes in the twelfth century. At this point, Stettin (Szczecin) became the center of power of the Pomeranian princes and the leading mercantile city in the region.2
Map 1. The Baltic region in the 9th and 10th centuries

The Vikings

The Vikings, or Norsemen, made their first appearance in sources from the late eighth century, when they attacked monasteries in the British Isles, such as Lindisfarne on the coast of Northumberland (793) and St. Philibert at the mouth of the Loire (799). Here is how Alcuin of York (ca. 735–804) described the attack of 793 in a letter to King Ethelred of Northumbria:
Lo, it is nearly 350 years that we and our fathers have inhabited this most lovely land, and never before has such terror appeared in Britain as we have now suffered from a pagan race, nor was it thought that such an inroad from the sea could be made. Behold, the church of St. Cuthbert spattered with the blood of the priests of God, despoiled of all its ornaments; a place more venerable than all in Britain is given as a prey to pagan peoples.3
Several explanations have been given for their sudden appearance, including population pressures and land shortages that forced people to sea, the combativeness of young men, and the desire for easy plunder. Tribal leadership (chieftains) constantly had to be defended and reasserted. This not only required success in war and the reputation flowing from it, but also a large following, which a successful warrior could keep in line only by the constant distribution of spoils. The Frankish Empire, which was expanding at the time, presented an easy target for pillage. In spite of the efforts of Pippin and Charlemagne, their territory was not yet consolidated, let alone defensible at all points. Boats and nautical know-how were essential to success, and the Vikings possessed both in abundance. They were able to sail or row their seaworthy boats across the open North and Baltic Seas without having to orient themselves by coastal landmarks. With their smaller boats, they could also penetrate the interior, where nary a riverfront port was safe from their depredations.4
The Vikings profited greatly from the expansion in Frisian trade, whose riches they were easily able to make their own. Dorestad, at the mouth of the Rhine, and Domburg, on the island of Walcheren, had developed into trading centers where Frisian farmer-merchants no longer went to sea as a sideline but began to live exclusively from trade and craftwork. One manifestation of the intensity of this trade are the Frisian (and also English) sceat coins, which spread as far as Scandinavia. The Vikings attacked Dorestad regularly in the 830s and 840s. This was a call to action for the Frankish Empire, whose kings tried to protect their monasteries and trading centers while at the same time engaging some of the Viking chieftains politically by playing rivals off against each other.
But the invaders set up power bases not only in Scandinavia, but on the islands of the North Sea as well. The Danish kings, who from their base in Jutland had conquered chieftains and minor royal houses, initially controlled the neighboring islands as well as the passage between the Baltic Sea and the North Sea. They extended their influence as far as Viken and the area surrounding the Oslofjord as well as in the south to the coast of the English Channel. In the middle of the ninth century, the Danes conquered the eastern half of England, making York their headquarters. The Danes also challenged the Norwegians in Ireland, which they had settled along with the Orkney, Shetland, and Hebrides Islands. However, the Danes continued to threaten the Frankish Empire as well. After the division of the empire in 843, the kingdom of West Francia in particular was subject to Viking incursions; in 845, they rowed up the Seine to Paris, where the city was saved only by paying 7,000 pounds of silver in tribute. Fortifications in West Francia began to provide protection from the Vikings only in about 870.
The Vikings then shifted their activities to the British Isles, where the Anglo-Saxon kings had at times succeeded in shaking off Danish rule. But between the turn of the tenth century and the eleventh century, the Danes under kings Sweyn Forkbeard and Canute the Great reestablished Danish dominion over Norway and the Anglo-Saxons, who were forced to pay annual tribute to Denmark in the form of noble metals. This so-called danegeld was assessed in eight large installments between 991 and 1040, the total coming to 248,647 pounds of silver, or almost 60 million pennies.5
Furthermore, the East and the Baltic region presented significant possibilities for expansion and the accumulation of wealth. Pelts and furs from eastern regions were much desired in western markets in the eighth century, and the resources of the East were systematically exploited thereafter. The Svear from Sweden, known in the Slavic sources as Rus’ or Varangians (Varjagi), were especially active in this trade. They settled in Staraya Ladoga—approximately 15 kilometers from the mouth of the Volkhov River—along Lake Ladoga, Lake Ilmen, and the upper reaches of the Dnieper River, where they lived in close proximity to Slavs, Finns, and Balts. They reached the Arab world by way of the Don River, the Volga River, or the Caspian Sea, where they obtained or stole large quantities of silver. This is documented by archeological evidence.6 Arab sources, compiled by the Persian astronomer Ibn Rustah, tell of the Varangians:
With their ships they undertake forays against the Slavs, and upon arriving, take them prisoner and bring them to the capital of the Khazars and to Bolghar, where they put them up for sale. They have no seed fields, but eat only that which they export from the land of the Slavs … their employment consists entirely in trade in sable, squirrel, and other pelts. They sell these pelts to their customers, and in exchange they receive a small fortune in coin, which they tie to their belts.7
Another Arab historian, al-Masudi (ca. 896–956), described an attack on the inhabitants of the Caspian Sea in the tenth century. A Varangian fleet had appeared in Constantinople as early as 860. Byzantium responded by embracing the Varangians and concluding trade agreements with them. In Kiev, along the middle stretch of the Dnieper, another stronghold of the Scandinavians in the Slavic lands, the Byzantines founded a trading settlement with a church, whose religious services had an influence on the pagans to the north and the Slavic population. The chieftains of the Varangians surrounded themselves with Scandinavian followers, one of whom, Rurik (ca. 830–879) was the founder of the old Russian Rurikid dynasty. Rurik and his son Oleg built strongholds, which they filled with their followers to maintain control of the territory. The regional principalities of Novgorod, Pskov, Polock, and Rostov originated under Rurik’s rule. The subsequent rulers of the Kievan Rus’, Igor and Olga, were also of Scandinavian origin, as were their retinue, but their son and dynastic successor, Sviatoslav (died 972), represented a more Slavicized trend, as his name implies. The warriors who served in the imperial palace guard in Byzantium were not from Scandinavia alone. Slavs, Balts, and Finns were included in a cultural community with the Varangians, as can be seen in trade documents between the Kievan princes and Byzantium. Whereas the agreement of 911 contained negotiations with only fifteen emissaries of Scandinavian descent, by 944, twenty-six such emissaries and twenty-eight merchants were mentioned. Judging by the names, a large majority was Scandinavians (forty-seven), but five Baltic Finns or men of Finnish descent, one (Lithuanian) Yotvingian, and possibly one Slav were also represented. The latter were mainly employed as boat builders and possibly also as shippers in the trade with Byzantium.8

The Slavs

In the fourth and fifth centuries, the Germanic tribes that had settled along the southern coast of the Baltic Sea left their homes during what has become known as the Migration Period and migrated south and east. A small Germanic population remained behind. During the second half of the seventh century, Slavic tribes presumably migrated into these now more thinly settled regions. They are first mentioned in about 780 as Obotrites in connection with the battle between the Frankish Empire and Saxony. The Obotrites, who settled between eastern Holstein and the Warnow River, were joined by the tribal confederation of the Veleti, who may possibly have settled in the region earlier. The island of Rügen was populated by the Rani, whose political and religious capital was the temple at Cape Arkona, where their chief god Svantevit was venerated. Ukrani and Müritzians settled to the south along the Uecker River and Lake Müritz. Finally, we find Pomeranians east of the Oder, along with Wolins at the mouth of the Oder and Prissani (Pyritzans) to the south. To the southeast, along the middle stretch of the Warte River, was the settlement area of the Polans, who in the tenth century formed the core of the Polish Piast dynasty.9
The sometimes openly hostile tribal confederations not only competed with each other, they were also subject to the hegemonic claims of the Franks and the Kingdom of East Francia, which later became the German Empire, and its rulers, and to the expansion of Denmark and Poland. This created not only the potential for numerous political alliances, but also the risk of being crushed between internal and external enemies. As a result, Christian rulers did not shy away from “unholy” alliances with Slavic “pagans” against Christian states; nor did Slavic tribes turn down compacts of convenience with German and Danish kings against their Slavic neighbors or adversaries within their own tribe.
The eighth and ninth centuries were characterized by the expansion of the Frankish Empire and later by that of the Ottonians into the territory of the Obotrites and Veleti. In addition, the Danes conquered the southern Baltic coast, and the Poles annexed Pomerania. The Ottonians attempted to expand their rule, especially to the Slavic regions east of the Elbe River. Here, the margraves put in place by Otto I would conquer new territory and Christianize the Slavs. As a result, Otto founded the Bishoprics of Brandenburg and Havelberg, in 948, and the Oldenburg Obotrite mission in Holstein, in 968.
Very few sources have come down to us regarding political organization. We do know that the tribes were headed by kings, princes, or chieftains, with Obotrite kings sometimes leading the tribal confederations. Hereditary princes, who mainly came from a noble caste, were seated in fortified castles along with their retinue. They lived mainly from the taxes and services levied on the surrounding villagers. In some tribes, as with the Veleti, the people’s assembly was an important institution. Among the successors of the Lutici Federation, the noble and priestly caste exercised power through the people’s assembly. Here, military, political, and sacred functions were exercised by one man. The temple at Rethra, dedicated to their chief god Svarožić, served as the center of the federation and was where meetings took place.
The Slav rebellion of 983, which drove out the political and religious representatives of the Ottonian Empire, and during which the Bishoprics of Havelberg and Brandenburg and numerous churches and monasteries were destroyed or plundered, started with the Lutici. The emperor and his margraves were powerless against this uprising. At the start of the eleventh century, the Lutici Federation, in turn, became valued allies of the German kings Henry II and Conrad II in their disputes with Poland. However, by the twelfth century, the Lutici were no longer able to withstand Pomeranian and Obotrite expansion.
For many years, the Obotrite tribal princes were able to maintain their rule in alliances with the Frankish Empire and Denmark. From the time of Prince Nakon (960s), who resided in Mecklenburg Castle, we see an uninterrupted princely dynasty, which stabilized the Obotrite state based on castles, taxes, and military service. Gottschalk, the first baptized Obotrite prince, established a bishopric in Mecklenburg in the eleventh century, and he had monasteries and churches built on the properties of other castles as well. This process of Christianization and consolidation of rule was, however, interrupted by the aristocracy, which was allied with the Lutici and maintained its allegiance to the pagan cults. Gottschalk’s son Henry, who returned from Danish exile in 1090, managed to reassert the power lost by his father. He built a favorably situated residence at Liubice (“Old Lübeck”) in the western region of his territorial dominion and tried to increase its prestige by minting coins.10
Written confirmation of a Polish state federation has come down to us from the 960s. It is presumed that rule became consolidated in the ninth century among the tribe of Polans, who were agricultural...

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