“A Wondrous Animal”: Estonians and Latvians in Sixteenth and Seventeenth-Century Scholarly Literature

Stefan Donecker (University of Konstanz)

A satirical poem published in 1707 in the Relationes curiosæ presented a bizarre description of a “wondrous animal,” so repulsive that even the devil himself avoided its presence.  This strange being was known as a “Livonian peasant,” and the learned journal entertained its readers with a meticulous account of its strange and often disgusting habits.

The description in the Relationes curiosæ is a particularly spiteful example of the denigratory attitude towards Estonians and Latvians prevalent in the erudite literature of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  In this paper, I intend to document the stereotypical image of the indigenous Livonians among early modern men of letters. The learned discourse was dominated by two motifs: the alleged vices of the Livonian peasants—in particular their inclination towards superstition, paganism and sorcery—and the question whether the strict system of serfdom was justified and could contribute to the betterment of the villainous peasants.

Up to the early seventeenth century, domestic and foreign scholars rarely distinguished between Estonians and Latvians.  They were aware of the linguistic differences, but they did not consider language to be a significant criterion for the determination of ethnicity.  Instead, they preferred to label all indigenous Livonians as Undeutsche (“non-Germans”), regardless of their language.  This perspective, however, began to change in the mid-seventeenth century. Estonians and Latvians came to be classified as separate ethnic groups, and scholars assigned to them particular ethnic characteristics that diversified the common “non-German” stereotype, a shift in ethnic categorization rooted in the methodological innovations of seventeenth-century ethnography.

Comments are closed.