Bird droppings from Estonia: Hanse Tartu and the Ema-Peipsi barges
Archived Articles 21 Sep 2006 Hilary BirdEWR
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I took the opportunity to do some very enjoyable research for my Tartu guidebook on a recent beautiful Sunday here in old Tartu. I am now on the second draft, and, as my Estonian language skills improve, I am discovering many interesting facts that are described in English in a very eccentric and sometimes barely comprehensible way. This week it has been the turn of the history of Tartu and its relationship to the Ema (Mother) river.

The Ema was always a busy river and, from the 13c on chunky little Hanse cargo boats began to carry goods from western Europe to and from wealthy Novgorod. The Hanse was the rich and powerful alliance of (mostly) German merchant guilds that was the middleman between the North and England, France, Flanders and Germany that dominated trade from the 14 — 17c. The Hanse was not a political organization, but rather an administrative partnership, without a constitution, a chief, bureaucracy or institutional military; their most powerful defence was the trade boycott (Verhansung).

Hanse trading posts stretched from London to Novgorod in NW modern Russia. In England the first Hanse kontor (trading post) was built in London in 1320 on the site of the Cannon St station. It grew into a walled community with its own warehouses, weigh house, church, offices and houses, reflecting its importance. In 1422, it began to be referred to as der Stahlhof (the Steelyard). In addition to the major kontors, there were representatives and warehouses in Bristol (yer!), Boston, Hull, Ipswich, Norwich, Yarmouth, York and Bishop's Lynn (now King's Lyn) that has the sole remaining Hanse warehouse. Eventually, the route south down the Vistula became important and Kraków, too, became a Hanse town. Queen Elizabeth I closed the Steelyard at the same time as Ivan the Terrible closed the kontor in Novgorod, after which the seal and administration moved to Tartu.

Hanse power

Dorpat (modern Tartu) exercised considerable power in the Hanse. It was the furthest member to the NE and had sole jurisdiction over trade negotiations with rich and powerful Novgorod. Novgorod never fully joined the Hanse but German merchants established their first permanent market there as early as 1184 and the German Court‚ (called Peterhof - St Peter's Yard) was established in 1205-7. Peterhof was within the city walls next to the market and it controlled most trade with Rus. Like the London kontor, it had its own church, stables, inns, warehouses and stalls. The German community governed themselves by their own laws and even had their own prison. The Swedes, too, had a Gothic Court.

His Majesty, Lord Novgorod the Great (as it liked to call itself) was, from earliest times, a major trading centre that stood astride the route — from the Varingians [Scandinavia] to the Greeks‚ and was (after Kiev) the second city in medieval Rus. At its height the city had its own government, a territory the size of modern Sweden and a population of around 400,000. The splendour of Novgorod, with its hundreds of churches, its great shops and arsenals and its huge fairs, is the very stuff of legend. Most of the population was literate and used birchbark letters for communication and when Paris and London were drowning in mud, Novgorod was praised by foreigners for its pavements and clean streets. Up to the 11c Novgorod's trade travelled both south via the Volga to Bulgaria, down the Dnieper to Kiev and westward to the Baltic and Scandinavia. But, by the 13c the routes south had declined due to the rise of Rostov (blocking off the river) and the waning of Byzantium. Trade with the west became paramount. Very similar to the relationship of Tzar Putin's Russia vis-à-vis oil and gas, one cannot prevent oneself from commenting!

Imports and exports

Hanse goods from the east were furs, hides, wax, honey, flax, tar and grain. Slaves were shipped to Gotland and Schleswig. The most valuable exports to England were timber for ships and wax for candles - 344,080 tons were exported in 1529. Baltic wax provided light to England's monasteries until the reformation of 1539 and the Hanse kept their monopoly on wax longer than any other commodity before Protestantism forced the trade into recession. Imports from the West included herrings from Sweden (until the 15c when the fish migrated to the more saline Atlantic), metals such as tin from Cornwall, lamb and rabbit skins from Scotland, Flemish and English broadcloth and salt. Salt was a particularly important commodity for northern Europe - salting was the only way to preserve food during the long winters. It was shipped from France and Portugal and transferred to barges to sail up the inland waterways. Often a caravan of 20-30 small barges would depart from Reval (modern Tallinn) to Dorpat and it was said the Reval is built on salt. To this day one of the main roads in Tartu from the centre of the city to the market and harbour is called Soola, or Salt Street.

The Ema river waterway was busy summer and winter, when goods were transported by sledge. Up until the 18c there was a complete natural navigable waterway deep enough to take ships from the port of Reval on the coast, down the river Pärnu, through lake Võrtsjärv, down the Great Ema river to Dorpat and on east and out of the swampy delta into Lake Peipsi, still the fourth largest lake in Europe, and over to Rus. Cargo was carried on distinctive barges (also called cogs, lodi in Estonian) based on a Dutch design - the first mention of a cog is from 948 AD in Muiden near Amsterdam. Possibly the world's biggest clinker-planked river boats in history, the design of the Peipsi barge persisted unchanged in the Peipsi area even when it had been overtaken in the rest of Europe in the 15c. Clinker boat hulls are built by fixing wooden planks to each other so that they overlap. Pine was used mainly for large barges but spruce was common for the smaller ones. Despite the fact that they were short and squat with a shallow draught, they could carry between 16-200 tons of goods. Sail powered the barges but, sometimes, when there was no wind and a delivery was urgent, they were towed up-stream by men on the riverbank using long cotton ropes. This provided local farmers with extra income. The crew was usually only three men whose quarters were in the only hold, alongside the goods. These little boats sailed Estonian rivers for over 600 years. The last were turned into sail less transports during the first Estonian Republic and were towed by steam-powered ships. But, thanks to the EU, the City of Tartu, Tele2 telephone company and the builders, the Emajõe River Barge Society, a Hanse cog now sails the river Ema once more!

The replica Ema-Peipsi barge is the biggest wooden sailing boat to be built in Estonia since WW II. She is a chunky 12 m long and 7.5m wide with a 11 m tall mast and a main sail area of 100 square m. And she's called, with a typical Estonian lack of pretension, „Jõmmu“, (Tubby). Estonians have no reverence for HISTORY (who would, when you have one like Estonia's ?) but we do have a great enthusiasm for our small part in history ("An ill-favoured thing, sir, but mine own" [As You Like It] .) Jõmmu is a perfect example ˆ lovingly and skilfully re-created, not a museum piece, a part of the life of the town (I was the only "foreigner"‚ on board) and available for parties! And, of course, her like would have been manned by Estonians.

By the end of the 14c German landowners were unable to stop the flight of agricultural workers as serfdom was beginning to bite and Estonian peasants began to take refuge in the towns. It was not in the interest of the towns to help the landed gentry, as there was a great need for cheap, unskilled labour as the Hanse went from strength to strength — it needed carters, porters, watchmen and riverboat men. Even urban Estonians, however, remained Undeutsch, un-German, and although allowed to reside, had few rights. Most, rich or poor, were smallholders, serfs or even slaves. The wealthier were kept in their place by the census, obligations (in cash or service) owed for their land and tithes and fees to the priest. The poor were tied to hereditary servitude or in a trade or manor.

Our very own „Tubby“ was on the river today and the weather was beautiful so I tootled down to the quay and was just in time to see the little brown boat being moored. I got my ticket and watched while the crew (three lads in matelot shirts) and their helpers (another three lads in jeans but one's Lees were medievally held up by a rope) took down the sail and prepared the boat for it‚s short (motorised) chug down the river. Sail is not used for passenger trips - the cog is tiny with a very narrow walkway around the central hold and we passengers had to sit on sheepskins on the spar and lines of the unfurled sail. One tack (oho, me 'earties, I weren't born in the gert port of Bristle for nothin!) and the turning sail would have swept the lot of us into the river; I couldn't see anything remotely like a 20c life belt.

A medieval pace

Taking down the sail took a long time and a medieval pace continued as the boat glided away from the quay and out into the river. We were overtaken by a few mallards and the other water fowl were unperturbed by our progress. A johnny- come-lately speed boat caused a bit of a ripple as it flashed past and we were caught in backwash but our cog retained its solid, stately pace under the bridges and up the river toward Russia. One bridge wall sported a painted snake-shaped water sprite emerging from the water with the legend "Home, wet, home"‚ while around the corner was "Got AIDS". Hmm. The trip only lasted just over an hour but it was so nice to be on the river, out in the fresh air and the warm sun after rather a dull, rainy week.

On the way back I manoeuvred myself down a narrow ladder, squeezed onto the narrow walkway and peeked at the hold where the cargo would have been kept and the crew slept on narrow benches. There was a delicious smell of pine and pitch and a table with pics of the boat being built. It was very much trial and error, apparently, as there were vague medieval pictures of cogs but no surviving manual. As the journey ended I sat on a bench at the stern and watched one of the helpers take a rather risky leap into the row boat being towed behind the boat and the captain steer with a trainered foot. The people of Tartu, enjoying a Sunday promenade by the river, waved to us as we passed and, throughout the whole trip, a brace of monkey-like small boys clambered, bare foot, all over the boat. As we came back to moor a young woman cycled to the quay and grabbed the rope while fielding two more small boys. So, I've been there, done it and I've got a smart t-shirt smelling deliciously of pitch to prove it!

(See cogs at http://www.historicships.ee or http://www.dsm.de/MA/cog.htm. )

A visit to Kärkna

It was a week for river exploration and heavy use of mosquito repellent. During a sunny break in the weather I headed west to find the ruins of Kärkna (German Falkenau) monastery just outside the city. Bishop Hermann I began building it in 1228 as a base for his Cistercian monks and to protect the waterways - it was as much a fort as a cloister. It was razed in 1233 by Yaroslav, Grand Prince of Vladimir, but was quickly rebuilt and Hermann, who had gone blind, spent his last days and was buried there in 1248. Kärkna became the largest cloister in Old Livonia. The crypt of the church was the burial place of bishops and, in 1500, a princess of Denmark. The moat powered the first water mill in Estonia and also contained a pond where fish were reared for food. The monastery was destroyed during the Livonian War in 1558, the tombs looted and the last Bishop deported to Russia where he died in 1563. There is very little left of Kärkna now, the fish pond is long gone and only fragments of wall survive in a park with a pleasant planned walk that rambles through rampant, overgrown nature.

More melancholy romantic Gothic ruins can be found at Kastre, to the east, where a fort and a tollgate were built on the edge of the Ema delta swamp that leads out into lake Peipsi. Kastre is first mentioned in 1392 when a barrier called Warbeck (literally river block‚ in German) was built across the Ema to prevent the passage of boats. Passports were checked here and tolls paid. The fortress was completely destroyed in 1704 during the Great Northern War when Peter the Great‚s new fleet, sailed from brand new St Petersburg, down the Neva river into lake Peipsi and down the Ema to surprise the Swedish navy at Kastre. The Swedish Navy, trapped in the narrow river, was unable to defend itself. The trapped flagship "Carolus", was blown up by the admiral (with all hands) and the other ships were captured. The way to the town lay open and Peter himself came to Dorpat to lead the siege.

Oh, ma vaene Tarto liin!

It fell in July 1704 and, subsequently, in 1708 medieval Dorpat was razed as part of Peter's ruthless scorched earth policy. This is the subject of the first poem in Estonian by an Estonian "Oh me, Poor Tartu Town"‚ (Oh, ma vaene Tarto liin! No Dorpat‚ for the Estonians, you will note, even after 400 years!). The Kastre toll gate fell into disuse. Only the fragments of the foundation remain in the water where the fortress once stood, now next door to a nature conservation centre. Opposite are the ruins of Kansti inn, a famous hostelry built in the 14c to cater for the needs of weary travellers. All is quiet and utterly silent apart from the odd bird song and the buzz of insects. Sic transit Gloria mundi. But, so the locals say, on a clear moonlit night, you can still see the "Carolus"‚ gleaming faintly at the bottom of the river...
 
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