Carlsberg fellowship 4: How was Danish Estonia called in the Middle Ages?

By Mihkel Mäesalu and Stefan Pajung

When historians write (or talk) of Northern Estonia under Danish rule during the 13th and 14th centuries, they tend to use the name “Duchy of Estonia” for these areas. In this way historians stress, that Northern Estonia was not a part of the Kingdom of Denmark proper, but a separate duchy, which belonged to the Danish crown – that is the king of Denmark was also Duke of Estonia and ruled Estonia not as a king, but as a duke. Now, the king of Denmark did use the title Duke of Estonia, but the name “Duchy of Estonia” was used very rarely in the 13th and 14th centuries. But how did the people of this time then call the Danish lands in Estonia?

Most often the king of Denmark referred to his possessions there as simply Estonia, even though he only ruled a part of it. This kind of vague use of territorial names was rather common during the Middle Ages. The official title of the Danish king was “King of the Danes and the Slavs”, which emphasized his rule over at least some lands inhabited by the western Slavs – the princedom of Rügen for example –  but did not mean, that he was the king of all the Slavs. So it is a question, if the use of Estonia in this vague form by the king of Denmark may have made the Teutonic Order and the bishops of Tartu and Osilia, who also ruled parts of Estonia during this period, feel a little bit uneasy.  Whatever the reason, these southern neighbors of northern Estonia often called these areas simply as “the lands ruled by the king of Denmark.”

Medieval Livonia in the year 1260
Map from Wikimedia Commons

The Danish lands consisted of three native Estonian regions – Revala, Harju and Viru –  and sometimes the name (or names) of these smaller regions were for some reason paired with Estonia. For example, as “Estonia and Viru”, or “Estonia, Harju and Revala”, or “Revala and Estonia”. It is not always clear why the people of the 13th century used these names in such various combinations. Why did they not simply list all three of these smaller Estonian regions?

Native Estonian regions in the 13th century
Map from Wikimedia Commons

Another quite popular name for the area was terra Revaliensis, which is actually rather difficult to translate. Terra Revaliensis may have meant “the land of Tallinn”, because the castle of Tallinn was where the Danish viceroy resided. But it could also have meant “the land of Revala”. The problem with translation is, that the both Tallinn and Revala were called by the same name – Revalia – in 13th century texts written in Latin. This means that it is not always easy to distinguish between Tallinn and Revala. But then again one must bear in mind, that for the Danes and Germans of the 13th century Tallinn was “the town of Revala”, wherefore it may make sense to translate terra Revaliensis as “the land of Revala”.

This plurality of names informs us that it was not very common to think of Northern Estonia under Danish rule as a duchy, but rather as a region ruled by the king of Denmark. But does this also mean that the connections between Denmark and Northern Estonia were stronger than hitherto imagined? That is what we seek to unravel in our research.