Carlsberg Foundation 20: Out of the mist and into the light – or A Conference on Danish-Estonian Relations in the Middle Ages.

By Stefan Pajung and Mihkel Mäesalu

On the 10th of September 2021, we were glad to be able to bid welcome to our long-awaited conference on Danish-Estonian relations in the Middle Ages. This conference was originally planned to take place in September 2020, but had to be postponed due to Covid-19 related circumstances. Now we finally convened in Tallinn, where over three days, historians and archeologists were able to meet and present their research in the field – while we, Mihkel and Stefan, could reveal a part of what we had be working on during our research project.

We started out with a special excursion on Friday afternoon for the Danish participants to the Niguliste Museum, The Church of the Holy Spirit and the Tallinn City Museum, who were fascinated to be shown examples of silverware, church art and medieval textiles which all bore witness of the long standing and intense relations between Estonia and Denmark. We were expertly guided through the tour by Kerttu Palginõmm, who could share information on the varied examples of medieval material culture.

Altarpiece of the High Altar at the Niguliste Museum in Tallinn, from the workshop of Lübeck artist Herman Rode, 1478-1481. Wikimedia Commons.

Next morning, we convened at the conference venue at the Maiden Tower – a part of the medieval town wall of Tallinn – at 9 o’clock to begin our first session on Danish-Estonian relations in the Middle Ages. Her Excellency, The Danish ambassador to Estonia, Kristina Miskowiak Beckvard, opened the conference with a short speech. According to her – and we can only agree with her – the common medieval history of Denmark and Estonia is largely wrapped in the mists of time, its blurry contours only to be glimpsed. She hoped that this conference would enable us to cut through the mist so we could gain a clearer picture of our common past. And this turned out to be quite prophetic – while Tallinn itself also had been covered in mist on this early Saturday morning, as the conference progressed through the morning, the mist lifted, and the sun broke through.

Kurt Villads Jensen giving his paper “King Valdemar II and Tallinn 1219 – just another of his conquests or part of a grand plan?

After a few introductory remarks by Toomas Abiline on behalf of the Tallinn City Museum, we were treated to papers by leading scholars on subjects such as the Northern crusades, Tallinn during Danish times, the development of the Estonian Church during the Medieval period, and political developments concerning Danish Estonia, only interrupted by ample, rejuvenating coffee breaks and a lunch. After each session there was even time to have a friendly discussion with the audience, which on occasion even gave the speakers new ideas, or clues how to continue their own research. All in all, the audience was filled with interest, and you could sense, that everybody was happy once more to share their common passion about history after the pandemic had prevented such occasions.

Mihkel Mäesalu giving his paper entitled “The King of Denmark in the Eyes of his Estonian Vassals and Subjects.”

In the evening, the Tallinn City Museum had arranged a dinner at a local restaurant, which bid us welcome with excellent food, tasty deserts and a good selection of wines, beers and coffee. Here the conference participants engaged in lively conversation between dishes, and it seemed to us that everybody was having a good time. But we could not continue forever, as we had to get up early next morning for the second day of the conference.

So, at 9 o’clock on Sunday we once more convened at the conference venue and settled in for the last two sessions of the conference. These concentrated on Denmark in Estonia after 1346, i.e. after the sale of Northern Estonia by the Danish king to the Teutonic Order, and on various aspects of the Danish involvement in Estonia’s past. After another lunch break, Professor Anti Selart of Tartu University gave his insightful closing statements on the conference, which he found the papers given were very much representative of the ongoing research right now. He only regretted that the 15th century had been absent in the various papers, as there was very much of interest to be done there.

All in all, we were very happy about how the conference went. Everything ran as smoothly as clockwork, and we even had not a single computer mishap. This must be a first for a scientific conference. This is in no small part due to the excellent support Mihkel and Stefan received in arranging this conference by Pia Ehasalu and the staff of the Tallinn City Museum. A big Thank You must also go to both the participants and the audience at the conference, who gave interesting papers and asked a lot of questions during the discussions.

The staff of the Tallin City Museum were kind enough to film all the presentations and discussions. The whole conference can be watched here:

However, there is also a small bitter note, as our common two-year research project like all good things is coming to an end. All there is left for us now, is to prepare our research results for publication. So, while this is going to be the last blog post on our research project for now, you can read much more about the exiting common history of Denmark and Estonia when the anthology is published next year.