Inventing Livonia: The Name and Fame of a New Christian Colony on the Medieval Baltic Frontier

Inventing Livonia: The Name and Fame of a New Christian Colony on the Medieval Baltic Frontier

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Inventing Livonia: The Name and Fame of a New Christian Colony on the Medieval Baltic Frontier

By Marek Tamm

Zeitschrift für Ostmitteleuropa-Forschung, Vol. 60:2 (2011)

Introduction: what does the “invention of Livonia” mean?

The thirteenth century witnessed the emergence of a new region – Livonia – on the mental map of Latin Christendom. Even though the earliest written reports of a region called Livonia come from the last decade of the twelfth century, it wasn’t until the mid-thirteenth century, when the first more comprehensive surveys of the new Christian colony were completed in Western Europe, that the territory located on the eastern coast of the Baltic Sea acquired a tentative shape and character. Livonia is a classic example of the performative power of an act of naming: although geographically, the place had of course existed and been inhabited for ages untold by various peoples who did not lack contact with their neighbours across the sea, it became a region with its own externally defined identity only after the first Christian missionaries and conquerors had given it a name.

“Inventing” is a term belonging to the vocabulary of social constructionism. Social constructionists emphasise the historically and culturally specific nature of categories and concepts applied to the world, defending the position that no name or description of anything can ever be natural or essential. However, the term “invention” must not be understood here as referring to the creation of something ex nihilo but rather to the rethinking of something already extant, providing it with a new meaning. As John Howe and Michael Wolfe have aptly pointed out recently, “[i]n Latin the original sense of ‘invent’, from invenire, to come upon, was discovery more than devising.” The constructionist approach to problem posing places the present paper in line with a whole number of earlier works analysing the construction of a certain concept of a given geographical region at a given period of time. Without any pretence at exhaustiveness, one could name studies about inventing America, Australia, Canada, Eastern Europe, Europe, India, Ireland, Japan, New England, and Siberia, the overwhelming majority of which have been made over the last couple of decades.6 Essentially, these studies are linked by nothing but the conviction that all the examined regions have, at some point or other, gone through important shifts of meaning that can be studied historically, either through travel books, history writing, fiction, or other sources. The methodological aim of both these studies and the present article is aptly summed up by Larry Wolff: “Obviously, the lands of Eastern Europe were not in themselves invented or fictitious […]. The project of invention was not merely a matter of endowing those real lands with invented or mythological attributes, though such endowment certainly flourished in the eighteenth century. […] The work of invention lies in the synthetic association of lands, which drew upon fact and fiction, to produce the general rubric of Eastern Europe.”

Thus, when speaking in this article about the invention of Livonia, it is not meant that the Latin authors of the first half of the thirteenth century actually dreamt up a new region on the eastern coasts of the Baltic, but rather that in the Latin writing of the period a new image of this region evolved, which needed to be integrated into Christian discourse. There are three aspects to this image-making process that I am especially interested in: (1) How did the name of the new region, Livonia, come about; (2) How is this new region described in early Latin texts; and (3) How was information concerning Livonia integrated into the religious and geographical notions held previously. Throughout the study, the processual nature of inventing Livonia – i.e., the fact that it is not only the results of the construction that matter, but also its course and character – should emphatically be kept in mind.

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