Baltic, Estonia, Heresy, Latvia, Lithuania, Livonia, Livonian Brotherhood of the Sword, Lycanthrope, Olaus Magnus, Russia, Sweden, Teutonic Knights, Theiss, Trials, Vacation, Werewolf, Werewolves, Witches
Sometimes the hardest part of being a monster is getting a reservation. Avoiding all those Discovery Channel cameramen running around the woods these days takes its toll, and eventually our fearsome friends just need a vacation. When your diet consists primarily of women and children, most respectable restaurants are not keen on seating you, and even when you can get a hotel room with a nice view and cathedral ceilings, the cleaning bills are astronomical. It’s not your fault. Nobody told you that turn-down service didn’t include eating the maid. Modern man is generally unwilling to concede that even a malevolent monster occasionally needs a hiatus, unless he works for Fox News. The question, of course, is where can a monster go for a little rest and relaxation? The traditional choice for werewolves on a summer constitutional has been Livonia.
Never heard of Livonia? Not surprised. Livonia hasn’t really existed as an independent entity since the early 13th Century A.D. Ancient Livonia was a little bit of land on the Baltic Sea between northwestern Latvia and southwestern Estonia, thought to have been first occupied by migrating Finnic (as in ancestors of the people of Finland) Livonians around 2000 B.C. Things pretty much went downhill from there, which is more or less true of every indigenous group of European pagans that had the misfortune to encounter the insurmountable force that was Christianity. After the 1191 A.D. conversion of Caupo of Turaida, the sort of King of Livonia (quasi rex is the obnoxious term used to describe him in Latin), Livonia essentially became a parking lot for the armies of several medieval and renaissance superpowers, although armies is probably an overly charitable description of the various groups of militant thugs that decided to squat on Livonian territory, while merrily oppressing the peasants, and claiming a divine right to incessantly stomp the heads of the locals.
In 1160 A.D., the Hanseatic League had already put down a trading post somewhere in the neighborhood of Riga, followed shortly thereafter by the installation of a Catholic bishop named Albrecht von Buxthoeven, who then established the Livonian Brotherhood of the Sword in 1202 A.D., a bunch of warrior-monks that dominated the region until getting their backsides kicked at the Battle of Saule in 1236 A.D., and getting absorbed into the fun-loving Teutonic Knights. In between 1206-1237 A.D. there was actually a Livonian Crusade, conducted by Holy Roman Emperor Phillip of Swabia that led to the Christianization of Livonia. After about 1237 A.D. things get really confusing, but the Teutonic Knights pretty much ran things until roughly 1410, when everything fell apart. In 1418 A.D., the Holy Roman Empire absorbed Livonia and organized the five separate states of Livonia into the Livonian Confederation, followed by the 1558-1583 Livonian War between Russia and a loose coalition of Denmark, Norway, Lithuania, and Poland, resulting in the eventual inclusion of northern Livonia into Estonia, and the rest of the territory passing into the hands of Sweden, which improved the quality of meatballs and furniture, but otherwise ended any notion of the existence of a nation called Livonia. In 1569 Poland and Lithuania formed the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and Livonia had a brief resurgence, a war with Russia (which it lost) and by 1629 had been taken over by Sweden. It passed back and forth between Sweden and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth for a few years, but by 1796, Russia took over (with a brief period of Nazi domination during World War II). I’m clearly glossing over some of the finer points of Livonian history, but that is because they mostly involve trying unsuccessfully not to get completely obliterated. Now, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are independent countries again after decades of Czarist and then Soviet domination, but this does the Livonians no good, as there are believed to be only roughly 250 ethnic Livonians left in the universe. This is what happens when you’re a perfectly reasonable people surrounded by a bunch of crazy empires. Now I like a nice, bloody history as much as the next guy, particularly if they can make a Showtime miniseries out of it, but one of the more fascinating aspects of the troubled history of Livonia is that between the 16th and 17th centuries it was known for its abundant and well-integrated population of werewolves. An envoy of Henry II of France, delegated to observing a developing crisis in Livonia when Russia began one of many invasions in an attempt to secure ports on the Baltic, submitted a military report that warned about the ubiquity of werewolves in Livonia.
The Muscovite offensive turned public attention towards Livonia, a sparsely populated territory in the utmost periphery of early modern Europe that roughly corresponds with modern Estonia and Latvia. Even rulers without direct political ambitions in the area were eager to be informed about the progress of the Russian advance and sent observers to the region. One of them, the envoy of French King Henri II, reported to the Constable of France in 1561. After updating the Constable on recent military developments, he hastens to add that in Livonia it is still very common for people to transform into wolves. [“… homines conuerti in lupos, quod est adhuc vsitatissimum in Liuonia…”] (Donecker, 2009, p.63)
When werewolves are so thick on the ground that an official military attaché feels the need to include them in a report upon which strategic and diplomatic decisions will be made, it suggests an environment that if not overtly friendly to werewolves, is at least relatively accepting of their presence in society. Swedish writer Olaus Magnus (1490-1557 A.D.) had the bad luck to be named Archbishop of Uppsala by Pope Paul III at a time when Sweden had gone Protestant, and consequently was exiled from his homeland. And since an Archbishop without a bishopric has a lot of time on his hands, he got busy writing ethnographic histories of the Swedish people, most famously his 1555 Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus (“History of the Northern Peoples”), where he noted the peculiarly high incidence of werewolves in Livonia.
In Prussia, Livonia, and Lithuania, although the inhabitants suffer considerably from the rapacity of wolves throughout the year, in that these animals rend their cattle, which are scattered in great numbers through the woods, whenever they stray in the very least, yet this is not regarded by them as such a serious matter as what they endure from men turned into wolves. On the feast of the Nativity of Christ, at night, such a multitude of wolves transformed from men gather together in a certain spot, arranged among themselves, and then spread to rage with wondrous ferocity against human beings, and those animals which are not wild, that the natives of these regions suffer more detriment from these, than they do from true and natural wolves; for when a human habitation has been detected by them isolated in the woods, they besiege it with atrocity, striving to break in the doors, and in the event of their doing so, they devour all the human beings, and every animal which is found within (Magnus, Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus, 1555, p642).
It seems evident that Livonia was a place where the werewolf-friendly or werewolf-curious would be inclined to spend a little time, although between about 1620-1660 A.D. it had the distinction of hosting a number of well documented lycanthropy trials (18 trials of 31 people), in particular the 1692 heresy trial of a Livonian peasant named Thiess of Kalternbrun in Swedish Livonia. Theiss, who does not get enough credit for coming up with the shocking courtroom revelation that nobody expected used by pretty much every legal-themed television show and movie since the invention of the police procedural, discredited the charges of heresy by openly proclaiming that he was a werewolf. But not just an ordinary, standard maniacal werewolf. According to the 80 year old Theiss, he and his other Livonian werewolf buddies were “Werewolves of God”, routinely descending as a pack into Hell to do battle with the Devil. Those nasty judges didn’t believe him, and he got whipped and banished. Tough break my lupine friend. At least they didn’t burn you.
The accused, a certain Thiess, an old man in his eighties, freely confessed to his judges that he was a werewolf (wahrwolff). But his account seriously differs from the concept of lycanthropy which was widespread in northern Germany and the Baltic countries. Thiess related that he once had his nose broken by a peasant of Lemburg named Skeistan, who at that time was already dead. Skeistan was a witch, and with his companions had carried seed grain into hell to keep the crops from growing. With other werewolves Thiess had also gone down into hell and fought with Skiestan. The latter, armed with a broom handle (the traditional symbol of witches) wrapped in the tail of a horse had struck the old man on the nose (Ginzburg, 1985).
At any rate, if you’re a werewolf looking for a good time, it seems like Livonia was the place to be, a refuge for like-minded lycanthropes to hang out and howl at the moon without the constant worry over some silver-bullet toting death squad chasing you through the forest. Transylvania is too dark and dreary most of the year to make a nice vacation spot, and the fishing in the Baltic is better. Go to Livonia, werewolves. Think happy thoughts. Enjoy yourself, for as Saul Bellow said, “Everybody needs his memories. They keep the wolf of insignificance from the door.”
Donecker, Stefan. “Werewolves on the Baltic Seashore: Monstrous Frontier of Early Modern Europe, 1550-1700”. The Role of the Monster: Myths and Metaphors of Enduring Evil. Oxford: Inter-Disciplinary Press, 2009.
Ginzburg, Carlo. The Night Battles: Witchcraft & Agrarian Cults In the Sixteenth & Seventeenth Centuries. New York: Penguin Books, 1985
Magnus, Olaus. Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus (Romae: [Viottis], 1555.