EARLY CONSOLIDATION OF THE BALTIC TRIBES – From a lecture at Penikis University, 2018 CE (Christian Calendar)
To this day, historians still can’t agree on what led to the rapid centralization of power along the Baltic coast around the late 8th and early 9th Christian centuries. Orthodox Dievturi believers tend to cleave to the account in the holy books and oral traditions of a legendary king named Ako. Late medieval scholars of the Curonian court place his birth around the year 750, which would have made him a contemporary of the Frankish king Karl the Monster, and the two Theoderics who battled it out over Frisia: Theoderic the Saxon, leader of a massive pagan tribal confederation, and Theoderic the Frank, who ushered in the restoration of the Merovingian dynasty in Austrasia after his defeat of Karl.
To some in academia, it seems absurd to suggest Ako never existed. The personal name exploded in popularity after around 800, and can be found on many runestones dated to the period of his supposed reign. To others, it seems nothing but chasing a fancy to suggest he was real. There is barely a scrap of primary source material that definitively marks him out as a man and not a mythic or culture hero. Some suggest that, perhaps, the figure of Ako became a magnet for stories of heroism and daring that were, in fact, the work of multiple rulers and warriors.
Those less focused on great men point to other factors for the region’s consolidation. It could have been in part due to outside pressure, as neighboring areas were growing more centralized around the same time as well. In Scandinavia, Ragnarr Loðbrók, another poorly-understood and possibly legendary figure, was said to have extended his rule over all the Swedes, Geats, and Danes, as well as much of the Norwegian coast and parts of Finland. There is significant evidence of raids and tribute-collecting by Norsemen in the area, as well as evidence of Curonian raids on Gotland, Bornholm, and parts of Southeast Sweden. The cultural exchange between these groups was likely significant.
Around Lake Ilmen, a strong Slavic tribal confederation is believed to have been organized around 790, with its capital near modern Novgorod. We also start to see signs of consolidation among the nearby Pomeranians and Polans. The chicken and egg question that seems to come up again and again is whether these areas became consolidated in response to growing Curonian influence, or if the Curonians were forced to consolidate due to growing outside pressure.
What cannot be denied is that by the turn of the year 800, the seeds had already been planted for one of the most influential and peculiar kingdoms of Medieval Europe. Hillforts were increasing in number and complexity, with the most impressive of which being located at the site of modern Grobino in Kurzeme – from whence the later Curonian Kings and Queens would rule. Kings and Queens who, of course, helped to cement their legitimacy by genealogical claims back to Ako, however genuine or fabricated they may have been.
From these forts, we can see a transition from a more disorganized tribal society to a proto-feudal state. Local strongmen would administer the land from the safety of the earthworks and palisades. A traditional economy of tax farming was impractical during this period, however, due to the remoteness and wildness of the Baltic lands. So a system of serfdom was slow to develop, and it seems much wealth was brought into the region by armed raids, which became much more numerous and organized around the early 800s, and riverine trade. Recent excavations have proved fairly conclusively that the Curonians were building Scandinavian-style, low-draft longships that could traverse the Eastern European river system using portages.
The most important trade arteries were the Daugava and Dnieper rivers, connected by a portage near Vitebsk. It is theorized that much of the early expansion Eastwards and Southwards by the Curonians was in the interest of securing this trade route with a system of hillforts that would allow them to shelter their crews from local Slavic tribesmen and nomadic raiders like the Burta Alans and the Magyars. Discoveries in the 20th Century revealed coins on the island of Saaremaa, a major waystation for Baltic trade where the Curonians had a permanent presence, that had been minted in the Abbassid Caliphate and date to the early 800s. This proved Curonian traders were able to navigate from the Baltic all the way to the Black Sea and beyond far earlier than was previously assumed. They may have, in fact, beat the Norsemen to the markets of Jaffa and the court of the Bulgarian Emperor at Constantinople.
The reasons for the rise of the Curonian Kingdom may never be fully grasped. But its impact on later European history is well-documented. That, of course, is a story for another time.