Mappy Monday – Medieval to Early Modern Names for Latvian Territory

Picking up where we left off last week, talking about ancient names for Latvian territory – and now we’re moving into the Middle Ages, and then medieval and early modern eras!

After the German crusaders invaded and gradually conquered the Baltic and Finnic tribes, they created Terra Mariana – which was first a principality of the Holy Roman Empire, but was then subject instead to the Holy See directly. It was divided into several bishoprics – Courland, Dorpat (Tartu), Osel (Saaremaa) and the archbishopric of Rīga, in addition to the land directly administered by the Livonian Order. With the church, nobility and merchants in constant power struggles, this patchwork of administration was necessary to maintain order (and then there was the local peasantry). Rīga and Tallinn were both rising city powers in their own right, as members of the Hanseatic League.

Terra Mariana – also known as the Livonian Confederation – as such came to an end in 1561, as a result of the Livonian War. The northern part of the confederation became Swedish Estonia, while the southern parts – including all of present-day Latvia, as well as southern Estonia – became a part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Here, they formed two duchies – the duchy of Livland, encompassing modern-day southern Estonia and the Latvian provinces of Vidzeme and Latgale, and the duchy of Courland-Semigallia, encompassing the modern-day Latvian provinces of Kurzeme and Zemgale. While under the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the German nobility retained most of their power and privileges and controlled day-to-day affairs in the duchies.

Further territorial divisions took place as a result of the Polish-Swedish conflict, and in 1621 the Swedes took over most of Livland, leaving Poland with just a tiny piece – modern-day Latgale, which became the Inflanty Voivodeship. This brought Latgale under direct Polish control and under the control of Catholicism (the Reformation having taken place a century earlier, bringing Lutheranism as the dominant religion in the rest of the Latvian territories). With this division, the stage was set for the future Latvian provinces to arise as they did.

Gradually, all of these Latvian territories – Swedish Livonia (Vidzeme and southern Estonia) in 1721, the Inflanty Voivodeship (Latgale) in 1772 and the Duchy of Courland-Semigallia in 1795 – all came under the Russian crown, and became provinces of the Russian Empire.

Stay tuned next week, when we will talk more about the Russian Empire era!

Surname Saturday – Latvian Surname Project Update, September 6, 2015

New format of Surname Saturday here on Discovering Latvian Roots – if you want surname meanings, go check out the Facebook and Twitter pages, here on the blog it will be a summary of what’s new on the Latvian Surname Project, as funded by my supporters on Patreon!

New this week!

Parish added – Laža

Names added – Audējs, Jabloks, Kuģītis

… and over 10 other names have been updated to reflect their presence in more parishes!

The Surname Project currently includes 1371 surnames from 490 parishes, towns and cities. Many parishes only have a few names listed so far, but I’m working every day to add more for each parish!

Tombstone Tuesday – Kārlis and Anna Brēkis

In this series, I am providing pictures of tombstones from Latvian cemeteries, all with death dates prior to 1945. I do not have any further information on the people mentioned.


Photo taken by me, December 2014. Click to enlarge.

Top Inscription: Ģimenes kapi (Family Grave)

Names: Kārlis Brēkis, born August 20, 1867, died June 16, 1944; Anna Brēkis, née Krauze, born July 23, 1853, died December 9, 1928.

Location: Ikšķile Lutheran Cemetery, Ikšķile

WW1 Diary – August 31, 1918

Seventy-sixth installment from the diary of my great-grandfather’s sister Alise, written during the First World War. When the diary starts, she is living just a few miles from the front lines of the Eastern Front, and is then forced to flee with her husband and two young daughters to her family’s house near Limbaži as the war moves even closer. Her third child, a son, was born there in February 1916. The family has now relocated (again) to a home near Valmiera, and the Russian Revolution is in full swing. For more background, see here, and click on the tag “diary entries” to see all of the entries that I have posted.

If there is mention of a recognizable historical figure and event, I will provide a Wikipedia link so that you can read more about the events that Alise is describing. It is with this entry here that the calendar in Latvia changed from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar.

August 31, 1918

I am home alone today. The children and the girls are picking mushrooms in the woods. Papa is threshing rye. The threshing machines are singing their sombre autumn song, an entire choir of them around us, roaring and buzzing everywhere.

Another summer dreamt away. Compared to last summer, we are rested and feeling good. Our life, as long as there is peace, is full and not lacking in anything. Our souls also fulfilled living this close to town. On Sunday we celebrated the Bible festival, after that there were three Christian meetings, which were very involved, thanks to many good forces. Men are making plans for the future, about schools, institutions, meetings. Oh if only we could stay here close to town, how great that would be for the children! If God wishes it, it will happen, our thoughts are not His thoughts.

Mappy Monday – Ancient Names for Latvian Territory

Latvia wasn’t always called Latvia – and for most of history, you won’t have found a place called “Latvia” on a map. Only in the 20th century did Latvia become an independent country. This also means that if you are looking through historical texts for information about the people who lived here, you need to know what place names to look for – though keep in mind that these place names can be written in many different ways, depending on who was writing them down!

So what should you be looking for? Latvia has gone through many historical periods with many different rulers, so in this post we’ll start at the very beginning – well, the earliest documented beginning, at least. Most of these names come from documents from the 10th to 13th centuries, such as the Livonian Chronicle, the Livonian Rhymed Chronicle, feudal charters and documents from the Livonian Brothers of the Sword, the name given to the German crusaders.

These crusaders came to Latvian territory in the late 12th century, when it was divided among a number of small principalities and counties, some of them nominally independent, others as vassal states. The dominant narrative prevalent today is that Christianity came to the Baltic region as a result of the German crusaders, but that isn’t entirely true – Christianity had already started to make inroads from the east via Polotsk, and there were several established Orthodox churches in the region.

The largest power in the area was the principality of Polotsk, and a number of Latvian principalities were its vassal states. The most famous one is Jersika, which was also called Letija or Lotgola, and thus provided the root for the modern name of Latvia.

Jersika was under the dominion of the Latgalian tribes, as were the principalities of Atzele, Imera, Koknese, Pietālava and Tālava. The region these covered corresponds to modern-day Latgale and Vidzeme, with the exception of the coastal regions, which were under the control of the Livonians.

The Livonians controlled the area around the Gulf of Rīga, and partway down the western coast of modern-day Latvia. They shared the principality of Idumeja with the Latgalians, and controlled the regions of Metsepole, Turaida, Vanema and Ventava, as well as the area around Rīga. Since the arriving German crusaders made their landfall around the mouth of the Daugava, the Livonians were the first to have contact with these crusaders.

South of the Livonians in Kurzeme were the lands of the Curonians – who, like other coastal peoples, had developed a reputation as sailors and sometimes pirates. They had contacts with the Vikings across the Baltic Sea in Scandinavian lands, both friendly and unfriendly – sometimes allies, sometimes enemies. They also began to move northwards in the 11th and 12th centuries, conquering the regions of Vanema and Ventava. They also controlled the regions of Bandava, Ceklis, Duvzare, Megava, Pilsāts and Piemare. Megava and Pilsāts are now in Lithuania.

The militaristic Semigallians to the east of the Curonians did what they could to defend their territory from neighbours and invaders, making and breaking alliances as it suited them, and as a result, maintained their independence from the crusaders for a longer period. Having initially worked with the Germans against the Livonians and Lithuanians, they later allied with the Curonians and Lithuanians against the Germans. The Semigallians controlled the districts of Dobele, Dobene, Mežotne, Plāne, Silene, Spārnene, Tērvete, Upmale and Žagare. Semigallian territories today are divided between Latvia and Lithuania.

East of the Semigallians and south of the Latgalians there were the Selonians. By the time the German crusaders arrived, they had already partially assimilated with the Latgalians and/or Lithuanians – northern Selonian districts were subject to the principality of Jersika and Koknese, while southern districts were ruled by Lithuanian principalities. This Latgalian character remains in the modern-day area of Selonia (Sēlija, one of the five cultural districts of Latvia), even though most of the past 800 years placed it in a completely different sphere of influence (Lutheran German rather than Polish Catholic or Russian Orthodox). The Selonian districts were called Alektene, Kalvene, Maleisine, Medene, Pelone and Tovrakste. Maleisine, Medene and Pelone are today located in Lithuania.

With the arrival of the German crusaders, many of these districts and borders disappeared – but what did they turn into? For that, come back next week!

Surname Saturday – Latvian Surname Project Update, August 29, 2015

New format of Surname Saturday here on Discovering Latvian Roots – if you want surname meanings, go check out the Facebook and Twitter pages, here on the blog it will be a summary of what’s new on the Latvian Surname Project, as funded by my supporters on Patreon!

New this week!

Parishes added – Panemune, Rudzēti, Zebrene

Names added – Akmeņgrauzis, Apaļais, Apinis, Apinītis, Bērtulsons, Cālis, Cimdiņš, Ezerstarpis, Gabals, Grīnhofs, Jaundālderis, Jaunpetrovičs, Laukbraucējs, Lielzeltiņš, Mežjānis, Petrovičs, Plācenis, Sējējs, Stārķis, Valdmanis, Vasaraudzis

… and over 50 other names have been updated to reflect their presence in more parishes!

The Surname Project currently includes 1368 surnames from 489 parishes, towns and cities. Many parishes only have a few names listed so far, but I’m working every day to add more for each parish!

Finnic Influences in Latvia: Language and Vocabulary

This is the last post in a series on Finnic influences in Latvia. You can also read the other posts in the series about Finnic influence on place names and personal names, as well as read about population crossover at the links provided. This and other posts like it are made possible by my patrons at Patreon.

At first glance, it might look like Finnic and Baltic languages are completely unrelated – and indeed they are from different language families, with Baltic languages like Latvian and Lithuanian being Indo-European, while Finnic languages such as Estonian and Livonian are a part of the Finno-Ugric language family. If you were to look at a random sample of text from the languages, you probably also wouldn’t see very many similarities. But that all depends on the sample of text:

Estonian: Me läksime mõisast turule, et porgandeid ja seeni osta.
Latvian: Mēs gājām no muižas uz tirgu lai pirkt burkānus un sēnes.
English: We went from the manor to the market to buy carrots and mushrooms.

If you look at the words in bold, the differences aren’t that big, are they? Especially if you know that in its non-declined form, “turule” is “turg”, and that p/b and g/k sounds sometimes blend together in Estonian.

Other words common to Latvian and Estonian, though which language they have roots in can sometimes be disputed – laiva/laev (boat, ship), tilts/sild (bridge), puika/poeg (boy), kode/koi(d) (moth), laulāt/laulatada (to marry), bura/puri (sail) and māja/maja (house). Of course, there are many more, these are just a few examples!

Many centuries of foreign rule means that there are also words common to Estonian and Latvian that are borrowed from a third language (or sometimes even fourth, if the third language has borrowed the word). This is the case for words such as arst/ārsts (doctor, Arzt in German), sidron/citrons (lemon, Zitrone in German) and advokaat/advokāts (lawyer, адвокат in Russian). The latter two have roots in Latin, and were probably borrowed into German and Russian via French.


Spice packet for cinnamon in the three languages of the Baltic countries – note how Estonian and Latvian have both borrowed from the Germanic “kanel” while Lithuanian has gone the Latin/Greek route of “cinnamon”.

Beyond vocabulary, Finnic languages have had an important influence on Latvian: word stress. In Lithuanian, as well as in Slavic languages – Baltic languages’ closest relatives – word stress is random and can occur anywhere in the word, which can be a real pain for people who are learning the language. But in Latvian, like in Finnic languages, word stress is almost always on the first syllable.

How did such a pivotal language feature come to be so different from that of related languages? While I’m not 100% certain, I think it comes down to the fact that modern Latvian isn’t strictly speaking “purely” Indo-European – while its roots are certainly Indo-European, it is a language that came about through the melding of several Baltic-area tribes. And while most of the Baltic-area tribes in question (Selonians, Semigallians, Curonians, Latgalians) were Baltic-speaking, one of them – the Livonians – was not. And since the Livonians had influence on both sides of the Gulf of Rīga – that is, northern Kurzeme *and* northern Vidzeme – it is not entirely surprising that this language feature was adopted into the common language.

So this concludes this series on Finnic influences in Latvia! If you have any questions, please leave them in comments! And if you have opinions on what you would like to see next – feel free to comment as well!