Volker Seresse, Des Königs "arme weit abgelegenne Vntterthanen." Oesel unter dänischer Herrschaft 1559/84-1613. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 1996. [Kieler Werkstücke, Reihe B: Beiträge zur nordischen und baltischen Geschichte, 2] Paper. Map. 295 pp. $54.95
As one of the very few persons living today to have read all the printed correspondence and all the chronicles from the Great Livonian War, and a good many of the secondary sources, I can guarantee that Volker Stresse's hard work will be greatly appreciated by every scholar who takes up the tangled web of local and international politics that is spun on this island (Saaremaa) in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Such is the purpose of a scholarly monograph. He is also a well-organized writer with a straight-forward and easily-read style. However, readers who are looking primarily for a story-teller's tale should be warned away: this is a scholarly text which is attempting to explain some very difficult and very arcane material, and the author does not hesitate to stick in tables and lists and to repeat important points.
The island of Oesel was divided between the Livonian Order and the Bishop of Oesel-Wiek.
It became important in the wars for control of the Baltic following Ivan the Terrible's invasion of Livonia in 1558. As Russian armies occupied much of eastern Livonia and plundered vast parts of the rest, the inhabitants of Oesel\Wiek looked desperately around for someone to save them. The bishop, in particular, was eager to sell his diocese to anyone who would buy, so that he could take refuge in the west. King Frederik of Denmark arranged to buy the territories for his younger brother Magnus so that he would not have to subdivide Schleswig-Holstein again, thereby weakening himself; he knew that someday soon he would have to fight the Swedes again. When the Swedes sent an army to mainland Estonia the stage seemed set for making the diocese part of this larger struggle, but in 1585 the Danes surrendered their claims on the mainland. Except for one Swedish invasion, in 1611/1612 the island Oesel escaped most of the great conflict between Sweden and Poland.
Seresse actually gives little space to the military activities of the era: he notes that the strategic importance of the island does not live up to the modern map-reader's expectations. Seresse's interest is in the Danish administration: the activities of the Statthalter, the chief royal officer, who governed from Arensburg and whose functions changed after 1583, when the Livonian War wound to its weary conclusion and Duke Magnus passed away; the small number of noble families, who defended their rights to inherit fiefs against the crown and their privileges for controlling grain production and commerce against Estonian farmers and German merchants. What he clearly demonstrates is that sixteenth-century administrative systems were more closely tied to personal characteristics than to bureaucratic rules. Pre-abolutist monarchies like Denmark were able to have little influence on determined local cliques and associations.
In this period more farmers sank to the status of serf, ill-used and semi-starving; merchants pressed for increased rights to buy and sell, but the natural competition between local merchants (who were divided themselves), Hanseatic merchants, peasant entrepeneurs, and royal officials made it impossible for merchants as a class to dictate commercial policy; and royal frustrations with administrative difficulties were relieved only temporarily by sending special commissioners to deal with crises. In 1645 the Danish crown sold the island to Sweden.
Readers with limited German can consult the summary (243-256) which includes a comparison of Danish and Swedish administrative practices. The appendices (257-273) serve as a very adequate almanac for the Danish government of the time.
Religious and intellectual life is hardly touched upon. The former has been amply studied by other authors and there was little enough of the latter. What we have then is a region of insignificant population and few resources which stood just out of the way of the great forces which were smashing their way across Livonia and, to a lesser degree, other shores of the Baltic. Why, then, is a study of Oesel of any use at all? Because the records survive. The Oeseler Ritterschaft, an organization that today has few admirers, knew how to keep records and fight for its rights in court; the correspondence of the Statthalters and other officers, the reports of the Commissioners, the letters by ordinary citizens, and court cases all ended up in various archives. In short, on the one hand, one studies what one has; on the other, one studies what is manageable. Hopefully, the light from these western islands will be reflected back from the mainland in ways that will allow us to understand better what is happening there. But more fundamentally, the study of administrative practices on Oesel sheds light on one pre-absolutist monarchy in northern Europe, Denmark. In this sense, the island is indeed a part of the main.