Selart, Anti. Eesti Idapiir Keskajal. [Estonia's Eastern Frontier in the Middle Ages]. Tartu: Kirjastus. Paper. Maps. 207 pp.
This Estonian-language study complements and enlarges the author's article "Zur Sozialgeschichte der Ostgrenze Estlands im Mittelalter", Zeitschrift für Ostmitteleuropa-Forschung, 47/4 (1998), 520-543. It comes with a solid summary in German, while the article has only three short paragraphs in English.
Selart's thesis is familiar to scholars acquainted with frontier theory. This is less theory than the common-sense observation that even modern borders do not present sharp divisions between languages, cultures or economic bases. This was much more the case in the past, before modern states evolved. Public schools, mass communication, propaganda, industry, and closed borders have created populations that resemble the heartland of a nation more, the people who live across a river or an artificial line between villages less. Still, we recognize the difference in English between the words "border" and "borderlands." It is the latter that Selart is discussing. The customary word for such a region is "frontier."
The eastern frontier zone of Estonia extended along both sides of the Narva River, Lake Peipus and the wilderness to the south; it encompassed neighboring peoples (Woten in the north, Setukesen in the south) whose languages and customs were similar to Estonian. For centuries the formal border, consisting as it did of waterways, united the peoples on either side of them rather than divided them--fishermen encountered one another on the rivers and lakes, beekeepers on the moors, trappers and woodcutters in the forest. Farming not being practical in many localities, the frontier zone population relied heavily on the sale of their products to obtain essential foodstuffs and the services of itinerant artisans. This commercial activity predisposed them to assist merchants who traveled the waterways from Reval and Dorpat to Pskov and Novgorod.
Trade, intermarriage, mutual assistance were important to the inhabitants of the frontier zone; grand politics were not. Men of military age were expected to fight for their regional lords, but they were not expected to be enthusiastic. They made excellent spies and scouts because they knew the land and could easily blend into the neighboring peoples. They were also more violent than their counterparts in the heartland. This is common among frontiersmen of any clime--judicial jurisdiction was divided and involved calling in outsiders who had little understanding of the regional culture or customary rules; moreover, the judges were not above basing their decisions on political grounds rather than any concept of justice. As a result, local disputes were usually resolved by the local parties themselves--by negotiation, arbitration, murder, lynching and feuds.
When change occurred as a result of imitating practices from the heartland or government action, this spread beyond the territorial border into the neighboring borderlands; the result was a blending of influences from both East and West. Syncretism was the practice, to the frustration of regional rulers and religious leaders.
Selart uses maps effectively to illustrate the relationship of these borderland communities, the markets and the trade routes. Roads were less important than water routes, which made the few strategically-located castles such as Narva (and later Ivangorod) all the more significant.
Castles were found in pairs, opposite one another. The garrisons provided a permanent force to repel attack, to hunt down bandits and pirates, and perform police functions; they also controlled the border crossings used by merchants and protected claims to the poorly marked swamps and forests where most local disputes originated. Castles served as a refuge for the population in time of war, a gathering place for the militia, a market for local produce, and a religious center. Over the long run, the castles and the regional defensive arrangements would give way to formal administrations that would separate the kindred tribes of the region into more distinct nationalities. For most of the Middle Ages, however, local interests remained overriding. Although Germans in Reval, Dorpat and Riga could speak of "ancestral animosities" with the Russians, this was not true in the borderlands. The border did not represent a stark division line until Ivan the Terrible.
Once established, the formal borderline remained essentially unchanged through the ages to the present day. One side became essentially Russian, the other Estonian. Selart's contribution is to demonstrate that this was not always so.