Nils Blomkvist

The Baltic – a Field of Tensions through the Ages

The study of Seas
The idea of studying a vast sea as an entity has a formidable pioneer in Fernand Braudel, who analysed the role of the Mediterranean for the peoples around it. His La Méditerranée et le monde méditerranéen à lèpoque de Philippe II from 1949 demonstrates the extreme permanence of Mediterranean cultures, longue durée as he called it, upon which the cyclic movements of conjunctures, and the daily flow of events had little impact.
But when we turn to our Baltic – even if longue durée behaviour stems from the land and general conditions for life – we cannot claim here the almost eternal permanence which Braudel tended to see in the Mediterranean case. The structures of the Baltic Rim are certainly old, but not so old that we cannot date their origin and follow their emergence. Again and again waves of change generated outside of her system, have reached her shores. I will discuss two radical mutations in our history; both generated elsewhere, both making us – the dwellers of the Baltic Rim – into something which we weren’t before, namely Europeanization and Globalization.
These complexes of change came upon us suddenly, with some centuries in between, but remained with us and developed according to their own preferences until now. Hence it seems improper to call them conjunctures, but they may not be ‘eternal’ enough to be labelled longue durée. The ‘rhythms of history’, as Braudel saw them, fail to work properly in our context. Europeanization and Globalization may represent qualities that are missing in his vision, which perhaps (seeking a Braudelian formulation) we may name changes qualitatives. Bur first there is need for some background.

The Baltic before Europeanization 
The Baltic Rim always was and to some extent remains a peripheral dead end of the world, a ‘finisterre’ towards the Arctic. During the latest Ice Age it was fully deep frozen. But for the last 10 000 years or so, it has enjoyed a clement climate compared with other areas at similar latitudes, like Kamchatka or Alaska.
From Neolithic times on, the Rim has been influenced by civilisations of the eastern Mediterranean, and later by the Romans. The development of seagoing ships during the Iron Age made the Baltic itself, and the rivers discharging into her, into channels for heavy transportation, penetrating far into the Eurasian landmass. We may note that the armies of Charlemagne had come closer than any other extraneous conqueror, but he didn’t reach the Baltic and in 813 he settled a border with the Danes. Carolingian expansion may have inspired the formation of multiregional kingdoms in Scandinavia, which we here of from then on. Charlemagne’s son Louis sent missionaries to the emporia of Denmark and Sweden. But their initial success was soon wiped out by raising influences from the East. In the 930s Ottonian Germany invaded Jutland, with little effect for the time being.
Instead Viking-age Baltic was the heart of an East-West system of exchange, tying extremes like Bulgar on the Volga ‘knee’ and Kiev on the Dnepr together with Rouen on the Seine, and York on the Ouse. Rich finds of Islamic dirhems all around the Sea tell that the economic wind was blowing from the East in the 9th and 10th centuries. The destructive behaviour connoted with the Viking name refers to groups that were left outside of its advantages and to temporarily dysfunction of the system; it has been shown that the gathering of large Viking hosts in the North Sea coincided with periods when Arabian silver ceased to reach the Baltic.
Thus in the Viking Age the Rim remained a vast, autonomous territory, dominated by the emerging Danish, Norwegian, Swedish and Kiev-Russian multi-regional polities, to which series of tributary lands (the skattland of Norse texts), were added like pearls on a string along the main sea routes. Being a skattland was different from being a colony, more like the junior partner of an alliance. The Nordic culture thrived, developed its own unique mode of writing, together with sophisticated poetry and visual arts. Also the Rim kept good contacts with the major civilisations of Islam, Byzantium, and Western Europe, from which they could pick and choose whichever elements they favoured, without falling into dependence on any.
This fortunate situation was interrupted, when around 975 the Islamic coins ceased to come for good. The reason for this remains disputed, but it is obvious that the West was able to fill the monetary vacuum almost immediately. It is also clear that it was not only a monetary change that was going on: between 960 and 1030 most countries in northern and eastern Europe adopted Christianity.
Until about 1050 Baltic Rim polities, notably Denmark, remained quite powerful. Christian mission was carried out with moderation, and syncretism thrived. Then slowly but surely old habits where challenged by new. In the period until 1150, the West-Slavonic Vends made the most vehement resistance, refusing to give up their old many-headed gods. But in the 12th century, within a couple of generations, a flood of change swept over one country after another. Literally everything was altered – material culture, spiritual culture, social structure, political system – as the Baltic Rim was roped in by Catholic Europe. Why Europe? Why precisely in the 12th century?

The making of Europe
For some time a new kind of society had begun to form on the European continent, which saw a striking development in the 11th and 12th centuries. A well-known series of western European breakthroughs were hooking into each other. Here is  a comprehensive list.

  • penetration of a professionalized church organisation and expansive, evangelizing monastic orders all over western Europe;
  • intensive growth of commerce in northern Italy, the Low Countries and the corridor in between;
  • development of proto-industrial textile production in the same areas;
    emergence and spread of autonomous or semi-autonomous towns and cities in a wider area;
  • emergence and spread of a new agricultural system for colonising woodlands in a wider area;
  • emergence and spread of new transport, military and store house technologies in a wider area;
  • emergence of a more differentiated social structure, the three- or four-partite society;
    integration and centrifugal expansion of these qualities in all directions, reaching the

Baltic Rim in the late 11th century;
a reception process in extant political systems outside of the core corridor leading to the emergence of more centralised kingdoms (semi-peripheral states).
The expansion wasn’t foremost a military one. The struggle of the church for independence from secular leadership was to play a major role. Known to posterity as the Papal Reform programme, it was launched as a moral revolt against the imperial and royal structures of decision-making.
This had particular effects in the trans-continental ‘Lotharingian’ corridor, the borderland between the German-Roman Empire and the Kingdom of France. The reduction of monarchic rule made it a hot zone of gestating culture and economic growth, from Venice and Milan to Cologne and emerging Brügge. During the 12th century the fairs of Champagne became the exchange centre for all of Europe. And many spiritual orders were founded near by; adhering directly to the pope, and not to any national church, they were a driving force for internationalism. Most impressive were the five mother monasteries of the Cistercians in Champagne and Burgundy. From them more than 300 daughters were founded during the first half of the 12th century, all over Catholic Europe.
Scholars have been debating whether the expansion of towns and commerce or the dynamics of feudal agriculture lay behind the rise, but have had difficulties to handle the most conspicuous element of the period, namely the triumph of Catholic universalism. Its arguments were religious, but it came with a new political order, allowing a freer flow of people, goods and capital, at much lower costs (and risks) than during the Early Middle Ages. It can hardly be a total coincidence that its equivalent in the secular world was the forming of a rough but functioning western European commodity market in the 12th and 13th centuries.
In a recent book The Discovery of the Baltic I claim that the process of Europeanization had a fundamental similarity to the World-system model. This well established geography-of-dominance theory, describes a spatial division of labour between a developed core area, a disciplined semi-periphery and an exploited full periphery. Hence it’s different from an empire.A World-system takes control without military conquest and political centralism. In its centre Braudel and others see capitalism, but in the medieval making of Europe I see something else: an unintended coalition between Church and Trade, ecclesia and mercatura, the father and mother of capitalism; unintended – since traditional Christendom despised commerce.
The result was that the extant Empire – of the German-Roman nation – more or less ceased to exist as such in the second half of the 13th century. If one considers the close geographic connection between the four main localisations of the Champagne fairs and the five mother monasteries of the Cistercians, we are not far from getting a picture of Europe’s conception through ecclesia and mercatura, as precise as the ones the photographer Lennart Nilssons has shown of procreation among humans.

The Baltic Experience

Let us return to the Baltic. Europeanization came to us in three steps which may be called expansion, implementation and crisis by an agent of Europeanization, but resistance, acceptance and emancipation by the indigenous re-agent. Each of these phases seem to be absolved in a century and a half. Do I seriously believe in such regularities?
To be honest, I don’t know. But I do know that economic historians from time to time discuss a phenomenon called the secular wave, in which economic ups and downs are measured in two-three human generations, and where so called Kondratieff cycles of 60 or 75 years are taken seriously. Braudel for one did, suggesting 1350, 1650, 1817 and 1974 as years in which the secular wave was culminating. I’m inclined to accept it too, at least as a justification for a medievalist to discuss the present and beyond. So I burn my ships and push on with it. Please accept that my secular waves for the Baltic are very tentative: may they serve as a disposition of what’s coming.

European core area expansion/Baltic Rim resistance (1075-1225).
European core area victory/period of Baltic Rim implementation (1225-1375)
Baltic Rim emancipation from the core area (1375-1525)
Atlantic Europe goes for the World/ the former core area implodes (1525-1675)

North Sea core area organizes global World-system, industrializes and liquidates l’ancienne Regime (1675-1825)
Baltic Rim industrial implementation and ideological polarization, World wars, emergence of nation states and emergence of dominant semi-peripheries, Cold war (1825-1975)
Marginalization of North Atlantic core area? (1975-2125)
Expansion/ resistance (1075-1225)
The papal-imperial controversy had occupied the powers of the Continent in a way that might have delayed their penetration of the Rim. This direction of expansion may also have carried less priority than the liberation of the Holy Land, and the reconquesta of Spain. However from around 1120, things European began to pour into the Rim in all shapes and clothing, as a signal that what had been holding Europe back no longer did so. The second crusade in 1147 was indeed launched as a pan-European project directed towards the Holy land, Spain and the Baltic Rim, where the pagan Vends were attacked. But also in already Christianised countries, agents of Europeanization tended to appear in person and demand full scale adaptation.
All through the 12th century, a series of inter-related clashes occurred among the indigenous powers. Between royal cadets in Denmark, bagler and birkebeinar in Norway, Götar and part-time pagan Svear in Sweden; Boleslaw the Wrymouthed made an effort to integrate the Vends with Poland, but was forced aside by the German Drang nach Osten, and in Russia Novgorod broke away from Kiev. These controversies have usually been discussed as civil wars, which of course they were, but their synchronic occurrence and mutual impact points to a more systemic background. They suggest that ‘a Battle of Europeanization’ had begun on the Rim. The East Baltic peoples remained unaffected by the western trend, possibly under some form of Russian dominance.
In 1143 Lübeck for the first time was integrated in the German state system; from 1158 directly under the Saxon duke Henry the Lion. It was to serve as the gateway for further core area expansion. Towards the end of the 12th century, the Germans circumvented the old Nordic powers by seeking direct contacts with Gotland and ‘the great lord of Novgorod’. The diagonal route via Gotland became the highway across the Baltic, leaving Denmark and Sweden in backwaters. Christian mission went hand in hand with commercial expansion, taking the shape of crusades around 1200, which led to the formation of German led Livonia in the East Baltic. Denmark and Sweden tried to compensate for this by taking control over the Finnish Gulf and Neva estuary, a project that Sweden withheld well into the 18th century.

The Implementation phase (1225-1375)
Around 1225 Lübeck and a group of wealthy cities in the German core area, in firm alliance with Gotland and the newly founded Riga, tried to open a new route into Russia along the Daugava. Fore a while Novgorod seemed to be sidestepped but came back around 1260, when Russia had fallen under Mongol control.
Around the Baltic things European were implemented. Most towns and cities that exist today werefounded according to West European patterns, organised as burgher communities led by burgomaster and council, under particular urban laws and trade privileges. Churches were founded and parishes were roped in, forming a basic structure that still remains. Between the churches and leading to the towns, the fundamental inland route system was laid out.
In Northern Germany, Denmark, Sweden, and the so called Order state central power was organised, which had means of enforcement, with which the country could be run even against the will of its inhabitants. The monuments of state formation both on this and on the eastern side of the Baltic, are castles, most of them today in ruins. On the southern coast of the Baltic Vends and Pruzzians disappeared as nations, probably not due to genocide, but due to an economic policy that made them to Germanise.
The establishment of central power and social differentiation into estates allowed for agricultural expansion, which could be linked to the international trade network, and it allowed for a social class of Junkers (as the expression goes) to establish manors and take control of a major part of the production. The entire southern and eastern coast of the Baltic became great exporters of grain. Freemen were gradually suppressed into leibeigenshaft (serfdom): this classical ancienne regime inequality, was upheld into the 19th and 20th century, remembered with nostalgia by some and hatred by others.
Behind the World-system horizon Russia had fallen under the Mongol Khanate. Another great power was developed by the Lithuanians around Kernave and Vilnius. Both these were pre-European in nature, chiefly built up by network associations, akin to the old Viking system.

Semi-periphery frees itself from the core area (1375-1525)
In 1375 the west European expansion had reached full success: the Hanseatic League ruled the waves from Novgorod to London; Platdeutsch was spoken everywhere; a Mecklenburg dynasty sat in Sweden; the Order state prepared new advances against the Lithuanians. In 1386 Grand Duke Jagiello married Princess Jadviga of Poland, accepted Catholicism and ascended to the Polish throne. This Krakauer Hochzeit immediately formed an East European great power, which in 1410 delivered a serious blow to further ideas of German Drang nach Osten in the Battle of Tannenberg (Grünwald). The Order state began to decline and in 1525 Prussia fell in the hands of Poland
Another union was forming in Scandinavia. Applying the dynastic principles of regimen regale Margaret, princess of Denmark, queen of Norway, laid claims on all three kingdoms for her son Olav. When he however died at the age of 17, she carried the project trough for her nephew Bogislav of Pommerania, renamed him Erik (after Sweden’s national saint) and saw him crowned in Kalmar 1397 as joint king of Denmark, Sweden, and Norway. Another great power had been founded in the North. After the death of  Margaret in 1412, Erik began a forceful centralization policy around Öresund – where he thought to outmatch the Hanse by inviting the Dutch. Dissatisfied groups in Sweden revolted in 1434 and several times again until Sweden eventually left the union in 1521.
Also in Russia a slumbering giant was slowly awakening in the shape of Muscovy. The fall of Byzantium in 1453 had provided an opportunity to boast it as the  defensor of Orthodoxy, the marriage of Ivan III to Byzantine heiress Zôe, and the claim to be a ‘third Rome’ provided arguments for the assumption of imperial status. Freeing itself from the Mongolian hegemony, Muscovy gathered the Russian lands, reaching Novgorod in 1478. Czarist Russia entered the game over the Baltic with high political ambitions corresponding to the assumed exalted profile.
Meanwhile, the European continent had been shaken by a grave demographic setback in the latter part of the 14th century, followed by the so called agrarian crisis, which changed the balance between feudal land hegemony and urban proto-capitalism. The Lotharingian corridor lost momentum as a new core area was forming along Europe’s Atlantic coast, as the first phase of expansion overseas was entered in the 15th century. Much closer to this new core area, the Baltic Rim was drawn more intimately into its spell. The Hanse declined as Poland and Livonia became the chief purveyors of grain to the Low Countries. By the end of the period several nations – basically the ones butting on the Atlantic and Baltic coasts – cut their ties with Rome, assuming the Protestant reform.

To sum up Europeanization, Catholic ethics had been implemented everywhere in western Europe together with an unsurpassed system of individual control, which the Protestant churches were to preserve; it was holding ground formidably up until World War II. For elite groups the church gradually became an arena, where it was necessary to appear, and a medium through which one could achieve goals – economical, political, social as well as spiritual or cultural. In Early Modern times the secular church – Catholic as well as Protestant – was somehow incorporated as an element of the State. The Papacy declined together with the various spiritual orders. A culture border was cemented between western Europe and the eastern Orthodoxy.
Atlantic Europe goes for the World (1525-1675)
A new secular growth cycle took off in the early 15th century from Portugal and Spain to Holland and England, where new sea going ship-types started to penetrate non-European islands and continents. The leading entrepreneurs made enormous profits and gradually emerged as a particular class of merchant capitalists. A classical theory launched by Max Weber suggests that the capitalist spirit was a function of protestant ethics, notably Calvinism. This may be true, but it’s fair to say that the amalgamation of ecclesia and mercatura already in medieval times saw it coming. Early Modern colonial expeditions were more than ever joint ventures between church and trade, but now often also with an understanding from the state. Pagan souls were still to be saved, their land and particular resources was a fair compensation, and the state could provide soldiers, as well as protect the conquests through international law.
The former core area across the Continent stayed in its previous forms; northern Italy and the eastern Mediterranean sank back in semi-peripheral functions, whereas the Baltic Rim became the purveyor of all kinds of necessities for the transoceanic expansion, ship masts, hemp, iron, copper, food stuffs, you name it. Öresund became one of the hotspots of World trade. In 1560 the Order state collapsed. Surrounding powers rallied to grab a share; Sweden and Poland were most successful. The possibility of these two powers joining forces occurred for a moment when Sigismund Vasa was chosen king of Poland, as well as inherited the Swedish crown, but fell after a few years due to structural differences and poor statesmanship – Sweden by that time was thoroughly Lutheran, whereas Poland had remained chiefly Catholic. But the countries of the Rim were growing. In Norrland we do have an India, a Swedish nobleman exclaimed in 1634, upon the information that silver had been traced in the north.
It is to be noted that Czarist Russia behaved similarly: albeit she continued her effort to reach the World seas, under repeated warfare with Sweden, and Poland-Lithuania with little success so far: the colonisation frontier trade began penetrating into Siberia reaching the Pacific Ocean, where Ochotsk was founded in 1649. The pay off for this effort took centuries. But already in this period a policy was launched to catch up with western technology and administrative know-how and a colony of Westerners was established in Moscow. However the structures were generally very negative to change, causing friction at every instance, and Russia continued to be ruled as a rather harsh empire.
In 1618 what was to become the thirty-years war broke out in the Habsburg Empire, assuming the character of a religious war. First Denmark, then Sweden – with considerably more success – interfered to defend the Protestant powers, and were thereby fighting the war for the Atlantic core area. This in turn fell apart according to religious preferences when counter-reformation stopped the spread of Protestantism in Spain, Portugal and France. From then on, momentum was with the North Sea powers. It was among them Europe for a second time caused the conditions of life to change on a general level. It occurred in the 18th century. Why then? And why in the North Sea area?

The second change qualitative – Globalization
North Sea core area organises Global World-system and liquidates l’ancienne regime (1675-1825)
For two hundred years wealth had been accumulating in Holland, England and some adjacent tracts, through trade and resource exploitation on a global scale, when around 1750 a new radical change qualitative began in their midst. A much discussed series of breakthroughs hooked into each other re-shaping not only the western European core and semi-peripheries, but virtually the whole World; again a few remainders may suffice:
application of scientific methods on industrial production, beginning in England and gradually spreading in western Europe;
productivity raise and sinking prices revolutionised world trade, organised by the North Sea core area and secured by colonial penetration of Africa, the Near East, and India;
technology spill-over on transportation opened up inland districts (railways) and made exchange with other continents more reliable (steamships);
industry shaken by recurrent crises of over-production with non-extant social security for workers, their concentration to factories and suburbs generated new political polarisation;
‘bourgeois’ revolutions in North America (1776) and France (1789); both drawing from enlightenment philosophy and reacting against l’ancienne regime privileges;
the new social and political issues amalgamated into the principles of ethno-nationalism and democracy, however meeting conservative resistance claiming nationalism for its own interest, leading to the formation of political parties on the ‘left’ to ‘right’ scale, parliamentarism, public opinion through press.
On the Baltic Rim Russia dethroned Sweden and got access to the Sea, Poland was divided by its neighbours and wiped out from the political map, whereas Prussia emerged as a major power. Both new leading powers were imperial in their structure, whereas Sweden and Denmark began new careers as small nations rather closely integrated with the North Sea core area, soon accompanied by a fairly autonomous Norway.

Industrial implementation combustion of European Core area and emergence of new dominant Semi-peripheries (1825-1975)
In the period to come industrial revolution gradually spread from the North Sea core area over the European continent together with an unintended chain reaction questioning royal, noble and ecclesiastic prerogatives, all reaching the Baltic Rim in around 1840/60. Industrialisation caused a demographic boom in western Europe, leading to mass migrations from the countryside to urban areas, and later on to ‘empty continents’. The ideas of enlightenment continued to spread over the European continent, small peoples boasted their rights to form their own national polity, whereas shattered groups of people endeavoured to join an ‘imagined’ nation; the medieval society of estates was gradually replaced by the notion of the upper, middle and working classes. I find this famous painting summing up the industrialised world beautifully. Look at the chimneys.
Towards the end of the 19th century a new wave of technical innovations followed, featuring the use of electricity, the combustion engine and so forth, all furthering more mechanised production and swifter, more reliable communications, which initiated a partly new series of chain reactions in the 20th century. The two World wars were characterised by new technology and industrial perspectives; they were largely challenges by semi-peripheral empires against the North Sea governed World-system.
From the 1920s the North American east coast had joined the North Sea core area. The allied victories in World wars I and II serve as evident confirmation; the first one liquidated three semi-peripheral Empires, the second stopped still semi-peripheral terror-states to take a short cut into global control; the Cold war was another struggle between a still rather imperial Soviet and a North Atlantic World system. Development on the Baltic Rim saw recurring duels between the Russian and newly formed German empires, and their consecutive reconstructions and/or collapses in 1917/18, 1933/45 and 1989, by which minor nations sometimes disappeared and sometimes were resurrected. What about the future?
One factor which I have followed in this paper is the duality between empires and World-systems, in other words between socioeconomic organisation based on coercion and market mechanisms respectively. I’ll have to make clear that the difference is one of shades; no society exists that is purely one or the other. My focus has been on the Catholic World-system that emerged as Europe found its still extant shape in the Middle Ages, and on the Capitalist World-system that grew out of that in the Early Modern and Modern periods.
What was historically new in medieval Europeanization wasn’t feudalism, trade or state formation, but rational, scientifically conducted ethics and morals. What was really new in modern Globalization wasn’t capitalism, colonialism or triangular trade, but rational, scientifically conducted production and distribution. Churches were the factories of the Middle Ages; factories the churches of the modern. Both had the power to organise much longer chains-of-exchange than before, multiplying accumulation in the core area, which however spread with economic growth and qualitative improvement also to the peripheries. Hence we have found recurrent examples of ‘peripheral revenge’.

Globalization hasn’t replaced Europeanization; both are with us now. The Fall of the Berlin Wall and the Maastricht treaty certainly released a new wave of Europeanization. Even if the original process of Europeanization took almost three medieval centuries to fulfil, until the last Semigalian had been Christianised; there are quite many similarities in the modern repetition, which suggest that the Middle Ages remain as a pattern, which is not to be neglected even in the 21st century.
This map expresses the economic expectations of the European community in the early 1990s. You may have seen many similar ones. It shows the famous Blue Banana – the area which is expected to be the great winner of present day European cooperation. It’s a mere copy of the Lotharingian corridor.
But how does this new European house fit into the global village of the future? Today’s core area may still stretch over the North Atlantic, but tendencies are already strong that it’s reforming around the Pacific.
Having caused two major qualitative changes during the second millennium, Europe now runs the risk of becoming a periphery. Also incitements for further growth may loose momentum, in a world were the chains-of-exchange cannot grow further?  And what will happen when the oil resources run dry? The climate runs amok? Nuclear technology falls in the hands of desperate terrorists? I have better stop!

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