The Kursenieki are also known as Curonians.
Curonian lands by the start of 13th century

The Curonians or Kurs (Curonian: Kursi; German: Kuren; Latvian: kurši; Russian: курши; Lithuanian: kuršiai; Estonian: kuralased; Polish: Kurowie) were a Baltic[1] tribe living on the shores of the Baltic Sea in what are now the western parts of Latvia and Lithuania from the 5th to the 16th centuries, when they merged with other Baltic tribes. They gave their name to the region of Courland (Kurzeme), and they spoke the Old Curonian language. Curonian lands were conquered by the Livonian Order in 1266 and they eventually merged with other Baltic tribes participating in the ethnogenesis of Lithuanians and Latvians. Direct descendants of the Curonians include the Kuršininkai of the Curonian Spit and the so-called Curonian Kings of Courland.

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Curonians in the context of the other Baltic tribes, circa 1200 CE. The Eastern Balts are shown in brown hue while the Western Balts are shown in green. The boundaries are approximate.

The Curonians[2] were known as fierce warriors, excellent sailors and pirates. They were involved in several wars and alliances with Swedish, Danish and Icelandic Vikings.[3] During that period they were the most restless and the richest of all the Balts.

In c. 750, according to Norna-Gests þáttr saga from c. 1157, Sigurd Ring, a legendary king of Denmark and Sweden, fought against the invading Curonians and Kvænir in the southern part of what today is Sweden:

"Sigurd Ring (Sigurðr) was not there, since he had to defend his land, Sweden (Svíþjóð), since Curonians (Kúrir) and Kvænir were raiding there." [4]

Grobin (Grobiņa)[5] was the main centre of the Curonians during the Vendel Age. Chapter 46 of Egils Saga describes one Viking expedition by the Vikings Thorolf and Egill Skallagrímsson in Courland. They took part with the Oeselians in attacking Sweden's main city Sigtuna in 1187. Curonians established temporary settlements near Riga and in overseas regions including eastern Sweden and the islands of Gotland and Bornholm.

The Curonians had a strong warrior culture and are considered to be eastern Baltic by some researchers,[6] while others believe they were related to Old Prussians who belonged into western Baltic group.[7]

The Curonians were an especially religious people, worshipping pagan gods and their sacred animal, the horse. Some of the most important written sources about the Curonians are Rimbert's Vita Ansgarii, the Livonian Chronicle of Henry, the Livländische Reimchronik, Egils Saga, and Saxo Grammaticus's Gesta Danorum. In c. 1075 Adam of Bremen described the Curonians in his Gesta Hammaburgensis Ecclesiae Pontificum (Deeds of Bishops of the Hamburg Church) as world famous pagan diviners:

"... gold is very plentiful there, the horses are of the best. All the houses are full of pagan soothsayers, diviners, and necromancers, who are even arrayed in a monastic habit. Oracular responses are sought there from all parts of the world, especially by Spaniards and Greeks." [8]

It was common for the Curonians to carry out joint raids and campaigns together with Estonians (Oeselians). However, during the Livonian crusade, Curonians formed an alliance with the Semigallians, resulting in a joint attack against Riga in 1228. In the same time, according to the Livonian Rhymed Chronicle, Curonians and Samogitians were known as "bad neighbours".[9]

Livonian Crusade

During the late Iron Age, the Curonians started to move from southern Courland to the north, assimilating a Finnic people who lived in the coastal regions of northern Courland. They then formed a new ethnic group, the so-called Curonised Livonians.[10][11]

The Curonians tightly resisted to the Livonian Crusade for a long time, contrary to the Latgallians who accepted Christianity with a light opposition.[12]

There are many sources that mention the Curonians in the 13th century, when they were involved in the Northern Crusades. In 1210 the Curonians, with eight ships, were attacked by a German crusader fleet on the Baltic Sea, near the coast of Gotland. The Curonians were victorious and German sources claim that 30 crusaders were killed.

Also in July 1210, the Curonians attacked Riga, the main crusader stronghold in Livonia.[13] A huge Curonian fleet arrived in the mouth of the Daugava and besieged the city. However, after a day of fighthing, the Curonians were unable to break through the city walls. They crossed to the other bank of the Daugava to burn their dead and mourn for three days. Later they lifted the siege and returned to Courland.[14]

In 1228, the Curonians together with the Semigallians again attacked Riga. Although they were again unsuccessful in storming the city, they destroyed a monastery in Daugavgriva and killed all the monks there.

After the defeat of Estonians and Osilians in 1227, the Curonians were confronted by Lithuanian enemies in the east and south, and harassed by the Livonian Brothers of the Sword from the north; in the west, on the sea-shore, their arch-enemies, the Danes and Swedes, were lurking, waiting for opportunity. In this hopeless situation, further aggravated by a famine, the Curonians preferred to try to make peace with the Christian conquerors, inviting the monks into their country thereby escaping attacks by the Scandinavian nations.[15]

In 1230 the Curonians in the northern part of Courland, under their chief Lamekins (Lammechinus Rex), signed a peace treaty with the Germans, and the lands they inhabited thus became to be known as Vredecuronia or Peace Courland. The southern Curonians, however, continued to resist the invaders.

The Curonians did not lay down their arms at that time. They used the famine as a pretext for claiming economical weakness and actually did not permit the monks to enter the country.[16] Later, the Order tried to use the Curonian cavalry in the Prussian Crusade, but Curonians were reluctant in this forced cooperation and used the situation for revolts in several cases.[17]

In 1260, the Curonians were involved in the Battle of Durbe, one of the biggest battles in Livonia in the 13th century. They were forced to fight on the crusader side. When the battle started, Curonians abandoned the knights because the knights did not agree to free any Curonians captured from the Samogitian camp. Peter von Dusburg alleged that the Curonians even attacked the Knights from the rear. The Estonians and other local people soon followed the Curonians and abandoned the Knights and that allowed the Samogitians to gain victory over the Livonian Order. It was a heavy defeat for the Order and uprisings against the crusaders soon afterwards broke out in the Curonian and Prussian lands.

Curonian resistance was finally subdued in 1266, when the whole of Courland was partitioned between the Livonian Order and the Archbishop of Riga. The Curonian nobles, among them 40 clans of the descendants of the Curonian kings, who lived in the town of Kuldīga, preserved personal freedom and some of their privileges.[15][18]

Later history

Southern Curonians from Megowa, Pilsaten and Ceclis lands gradually assimilated into the nascent Lithuanian nation and ceased to be known as a distinct ethnos by the 16th century. An intense period of Samogitian-Curonian bilingualism is posited because a Curonian linguistic substratum is evident in the Northern Samogitian dialect, an important part of Samogitian ethnic self-identification.[19]

On the Latvian side during the Livonian War, the descendants of the Curonian nobility, although downgraded to peasant status, fought the Russians, as Johann Renner's chronicle reports:

The Russians protected themselves boldly, and they knocked out a Curonian peasant Fenrich (who, although only a peasant, is called by them the Curonian king) from his horse.
Johann Renner, Lievländische Historien, 1556–1561, C. 124v

The Curonian language became extinct by the 16th century.[20]

Curonia, as reported, had its own language, different from the Latvian and Estonian, which is extirpated and prohibited, so that nobody has the right to talk it, and instead has to speak Latvian.
Johann Renner, Lievländische Historien, 1556–1561, 207v


Map of Courland

Bishop Rimbert of Bremen (lived before 888 AD) in his life of St. Ansgar, Vita Ansgarii described the territory inhabited by the Curonians (Cori) and gave the names of the administrative districts or lands (civitates):

Sources and references

  1. Matthews, W. K. "Nationality and Language in the East Baltic Area", American Slavic and East European Review, Vol. 6, No. 1/2 (May, 1947), pp. 62-78
  3. Matthews, W. K. "Medieval Baltic Tribes". American Slavic and East European Review, Vol. 8, No. 2 (Apr., 1949), pp. 126-136.
  4. Norna-Gests þáttr, c. 1157, Níkulás Bergsson, Iceland.
  6. Östen Dahl (ed.) 2001, The Circum-Baltic Languages: Typology and Contact, vol. 1
  7. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2012-01-10. Retrieved 2012-01-17.
  8. ...aurum ibi plurimum, equi optimi. Divinis, auguribus atque nigromanticis omnes domus plenae sunt, qui etiam vestitu monachico induti sunt. A toto orbe ibi responsa petuntur, maxime ab Hispanis et Graecis.
  9. Livonian Rhymed Chronicle. 6794–6800, 9095–9100.
  10. Šturms, E. Zur Vorgeshichte der Liven, 1936, Eurasia Septentrionalis Antiqua, 10
  11. Zemītis, G. Vendu jautājums un Arheoloģijas avotu iespējas tā risinājumā //Akadēmiskā Dzīve, Nr.46, 2009 Academic Life Nr.46 (2009)
  12. Edgar V. Saks. Aestii. 1960. p. 196.
  14. Chronicle of Henry of Livonia
  15. 1 2 Edgar V. Saks. Aestii. 1960. p. 244.
  16. Paul Johansen. Die Estlandliste des Liber Census Daniae. 1933. p. 720, 724–725.
  17. Livonian Rhymed Chronicle. 5605–5660.
  18. F. Balodis. Lettland och letterna: Ha de rätt at leva. Stockholm 1943. p. 212.
  19. Valdas Petrulis "The spatial structure of the region of Samogitian ethnic self-consciousnes"
  20. Curonian

External links

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