The Courlandic Noble Corporation
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  • has an area of 27,286 square km
  • corresponds to that part of modern Latvia which lies to the south of the Dvina (Daugava) river
  • is characterized by abundant woods and fertile soil
  • had Mitau (Jelgava) as its capital
  • counts the harbors Libau (Liepaja) and Windau (Ventspils) among its larger cities

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The peasant, generally protestant population comprised the peoples of the Livs and Cours, for whom the provinces Livonia and Courland were named, and the Latvians. The other group living in Courland was the German minority essentially made up of the nobility and the so-called Literaten (literary class), i.e. commoners who had pursued academic careers as pastors, medical doctors, and teachers. These two groups combined represented less than 10 % of the total population. The 'germanization' that characterizes the history of other parts of Eastern Europe under German rule, i.e. the assimilation of the indigenous populace to the German culture, did not take place here. Quite the contrary: in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, German pastors not only translated the Bible and the Hymnal into Latvian, but also created a written Latvian language in which the sagas and folk tales were recorded (Gotthard Fr. Stender).

History of Courland

As a result of the territorial and political upheavals ensuing in the course of the Reformation, the Order of Teutonic Knights lost control of the area it had thus far occupied. Its last Master, Gotthard von Kettler, created a hereditary duchy in the area south of the Dvina (Daugava) river in 1561, placing it under the protection of the Polish king as liege lord. The following 234 years, until 1795, represent this region's specific history.

The Third Partition of Poland in 1795 meant the downfall of Courland's feudal lord, and the province subsequently came under Russian rule. It was then also that the duchy was united with the Pilten bishopric, an enclave of 5,500 square km on the northernmost peak of the country that had initially been under Danish and later under Polish rule.

In the 19th century, the Latvians increasingly strove for a national identity of their own as well as for greater influence in matters of the state. This culminated in the 1905 insurgencies not only against Russian rule, but also against the position the Germans had achieved in the region.

During World War I, German troops occupied Courland. After they had been withdrawn in 1918, some German soldiers who had remained in the province formed the Eiserne Division (Iron Division) and joined the Landeswehr (National Defense Guard) made up of German Baltic volunteers. Together with a small Latvian contingent, they drove the Bolshevik troops out of the country. On November 18th, 1918, the Republic of Latvia was proclaimed. This then proceeded to expropriate all landed property owned by Germans without any compensation, permitting them to keep only residual freeholds of 50 hectares. Furthermore, the members of the German minority were barred from holding any higher offices in the administration or in the military. As a result, the Courlandians fled the country in large numbers, most of them to Germany. The last of them left their homes in the course of the mandatory resettlement (Umsiedlung) agreed upon in 1939 by Germany and the Soviet Union.

Gotthard von Kettler
The noble corporation

The history of Courland is characterized by its noble corporation. This essentially consisted of noblemen originally from Westphalia and regions along the Rhine who had acquired land under the rule of the Order of Teutonic Knights. The constitution provided that whenever the duke was absent or otherwise prevented from performing his duties, the power of government was in the hands of the noble corporation. The duke's position vis-à-vis the noble corporation was additionally weakened by the fact that the latter was entitled to file complaints with the king of Poland in cases of dispute.

Since 1620, the noble corporation had the sole power of immatriculation (i.e., to register families in the roll of nobility). This means that it admitted certain families into the circle of those who were entitled to send a representative to the Landtag (representative assembly) and to thus participate in governing the country. However, the noble corporation was not entitled to raise such families to nobility.

The Courlandic noble corporation observed governmental and corporative tasks. It was represented by the Landesbevollmächtigte (head of the province). Under what today would be termed the chairmanship of the Landbotenmarschall (literally: marshal of the country messengers), those members of the Courlandic noble corporation who were correspondingly legitimized by their possession of a knight's manor convened every three years in Mitau as the Landtag and passed the necessary resolutions. Whenever any cases admitted of no delay, the Brüderliche Konferenz (Brotherly Convention) made up of the Kirchspielsdelegierte (representatives of the various church parishes) made the corresponding decisions.

The Mitau Ritterhaus (House of Lords)

The officials of the noble corporation, all of whom worked in an honorary capacity, were responsible for the administration of the province. The costs for the maintenance of schools, of streets, for health care and social welfare (provided to the Latvian populace as well), for the teachers' colleges training Latvian teachers, were borne by the owners of knight's manors. Their financial contributions were made on a voluntary basis. The size of the 642 Courlandian manors varied from 72,700 hectares to 71 hectares. They were each allotted one vote only in the Landtag. In 1819, voluntarily and before the rest of the Russian empire did so, the Courlandic noble corporation abolished serfage and furthermore enabled farmers to purchase land by granting them low-interest loans. Thus, in 1914, 1,017,000 hectares of land were owned by Latvian farmers while 1,113,400 hectares of land belonged to knight's manors.

The Dukes of Courland

The Kettler dynasty continued for six generations of dukes. Three of them married princesses of Brandenburg. The most important of them was Duke Jakob (who ruled Courland from 1642 until 1682). He founded the first German-speaking colonies in Gambia and Tobago. After the first dynasty had died out, Ernst Johann v. Bühren, later called v. Biron, was able to ascend to the duchy (ahead of numerous competitors). He was the favorite of the last Kettler duke's widow, who ascended to the Russian throne in 1730 as the Tsarina Anna. His son Peter, for whom the Berlin service of porcelain 'Kurland' was designed, abdicated in 1795 upon the Third Partition of Poland.

Set of china 'Kurland'
manufactured by the Staatliche Porzellan-Manufaktur Berlin

Duke Jakob Kettler
Translator: Carmen v. Samson-Himmelstjerna


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