Medieval town

After the Danish and German invasions in the 13th century, it became necessary to build and fortify the trade towns in the occupied territories. Estonia’s major towns are all of medieval origin, mostly erected on the stronghold sites built by Estonians. Tallinn existed before the conquerors as well: as early as the 10th–11th century there was a stronghold on Toompea Hill, a harbour, marketplace and a settlement with permanent inhabitants.

Among the historic towns, medieval structure can best be observed in Tallinn — it has retained its network of streets that formed spontaneously, on the basis of purely functional logic, following paths from the stronghold to the marketplace, the sea and surrounding areas. The Tallinn medieval town wall was among the biggest and strongest fortification systems in northern Europe. Whereas the medieval fortifications of other Estonian towns can be seen only on old maps, half of the 46 towers and two thirds of the town wall of Tallinn, i.e. about 2 km, have survived almost intact. As early as in the 13th century, the building activities within the town walls had rather strict regulations: ‘a stone house with gables at both ends’. By the 15th century, almost all of downtown Tallinn was made of stone. The bulk of medieval buildings has survived to the present day, and a typical old town house is, despite all reconstructions, removal of the gables and redesigning of the windows, still a late Gothic building. New facades still hide Gothic joists, murals or sculptural details.

The Tallinn Old Town with its numerous towers, high circular walls and picturesque moats shaping the town’s general vista, is one of our national treasures that has been included in the UNESCO World Heritage List. The medieval heart of the town has always been a living organism and everyday living environment — and it will remain so until the ever more strict regulations turn it into a museum. The reason why the Old Town has remained intact is actually quite mundane. Had Tallinn been more prosperous in the 19th century, the Old Town would have got in the way and been sacrificed to the new, as happened in other European cities, where everything that seemed old, unfashionable and slightly disturbing, was demolished, to be replaced by the new and modern. What stood for progress in those days, is now considered nothing but vandalism. ‘The city displays no interest in keeping the circular town wall in one piece... the sooner they remove the towers and gate constructions, the better for traffic,’ wrote the Tallinn Town Council in 1870.

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