Oldest written texts and collections

The time during which Estonian history has been recorded in writing, is fairly short. The beginnings of our written history are often said to start with texts by ancient Roman authors or with fragments of Scandinavian sagas or Russian manuscripts which are believed to refer to Estonia or Estonians. However, these texts can be interpreted in many different ways. The first written records that have survived originate from the 13th century, when writing became more widespread as a result of foreign invasions and Christianisation.

The oldest written text that has survived to this day is a parchment issued in 1237 by Wilhelm of Modena, a papal legate and penitentiary in Tallinn. This parchment prohibited anyone from preventing the making of donations of real and movable property to the Church in general and to the Tallinn House of Leprous Brothers in particular. The size of the oldest document stored in the Tallinn City Archives is only 7x21 cm; such a small size can be attributed to the fact that the material on which texts were written, i.e. parchment, was extremely expensive and it had to be used economically. Despite its modest size and appearance, and disregarding its seemingly unimportant content, this piece of parchment is extremely significant in the cultural history of Estonia.

In terms of age these documents are followed by a deed of gift (now located in the department of manuscripts of the Tartu University Library) by which a plot of land was donated in 1239, and another document regarding tithes to be paid to the Church issued by Erik IV of Denmark on 24 June 1240 (now stored in the Estonian Historical Archives). These most ancient records and also those dating from the following centuries were not in Estonian — they had been drawn up either in Latin, German, Polish, Swedish or Russian.

Occasions of Estonian place names or names of persons or a few words or phrases in Estonian having survived to our days are rare. There are, however, a few occurrences in the Latin Chronicle of Livonia by Henrik (Henrici Chronicon Livoniae) and in the Danish record of a survey (Liber Census Daniae). In approximately 1490, the following Estonian words were written in an incunabulum found in the Tallinn Dominican Monastery: ‘ükspäev’ – vxpeyue (one day), ‘külvaja’ – kylweya (sower), ‘ilma’ – ylma (without) ja ‘õpetatud’ – åppetut (learned) — all of them probably referring to a sermon on the Parable of the Sower. In about 1510, the words ‘surnud’ (dead) and ‘kiusab’ (is teasing) and the phrase ‘Myna … tha syno pera tulla’ (I want to follow you) were put down in writing.

These occasional words and phrases indicate that the Catholic Church, at least as far as the Dominicans were concerned, used a certain amount of the vernacular, i.e. Estonian, in its exercise of religious rituals. In the Kullamaa socage register dating back to 1524–1532 we can find slightly longer excerpts of Estonian texts: the Lord’s Prayer (Pater noster), Hail Mary (Ave Maria) and the Creed (Credo). In the Tallinn City Archives, there is the text of an oath of allegiance to the Master of the Livonian Order and to the city of Tallinn taken by non-Germans, i.e. Estonians.

During the Middle Ages, the collection of manuscripts, works of art, and other artefacts began at churches, cloisters, socio-professional organisations, and city councils. The collections that evolved over hundreds of years were very much connected with these particular establishments and only a limited number of people belonging to certain circles had access to them. Although the number of antiquities that have survived to this day is not vast, such objects have become the priceless foundation of the extensive collections of our archives, libraries and museums. Frequent wars and fires as well as human stupidity and carelessness have played a significant role in reducing the amount of cultural property that has actually survived until modern times.

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