There were ten cities on Estonian territory in the late 16th century: in addition to the medieval cities, town rights were given to Kuressaare in Ösel (Saaremaa) (1563) and Valga (1584). The wars at the turn of the century ravaged Estonian towns as well: for example, Pärnu changed hands eight times. Dorpat (Tartu), the largest city in Old Livonia, was pillaged repeatedly by Russian, Polish and Swedish troops, and its inhabitants deported by the Russians. After the cessation of hostilities, town rights had been preserved by Tallinn, Tartu, Narva and (New) Pärnu. Gradually Kuressaare and Narva regained their status; the rest had been destroyed or had passed into private possession (for example, Haapsalu and Rakvere). Tallinn fared best in the wars; no foreigners managed to capture the city. It is believed that with its 10 000 inhabitants, Tallinn was the third largest Swedish city after Stockholm and Riga in the 17th century. Tallinn remained unconquered because of its mighty fortifications built and rebuilt since the Middle Ages. Sweden strengthened Tallinn’s fortifications in the 16th and 17th centuries. Since the 17th century, the Tallinn cityscape has been shaped by the bastions girding the Old Town. At the end of the century, fortifications were built around Narva; to a lesser extent, fortification works went on in Kuressaare, Pärnu and Tartu.

On the whole, approximately 6% of the Estonian population lived in towns. Sweden accepted the autonomy of towns founded on the basis of German town rights in the Middle Ages; despite this the relations with the central authority varied. The autonomy of Tallinn was almost never restricted throughout the whole Swedish reign; in Narva, however, the central authority had more power. In general the towns were administered by the medieval town charter, whereby legal, administrative and judicial powers were exercised by the town council. In the 17th century persons trained in law were also elected members of the town council.

The urban population consisted of burghers and non-burghers: burghers were members of merchant and artisan corporations called guilds. The artisans’ guilds functioned according to the 14th century law, though during the 17th century there was more specialisation. As in commerce, the indigenous people were kept away from artisans’ guilds; for example, the Oleviste Guild which had been formed of Estonian craftspeople stopped functioning at the end of the 17th century. Thereafter, becoming a craftsperson involved becoming a German. As a result of these processes, the proportion of the indigenous population — non-Germans — gradually decreased in the towns, although the majority of the urban population was still Estonian. At the same time, the fact that upwardly mobile Estonian burghers became Germanised makes it difficult to determine the ethnic origin of the urban population — German names in the registry books might be misleading.

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