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Bell Money and Church Wine. Addenda to the Biography of Balthasar Russow, Pastor of the Holy Spirit Church of Reval (Tallinn) in the Late 1500s

Public and academic interest has focused mainly on Balthasar Russow’s masterful work, the Chronicle of the Livonian Province (1578, 1584), and the debated hypothesis of his Estonian extraction. Although the majority of published archival sources on Russow indicate that he was a Lutheran preacher at Reval’s Church of the Holy Spirit (Heiliggeistkirche), less is known about his ordinary duties with respect to his supposedly Estonian-speaking congregation. Regrettably, the content and language preference of his preaching remain unknown because manuscripts of his sermons have not survived. Nominated as a deacon in 1563 and ordained as a Pastor at the Church of the Holy Spirit in 1567, Russow served the congregation until his death in 1600.

The search for Russow’s autographs in the Tallinn City Archives yielded a sheaf of original notes from 1579, 1588, and 1590–1594, altogether 345 entries. First, the accounts record the receipt of payments for funerals in the given years. Russow’s accounting includes payments for tolling the church bells (Klockengeld) and for burial plots. The number of burials per year fluctuates: 1579 – 24, 1588 – 25, 1590 – 101, 1592 – 35, 1593 – 41, 1594 – 18. The peak in the year 1590 can be explained by the outbreak of an epidemic disease. The regular payment for tolling the bells was 9 Rigish marks, however, clergymen and their family members, as well as schoolmasters and probably some city servants were exempted from this duty. In the case of funerals of noblemen and their family members, the payment was doubled or even higher. Yet in some cases, the payment for burials of Estonian craftsmen, traders, and their family members (cf. Jürgen Turske, Harrack Steinwercker, Sauna Hans etc.) was as high as 49 marks. One can suppose that these entries, followed by some donations to the church of up to 100 marks, refer to members of the congregation. The list of burials, 288 in total, extending from Field-Marshal Hans Wachtmeister to an unnamed stabbed boatswain, clearly confirms that Russow had to arrange funeral ceremonies beyond his own congregation. The same circumstance can be seen in the account book of Georg Müller, Russow’s successor and deacon of Reval’s Church of the Holy Spirit, when he buried victims of the Great Plague of 1601–1603. Russow’s accounts do not mention where the graves were located. The common late medieval practice of intramural burials was perhaps exceptional in the late 1500s. Dense building structure does not support the idea of a cemetery existing close to the Church of the Holy Spirit; thus, one has to suppose that the Fischermay (Kalamaja) cemetery beyond the town wall was used in those years.

The income from the bell money was used to cover various expenses regarding worship. Two main expense articles were regular purchases of church wine and wafers (oblaten) for the Eucharist. The purchase of candle wax and payment for candle making were also frequent expenses. There were occasional expenses for repairing church windows, for greasing the clock hands with lard, or for paying the Köster (sexton) to tread the organ. Russow was obliged to deposit the income from burials and the respective accounting at the city council’s pay-office. Although several questions connected with Balthasar Russow’s clerical practices remain unanswered, the publication of his autographic accounts provides some insight into the daily life and burial culture of Reval in the late 1500s.