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« Tuna 3 / 2020

The Defeat of the Plague Twenty-five Decades Ago

The long-standing estimated calculation of the number of famine victims in Estonia for the period 1695–1697 was presented by Otto Liiv in the 1930s. According to him, 70–75,000 people, or around 20 per cent of the population, perished during the Great Famine in Estonia. This has been the widely repeated death toll ever since. However, Liiv provided evidence from the sources for only about 23,500 deaths. The rest is only an approximation. This death toll is probably not entirely wrong, but the problem is that it is too specific to be verified. Reliable sources have survived for only a small part of the country. Nevertheless, together with some careful speculation, the primary sources allow us to arrive at the conclusion that the death toll in the Estonian territory was between 60,000 and 80,000 people (i.e. around a sixth of the population). Thus, the demographic cataclysm due to the famine was remarkable anyway considering its suddenness in peacetime and without an accompanying plague epidemic. This raises the question of the main causes of the mortality during these famine years.

In 1698, royal commissions were formed in Estland and Livland to evaluate the famine losses of the previous three years 1695–1697. A surviving volume of this commission’s reports that presents the results of the investigation of famine losses on the crown estates of Estland from 1698-1700 is one of the main sources of the present article for answering the question raised about the causes of rural mortality. Other sources are much more traditional and have been studied more – these are first of all parish church registers of burials.

It can be concluded that the elevated mortality in 1696–1698 was first of all a result of the spread of contagious diseases, diarrhoea in particular (dysentery, typhus, “fevers”), that were obviously partly linked with hunger and famine foods. Of course, it is widely accepted that a famine does not comprise only the component of direct starvation, and that all excess deaths during a famine crisis ought to be included in its impact. In the Estonian territory, the spread of fatal diseases was widely reported in 1696–1697 (also partly in 1698). Mortality was highest from March to June of 1697 in the Baltic provinces. However, it is striking how passive the interest of the provincial governments was regarding the spread of infectious diseases at the end of the seventeenth century. The pastors were also still very unsystematic in registering deaths from diseases. It seems that the Swedish administration did acknowledge the serious crop failures as a danger to its cameral interests, but the ravages of disease were accepted rather meekly. This is also why data on the outbreaks and spread of infectious diseases were not systematically gathered. Thus there is a lack of sources for estimating the proportion of disease victims among total deaths or burials in the Baltic provinces in 1696–1698.

Since the population had reached a density never before seen in Estonia by the 1690s, deserted farmsteads were settled surprisingly quickly during and after the famine, so that by 1699–1700 the number of emptied fields was already rather low. This is not comparable to the situation at the beginning of the seventeenth century when the famine and plague of 1602–1603 hit an already devastated country still suffering the consequences of wars going back to 1558. The last plague epidemic afflicted Estland and Livland in 1710–1711 during the Great Northern War, claiming up to 200,000 victims, which accounted for 55–60 percent of the population of Estonian territory at that time. That plague stuck in the people’s memory for a long time. It became an important milestone in the way the rural population kept track of time. The next plague hazard threatened the Baltic region at the start of the 1770s, when the greater part of Central and Eastern Europe was stricken by a crisis, where hunger and devastating contagious diseases piled up. Due to their geographical position, the plague that had spread in Russia’s interior governorates and the typhoid fever that was running riot in Polish territories adjacent to the Baltic region simultaneously threatened Estland and Livland.

The primary measures that the authorities implemented to impede the spread of the plague were sealing off the state borders and the establishment of quarantine procedures. Three ordinances from 1770 are examined more closely in this article: the edict issued by King Friedrich II of Prussia on 29 August, the letter patent issued on 15 October by the royal proxy government of Vorpommern (Western Pomerania), which at that time was under Swedish rule, and the letter patent issued on 16 October by George von Browne, the Governor-General of Livland, according to the order of Catherine II. If we rank the established requirements and the punishments for disregarding them according to their strictness, Livland ranked in between the milder restrictions of Swedish Pomerania and Prussia’s considerably sterner rules.

While sealing off the borders obstructed the spread of the epidemic to Estland and Livland by land, the danger from the sea also could not be ignored. It was feared that ships with crews that had fallen ill with the plague could dock at some smaller ports. Numerous letters patent issued by the governor-general warned against such ships. In retrospect, it is difficult to assess whether the caution of the authorities or the abatement of the strength of the plague saved these two governorates from the epidemic.

Similarly to Central Europe, hunger threatened Estland and Livland alongside the epidemic. The unfavourable weather conditions that had persisted for several years at the start of the 1770s brought crop failure with it and a doubling of the price of grain. Unlike Central Europe, the considerably above average grain harvests of the preceding years, along with the reserve grain requirement established at the start of the reign of Catherine II, spared Estland and Livland from a more extensive famine. A steep increase in grain prices was admittedly a tempting incentive to increase exports, but the admonitions of the authorities aimed at the owners of the manorial estates and the supervision implemented by the authorities spared this region from the worst. In a situation where restrictions were imposed on grain exports throughout Europe, the grain trade remained unfettered in Estland and Livland.

One of the steps taken at that time for keeping the plague at a distance was the ukase that was extended to the Baltic governorates in 1772, which prohibited burials in churches and required that cemeteries be established at a distance from the centres of towns and villages. The authorities of the governorates of Estland and Livland reacted to this with differing zeal. Thanks to the more energetic activeness of Livland’s officials of that time, cemeteries in Southern Estonia are often several kilometres away from the parish church to this day, while at the same time burials in the churchyard continue even nowadays in Northern Estonia.

In the ongoing discussions of that time, the positions of cameralists and physiocrats concerning ways to emerge from the crisis were opposed to one another. Both viewpoints were reflected in the debate on serfdom in Estland and Livland. It took nearly another half-century before more liberal positions pushed aside the conservative view that stressed guardianship.