Despite the complexities of tracing families before surnames were acquired (generally not until the nineteenth century in the Baltic region), the RIIS surname comes with attached Estonian folklore — folklore that explains why and how an early individual could leave traces of his existence. I am doing my best with the newly found "popular tradition" to decipher the weird syntax and the personal and place names yielded by online translations. I don't think it's time to call in a living, breathing translator for this yet. The lineage has more pressing holes to address before connecting to Tiit Kolgiks (see Part One).
Words and phrasings in quotation marks are from the Estonian folkloric accounts, that is, the translations thereof.
"Tiit Kolgiks" or "Tiit Kolk" (born ca.1650) was the apparent progenitor of the family in Baltic lands. It's said the man was a Swedish knight-soldier; there's mention of the Great Northern War (1700-1721). He came to a place in what is now Estonia, a village called Sandra on the Raudna river, in a large area called Viljandi. Whatever his real name was, the people there called him Tiit Kolgiks. The two countries as we know them, Estonia and Latvia, were long known as Livonia. The Great Northern War (1700-1721) was a power struggle between the Swedish and Russian empires whereby the Swedes lost control of Livonia.
|A little early for my purpose but |
Tiit was legendary for his fine clothing, magnificent boots (always with spurs), and big handsome horses with fancy harness — the man definitely had resources. Tiit built himself a large wooden house with glass windows which had never been seen before; the dwelling was also fortified, including a portcullis gate that was closed at night and raised every morning. If you have never used online translation from a foreign language, I give you a sample:
He made yourself into a wooden house with a spacious and large glass windows to put down, which at the time before the thing was seeing.
Tiit's grand house sounds almost like a manor house itself. Historically, the Vastemöisa estate, one of the oldest in Livonia, was located in the old county of Viljandi (Viljandimaa) and parish of Suure-Jaani; there were twelve manor estates in the parish. Each estate would also have a number of farms.
Additional information becomes more puzzling. Tiit fell one day while working on horseback, "driving a large mallet." The resulting injury to his hip (lameness?) prompted the nickname "Old Kolk." I had a great deal of trouble with that word kolk; no particular language was owning up to it until Wolfram|Alpha said it means hip in Slovenian. Our man was apparently real enough because his birth and death "may still be seen on the grave" ― at least whenever that was written ― but no specific year or age is now known.
That's about the extent of the man's personal information that I can extract from the trees on Geni, supplemented with links to archival and local history websites. All the accounts of Tiit use more or less the same words and phrasing; I can't be certain yet but they seem to derive from an unnamed page related to the URL of the Tartu Observatoorium website.
Based on practices in other countries, his being a soldier and possibly a knight could indicate his Viljandi lands were a reward for military service. In the 1600s the Swedish Empire extended over all of Livonia and further south.
If we accept a mid-seventeenth century birth year for Tiit, and the existence of an adult son in 1690, then Tiit would have been integrated into his chosen surroundings well before the end of that century. I'm thinking from the information so far that the man likely died before the Great Northern War, and possibly before 1690 ― a theory to be explained in due course.
It's worth a digression to mention that the concept of manors, or estates, developed here in the Middle Ages during the Crusades. Christianity only came to the region in the thirteenth century with the Livonian Order of Knights (part of the Teutonic Order). With the influx of robust bishops and knight-led retainers, the first estates were organized ― hence the predominant Germanic influence. Thus the native peasants were managed by loyal "vassals" of the landowners. Over the next few centuries manor estates became an all-enveloping way of life.
|Kabala Manor house in Rapla parish, 17th century example; Wikipedia|
The Livonian War that took place in the middle of the 16th century left local strongholds in ruins, but at the same time, it boosted the development of manors. Side by side with the disappearance of the Order and bishoprics, the former vassals began to play an increasingly important role in the local state arrangement. Nobility associations known as knighthoods performed in Estonia (in the whole of Old Livonia) local government functions up until World War I. The so-called knight manor ... became the main type of manors, the owner of which had a number of status-related rights along with many stately responsibilities. The number of manors had grown to around a thousand by the 18th century.
Needless to say, the Baltic region has always been a site of conquest between warring powers. Despite intermittent bloody battles and changes in overlords, locally managed government generally continued. So the scenario of "knights" arriving periodically to settle and establish farms has historical legs.
This strange tale has developed a life of its own. I shall have to continue into yet another blog post.
 The direct URL is http://www.aai.ee/~urmas/aba/abaja1.html (accessed 14 January 2014). But if one goes to the Tartu Observatoorium website (http://www.aai.ee/) it seems impossible to find the page. Töravere Observatory seems to be another name for the institution.
 Estonian Manors (http://www.mois.ee/english/history.shtml : accessed 15 January 2014).
© 2014 Brenda Dougall Merriman