Kätlin Jansons

Interview with Viktors Dāboliņš on studying in Estonia and the Riga mint

On 12 September Viktors Dāboliņš defended his doctoral thesis The Rise of the Riga Schillings (1582–1621) that focuses on the unprecedented rise of Riga schillings in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth monetary market. He wanted to understand how and by what means the mint of Riga from the peripheral Duchy of Livonia started to excel in coinage of this particular small change unit. Viktors gladly agreed to answer some questions related to his studies. He brings out the special place that University of Tartu holds in Latvian collective memory and how he found his way here. Viktors describes his biggest challenges while studying abroad and researching in the archives, and also the excitement when he accidentally discovered useful information for his work.

Why did you choose Estonia for your studies? 

I chose Estonia after enquiring about the possibilities to study Livonian monetary history. Initially, I wanted to obtain PhD degree in numismatics, but since only few places in the world offer such possibility and I did not like the idea of leaving my home for long years, I naturally had to limit horizons of search. I then spoke to my colleagues and browsed through the names of possible supervisors and I realised I did not have to look anywhere more distant than Estonia. Ivar Leimus was the man I was looking for. I had known him for years, we both worked at the museum, participated in the same conferences and somehow earned each other’s sympathies through common taste for knowledge and challenges.

University of Tartu holds a special place in Latvian collective memory. It was the first place Latvians went to study. Everyone knows Eduards Veidenbaums, the famous flamboyant poet from the late 19th century, who went to Tartu barefoot. Studying in Tartu is like following in the footsteps of our learned ancestors and I must say it feels good being part of this centuries old tradition.

What kind of challenges have you faced while writing your doctoral thesis (abroad)? What are you most grateful for? 

I had a lot of challenges. Because Estonia was becoming my second home, I wanted to learn Estonian. I had plenty of time and opportunity to do that, but in the end I taught myself only to understand written texts and buy a lot of Estonian books. I did not feel the pressure to learn Estonian properly, because every Estonian I met at the University and Faculty spoke either English or German. On the other hand, my research was mainly based on analysing historic records, and I had plenty of work to do to decipher and understand meaning of German, Latin and Polish words and idioms, many of which have long since lost or changed their meanings.

During my study years I was amazed by how efficiently student requirements are covered and taken care of. Students are the princes of this university. It is easy to become patriot of this institution thanks to the generous rewards and stimulus. Monthly stipendium is one of them. When I began my studies, it was six time higher to what was earned by doctoral students in Latvia.

What is your thesis about? 

It focuses on the unprecedented rise of Riga schillings in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth monetary market. I wanted to understand how and by what means the mint of Riga from the peripheral Duchy of Livonia started to excel in coinage of this particular small change unit. I argue that despite the lost of legislative power, the City Council and the mint actively participated in the state monetary politics, negotiating for the additional prerogatives in the Duchy of Livonia and with regards quality of schillings. Riga was not an obedient observer of the delegated rights, and it obstructed and opposed unwelcome competition in their domestic market with legal and illegal instruments. Additionally, it was my ambition to write the monetary history of Latvia and Estonia in the so-called „Polish period“. While it has been a focus area of several Polish numismatists, much of the circulating facts about this region was outdated. Surprisingly, there had not been any such attempts in the Latvian numismatics.

What is the most important knowledge you gained from your work? What results do you cherish the most?

Arriving at the final emission rates for 1598 to 1621 schillings was special. It literally took me years before I identified the relevant sources, deciphered, checked and recalculated in the decimal system. I remember how happy I was when I accidentally found useful information for the missing 1603 to 1606 issue years. In the perfect world, each mint should have this hard data, but surprisingly enough, we are the only ones to have it. This is perhaps the most important revelation of my study Riga mint records are the best preserved records of that kind in the Baltic and Eastern European region. Last but not least, I realised that I can not rush or learn everything on the spot. There are things I am able to do with ease, while others require persistence. My favourite example – letters of Vilnius mint master Zacharias Boll. Initially I would not be able to read them, but little by little I gained experience and now I cherish them the most.

What would you like society to know about your thesis? 

I don’t think my work has a potential to change the way we see ourselves. It is certainly a testimony to the quarrel-like nature of human kind and the fact that there is never enough of money. Although Riga mint reached high productivity rates in schilling coinage, only about half of the production went into domestic use. Other coins were melted down and reminted in other coins, exported to foreign monetary markets or simply hoarded. Speculations with currency were just as widespread then as nowadays and they were hardly documented anywhere. These are the reasons why I could not possibly exhaust the main research question: what caused the expansion of Riga schillings? I understood that sometimes we, historians, ask too much from the past. We can not have everything explained or understood. While trying, we have to face human nature; for better or worse, some things in the past had been silenced, hidden or sometimes even erased from the memory.

What are your future plans?  How and where do you continue your research?

I am currently working on a book about Vilnius and Riga mints at the turn of the 17th century. It was a period of great social, political and economic upheavals. In Latvian historiography, this major social catastrophe is overshadowed by the miseries of the Great Northern Plague of 1700s. Estonians are much better acquainted with this period, however, what is missing from the greater picture is the monetary crisis, which was in making for years by then. The decline of coinage stock quality resulted in mounting inflations rates and most importantly, lowering of living standards. The effects were felt by the peasants in the first place. Before the outbreak of war and  plague, many Livonian peasants were actually hit by inflation, they could not afford daily bread. It was even worse in the Lithuanian bordertown of Biržai, peasants starved to death there. This is just one topic from the upcoming book. I intend to publish it in English and hope to find interested publisher, perhaps here in Tartu.



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