The Courlandic Noble Corporation


  • has an area of 27,286 square km
  • corresponds to that part of modern Latvia which lies to the south of the Dvina (Daugava) river
  • is characterized by abundant woods and fertile soil
  • had Mitau (Jelgava) as its capital
  • counts the harbors Libau (Liepaja) and Windau (Ventspils) among its larger cities

The history of Courland is characterized by its noble corporation. This essentially consisted of noblemen originally from Westphalia and regions along the Rhine who had acquired land under the rule of the Order of Teutonic Knights. The constitution provided that whenever the duke was absent or otherwise prevented from performing his duties, the power of government was in the hands of the noble corporation. The duke's position vis-à-vis the noble corporation was additionally weakened by the fact that the latter was entitled to file complaints with the king of Poland in cases of dispute.

Since 1620, the noble corporation had the sole power of immatriculation (i.e., to register families in the roll of nobility). This means that it admitted certain families into the circle of those who were entitled to send a representative to the Landtag (representative assembly) and to thus participate in governing the country. However, the noble corporation was not entitled to raise such families to nobility.

The Courlandic noble corporation observed governmental and corporative tasks. It was represented by the Landesbevollmächtigte (head of the province). Under what today would be termed the chairmanship of the Landbotenmarschall (literally: marshal of the country messengers), those members of the Courlandic noble corporation who were correspondingly legitimized by their possession of a knight's manor convened every three years in Mitau as the Landtag and passed the necessary resolutions. Whenever any cases admitted of no delay, the Brüderliche Konferenz (Brotherly Convention) made up of the Kirchspielsdelegierte (representatives of the various church parishes) made the corresponding decisions.

The Mitau Ritterhaus (House of Lords)
The Mitau Ritterhaus (House of Lords)

The officials of the noble corporation, all of whom worked in an honorary capacity, were responsible for the administration of the province. The costs for the maintenance of schools, of streets, for health care and social welfare (provided to the Latvian populace as well), for the teachers' colleges training Latvian teachers, were borne by the owners of knight's manors. Their financial contributions were made on a voluntary basis. The size of the 642 Courlandian manors varied from 72,700 hectares to 71 hectares. They were each allotted one vote only in the Landtag. In 1819, voluntarily and before the rest of the Russian empire did so, the Courlandic noble corporation abolished serfage and furthermore enabled farmers to purchase land by granting them low-interest loans. Thus, in 1914, 1,017,000 hectares of land were owned by Latvian farmers while 1,113,400 hectares of land belonged to knight's manors.