Academic journal article Estonian Journal of Ecology

Trees for Marking Boundaries of Landed Property in Premodern Estonia/ Puud Maavalduste Piiritahisena Kesk- Ja Uusajal

Academic journal article Estonian Journal of Ecology

Trees for Marking Boundaries of Landed Property in Premodern Estonia/ Puud Maavalduste Piiritahisena Kesk- Ja Uusajal

Article excerpt


People are attached to their environment by the land they own and inhabit. In order to claim land and distinguish it from the neighbours' grounds, many cultures use property markers, whether they are living objects such as hedges or trees or man-made ones like fences. Over time the types of markers may change for ecological, economic, folkloristic, or political reasons. Thus, the system of property rights and how that is translated into practice on the ground is a critical part of the environmental history of a country.

In Estonia, the history of property rights has gone through significant changes when different conquerors swept over the area. The 13th century conquest of the area we now call Estonia by Germans and Danes brought about a major qualitative change in the development of local boundaries in the Estonian territory. New power and property relationships provided a basis for the restructuring of cultural landscape. As a result, the former zone or regional boundaries were gradually replaced with linear boundaries, which from the 14th to 15th centuries were fixed by feudal enfeoffment letters and purchase-and-sale agreements. Later the cadastre, established by the Swedish crown for the provinces of Livonia and Estonia, produced large-scale maps of estates that provide an overview of the situation and borders of the manors at the end of the 17th century. In accordance with these oldest large-scale maps, it was a standard practice to make use of trees as boundary marks.

Here I will sketch how trees and stones were used in Estonia from the 14th to 17th centuries to mark landed property and how the practices changed with the growing precision of linear boundaries. A large part of the article discusses the way Swedish authorities influenced the official regulations and rules concerning the demarcation of the landed property boundaries. In addition, I examine whether there is a connection between boundary trees and the tradition of commemoration by using cross-trees, that is whether the idea of a physical boundary between two areas corresponds to the belief in a boundary between life and death. The main objective is to show how the usage of the markers changed over the centuries, and how linear boundaries became more significant and precise due to technical improvements in land surveys.


Extensive designation of boundaries began in West Europe in the 12th and 13th centuries and in East Europe in the 13th and 14th centuries, while fixed boundaries with artificial designators appeared in the East-German colonization areas in the 13th century (Schneider, 1993). An essential breakthrough for the origination and formation of local boundary lines in the Estonian area was the conquest of the country by Germans and Danes in the 13th century. The conquerors are thought to have introduced a novel spatial thinking that differed considerably from that of the local people, who relied on natural elements and whose mentality restricted movement across natural boundaries (Laakmann, 1939; Hellmann, 1954), although some linear boundaries had been used around farmsteads before the conquest (Selart, 1998). Even through the late Middle Ages, the prevailing boundary type was a zone, regional, or district boundary, but gradually it began to be replaced with a linear boundary. The regional belt boundary was common in the forest with no obvious boundary marks and therefore the trespassing of the boundary was easy and caused numerous conflicts--those became very common from the end of the 15th century (Vilberg, 1932).

Boundary development from broad intermediary zones to linear boundaries from the conquest to the 17th century depended on a number of factors: demographic growth, expansion of land use, scarcity of free lands, needs of land consolidation, desire to improve area management, reinforcement of rights to land ownership (Selart, 1998). It became increasingly important to describe a boundary line by means of individual points, so cross-scraped boundary stones and trees, heaps of stones, roads, streams, etc. …

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