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The Curonians or Kurs (Curonian: Kursi; German: Kuren; Latvian: kurši; Russian: курши; Lithuanian: kuršiai; Estonian: kuralased; Polish: Kurowie) were a Baltic tribe living on the shores of the Baltic Sea in what are now the western parts of Latvia and Lithuania from the 5th to the 16th centuries, when they merged with other Baltic tribes. They gave their name to the region of Courland (Kurzeme), and they spoke the Old Curonian language. Curonian lands were conquered by the Livonian Order in 1266 and they eventually merged with other Baltic tribes participating in the ethnogenesis of Lithuanians and Latvians. Direct descendants of the Curonians include the Kursenieki of the Curonian Spit and the so-called Curonian Kings of Courland.
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The ethnic origin of the Curonians has been disputed in the past. Until the middle of the 20th century, they were usually considered a Finnic tribe akin to the Livonians. This was traditionally the consensus of Estonian historians, while Latvian historians regarded the Curonians as Baltic. Since the 20th century, most sources refer to the Curonians as a Baltic tribe.
Among the arguments supporting the Finnic origin of the Curonians have been their recorded close alliance with the Estonians and the Livonians, and several Curonian words and names that have been attested as Finnic.
The Curonians were known as fierce warriors, excellent sailors and pirates. They were involved in several wars and alliances with Swedish, Danish and Icelandic Vikings. During that period they were the most restless and the richest of all the Balts.
In c. 750, according to Norna-Gests þáttr saga from c. 1157, Sigurd Ring, a legendary king of Denmark and Sweden, fought against the invading Curonians and Kvænir in the southern part of what today is Sweden:
Grobin (Grobiņa) was the main centre of the Curonians during the Vendel Age. Chapter 46 of Egils Saga describes one Viking expedition by the Vikings Thorolf and Egill Skallagrímsson in Courland. According to some opinions, they took part in attacking Sweden's main city Sigtuna in 1187. Curonians established temporary settlements near Riga and in overseas regions including eastern Sweden and the islands of Gotland and Bornholm.
The Curonians had a strong warrior culture and are considered to be eastern Baltic by some researchers, while others believe they were related to Old Prussians who belonged in the western Baltic group.
The Curonians were an especially religious people, worshipping pagan gods and their sacred animal, the horse. Some of the most important written sources about the Curonians are Rimbert's Vita Ansgarii, the Livonian Chronicle of Henry, the Livländische Reimchronik, Egils Saga, and Saxo Grammaticus's Gesta Danorum. In c. 1075 Adam of Bremen described the Curonians in his Gesta Hammaburgensis Ecclesiae Pontificum (Deeds of Bishops of the Hamburg Church) as world famous pagan diviners:
It was common for the Curonians to carry out joint raids and campaigns together with Estonians (Oeselians). Linguist Eduard Vääri argues that it is possible that Curonians were Baltic Finns. The attested local Finnic language, Livonian, may be the source of Finnic elements in Curonian. During the Livonian crusade, Curonians formed an alliance with the Semigallians, resulting in a joint attack against Riga in 1228. In the same time, according to the Livonian Rhymed Chronicle, Curonians and Samogitians were known as "bad neighbours".
During the late Iron Age, the Curonians started to move from southern Courland to the north, assimilating a Finnic people who lived in the coastal regions of northern Courland. They then formed a new ethnic group, the so-called Curonised Livonians.
There are many sources that mention the Curonians in the 13th century, when they were involved in the Northern Crusades. In 1210 the Curonians, with eight ships, were attacked by a German crusader fleet on the Baltic Sea, near the coast of Gotland. The Curonians were victorious and German sources claim that 30 crusaders were killed.
Also in July 1210, the Curonians attacked Riga, the main crusader stronghold in Livonia. A huge Curonian fleet arrived in the mouth of the Daugava and besieged the city. However, after a day of fighting, the Curonians were unable to break through the city walls. They crossed to the other bank of the Daugava to burn their dead and mourn for three days. Later they lifted the siege and returned to Courland.
In 1228, the Curonians together with the Semigallians again attacked Riga. Although they were again unsuccessful in storming the city, they destroyed a monastery in Daugavgriva and killed all the monks there.
After the defeat of Estonians and Osilians in 1227, the Curonians were confronted by Lithuanian enemies in the east and south, and harassed by the Livonian Brothers of the Sword from the north; in the west, on the sea-shore, their arch-enemies, the Danes and Swedes, were lurking, waiting for opportunity. In this hopeless situation, further aggravated by a famine, the Curonians preferred to try to make peace with the Christian conquerors, inviting the monks into their country thereby escaping attacks by the Scandinavian nations.
In 1230 the Curonians in the northern part of Courland, under their chief Lamekins (Lammechinus Rex), signed a peace treaty with the Germans, and the lands they inhabited thus became to be known as Vredecuronia or Peace Courland. The southern Curonians, however, continued to resist the invaders.
The Curonians did not lay down their arms at that time. They used the famine as a pretext for claiming economical weakness and actually did not permit the monks to enter the country. Later, the Teutonic Order tried to use Curonian cavalry in the Prussian Crusade, but Curonians were reluctant in this forced cooperation and revolted as a result in several cases.
In 1260, the Curonians were involved in the Battle of Durbe, one of the biggest battles in Livonia in the 13th century. They were forced to fight on the crusader side. When the battle started, Curonians abandoned the knights because the knights did not agree to free any Curonians captured from the Samogitian camp. Peter von Dusburg alleged that the Curonians even attacked the Knights from the rear. The Estonians and other local people soon followed the Curonians and abandoned the Knights and that allowed the Samogitians to gain victory over the Livonian Order. It was a heavy defeat for the Order and uprisings against the crusaders soon afterwards broke out in the Curonian and Prussian lands.
Curonian resistance was finally subdued in 1266, when the whole of Courland was partitioned between the Livonian Order and the Archbishop of Riga. The Curonian nobles, among them 40 clans of the descendants of the Curonian kings, who lived in the town of Kuldīga, preserved personal freedom and some of their privileges.
Southern Curonians from Megowa, Pilsaten and Ceclis lands gradually assimilated into the nascent Lithuanian nation and ceased to be known as a distinct ethnos by the 16th century. An intense period of Samogitian-Curonian bilingualism is posited because a Curonian linguistic substratum is evident in the Northern Samogitian dialect, an important part of Samogitian ethnic self-identification.
On the Latvian side during the Livonian War, the descendants of the Curonian nobility, although downgraded to peasant status, fought the Russians, as Johann Renner's chronicle reports:
The Russians protected themselves boldly, and they knocked out a Curonian peasant Fenrich (who, although only a peasant, is called by them the Curonian king) from his horse.— Johann Renner, Lievländische Historien, 1556–1561, C. 124v
The Curonian language became extinct by the 16th century.
Curonia, as reported, had its own language, different from the Latvian and Estonian, which is extirpated and prohibited, so that nobody has the right to talk it, and instead has to speak Latvian.— Johann Renner, Lievländische Historien, 1556–1561, 207v
Bishop Rimbert of Bremen (lived before 888 AD) in his life of St. Ansgar, Vita Ansgarii described the territory inhabited by the Curonians (Cori) and gave the names of the administrative districts or lands (civitates):