Courland Geography and Natural History

Geography and Climate

There are 4 historic regions that make up modern day Latvia: North of the western Daugava (Dvina) river are Vidzeme and Latgale, which together formed Livonia. The ancient Duchy of Courland lies south of the Daugava and included the areas known as Kurzeme and Zemgale. The area of Courland also comprised the Bishopric of Pilten with its administrative centre of Hasenpoth. Each of these areas, Livonia, Courland and Pilten, pursued different policies with regard to the Jews within their territory.

Courland was primarily an agricultural wooded lowland, presenting few barriers to invasion save the tall stands of pine forest and the occasional rise of the land. The total area of Courland comprised approximately 27,000 square kilometres (10,500 square miles), approximately 60% of which was covered in forests. Flax is the principal field crop and Jews were known to have been involved in its production and commercial sale, often acting as middlemen for the large estate owners wishing to sell their crop from the Baltic ports. Similarly, logging and shipbuilding were important traditional industries in which the geography of the country played an important part.

10% of the land consists of peat bogs and wet land. Courland has its share of Latvia's 2,300 lakes and 12,000 rivers. The summers are hot and humid, the winters wet and windy with snow. The wind remains a feature of the low landscape and there were few natural features to stop the wind from the north and eastern steppes of Russia. Libau (now Liepaja) has traditionally been known as "the place where the wind was born". The key Baltic ports of Libau and Windau (now Ventspils) are ice-free throughout the winter, a fact that was critical to Courland's commercial success.

Geography and trade

Courland was geographically compact and journeys on foot and with cart and horse would have been relatively straightforward for a good part of the year. The Daugava River was an important trading route connecting the Baltic with the central highlands of Russia. The Daugava is connected in turn to the Volga and the Dnieper, ensuring its importance in the trade between East and West.

Baltic amber typical of the Courland region is found not only in ancient Mycenae (Greece) but also among the grave goods in Tutankahmun's tomb. This fact alone gives testimony to the wide-ranging cultural contacts and importance of Baltic trade from the earliest period of recorded history.

The trade down the Daugava from Dvinsk to Riga was an important source of wealth. Jews who were not allowed to live in the environs of Riga would come up the Daugava in small boats and then return so as not to fall foul of Riga's exclusionary policies, which were particularly restrictive particularly in the period before annexation to Russia. In 1623 the Jewish physician and philosopher Joseph Solomon Delmedigo of Crete, travelling through the area on his way to Lithuania, wrote in a letter to a friend that "in a country cut off from Jewish learning, Jews continued to sojourn in Livonia, descending the Dvina in barks and returning when their commission undertakings had been completed". Dvinsk soon became a predominately Jewish town, serving as the stopping place for Jewish commercial trade along the amber route. The same applied to Schlock, located just outside of Riga but within the territory of the Duchy of Courland. Jews forbidden to settle within Riga itself were permitted to live in Schlock, a few kilometres away.

Geography: food and pastimes

The network of rivers and lakes provided ample opportunities for both fishing and swimming. Fish would have been in good supply. Salmon make their way up the Venta River and are caught in baskets. The Baltic coast has enjoyed a reputation as a spa area with beautiful beaches, sulphur springs and luxury homes and estates from the 18th century. Courland's woodlands contained a vast range of mushrooms, raspberries, whortleberries, cloudberries and huckleberries. Latvia is known for its dairy products including butter, cream (including sour cream) and ice cream. Dairy cows thrive.


Latvia abounds in bird life and Jewish families would have been well familiar with abundant bird life, including nuthatches, black redstarts, flycatchers, arctic loons, storks. There are over 300 species of birds that stop for at least part of the year in present-day Latvia. There are over 60 species of small mammals including larger animals such as red deer, elk, and occasionally bears.

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