1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Gotland

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GOTLAND, an island in the Baltic Sea belonging to Sweden, lying between 57° and 58° N., and having a length from S. S. W. to N.N.E. of 75 m., a breadth not exceeding 30 m., and an area of 1142 sq. m. The nearest point on the mainland is 50 m. from the westernmost point of the island. With the island Fårö, off the northern extremity, the Karlsöe, off the west coast, and Götska Sandö, 25 m. N. by E., Gotland forms the administrative district (län) of Gotland. The island is a level plateau of Silurian limestone, rising gently eastward, of an average height of 80 to 100 ft., with steep coasts fringed with tapering, free-standing columns of limestone (raukar). A few low isolated hills rise inland. The climate is temperate, and the soil, although in parts dry and sterile, is mostly fertile. Former marshy moors have been largely drained and cultivated. There are extensive sand-dunes in the north. As usual in a limestone formation, some of the streams have their courses partly below the surface, and caverns are not infrequent. Less than half the total area is under forest, the extent of which was formerly much greater. Barley, rye, wheat and oats are grown, especially the first, which is exported to the breweries on the mainland. The sugar-beet is also produced and exported, and there are beet-sugar works on the island. Sheep and cattle are kept; there is a government sheep farm at Roma, and the cattle may be noted as belonging principally to an old native breed, yellow and horned. Some lime-burning, cement-making and sea-fishing are carried on. The capital of the island is Visby, on the west coast. There are over 80 m. of railways. Lines run from Visby N.E. to Tingstäde and S. to Hofdhem, with branches from Roma to Klintehamn, a small watering-place on the west coast, and to Slitehamn on the east. Excepting along the coast the island has no scenic attraction, but it is of the highest archaeological interest. Nearly every village has its ruined church, and others occur where no villages remain. The shrunken walled town of Visby was one of the richest commercial centres of the Baltic from the 11th to the 14th century, and its prosperity was shared by the whole island. It retains ten churches besides the cathedral. The massive towers of the village churches are often detached, and doubtless served purposes of defence. The churches of Roma, Hemse, with remarkable mural paintings, Othen and Lärbo may be specially noted. Some contain fine stained glass, as at Dalhem near Visby. The natives of Gotland speak a dialect distinguished from that of any part of the Swedish mainland. Pop. of län (1900) 52,781.

Gotland was subject to Sweden before 890, and in 1030 was christianized by St Olaf, king of Norway, when returning from his exile at Kiev. He dedicated the first church in the island to St Peter at Visby. At that time Visby had long been one of the most important trading towns in the Baltic, and the chief distributing centre of the oriental commerce which came to Europe along the rivers of Russia. In the early years of the Hanseatic League, or about the middle of the 13th century, it became the chief depôt for the produce of the eastern Baltic countries, including, in a commercial sense, its daughter colony (11th century or earlier) of Novgorod the Great. Although Visby was an independent member of the Hanseatic League, the influence of Lübeck was paramount in the city, and half its governing body were men of German descent. Indeed, Björkander endeavours to prove that the city was a German (Hanseatic) foundation, dating principally from the middle of the 12th century. However that may be, the importance of Visby in the sea trade of the North is conclusively attested by the famous code of maritime law which bears its name. This Waterrecht dat de Kooplüde en de Schippers gemakt hebben to Visby (“sea-law which the merchants and seamen have made at Visby”) was a compilation based upon the Lübeck code, the Oleron code and the Amsterdam code, and was first printed in Low German in 1505, but in all probability had its origin about 1240, or not much later (see Sea Laws). By the middle of the 14th century the reputation of the wealth of the city was so great that, according to an old ballad, “the Gotlanders weighed out gold with stone weights and played with the choicest jewels. The swine ate out of silver troughs, and the women spun with distaffs of gold.” This fabled wealth was too strong a temptation for the energetic Valdemar Atterdag of Denmark. In 1361 he invaded the island, routed the defenders of Visby under the city walls (a monolithic cross marks the burial-place of the islanders who fell) and plundered the city. From this blow it never recovered, its decay being, however, materially helped by the fact that for the greater part of the next 150 years it was the stronghold of successive freebooters or sea-rovers — first, of the Hanseatic privateers called Vitalienbrödre or Viktualienbrüder, who made it their stronghold during the last eight years of the 14th century; then of the Teutonic Knights, whose Grand Master drove out the “Victuals Brothers,” and kept the island until it was redeemed by Queen Margaret. There too Erik XIII. (the Pomeranian), after being driven out of Denmark by his own subjects, established himself in 1437, and for a dozen years waged piracy upon Danes and Swedes alike. After him came Olaf and Ivar Thott, two Danish lords, who down to the year 1487 terrorized the seas from their pirates' stronghold of Visby. Lastly, the Danish admiral Sören Norrby, the last supporter of Christian I. of Denmark, when his master's cause was lost, waged a guerrilla war upon the Danish merchant ships and others from the same convenient base. But this led to an expedition by the men of Lübeck, who partly destroyed Visby in 1525. By the peace of Stettin (1570) Gotland was confirmed to the Danish crown, to which it had been given by Queen Margaret. But at the peace of Brömsebro in 1645 it was at length restored to Sweden, to which it has since belonged, except for the three years 1676-1679, when it was forcibly occupied by the Danes, and a few weeks in 1808, when the Russians landed a force.

The extreme wealth of the Gotlanders naturally fostered a spirit of independence, and their relations with Sweden were curious. The island at one period paid an annual tribute of 60 marks of silver to Sweden, but it was clearly recognized that it was paid by the desire of the Gotlanders, and not enforced by Sweden. The pope recognized their independence, and it was by their own free will that they came under the spiritual charge of the bishop of Linköping. Their local government was republican in form, and a popular assembly is indicated in the written Gotland Law, which dates not later than the middle of the 13th century. Sweden had no rights of objection to the measures adopted by this body, and there was no Swedish judge or other official in the island. Visby had a system of government and rights independent of, and in some measure opposed to, that of the rest of the island. It seems clear that there were at one time two separate corporations, for the native Gotlanders and the foreign traders respectively, and that these were subsequently fused. The rights and status of native Gotlanders were not enjoyed by foreigners as a whole — even intermarriage was illegal — but Germans, on account of their commercial pre-eminence in the island, were excepted.

See C. H. Bergman, Gotlands geografi och historia (Stockholm, 1898) and Gotländska skildringar och minnen (Visby, 1902); A. T. Snöbohm, Gotlands land och folk (Visby, 1897 et seq.); W. Moler, Bidrag till en Gotländsk bibliografi (Stockholm, 1890); Hans Hildebrand, Visby och dess Minnesmärken (Stockholm, 1892 et seq.); A. Björkander, Till Visby Stads Aeldstå Historia (1898), where most of the literature dealing with the subject is mentioned; but some of the author's arguments require criticism. For local government and rights see K. Hegel, Städter und Gilden im Mittelalter (book iii. ch. iii., Leipzig, 1891).