Geography. Kurzeme is a cultural and historical region in the west of Latvia, encompassing the entire Liepāja, Kuldīga, Ventspils and Talsi Districts, as well as most of Saldus and Tukums Districts.
To the west Kurzeme stretches along the Baltic Sea coast and in the northeast it borders on the Gulf of Riga. The northern part of the territory is a natural peninsula known as the Kurzeme Peninsula. The influence of the sea on the natural world and human life is stronger here than in other regions of Latvia. This is mainly felt through the climate, which is wetter and with more moderate temperature fluctuations than in Eastern Latvia. (Winters in Kurzeme tend to be mild and the summer cool.)
Since ancient times, Kurzeme’s maritime position has also impacted on the migration patterns of the inhabitants, relations with neighbours and cultural life. Before the development of seafaring, Kurzeme was unapproachable from the sea. Another formidable barrier was the dense, humid forest covering the Zemgale Plain which borders Kurzeme to the east. This meant that the most intensive contacts for the region’s inhabitants were with the lands to the south of Kurzeme i.e. the western part of what is today Lithuania and East Prussia. Kurzeme enjoyed convenient transport routes to Lithuania along the Western Kurzeme Plateau, and with East Prussia along the coast (the beach).
As maritime trading began, the inhabitants of Kurzeme established contacts with overseas peoples. These links gave a significant boost to the development of the state structures, trade and culture of the tribes. At the same time, the people of Kurzeme were also isolated from everyday contacts with large numbers of foreign peoples. This is why even to this day the ethnic composition of the inhabitants of Kurzeme has remained much more stable than for example that of the Latvians in Latgale. The ethnographic traditions and the uniqueness of the folk costumes of people in the Kurzeme coastal zone (especially in Rucava, Bārta and Alsunga) have been better preserved than in eastern Latvia. The topography of Kurzeme is relatively hilly. Although the uplands here are not as pronounced as in Vidzeme or Latgale, their relative height along river valleys and the troughs between the plateaus as well as along the coastal plain is significant (80 - 150 m) and the landscape gently shifting. The Kurzeme region fully or partially encompasses the following large-scale relief objects of Latvia: the Western Kurzeme, Eastern Kurzeme and Southern Kurzeme plateaus, the Venta-Usma lowland and the Southern Kurzeme undulating plain.
Due to an abundance of precipitation, there are a relatively large number of rivers in Kurzeme, however the proximity of the uplands to the sea prevents the rivers from joining up into larger systems. The exception to this rule is the confluence of the only major river in Kurzeme, the Venta, with the Abava. The Abava originates deeper in the interior of the continent, and its deep, wide valleys carve a pronounced chasm through the Kurzeme platform, dividing it into several sections, with separate elevation groups in each part. Kurzeme has relatively few lakes. The largest of these is Lake Usma, which is located on the Venta-Usma lowland.
History. The first inhabitants of Kurzeme arrived in the late 9th-early 8th centuries B.C. from the southeast, approaching along the shore of the Baltic ice lake (whose border can still be seen today near Medze village). Around 3000 B.C. tribes representing the comb-bunker ceramic culture arrived. Archaeological finds at the Sārnate settlement show that these tribes had not yet reached the productive farming stage (raising cattle and agriculture).
String ceramics and battle axe culture tribes arrived in Kurzeme in the 2nd century B.C., which are considered by experts to be the first Indo-European i.e. the ancestors of the Balts. Archaeological finds at the Tojāti settlement show that they had begun to practice nomadic cattle raising, although they mostly relied on fishing and hunting for survival.
The boundaries of the ethnic groups of Kurzeme began to be set more firmly in the first centuries A.D. Studies of the Mazkatuži gravesites show that around this time the southwest of Kurzeme was inhabited by the pre-Kurši, while judging by the stone piles on graves the ancestors of the Baltic Finns lived in the northern part (pre-Livonians).
According to Swedish archaeologists, regular contacts between the Baltic tribes and the ancient Swedes began around 400 A.D., while colonies of Svejs and Gotlandians i.e. Scandinavians existed in Grobiņa (and possibly also Kapsēde) between 650 and 850 A.D. Later Viking marauder forays into Kursa (from the 7th century A.D.) stimulated military knowledge and the development of nascent statehood. Saksis Gramatiķis writes in his "History of the Danes" that in the Battle of Brovalla around 750 A.D. between the Swedes and Danes in Smoland Livonians fought on the Danish side and Kurši for the Swedes. The work “The Life of Saint Anskar” by Archbishop Rimbertof Hamburg and Bremen mentions a Kurši state as one of five regional lands.
Pope Gregory IX planned to subjugate the newly Christianized lands to papal authority, primarily Kursa, with the assistance of a legate. On the other hand, the Order of the Brothers of the Sword, the Riga Domcapital and the Town Council concluded a peace treaty in 1230 with nine regions of Eastern Kursa (Vanema), hoping to gain control over them. However, the Kurši used every opportunity to escape from foreign rule.
Over the next few decades, the Livonian Order used considerable military force to subjugate Kursa. In the mid 13th century it built a castle in Kuldīga and stationed a garrison there. The Order’s efforts to grab as much land as possible in Kursa were supported by Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II. As early as 1242, Papal Legate Bishop Wilhelm of Sabina (formerly of Modena) stipulated that the Order was entitled to 2/3 of the conquered territory of Kursa, and the Bishop of Kursa just 1/3. In 1253 the Order and the Bishop of Kursa divided the regions of the Kurši between themselves on this basis.
At the Battle of Durbe of 1260, when the Kurši went over to the Zemaitian side, the Order suffered its heaviest defeat of the 13th century. Soon the great Prussian revolt began under the leadership of Erkus Manta, and a little later the people of Saaremaa also rebelled. For a brief period the Kurši had the opportunity to throw off the Order’s domination. But in 1267 Order Master Otto of Luterberg made peace with the Kurši, who undertook to submit to the Order, pay it tithes and perform obligations.
Over the subsequent centuries, Kurzeme’s fate was more or less closely linked with that of its foreign rulers, and only after 1918 with that of independent Latvia. Until 1561 Kurzeme was part of the Confederation of Livonia. From 1561 to 1795 it was part of the Duchy Kurzeme and Zemgale (formally the duchy was a fief of the Polish king, but in practice it was an independent state). In 1795 the region became the Province of Kurzeme within the Russian Empire, a status it retained until the establishment of the Republic of Latvia in 1918. In 1940 the territory of independent Latvia including Kurzeme was occupied by the USSR. Since August 1991, Kurzeme has formally been a part of the restored Republic of Latvia.