A city is an organism that grows, develops and changes. We are fortunate to have Riga, an ancient and significant town, as the heart of Latvia. Since it became one of the most important hubs of the Hanseatic League in the Middle Ages, it has been dubbed the metropolis of the Baltic Sea Region for several centuries.
How does one give voice to the mute stone walls of Riga that have been around for centuries to tell us about those who built and shaped Riga, and lived in it? This story is told by the Minutes Books of the Riga Town Hall that reflect the life and development of the metropolis in a time span of almost 300 years.
This is a long time — Queen Elizabeth I of England died and Galileo Galilei still gazed at the starry skies in 1603, whereas in 1890, first cars drove along European roads and cinematography was about to evolve. The world was transformed by cardinal changes in the political system and the society’s structure, and the industrial revolution was set to release an unprecedented wave of urbanization in motion. The changes also affected Riga, which was incorporated as part of Poland, then Sweden and finally the Russian Empire during these three centuries — during which it lost its medieval fortifications, and its population increased tenfold.
But what do these Minutes tell us? The Latvian State Historical Archive keeps 386 Minute Books of the Riga Town Hall, the so called publica or public minutes of meetings. They document the activities of the former main administrative institution of Riga — Riga Town Hall or the Magistrate — from 1603 until its dissolution in 1890. The Town Hall was responsible for organizing the functioning of the city, legislation, distribution of funds, enforcing laws and maintaining order, overseeing the city’s spiritual life, and representing citizens’’ interests in foreign affairs. Thus, these Minutes enable us to investigate the city’s most significant political events as well as economic, social and cultural developments in the city’s past. They also open the door to the former generations of Riga’s inhabitants, vividly depicting the multicultural character of Riga.
We owe the meticulous recording of matters addressed and decisions adopted at the Town Hall’s meetings to the development of record-keeping and civil service. The Town Hall’s Minutes are a monument to the modern writing culture and record-keeping traditions that began in Europe at the end of the 16th century for this is when centralized administrative structures were set up, the civil service was established and systematic documentation of the work of the administration was launched through creating minutes, registers and other series of documents.
Although the historic developments, especially the devastating warfare in the 20th century, snatched entire chapters of important facts and documentation of everyday life from the history of Latvia, the city of Riga was able to both compile and preserve its historical documents. They tell us about the decisive events for us and for all of Latvia that started or took place in Riga, and they characterize and give voice to the former generations of Riga’s inhabitants.
1) Repository of the State Historical Archive of Latvia, 4 Palasta Street, Riga. Premises for Riga City Archive (established in 1882) were constructed in the Riga Dom Museum (newly built in 1890) comprising a collection of the documents of the dissolved Town Hall and its subordinate institutions. The Minutes of Riga Town Hall continue to be stored in the premises historically created for them. Image: Marika Vanaga, 2015.
2) Volume of the Town Hall’s Minutes for part II of the year 1821. State Historical Archive of Latvia of the National Archives of Latvia (LNA LVVA), 749.f (Chief Chancellery of the Riga Magistrate)., 6 Apr., 250. l. Image: Marika Vanaga, 2021.
3) Volume of the Town Hall’s Minutes for part II of the year 1821. State Historical Archive of Latvia of the National Archives of Latvia (LNA LVVA), 749.f (Chief Chancellery of the Riga Magistrate)., 6 Apr., 250. l. Image: Marika Vanaga, 2021.
4) Fragment of the Minutes of the Town Hall Meeting of 28 December 1821. LNA LVVA, 749.f., 6 Apr., 250. l., p. 529. Taking Minutes of the Riga Town Hall’s Meetings took place nearly constantly throughout the centuries. All participants were listed at the beginning of the Minutes. This was followed by a detailed description of each matter on the agenda, and the respectively adopted decision. The end of the Minutes featured signatures of the participating town councillors. Image: Marika Vanaga, 2021.