In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Baltic Sea

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • The 19th-Century Confrontations: The Napoleonic and Crimean Wars
  • The Navies and Naval Confrontations
  • The Baltic Sea and the European Economy
  • Shipping and Trade
  • The Sound Strait
  • The Baltic Sea, the North Sea, and the Atlantic
  • Culture

Atlantic History Baltic Sea
Eric Schnakenbourg
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 August 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 August 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0202


In the Early Modern era, the Baltic Sea was called the Nordic Mediterranean because of its unique outlet on the high seas and its narrowness. Like its southern counterpart, the Baltic is at the crossroads of several peoples and cultures. Also like the Mediterranean Sea, the Baltic had different populations on each of its shores, yet in another way facilitated relations and became a space for interconnections. Throughout its history, peoples from Scandinavia, Poland, Germany, Russia, and the Baltic lands developed not only all sorts of peaceful relations and exchanges, but also competed with each other in long-lasting rivalries or military confrontations. Between the 16th century and the first half of the 19th century, the Baltic region experienced dramatic internal and external changes resulting from its ever-growing connections with the rest of Europe. Baltic issues, however, did not have the same importance for all the surrounding countries: it was the only horizon for Sweden, which enjoyed sovereignty over Finland until 1809, and the main horizon for Denmark, which ruled Norway until 1814. For Scandinavians, the Baltic Sea was a necessary interface for various kinds of exchanges with the external world, whether regional neighbors or continental Europe. In one way or another, the history of the Swedish and Danish kingdoms is interwoven with the history of the Baltic. Scandinavians devoted great attention to this neighboring sea for their shipping and trade, as well as for their security and political influence. The situation is somewhat similar for the Baltic provinces (Estonia, Livonia, and Ingria), which were always under foreign rule, first Swedish then Russian, in the Early Modern period. On the other side of the sea, for the German states, the Polish Republic, and the Russian Empire, the Baltic was simply one theater of foreign policy among others, even though its importance changed over time according to the political or economic context. As for commerce, while during the Middle Ages the Baltic region traded with the rest of Europe, starting in the 16th century, the situation changed as the continental economy shifted from the Mediterranean to the northwest. European population growth and the development of long-distance shipping and commerce meant increasing needs for grain and naval stores. This created new demand for Baltic economic resources and products and for transporting those exports. Consequently, new international rivalries and struggles occurred in the Baltic. At first, these conflicts were among the regional countries, but increasingly the main European powers as well. The Baltic Sea then became an important theater for European international politics, and almost every continental war had a Baltic component. The history of the Baltic Sea from the 16th century to the middle of the 19th century must be considered from two perspectives: first, relations among the regional countries and peoples; and second, relations with the world outside the Baltic, whether foreign powers and regions or even other seas, for political, military, and trade matters.

General Overviews

Writing a general history of the Baltic is a considerable challenge. The first problem is methodological, as the historian must renounce any national perspective and avoid considering the history of the Baltic as simply an accumulation of the national histories of the countries surrounding the sea. The second problem is that of plurality: of the issues at stake, the languages used, and the dispersal of sources. The remarkable three-volume archival guide devoted to maritime relations around the Baltic Sea, Lennart, et al. 2007, gives some idea of the difficulty of writing a global history of the Baltic. Nevertheless, some historians have succeeded in writing very useful, comprehensive books on the region. Some of these studies provide an easy introduction either because of their lovely illustrations, as in Ehrensvärd, et al. 1995, or because they do not venture too deeply into the details of this complex history, such as Klinge 1995, Palmer 2005, and Meyer 2013. These synthetic works follow a chronological order and focus on key political and military events. Yet to have a deeper view of Baltic history, more detailed studies are required, such as Kirby’s overview in two volumes, Kirby 1990. Kirby succeeded in writing a truly comprehensive history dealing with several of the main aspects of the Baltic history. Other works, such as Froese 2008 and North 2015, are also valuable but follow a more chronological outline.

  • Ehrensvärd, Ulla, Pellervo Kokkonen, and Juha Nurminen. Mare Balticum: The Baltic; Two Thousand Years Historia. Helsinki, Finland: Otava/John Nurminen Foundation, 1995.

    A good, readable, and well-illustrated overview of Baltic history.

  • Froese, Wolfgang. Geschichte der Ostsee: Völker und Staaten am Baltischen Meer. Gernsbach, Germany: Katz, 2008.

    A general overview of Baltic history to the early 21st century. It deals with many issues such as politics, economy, society, and culture.

  • Kirby, David G. Northern Europe in the Early Modern Period, the Baltic World, 1492–1772. New York: Longman, 1990.

    A comprehensive approach to the Baltic region during the Early Modern era. One of the most readable and valuable general histories of the Baltic. Kirby deals with various issues (politics, diplomacy, war, economics, commerce, society, culture, and education), and combines regional approaches with the influence of European events and with the policies of the great powers in the Baltic. Kirby also published a second volume for the next period: The Baltic World, 1772–1993: Europe’s Northern Periphery in an Age of Change (New York: Routledge, 1995).

  • Klinge, Matti. The Baltic World. Translated by Timothy Binham. Helsinki, Finland: Otava, 1995.

    A brief overview of the Baltic world. A good introduction to northern history.

  • Lennart, Bes, Edda Frankot, and Hanno Brand. Baltic Connections: Archival Guide to the Maritime Relations of the Countries around the Baltic Sea (Including the Netherlands,) 1450–1800. 3 vols. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2007.

    This valuable guide brings together archival references from eight Baltic countries and the Netherlands. It provides information on sources preserved in numerous archival centers. This impressive work is an essential research tool for any scholar working on trade, shipping, migration, diplomacy, and all kinds of exchange in the Baltic world from the end of the Middle Ages to the Early Modern era.

  • Meyer, Philippe. Baltiques: Histoire d’une mer d’ambre. Paris: Perrin, 2013.

    A rather superficial overview of Baltic history and the only comprehensive history of the Baltic available in French.

  • North, Michael. The Baltic: A History. Translated by Kenneth Kronenberg. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015.

    DOI: 10.4159/9780674426023

    A good chronological overview of Baltic history that deals with various issues but more specifically commercial and cultural questions. Each of the ten chapters begins with a focus on a specific place (such as a city, an island, or the Sound Bridge).

  • Palmer, Alan. Northern Shores: A History of the Baltic Sea and Its Peoples. London: John Murray, 2005.

    A general readable overview of the history of the Baltic.

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