There is no lack of examples of heroic battles with the Lithuanian’s wars against the Teutonic Knights in the 13th and 14th centuries. Some we can mention are the Battle of Saulė (1236), the Battle of Durbė (1260) and the Battle of Aizkraukle (1279). Let’s also remember Veliuona Castle that was defended valiantly a number of times, the fierce battles near Kolainiai (1290) and Vaikiai (1322) or we can read about the battles for Kaunas Castle (1362).
These battles are no less fierce, however they do not come close to today’s fame concerning Pilėnai. This happened, in part, because there weren’t the kinds of horrific killings in them that we saw in the battle of Pilėnai: often it happens that a strange event attracts more attention.
Unanswered questions about the drama of Pilėnai
Let’s read some eloquent excerpts from chronicler Wigand of Marburg’s chronicle: “Upon seeing the Christian army the idolaters became very afraid and lost hope of defending the castle. They threw a heap of the wealth into the fire and killed themselves. They say that their one old female idolater slayed one hundred of them with an axe and afterwards took her own life.” In describing the battles that raged near the castle, Wigand of Marburg remarked that the duke of Pilėnai (who he calls a “king”) “strove to pay back the Prussians, who hurled fire, trees (logs and firewood) and rocks at the castle and the king. However, the king’s subjects covered him with shields. Finally overcoming fear, he escaped to some sort of hole, stabbed his wife with a sword and threw her into the flames. The idolaters, stunned by such misfortune, lowered their necks, and all were killed by the king.”
The thing that sticks out the most is that the dramatic event that occurred in Pilėnai speaks little about the Lithuanian’s fight against the Teutonic Knights but says much about the killings that happened within each camp. They already arose when the large Teutonic army was just approaching Pilėnai. The fear upon seeing the numerous military forces which they did not believe they could withstand, is a natural, common reaction. It can be either controlled or not. It appears that in Pilėnai it was not controlled and this led to the killings that occurred among them.
Margiris’ behaviour was strange. Despite the brief description, it is clear that Margiris was not able to organize an adequate defence. Instead of inspiring his men to fight on (which one could hope for from a commander), he ran off to the castle’s underground chamber and killed his wife. The soldiers then also became overwhelmed and chose death from the hands of their commander.
The only authentic and comprehensive source of the fate of Margiris himself, the chronicle of Wigand of Marburg, says nothing more about him, which is why we can assume that he died (or committed suicide), or perhaps surrendered himself and was taken captive. The ancient Lithuanian historical sources have not recorded a similar event that would show that the general killed his soldiers with his own hands. Strangely enough, this event, which was atypical in many respects, was considered as normal.
The symbol of Pilėnai: writers’ quills and ideologues’ mouthpieces
In order for the story of Pilėnai to become “self-evident,” they needed to use rationalisation and a literary imagination. One of the greatest medieval Polish historians, Jan Długosz, stands as one of the premier sources of the tradition of reinterpreting the Pilėnai drama. In the 1460s when talking about the battles between the Lithuanians and Teutonic Knights in his The Annals of Jan Dlugosz, he was the first to give a marvellous account of the active resistance of the Lithuanians against the Teutonic Knights.
As Długosz did not have any other reliable source other than the chronicle of Wigand of Marburg, one should evaluate this innovation as the result of the imagination of a writer and intellectual person. Knowing well the works of historians from Antiquity (first and foremost of Titus Livius), Długosz borrowed some motifs from him and adapted them to his vision of the defence of Pilėnai. In this case, perhaps the most telling examples were the sieges of Astapos (206 B.C.) and Abydos (200 B.C.). It is possible that the common rules about how to depict battles that end in suicide were provided by the story of the Siege of Masada known at the time: in 74 A.D. the Jewish rebels committed suicide in their fortress at Masada after being surrounded by the Romans, not wanting to fall into the hands of the enemy.
Similar motifs are reflected in the works, dreams and sermons of later writers. Seventeenth century historians Simon Grunau, Maciej Stryjkowski and Caspar Schütz left their mark in this tradition. They formed the basis that later writers used and convinced their readers that the images they painted of the defence of Pilėnai were factually sound, correct and meaningful at the level of an idea.
Since the things that are correct at the level of ideas are determined by constructs possessing symbolic and administrative power, it is no surprise that in these new times, the image of Pilėnai that has become firmly entrenched in the Lithuanian consciousness has been manipulated both by the authoritative regime of Antanas Smetona as well as the occupying Soviet regime. The latter in particular was concerned with mobilising Lithuanians and showing them that the friendship in war between the Russians and Lithuanians in fighting the West was an ancient historical phenomenon. There are still Lithuanians today that continue the fight against the Teutonic Knights…
D. Baronas, D. Mačiulis, Pilėnai ir Margiris: istorija ir legenda, Vilnius: VDA leidykla, 2010.