Under permanent conditions of war: what distinguished Lithuania from other European countries?

Mock Grunwald battle in Poland

In terms of its religious tolerance Lithuania was markedly different from other European states in the 16th century and at the beginning of the 17th century. Yet gradually this tradition of tolerance was stifled and at the twilight of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth it was a mere shadow of its former self.

Historians have one opinion as to the reason as to this early uniqueness of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania which subsequently had no equal with any other states at that time. It is an opinion which is quite interesting.

Paganism – a amalgamation of many gods

Historian and University of Vilnius Professor Rimvydas Laužikas says it must not be dismissed that Lithuania was the last in state in Europe to be Christianised and that paganism had a huge influence on the Grand Duchy which was taking shape.

“When speaking about the religious tolerance of the Grand Duchy we need to go back to the time that the state was being formed. Paganism in terms of its world-outlook, unlike Christianity, does not subscribe to the idea of one universal God. That’s why in the pagan way of thinking it’s quite understandable that other people should have ‘other gods’ “, says Professor Laužikas . ” The fact that the Lithuanian state was formed on the basis of a pagan way of thinking was definitive in that the political elite focused more on the political loyalty of their subjects than on their religious affiliation or culture. In other words, the leader was more concerned that his subjects pay taxes and fight on his side than what their home language was or to which gods they prayed”.

It’s difficult to say exactly to what extent different gods and deities were honoured in the developing Grand Duchy however it can be said with absolute certainty that almost every important phenomenon or feature at that time had its own protecting or nurturing deity (for example, Dirvolira, the deity of scattered flour, was the goddess of the gardens and fields).

It was therefore quire common for each place of habitation to have its own deities. Moving from one place to another meant traversing thick forests or hills which in the belief of that time, were the dwelling places of different gods and deities. In that context therefore the resettled god of the Christians or Jews was just another one of many gods.

Did Lithuania become “normal”?

When at the end of the 14th century Lithuania accepted baptism, the Grand Duchy came to resemble any other European state at that time. Certain pagan traditions however continued to persist both amongst the nobility and in the developing society.

“Of course, after the Lithuanian state was Christianised, the society started to increasingly resemble other Catholic European states, so that in the 16th century (when the Grand Duchy moved from the Middle Ages to the modern times), and especially in the 17th century, in the post-reformation Baroque period, overt characteristics were less noticeable” says the professor.

“In 1387 when Jogaila arrived in Lithuania, he oversaw the baptism of the people of Lithuania. It is believed that it was the nobility and the pagans living in the capital of Lithuania who had to be baptised first as well as some of the peasants” says Vilnius University lecturer, historian and Doctor of Humanities Liudas Jovaiša. Once Jogaila and Vytautas were baptised the Grand Duchy officially became a Christian country. It would however still be a long time before a specific Christian way of looking at the world would become rooted.

“Although Lithuania officially adopted Christianity at the end of the 14th century, Christianity in actual fact spread rather slowly. In order for people to be able to go to church regularly (bearing in mind the means of transport at that time), churches weren’t too far distant, not more than 10 to 12 kilometres away. However sizeable parishes in formerly pagan Lithuania took shape in the first half of the 16th century only, almost 150 years after the baptism” says Professor Laužikas .

The Grand Duchy as a separate cultural entity

Due to its belated baptism, the Grand Duchy as a state took shape as a unique cultural entity. Unlike in Middle Age Europe, it was not one but several religious and cultural centres that exercised a great influence on the emerging state – Catholic Rome and Orthodox Byzantium. The Grand Duchy was impacted by both of these powerful centres and even had a choice as to which road to take.

“It must be borne in mind that at that time “Christianity” did not mean the Western world only. At that time Lithuania had close and intense ties with the Orthodox Church, the adherents of which (Ruthenians) formed a large part of the Grand Duchy’s population or who were neighbours (Russians) on the borders of the state” says Dr. Jovaiša.

The Grand Duchy, because of its unique position belonged to neither one of the two but took on completely unique characteristics. “The process of formation of the Lithuanian state and society and emerging research allows for confirmation that the Lithuanian state formed in a different way from other European states. This is due to the end of the prevailing pagan world-outlook up to 14th century, the cultural isolation after the 10th century with the Christianisation of Russia and Poland, the absence of a written and formal education system and of a perception of cyclic time. Therefore, the evolution of the Lithuanian state and society acquired a specific character that was unlike either the Byzantine and Catholic civilisations” states Professor Laužikas . Here Professor Laužikas refers to the research of the historians Arnold Toynbee and Leszek Moczulski.

“We are talking here about a model relating to an early period of statehood and of the middle ages in the evolution of the Grand Duchy as a state and of its society. This evolution occurred alongside despotic, byzantine and corporate catholic models and can be seen as being unique in Middle Age European political, economic and social research and maybe even a separate “civilizational entity”. The Middle Ages of the Grand Duchy can be studied as an independent and specific phenomenon that was formed by the pagan world-outlook based on interaction within a space of strong Byzantine Christianity and Catholicism because it was a European state that formed very late; it was the only Middle Age European state that was founded and which evolved on the basis of a pagan world-outlook; it was a state founded far from the cultural and political centres of Europe”, says Professor Laužikas .

Due to infertile lands and a poor economy the Grand Duchy’s exclusive role was waging war which had a specific role in the process of the founding and formation of the state. “What’s very interesting here is Arnold Toynbee’s observation regarding the coat of arms of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which being the knight which attests to the significance of war in the life of the Grand Duchy” states Professor Laužikas.

Lithuania’s century-old war for survival

Of special importance in the formation of the Grand Duchy was the role of the resettlement of the Teutonic and Livonian Orders in the neighbouring lands and the start of aggression. The rising threat functioned as a consolidating factor. The relationship between the German/Catholic and Lithuanian/pagan cultural entity was very dynamic and manifold. There was for one thing almost constant military conflict underway. As of 1283 until the Battle of Grunwald in 1410, the border between the Grand Duchy and Order of the Teutonic Knights became a wasteland, a constant battlefield. That was the consequence of more than one hundred years of almost unceasing warfare.

The Order became especially active after 1362 when it invaded the Grand Duchy’s heartland and destroyed Kaunas Castle. What remained of the Grand Duchy was under serious threat and over the next 20 years the Order launched around 70 campaigns into the territory of the Grand Duchy. These campaigns were repelled by Kęstutis’s army. It was namely he who was responsible for the battles in the western part of the Grand Duchy.

Throughout this conflict the economically and technologically stronger Teutonic Knights were supported by a series of European states. Reinforcements didn’t come from the German Holy Roman Empire only but also from England, Bohemia (now the Czech Republic) or Denmark.

It can then be said that it was no small miracle that thanks to being economically weaker, more sparsely settled and having less fortresses that the Grand Duchy managed to hold out against this kind of aggression. It was only after Vytautas’ and Jogaila’s victory at Grunwald that the threat from the Teutonic Knights was finally eliminated.

Even in a quagmire of violence

During this period the Grand Duchy was exposed to a rather unique situation where on one hand the Teutonic Knights were fighting, at least under the guise, of religion whereas the Grand Duchy’s fight was neither entirely political or religious.

Despite the almost unceasing warfare, there was an intense cultural exchange between the warring sides. “Lithuania’s war with the Teutonic Knights and the Livonian Order was a political and not a religious war”, emphasises Professior Laužikas . “Yet despite that, the Lithuanian leaders willingness or unwillingness be baptized was for both sides very much a political debate.

Nevertheless despite the war, during the 13th and 15th centuries there was a very active exchange of ideas between the German and Lithuanian (as understood at that time) cultural entities. We have to understand that in the culture of the Middle Ages, despite the fact that the country was at war, its leaders constituted a common European subcultural layer (especially after the baptism of Lithuania) and, while not on the battle field, could be rather good friends”.

The Grand Duchy was economically and technologically far behind its main enemy in all spheres and so in order to survive it had to learn and adapt quickly. The Grand Duke Gediminas realised and this invited German merchants and artisans to come and settle in the Grand Duchy.

“There was no total cultural or economic boycott by the Germans or Catholics. It is well-known that Lithuania’s merchants had commercial ties with the City of Riga; German merchants had to use churches built by Gediminas in the Grand Duchy’s important trading centres – Vilnius and Navgorod (in present Russia). The pagan Grand Duchy succeeded in other Western technical or cultural innovations such as in the art of warfare and building construction” says Dr. Jovaiša.

Nevertheless, it was not only the West that was to be learned from but also the East. “There were even stronger ties between Lithuania and its eastern neighbours – the Orthodox Church. It is thought that already around the 12th century the first loan words describing the trappings of Christianity entered the Lithuanian language from Slavic languages such as the words for Catholic and Orthodox churches, Christmas, Easter, baptism, fasting etc.” says Dr. Jovaiša.

With no written proof, intercultural ties can be researched from an oral point of view. “Later on there are loan words from the 14th century dated from German, for example the words Jurgis (which means George) or pode which means godfather. It was namely from German that even before the Christianisation of Lithuania, that the Lithuanian Language had the formula for the Holy Trinity (with the insertion “God”). It’s this linguistic evidence absent in historical records that allows us to think that in pagan Lithuania Christian life was quite well-known and that news must have been transmitted from generation to generation”, says Dr. Jovaiša.

Unfortunately due to the lack of written sources it is unknown just how successful Gediminas’ invitation was to the German merchants and monks to settle in the Grand Duchy. “From secondary evidence it can be deduced that a bigger or smaller German Catholic community must have lived in pre-Christian Vilnius, as testified to by the existence of a French mission. In 1387 in Jogaila’s document, a French church on Trakai Street as well as the church of St. Michael are already mentioned. It seems that namely in this part of the old town of Vilnius even before the Christianisation of Lithuania there was a distinctive “Catholic” quarter the original identity of which is seen to this day in the street name ‘German Street'”, says Dr. Jovaiša.

In his opinion, judging from letters one can assume that Gediminas in no way identified the Teutonic Order with a single manifestation of Christianity. “Gediminas’s letters in which “the good” Christians are determined (and even monks – Franciscans and Dominicans) and invited to Lithuania, would suggest that the Order, at least for Gediminas, was hardly the only representative of “Catholicism””, says Dr. Jovaiša.

Profesor Laužikas echoes him stating that the existence of a German community in the Grand Duchy can be determined from indirect sources. “After Gediminas’ letters a large and influential German Catholic community started settling in Vilnius and Franciscan Catholic churches were built. Most root vegetables were brought over from German lands. From a religious point of view, probably the greatest influence of the Teutonic Order was the cult of the Virgin Mary that was brought in by Vytautas and which spread in Lithuania and which remains important to this day”, says Professor Laužikas . “In general, one can say that cultural ties were rather strong despite the conflict”.

Tensions unavoidable

Although there was most certainly intercultural cooperation, it still goes without saying that tensions in such a cooperation were unavoidable. “If you were to look for manifestations of religious intolerance in that period you’d probably first of all be reminded of the murder of the Franciscans of Vilnius” says Professor Laužikas .

Tolerance of Christianity during the war with the Teutonic Knights had its limits which were not to be stepped over. While professing a faith was relatively free it is believed that spreading Christianity especially among the courtiers or relatives of the dukes was a taboo.

“Here it must be remembered that tolerance like this was in no way unlimited. In the times of Gediminas and Algirdas, two members of Algirdas’s court were martyred for professing Christianity; two Franciscan monks were martyred. The most interesting point on these two occurrences is that it allows us to assume that foreigners or non-Lithuanians (for example Ruthenians or Germans) were allowed to profess Christianity. Attempts however to spread Christianity amongst ethnic Lithuanians or court notables that held important positions was punishable” says Dr. Jovaiša.

The long road to a new morning

The fact that the decision to be baptised into the Catholic Church and not the Orthodox Church, which was more widespread in the Grand Duchy, shows that the Teutonic Knights were not identified with Catholic culture – at least not in the eyes of the leaders of the Grand Duchy. Yet the road to the Christian world was very long for the Grand Duchy and even more so after the baptism when the society and the nobility of the grand Duchy secured for this region specific characteristics.

“The state’s conversion to Christianity first and foremost represents the baptism of its leader. That was Lithuania’s first step to Christianisation – the baptism of the Grand Duke Jogaila and other dukes, firstly the children of Algirdas and Kęstutis at Krėva in 1386. The act of baptism consists of two parts – “the negative part” and the “positive part”. From the start the pagan sacral objects should have been destroyed despite the taboos of the old religion. In that way the pagans would have been convinced of the new rule of faith”, states Dr. Jovaiša.

“Thereafter the future Christians were familiarised with the basic laws of Christianity and baptised. We do not know what proportion of the population in 1387 was baptized” he says “Undoubtedly it was not everybody bearing in mind the communications at that time. The baptism of the Lithuanians therefore did not happen in one year. The shift to the new Christian mentality must have taken even longer. With this in mind some historians believe that the Christianisation of Lithuania was completed already before the reformation; some say this process ended in the first half of the 17th century only”.

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