Post-classical history


Lithuania was the last pagan state in Europe, converting to Christianity only in 1387. It was the most popular target for crusades in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, although this is often unclear from western European sources that tell of crusaders going to Prussia (Fr., ME Pruce) where they would gather under the banner of the Teutonic Order for raids into Lithuania.

In historiography Lithuania is usually called a grand duchy, a usage that transposes to the pagan period the name by which it was known after 1387, when its Christian rulers were also the kings of Poland. In earlier Western medieval sources the term grand duchy is not used. Russian sources often refer to the ruler of Lithuania as grand prince.

Located east of the Baltic Sea and to the northeast of modern Poland, Lithuania (Lith. Lietuva) was in the medieval period a country of thick but not trackless forests, with a network of castles or forts and towns such as Vilnius, Kernavè, and Trakai. Since Neolithic times Lithuania has been inhabited by Balts, who are not Slavs but a separate branch of the Indo-European peoples, represented today only by Latvians and Lithuanians, but in the Middle Ages comprising many tribes. In the territory of present-day Lithuania lived Curonians, Semgallians, Selonians, Samogi- tians, and Lithuanians (Lith. lietuviai). Only the Samogi- tians (Lith. žemaičiai) retained a measure of independence in the medieval Lithuanian state. As the Teutonic Order began to conquer Prussia, large numbers of Prussian fugitives settled in Lithuania.

Before the emergence of a unified Lithuanian state in the early thirteenth century, the name Lietuva probably referred to the area around modern-day Trakai and Vilnius. King Mindaugas (crowned 1253) claimed as his realm all of what is today Lithuania, except for the Baltic coast, and had occupied most of modern Belarus, including Grodno and Novo- grudok, giving the latter city to his son to rule. Throughout the fourteenth century, the Lithuanian rulers expanded their power into Rus’ lands: to the east into present-day Belarus and Russia, as far as Polotsk, Vitebsk, Smolensk, Briansk, and to the south into what is now western Ukraine, including Kiev (Ukr. Kyiv). Grand Duke Vytautas (1392-1430) controlled lands reaching as far as the Black Sea.

Rus’ lands inhabited by Slavs that were incorporated into the grand duchy of Lithuania were sometimes ruled by princes of the Lithuanian ruling family and sometimes by princes of local dynasties. These lands provided taxes and military service to the grand duke, whose sons and daughters usually married into the ruling family of the principality and adopted the Greek Orthodox form of Christianity. The grand dukes remained pagan, residing in ethnic Lithuania, yet their power was greatly increased by the manpower and wealth of their Slavic lands.

Pagan Lithuania in the Period of the Crusades (1200-1386)

The first mention of Lithuania in written sources occurs in the Quedlinburg Annals, where a near-contemporary entry states that in 1009 the missionary Bruno of Querfurt was killed at or near the border of Lithuania. Archaeological excavations show that well before the eleventh century the Lithuanians had developed a typical Iron Age warrior society, dominated by war leaders or chieftains. Up to the early thirteenth century, it is uncertain whether these nobles had any one chief. In a peace treaty recorded in 1219 between the dukes and duchess of Vol- hynia and twenty-one Lithuanian dukes, five are called “senior.” One of these was Mindaugas (Ger. Mindowe, Pol. Men- dog, Russ. Mindovg), who must then have been quite young.

The Grand Duchy of Lithuania in the reign of Gediminas (1315/1316-1341/1342)

The Grand Duchy of Lithuania in the reign of Gediminas (1315/1316-1341/1342)

Within a few years, by killing or exiling rivals, Mindau- gas had increased his power and begun Lithuania’s eastward expansion, exiling relatives to conquer western Rus’ lands. To strengthen his position, Mindaugas allied with the Teutonic Order and accepted baptism in 1251, sending his own envoys to Pope Innocent IV. Crowned in 1253, he became Lithuania’s first and only anointed king, but abandoned the order and probably also Christianity in 1261. He was assassinated in 1263 by disaffected Lithuanian nobles. Mindau- gas’s reign established a strong Lithuanian state with foreign relations and foreign trade. However, it may have served as a warning to his successors of the dangers of baptism and submission to the Teutonic Order. No Lithuanian ruler would ever again attempt this.

Treniota (Pol. Trojnat, Russ. Troinat), one of the plotters of Mindaugas’s assassination, seized power after the king’s death, but ruled for only half a year (1263-1264) before being killed by Mindaugas’s followers. Mindaugas’s son Vaiselga, or Vaisvilkas (Pol. Wojsielk, Russ. Voishelk), had been ruling western Rus’ lands and had not only converted to the Greek Orthodox faith but even became a monk. After Mindaugas’s death, he left his monastery to rule Lithuania in 1264-1267, but then handed over the throne to his brother-in-law Shvarno, the duke of Galicia-Volhynia, who was married to Mindaugas’s daughter.

Shvarno (Pol. Szwarno) was the only non-Lithuanian ruler of the medieval Lithuanian state, and he lasted only two years (1267-1269) before he was displaced by Traidenis (Pol. Trojden, Russ. Troiden), an uncompromising pagan who ruled from 1270 to around 1282. Traidenis expanded Lithuania’s sway over Rus’ lands, and made an alliance with the dukes of Mazovia (a part of Poland) that would last for several centuries. He won several important battles against the Livonian branch of the Teutonic Order, but was not able to harm the Teutonic Knights in Prussia or to stop their raids into his territory.

Who succeeded Traidenis is not clear, since there was a period of struggle for power, with one Pukuveras, or Butvy- das, emerging as leader. Pukuveras’s son Vytenis became grand duke from around 1295 to around 1316 and laid the basis for Lithuanian military and diplomatic strength in the fourteenth century.

Vytenis (Ger. Witen, Pol. Witenes, Russ. Viten’) was able to defend and even expand his power in the face of intensified attacks, after the final subjugation of the Prussian and Livonian tribes had turned the full force of the Teutonic Order against Lithuania. He accomplished this partly by clever use of his subjects and allies. Archers and other troops from the annexed Rus’ lands aided his invasions of Prussia. Allying himself against the Teutonic Order with the burgesses and archbishop of the city of Riga, Lithuania’s most important trading partner, Vytenis sent Lithuanian pagan troops to form a garrison at Riga. Although Vytenis did not convert, as the Rigans claimed he had promised, he did in 1312 permit the archbishop of Riga to send two Franciscans to serve a Roman Catholic church in Novogrudok. From then on, Franciscan missionaries were present in the grand duchy, and the Teutonic Order had rivals for the work of converting the Lithuanian pagans.

Vytenis was succeeded in the winter of 1315-1316 by his brother Gediminas (Ger. and Russ. Gedimin, Pol. Giedymin), who gave his name to the Gediminids, the dynasty that ruled Lithuania until 1572. Gediminas continued the war with the Teutonic Order and also invaded the order’s territory in alliance with Poland. Through conquest and marriage alliances, he expanded Lithuanian rule to the east, setting his son Algirdas to rule Vitebsk, and his brother Fedor (Theodore) to rule Kiev. This new influx of men and wealth further increased his ability to resist the crusaders.

Gediminas continued Vytenis’s alliance with the Rigans, which helped them to resist the Teutonic Order until 1330. He fostered Lithuanian trade with Riga, the Hanseatic League, and Rus’, inviting foreign merchants and craftsmen to Lithuania, allowing even merchants from towns of the Teutonic Order safe passage through his realm. Lithuanians could now buy and have made the latest weaponry, removing the crusaders’ main technological advantages. Gedimi- nas sent letters to Pope John XXII, to the Hanseatic cities of northern Germany, and to Franciscans and Dominicans, proclaiming willingness to accept Christianity and inviting foreign knights, farmers, merchants, and craftsmen to Lithuania. As a result, papal legates forced the Teutonic Order to make a truce with Gediminas for 1323-1325. Once this had been confirmed, Gediminas denied ever mentioning baptism, and Lithuania remained pagan. Although he executed two Franciscan monks, probably for attacking the pagan gods, Gediminas used more diplomatic Franciscans as scribes and allowed them to have a house in Vilnius where church services could be attended by visitors. He even built Roman Catholic churches, declaring to the papal envoys that he allowed Christians to worship according to their rites, and obtained from Constantinople the appointment of a separate head of the Orthodox faithful in Lithuanian-ruled Russian territories.

When Gediminas died in 1341 or 1342, he was succeeded by his son Jaunutis (Pol. Jawnuta, Russ. Evnut), who lasted only three years before being displaced in the winter of 1344-1345 by Algirdas (Ger. and Pol. Olgierd, Russ. Ol’gerd), another son of Gediminas, who was helped to the throne by his brother Kçstutis. Under Algirdas, the war with the Teutonic Order continued, with victories and defeats for both sides: in 1345 Algirdas took the fortress of Mitau (mod. Jelgava, Latvia), while in 1348 he suffered major defeat in the battle of Streva (Strebe). In 1377 the crusaders burned half of Vilnius, capital of the grand dukes. Yet even then Algirdas was able to negotiate a truce and withdrawal, inviting the crusaders to a banquet to clinch the agreement. During his reign the Teutonic Order’s crusade attracted the finest of Europe’s knights, but still the grand duchy was powerful enough to resist them and to constantly attack the order’s forts and territories.

Like Gediminas, Grand Duke Algirdas at one point obtained from the Greek Orthodox patriarch of Constantinople a separate metropolitan of Lithuania for the Orthodox population of the grand duchy. He allowed Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches in Vilnius and encouraged Christian merchants. Yet despite two marriages to Orthodox Russian princesses, Algirdas remained a pagan. In revenge for attacks on pagan Lithuanian customs, he may have executed three Lithuanians at his court who had converted to Greek Orthodox Christianity and possibly also five Franciscan monks, although both of these incidents of martyrdom are disputed by some historians. When Algirdas died in 1377, he was cremated with grave goods and horses in grand pagan fashion.

After Algirdas’s death, his son Jogaila (Pol. Jagieüo, Russ. Yagailo) inherited the throne. Kçstutis at first supported his nephew, but rebelled against Jogaila after the grand duke made secret truces with the Teutonic Order on 27 February 1380 and 31 May 1380. Having seized Vilnius, Kçstutis ruled as grand duke in 1381-1382, but was displaced in June 1382 by Jogaila, who in a few months captured and imprisoned Kçstutis. This old pagan warrior died in prison. He was cremated on a pagan funeral pyre with his armor, horses, and hunting dogs, but the time of such state pagan rituals was drawing to an end in Lithuania.

Jogaila’s claim to the throne was disputed by the son of Kçstutis, the talented and wily Vytautas (Ger. and Pol. Witold, Russ. Vitovt), who sought military alliances with the Teutonic Order. Jogaila needed allies to balance this, and at first negotiated with the grand prince of Moscow, promising acceptance of Greek Orthodox Christianity in return for support. But this plan was abandoned when Jogaila received an offer to become king of Poland by marrying Jadwiga, heiress to the Polish crown.

Lithuania as a Christian State

Now at last the rejection of paganism would bring tangible rewards for the grand duke, and in 1386 Jogaila was baptized in Poland along with many of his relatives, including Vytautas. He was then crowned as king of Poland, taking the name Wladyslaw II Jagieiio. From this time Lithuania’s fortunes were linked with those of Poland until 1792, although the grand duchy and Poland had separate courts, armies, and finances, and were united mainly through the person of the ruler.

Vytautas continued to rebel against his cousin Jogaila, twice receiving help from the Teutonic Order in return for grants of Samogitian lands (1382-1384 and 1390-1392). By 1392 Jogaila was forced to make Vytautas grand duke of Lithuania (1392-1430). While acknowledging Jogaila’s suzerainty, Vytautas retained much independence in his rule over the grand duchy, whose territory he expanded almost to the Black Sea.

By medieval standards Lithuania was a Christian state after 1386, since its ruler had converted. In 1387 Jogaila traveled to Lithuania with priests, who conducted a public baptism at which crowds of nobles and commoners were sprinkled with holy water and given some rudimentary instruction in Christian prayers. Jogaila built a cathedral in Vilnius and established the diocese of Vilnius. Vytautas even declared himself a crusader against the Mongols.

However, the Teutonic Order did not forget that Vytau- tas had granted it Samogitia during his rebellions against Jogaila, and continued its attacks, aided by guest crusaders because the Samogitians were still unbaptized. In 1413, Grand Duke Vytautas and King Jogaila traveled to Samogi- tia to establish Christianity, destroying a pagan shrine and bringing priests to preach to the assembled populace. When this did not halt the order’s attacks, Jogaila and Vytautas complained to the Council of Konstanz, which was convoked in 1414 to settle the claims of two rival popes, but also considered various controversies. A Polish and Lithuanian delegation pressed the council to condemn the war on Lithuania, and in 1416 presented to the council a delegation of baptized Samogitians as proof that the crusade was no longer necessary. So effective was this lobbying effort that two council delegates were sent to help the bishop of Vilnius to baptize Samogitia, although the council did not settle the rival claims of the Teutonic Order and Lithuania over possession of Samogitia.

Mass baptisms were begun in Samogitia in the fall of 1416 and continued in January 1417. The diocese of Medininkai was established the same year, and its first bishop was Matthew, a priest living in Vilnius, who was probably of German origin but spoke Lithuanian and was chosen by Vytau- tas. The last pagan state in Europe was officially pagan no more. The Teutonic Order and the grand duchy of Lithuania on 27 September 1422 concluded the Peace of Melno, which conceded most of Samogitia to Lithuania and set borders that would last for centuries. The crusade in the Baltic had finally ended.

The Crusade against Lithuania

The main sources for our knowledge of the crusading wars against Lithuania are papal letters, documents of the Teutonic Order, and above all the chronicles of Henry of Livonia (Henricus Lettus), Peter von Dusburg, Wigand von Marburg, Hermann von Wartberge, Nicolaus von Jeroschin (a translator of Dusburg’s chronicle who added detail of his own), Guillaume de Machaut, and various other German and Polish chronicles. There is also an account of an expedition into Lithuania in the autobiography of Emperor Charles IV, while poets (such as Geoffrey Chaucer) and chroniclers of many nationalities also mention wars in Lithuania.

The basis of the crusade against Lithuania seems to have been the papal bulls and privileges issued for the Teutonic Order’s wars in Prussia, which were then applied to Lithuania by the order and its guests. There are no papal bulls granting crusade indulgences to those who fought in the wars against the Lithuanians in the fourteenth century. In this sense, the Lithuanian crusade lacked a legal basis. Yet it is quite clear that the Teutonic Knights, and the knights from all over Europe who flocked to their aid, thought of the Lithuanian wars as a crusade. Pope Alexander IV in 1259 had granted the order the right to give absolution from excommunication to those who came to help it fight the infidel. This may have been publicly interpreted by the order as the right to grant indulgences to all those who fought in its wars. When Grand Master Heinrich Dusemer had this privilege recopied in 1347, it could only have been to present a justification for the Lithuanian crusade, since by then the Prussians had long been conquered. Certainly Western sources as well as the order’s own chroniclers often referred to the knights who came to their help as “pilgrims,” in other words, crusaders. Whatever the popes intended, by the time that crusades to the Holy Land were no longer viable, the knights of the West were obviously determined to consider service in the Lithuanian wars as crusading that brought honor and spiritual merit.

What was the nature of this warfare? Most notable was its persistence: there was fighting almost every year from 1283 to 1406. Since the war was conducted mostly as a series of raids and sieges of forts or towns, neither side managed to crush its enemy completely.

The Teutonic Order was initially better armed, but the Lithuanians bought and captured weapons, invited foreign armorers and weapon makers to live in Lithuania, and were soon abreast of the latest military technology, including siege machinery and cannons (the latter by 1382). Though the Teutonic Knights were better at cavalry charges, the heavily forested or swampy Lithuanian terrain did not lend itself to many battles on horseback. The knight brethren of the order were few in number, and had to rely on auxiliary infantry drawn from sometimes rebellious conquered peoples or once-pagan allies who could prove treacherous.

Most fighting took the form of raids by both sides into the enemy’s territory, in which the goal was not battle but the devastation of crops, the killing of peasants, and the taking of women and children as prisoners to be used as slaves or serfs. Foreign crusaders were distracted from the rather unpoetic nature of this kind of warfare by huge banquets and ceremonial exchanges of gifts hosted by the Teutonic Knights.

Ceremonial exchanges and even invitations to banquets could also take place between enemies. The Lithuanian rulers, their relatives, and the high nobility soon learned to utilize the conventions of medieval Western warfare: exchange and ransom of prisoners, the use of marshals, and the making of truces. Respect and even friendship sometimes developed between Christian crusaders and Lithuanian pagans who fought each other over many decades. But these more civilized relations were limited to nobles, while both sides slaughtered commoners without compunction.

Forts or castles were built by the Teutonic Order and the Lithuanians to guard river routes and control territories. Lithuanian Iron Age hill forts (artificial or natural hills fortified by stockades and ditches) had by the mid-thirteenth century become wooden castles. In the fourteenth century there were stone and brick castles at Vilnius, Trakai, Kaunas, Lida, and Medininkai, and many more in the Slavic areas of the grand duchy. Both sides soon had siege machinery, but this cannot have been totally effective, since the Teutonic Knights often relied on capturing forts by treachery among the defenders.

Several major battles, however, did take place. At Saule on 22 September 1236, the Order of the Sword Brethren was defeated by the Samogitians. Master Folkwin and forty- eight knight brothers were killed, and the weakened Sword Brethren were subsequently incorporated into the Teutonic Order. At Durben on 13 July 1260, Samogitians and Curoni- ans defeated the Teutonic Knights, killing Burchardt von Hornhausen, the master of Livonia, and 150 knight brethren. The great Prussian revolt of 1260 was one of the results.

The Livonian branch of the order was again defeated by Lithuanians, this time under Grand Duke Traidenis, at Osel on 16 February 1270, when the Livonian master, Otto von Lutterberg, was killed, along with fifty-two knight brethren. In 1279 an army led by Livonian Master Ernst von Rassburg penetrated into Lithuania almost to Kernavè and the patrimonial lands of Traidenis. Yet the Teutonic Knights retreated and were attacked and defeated by the Lithuanians by the River Dvina near Ascheraden (mod. Aizkraukle, Latvia) on 5 March 1279. Rassburg and up to seventy knight brethern were killed, and the order’s flag captured. As a result, Semgallians under the rule of the order revolted. On 1 June 1298, Grand Duke Vytenis defeated an army of the Livonian branch of the order, killing Bruno, master of Livonia, and twenty knight brethren near the River Toreida. An army sent from Prussia came to the rescue, and inflicted a severe defeat on the Lithuanians near Neuermühlen(mod. Ādazi, Latvia) on 29 June 1298, killing thousands.

At Strèva near Trakai on 2 February 1348, the Teutonic Order defeated a large army led by Grand Duke Algirdas that included troops from the Slavic principalities of the grand duchy. As a result, the Lithuanians were not able to defend the fortress of Veliuona, which was destroyed by the Teutonic Knights later that year. At the siege of Kaunas (March 1362), the Teutonic Knights burned the Lithuanian castle of Kaunas, which guarded the river Nemunas (Memel) in Lithuania, and captured Duke Kçstutis’s son Vaidotas. Near Rudau (mod. Mel’nikovo, Russia), on 18 February 1370, the order defeated the army of Lithuania, inflicting great losses. Grand Duke Algirdas and Duke Kçstutis were forced to flee for their lives, and afterward no longer attacked Teutonic Order forts on the Nemunas. The final great engagement was the battle of Tannenberg or Grunwald (mod. Stçbark, Poland) on 15 July 1410, when the combined forces of Poland and Lithuania, headed by King Jogaila and led into battle by Grand Duke Vytautas, thoroughly defeated the Teutonic Order. This battle is widely believed to have begun the decline of the order.

Lithuanian Paganism and its Effect on the Crusades

Although some relics of paganism lingered in every country in Europe, the Lithuanians alone preserved a pagan state until 1387. Their religion is hard to reconstruct because contemporary accounts are rare and later ethnographers recorded peasant folk beliefs rather than the state religion.

All sources agree that the medieval Lithuanians had sacred perpetual fires, sacred trees (especially oaks) and forest groves, as well as “wise men” and probably “wise women” (Lith. zyniai and zynès) who performed rites and made prophecies. Various animals (especially snakes) were reported as sacred in later sources. Horses were messengers of the gods’ will and guardians of the dead. The gods demanded sacrifices (usually foodstuffs, bulls, or goats, but occasionally a hapless war prisoner), helped in divining the future, and assured an afterlife, for which food, horses, and weapons were cremated with the wealthy dead.

Grand Dukes of Lithuania

in the Period of the Crusades

Mindaugas (king from 1253) c. 1240-1263



















Jogaila (again)




The deities whose worship survived in Lithuania into modern times seem to constitute a typical Indo-European pantheon, with a possible admixture of elements from an older earth-goddess religion:Perkûnas, the powerful god of thunder; Gabija, the goddess of fire; Mediena, the goddess of the forests and of animals; Žemyna, the earth goddess; Giltinè, the goddess of death; Velnias, the god of the underworld and of fertility; and Laima, the goddess of luck. The sun, the moon, and the morning star were probably objects of worship. There were many sacred places: a grove, for example, or a hill or a field near a stream, or an isolated boulder with strange markings.

What was the effect on the crusaders of encountering this religion? The more educated Christian clerics may have been aware of the similarities of the Balts’ religion to that of ancient Rome, and thus viewed it as not wholly alien; this point of view is noticeable in the chronicle of Peter von Dus- burg, a priest of the Teutonic Order. Yet even he seems to shudder with horror when he writes of the Old Prussians that they worshipped “even toads” [Peter von Dusburg, Chronik des Preufienlandes, ed. Klaus Scholz and Dieter Wojtecki (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1984), p. 102], an animal associated in Western iconography with the devil and witchcraft. Probably most crusaders found the pagan religion repellent and a symbol of the “otherness” of the Lithuanian enemy. Most horrifying was the threat of becoming a human sacrifice, burned alive to please the pagan gods. This danger can only have reinforced the Teutonic Knights’ self-image as martyrs and victims, and increased the brutality characteristic of both sides in this crusade.

On the other hand, we should note that two of the main chroniclers of the Teutonic Order, Herman von Wartberge and Wigand von Marburg, hardly mention religion, Christian or pagan. They report pagan funerals as an interesting event and pagan sacrifices of Teutonic Knights as a type of war crime, and present no religious justification for the order’s wars. Certainly the merits of killing pagans were used to recruit Western chivalry to the crusade in Lithuania, and the glory of fighting for God appears in the guests’ chroniclers, such as Guillaume de Machaut describing the expedition of John of Luxembourg, king of Bohemia, to Samogitia in 1329. But the Teutonic Order’s complaints about this king baptizing and then freeing thousands of pagan prisoners make clear that the order did not even pretend to missionary zeal.

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