Post-classical history


Samogitia (Lith. Žemaitija, Pol. ± mudz, Ger. Schmaiten) was part of the Lithuanian lowlands north of the river Nemu- nas, a region of scattered settlements protected by dense forests and swamps from attacks by both crusaders and those Lithuanian grand princes of the highlands who attempted in vain to exercise authority there.

The Samogitians were the most fierce warriors of the Baltic region, and the most resolutely pagan. There were few important lords and few serfs, a fact that folklore and even Polish literature later exploited to depict later generations as retaining the best qualities of the noble savage. The Samogitians were indeed great warriors who fought with courage, cunning, and conviction against overwhelming numbers, but they were also ruthless toward their foes, carrying away women and children into slavery and occasionally burning a knight alive in honor of their gods. Cultural conservatism, together with the swampy and forested nature of the land, slowed the development of agriculture; instead Samogitians raised cattle and horses, which could be easily hidden from enemy armies and added to by successful raids of their own.

The first conflicts in the course of the Baltic Crusades came early in the thirteenth century when Lithuanian raiders were conducting their annual plundering of Livonia and Estonian settlements, and their greatest victories came in defense of their lands against crusaders. In the fourteenth century, members of the Teutonic Order operating out of Prussia conducted more than seventy invasions into Samogitia and further up the river Nemunas into central Lithuania; they also attacked from Curonia and central Livonia. Many squires came in hope of being knighted in magnificent ceremonies. Crusader poets described Samogitian warriors lurking in the darkness outside the crusaders’ celebrations, thirsting for revenge against those who had killed their people and burned their homes and crops, but unable to satisfy their rage.

Eventually Samogitian independence was traded away for peace by Grand Duke Vytautas of Lithuania (1386-1430) and Wladyslaw II Jagiello (Lith. Jogaila), king of Poland (1386-1434), who in 1398 assisted the grand master of the Teutonic Order in repressing the last resistance, and then confirmed his authority over the region in the Treaty of Sa.llinwerder. The grand master was criticized by churchmen for not rushing the population to the baptismal font, but he held to his policy of westernizing the economy first. A later effort to collect taxes led to the hostilities with Poland and Lithuania that ended in the battle of Tannenberg in 1410. Vytautas and Wladyslaw introduced Christianity in 1413, sending a delegation of converts to the Council of Konstanz in 1415, and oversaw the creation of a diocese in 1417. Nevertheless, passive resistance prevented a thorough conversion until the Counter-Reformation.

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