Although the independent nation of
Lithuania has only
relatively recently appeared on maps of Eastern Europe,
it is preceded by a lengthy and significant history. Modern Lithuanian
territory is but a fraction of the vast expanse which once included
present-day Ukraine, Belarus and Poland
(as part of a unified state) and stretched from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea.
Successfully ruled by a dynastic line of dukes, the Grand Duchy of
Lithuania (GDL) managed to penetrate the lands of Rus,
develop a highly advanced system of state administration and stave off
invading Crusaders longer than any other Central European power. Its statesmen conducted effective foreign
policy and military campaigns and created a multi-ethnic state. After the Grand Duchy’s incorporation into
a union with its neighbor, Poland,
its influence began to wane as Lithuanian nobility became more and more Polonised.
Officially Christianized as part of this union, and under increasing
Polish cultural pressures, the face of the Grand Duchy’s political relations
changed, and ultimately the GDL lost its unique position in the region. Though officially ended in 1795, the
history of the GDL continues to influence modern-day nationalist thinking in
the region. Both Belarus and Ukraine
point back to the days when they were part of the thriving GDL as proof of
their cultural and political distinction from Russia. And territorial disputes over the borders
of Lithuania and Poland were
the cause of great political tension well into the 20th
Establishment of a State: Mindaugas and the
consolidation of Lithuanian lands
first king, Mindaugas, was crowned on July 6, 1253,
some historians argue that the establishment of the Lithuanian Grand Duchy
reaches back even farther. Though
there is little documentation for this time period, it is generally accepted
that for one to two hundred years prior to Mindaugas’
rule, Lithuanian tribes had already begun the process of unifying
themselves. During this time, most
people were free farmers who worked for so-called “good people,” landowners
who would eventually become nobles. Castles, manors and systems of defense
were established during this time. Historian Tomas Baranauskas
argues that the GDL was founded around 1183.
By that time, the peoples of the region had established a high level
of military strength, a tribute system and a tax collection system organized
around manors. He concludes that Mindaugas did not establish the GDL but merely oriented
it toward the West.
actually entered in the process of the unification of the GDL, much progress
toward establishing the Grand Duchy was made under his rule. State institutions were formed, and,
resisted the attacks of the Teutonic Orders on one front and began to expand
its territory into the lands of Rus on the
attempted to unite three worlds under his rule: pagan Lithuania,
Catholic Western Europe and Orthodox Russia.
Unable to do so, he eventually claimed to convert to Christianity for
presumably political purposes. A very
strong regional leader, Mindaugas’ political
tactics involved intrigue and brutality among Lithuania’s princes and his own
family members. Ultimately, a
conspiracy was formed against him and he was assassinated in1263 along with
his two sons.
The Gediminian dynasty and the strengthening of the GDL
The 1300s brought new agricultural
technology, rapid social and economic development and some urban settlement.
proper, the old order of dukes was disappearing, a new class of nobles was
forming and specialized artisans were growing in number. In the area of foreign relations, the
joining of the lands of Rus to the GDL opened up
new trade routes.
Grand Duke Gediminas came to power in 1316,
ushering in a new dynasty of leaders.
Gediminas employed several forms of
statesmanship to expand and strengthen the GDL. He invited members of religious orders to
come to the Grand Duchy, announced his loyalty to the Pope and to his
neighboring Catholic countries and made political allies with dukes in Rus as well as with the Poles through marriage to women
in his family. Gediminas’ political skills are
revealed in a series of letters written to Rome and nearby cities. In 1322, in a letter to Pope John XXII, he
claimed that his predecessors, including Mindaugas,
had been open to Christianity, but had been betrayed by the Teutonic
Knights. “Holy and honorable Father!,” he wrote, “We are fighting with the Christians not so
that we could destroy the Catholic faith, but in order to resist the harm
done to us…” He further mentions the
Franciscan and Dominican monks who had come to the GDL by invitation and were
given the rights to preach, baptize and perform other religious
services. The next year, he sent a
letter to neighboring cities announcing his acceptance of the Christian faith
and his intent not to harm, but to, “solidify eternal peace, brotherhood and
true love with all of Christ’s believers”.
He also included an open invitation to artisans and farmers to come
and live in the GDL, promising support and reduced taxes to those who would
“conversion” is mostly seen as a shrewd political move as he and most of his
subjects continued in the worship of pagan Lithuanian gods.
Along with his other political
accomplishments, Gediminas established Vilnius as the capital
of the GDL as early as 1323. During Mindaugas’ rule, he managed to establish a stable state
comprised of peoples of varied ethnicity and religious confessions. When his rule ended in 1341, he left the
GDL viable and strong.
The Jagiellonian dynasty – the roles of Jogaila
Jogaila succeeded to the throne in 1377
and presided over a time of continuing encroachment of Christianity as well
as territorial expansion. Caught
between Catholic Poland and the Teutonic Knights, Jogaila
chose union with the Poles, solidified in the 1385 Act of Kreva. For the hand of the Polish princess,
Jadwiga, Jogaila promised to convert to Roman
Catholicism. This signified the beginning of a partnership in which the
barons of the still autonomous principalities of Lithuania
agreed to act by mutual consent.
When Jogaila became King of Poland, the Gediminian dukes engaged in a power struggle over who
would rule Lithuania. In 1401, in the
Acts of Vilnius and Radom,
Jogaila’s cousin Vytautas
became the independent ruler of the GDL.
Yet, it was established that after his death his lands would be
returned to the kingdom
of Poland, and the tie
between the two nations was again reinforced.
conversion, and in light of his union with the Poles, the struggle with the
Teutonic Knights continued. After
several unsuccessful attempts by the Order and its allies to break the
military alliance of the GDL and Poland,
a combined Lithuanian-Polish army invaded the territory of the Order in July
of 1410 and fought what would be called the Battle of Žalgiris (Grunwald). The combined forces of 39,000 swiftly
defeated the Order, killing almost half of its men, including the Grand
Master, and taking 14,000 prisoners for ransom.
The victory was decisive, and the military power of the Order was effectively
Territorially, the two powers
continued their gradual expansion in the years after the defeat of the
Teutonic Knights, eventually stretching between the Baltic and the Black Seas by the 1420s. Socially, the Jagiellonian
period saw the rise of five estates: clergy, nobility, burghers, Jews and
peasants, with the nobles exercising power over the other four.
The GDL in particular, under Vytautas, developed
trade, urban areas, a currency system and a coat-of-arms. Under his rule, a notion of statehood and
national consciousness developed which has been preserved throughout the
The Grand Duchy
under united rule
In the century following Vytautas’ reign, the population and diversity of the GDL
grew while the power of the Grand Duke began to decline. By the mid-16th century,
Lithuanians made up only around one-third of the total population of an
estimated 3 million people. Slavs,
Germans, Jews, Poles, Tatars and Karaites composed
the remaining two-thirds.
Vytautas’ vision of a strong monarchical government
ruling alongside a centralized administrative state was realized only in
part. The Council of Lords developed
which grew in power and increasingly determined the actions of the Grand
Though the threat from the
Teutonic Knights had been neutralized in the previous century, in the 16th
century Lithuania faced
growing military pressure from Muscovy. At the same time, Poland began to experience growing danger from
and the Crimean Tatars. For Lithuania, the prospect for a more permanent
union with Poland
primarily carried the advantage of a stronger defense. For Poles, such a union was mostly
motivated by a desire for the Duchy’s land.
both the Grand Duke Lithuania and the king of Poland, had no heir, and his
death could have potentially severed Polish ties with the GDL. In 1569, in the Union of Lublin, the Kingdom of Poland and the GDL became a
commonwealth or Rzeczpospolita common
currency, governance and policy.
Nobles from both states had the right to own land and to sell goods
without paying taxes in either part of the commonwealth. The two states did retain their own
borders, names, armies and administrative powers.
In 1572, concentration of power
into the hands of the nobles further increased with the implementation of an
election process that allowed nobles to withdraw their allegiance to the
monarch. This eventually led to a kind
of political paralysis as power gradually devolved to local governing
bodies. The diversity of peoples,
faiths and political convictions resistant to centralized administration made
the job of the leader of the commonwealth more and more difficult. Finally
the nobles rebelled against King Kazimierz, who was
forced to abdicate the throne.
Beyond political changes, the
culture of the GDL changed rather significantly during this time as
well. By the end of 17th
century, the Polish language was spoken both by ordinary and high-ranking
nobles and officials of the GDL. In
1697, Polish became the official language of the commonwealth’s diet as well
as the GDL chancellery.
Lithuanian language, as a result, became a language of the peasant class.
Through the 1700s, Russian and
Prussian expansionism took its toll on the commonwealth. In 1772, the joint republic was partitioned
for the first time between Russia,
Prussia and Austria and
lost 30% of its land and 35% of its population. In 1793, the Russians and Prussians
partitioned the Republic a second time, taking half of its remaining
territory. One year later, GDL and
Polish armies mounted separate insurrections against the occupying forces,
but it would end in defeat. In October,
1795, Russia, Prussia and Austria partitioned the remaining
lands of the Republic, thus marking the end of the commonwealth.
history on regional nationalism
Like most nations emerging from
rule by another power, many Lithuanians return to the past to define their
national identity. In this case,
though, there are competing claims upon history. In both the inter-war years and the
post-Soviet period, Belarus,
Ukraine and Poland have
made attempts to define their national rights and identities in relation to
the GDL. As early as the 1920s,
Belarusians were attempting to define the GDL as a Belarusian state. Along with Ukrainians, they sought ethnic
and historical separation from Russians and Poles.
In 1991, as a show of protest against President Lukashenka’s plan to
reintegrate Belarus into Russia after independence, the leading opposition
party adopted the red and white flag with the Pahonya
coat of arms, symbols which originated during the reign of Vytautas. In the
absence of its own national ideology, Belarus was forced to create one
in order to prove its right to exist independently. Prime Minister Kebich remarked that, “with the poor national arsenal we
have received in all areas of spiritual life, we can hardly convince our
contemporaries and descendents that we have a history of our own.”
In the case of Poland,
historical territory and identity became a source of conflict, not just an
ideological proposition. Because of
the history of free movement of Poles and Lithuanians in the commonwealth,
many ethnic Polish families established themselves in Lithuania and maintained strong ties with Poland. Beyond ethnolinguistic
and minority issues, some Poles believed that the city of Vilnius
(which it annexed and occupied) and other territory rightfully belonged to Poland. Some even advocated the re-establishment of
the Rzeczpospolita. A secret Polish military organization
operated in Lithuania
from 1918-1919 and conspired to overthrow the Lithuanian government.
Diplomatic relations between Lithuania and Poland were effectively broken
until the end of the 1980s when the brewing independence movement brought the
former allies back together. Today,
the two countries are staunch supporters of each other’s post-communist
transition, including their respective NATO and European Union
Note: In reading about the GDL, you may
occasionally find the following Polish spellings of names:
Annotated bibliography of materials and suggested further readings
* denotes Lithuanian
language only sources
Konstantinis, ed., Rinktiniai Raštai, Rome: The Academy of Lithuanian
Catholic Studies, 1982
The Collected Works include documents
from the ruling regimes of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania regarding politics,
administration, religion, and relations with Sweden, Muscovy and Poland. The works include a few reviews of books in
English as well as some German-language documents regarding the
God’s Playground, vol. 1
(New York: Columbia University Press, 1982)
of Davies’ book chronicles the role of Jogaila and
the Lithuanian Union with Poland (1386-1572).
Detailed descriptions of the Union of Kreva
(Krewo), defense against the Teutonic Knights,
Christianization and the legacy of the Jagiellionian
dynasty. Includes family tree diagrams
for the Jagiellons and Vasas
Institute of Lithuanian
Scientific Society, “Lithuanian Classical Literature Anthology,” [sponsored
by UNESCO’s “Publica” series] copyright 1999-2002
April 24, 2002).
The texts of the letters of Grand Dukes Mindaugas
and Gediminas from 1254-1338. These letters include communications
between the Grand Duchy and Pope John XXII, the orders of Franciscan and
Dominican priests as well as the governments of major cities in the
region. The letters reflect political,
religious and economic relations of the Grand Duchy with Rome and its
neighbors and Gediminas’ efforts to build the
strength of the Duchy.
Joseph Lins, “Lithuania”, [from the Catholic Encyclopedia, vol.
IX, online copyright 1999] <www.newadvent.org/cathen/09292a.htm>
(Accessed April 24, 2002
Brief history of the Catholic Church in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania until
Kiaupa, Žigmantas, Jūrate
Kiaupienė and Albinas Kuncevičius, The History of Lithuania
before 1795, Vilnius:Lithuanian Institute of
This book traces Lithuanian
history from the Mesolithic Period to the end of the Grand Duchy and the Lithuanian-Polish
commonwealth. Detailed treatment of
political with some social history.
Kirby, David, Northern
Europe in the Early Modern Period, The Baltic World 1492-1772, (London:Longman, 1990)
An excellent and
comprehensive source of political and social history of the region. Kirby does not focus very much on the GDL
or the Lithuanian-Polish commonwealth.
However, this source puts the role of the GDL into its greater
*Makauskas, Bronius, Lietuvos Istorija, Kaunas:
The History of Lithuania provides a general
introduction to the country’s history from the Baltic tribes to the
Rowell, S.C., Lithuania Ascending. A
pagan empire within east-central Europe, 1295-1345, (Cambridge University
Press, 1994) 289.
In Chapter 8 Rowell recounts the conditions under which the GDL was
consolidated under Mindaugas and the Gediminian dynasty.
He pays particular attention to the presence of Christian movements
prior to the GDL’s official acceptance of Catholicism. The chapter includes an appendix of primary
sources in Russian and English related to the fall of Kiev to the
“Political Culture and National Symbols: Their Impact in the Belarusian
Nation-Building Process” Nationalities Papers [Great Britian],
1999, 27 (4)
The article includes a good
description of post-1989 political efforts in Belarusia
to counter current pro-Russian politics with symbols of Belarusian distictiveness.
*Sliesoriūnas, Gintautas, Lietuvos Didžioji
Kunigaikštystė Vidaus Karo Išvakarėse: didikų
grupuočių kova 1690-1697 m Vilnius: Lithuanian
Institute of History, 2000.
The Grand Duchy of Lithuania
on the Eve of the Domestic War analyzes the causes and results of the war between
the nobles from 1690-1697. Within this
framework, the author also treats the oligarchy of the nobles as a whole
along with the development of the government of the Grand Duchy.
Tomas Baranauskas, “Medieval Lithuania,” <www.geocities.com/imantas2/etno/index-en.htm> (Last updated
January 26, 2002. Accessed
April 24, 2002).
Baranauskas, of the Lithuanian Institute of History,
includes a variety of articles on Lithuanian history from pre-history through
the Grand Duchy era (including maps and a currently incomplete chronology) as
well as articles related to Lithuanian society.
Valionis, Antanas, Evaldas Ignatavičius and Izolda Bričkovskienė, “From Solidarity to Partnership:
Lithuanian-Polish Relations 1988-1998,” Lithuanian Foreign Policy Review, 1998,
vol.2. Available at: <http://www.lfpr.lt/9802/phtml>
mutual support in the independence movement and subsequent development of
Lithuanian-Polish relations. Also
includes brief historical background.
*Varnienė, Janina, ed., Lietuvos istorijos
straipsnių ir dokumentų rinkinys. Vilnius: Arlila, 1999.
The collection of documents
and articles from Lithuanian history includes a very wide range
of materials from Lithuanian pre-history to the time of publishing. Topics
include: pre-state history, the era of the Gediminas
dynasty and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, the Polish-Lithuanian republic,
Lithuanian relations with Sweden and the Russian Empire, both World Wars and
the inter-war period, Soviet Lithuania and the recreation of the independent
Zejmis, Jakub, “Belarusian National Historiography and the Grand Duchy of
Lithuania as a Belarusian State,” Zeitschrift fur Ostmitteleuropa-Forschung , 1999, 48, p.
Describes the extent to which some Belarusian historiographers contend
that the GDL was a product of Belarusian influence.
*Žirgulys, A., ed. Lietuvos
Metraštis: Bychovco kronika. Vilnius: Vaizdas Printing, 1971.
The Lithuanian Chronicles (or The
Chronicles of Bychovcas) is a collection of historical,
political and literary documents from the age of the Grand Duchy.
published at http://depts.washington.edu/baltic/papers/