True Lithuania

Grand Duchy of Lithuania ethnic relations (1253-1569)

Grand Duchy of Lithuania largely peacefully expanded southwards and eastwards to become the largest country in Medieval Europe, ruling Ukrainians and Belarusians. However, being pagan, Lithuanians were also outcasts of Europe, having German crusades launched against them. Wishing to end such a situation and "modernize", Lithuanians sought to cooperate with nations such as Poles and Germans, adopting some of their cultural and economic practices and/or allowing their immigration.

Lithuanian-Belarusian/Ukrainian relations (1253-1569). Lithuanians expanded their country into Belarusian and Ukrainian lands by peaceful means, such as marriages. There was no animosity between these groups. While it was understood that the leaders of Lithuania are Lithuanians - i.e. the Pagan, later Catholic nation - Belarusians/Ukrainians also had a fair share of influence as well. Lithuanians who were sent to rule Slavic lands would learn to speak Belarusian/Ukrainian and often adopt the Orthodox faith. Moreover, as Lithuanians had no written language prior to their annexations of Belarus and Ukraine, they have adopted a Slavic language (together with Latin) for literary purposes. Ordinary people were not expected to adapt their faiths anytime.

Expansion of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania into the Belarusian/Ukrainian areas, superimposed on modern European state boundaries. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Lithuanian-German relations (1253-1569). Medieval Germans were a large restless nation that has expanded eastwards. One major goal was to spread Christianity: Germans have established military orders aimed at conquering then-pagan Lithuania, and these centuries of Lithuanian-German battles are still well remembered in Lithuania (as a result, Germans conquered Western Lithuania that later became known as Lithuania Minor). However, much of the German "expansion" was peaceful, as German traders and craftsmen migrated into Lithuanian-ruled cities. Tolerant and mostly rural Lithuanians sought to (l)earn as much as possible from the well-established German urban culture. Thus German city laws were copied by Lithuanian cities, while German traders were allowed to operate Christian churches in Vilnius and Kaunas even while Lithuania was still pagan.

Battle of Žalgiris (Grunewald), 1410. Lithuanians and Poles have decisively defeated the German knights. From then on, the Lithuanian-German boundary stood firm for hundreds of years. On its western side (Lithuania Minor) the German overlords had many Lithuanian peasant subjects. On its eastern side, Lithuanian overlords had some German merchant subjects.

Lithuanian-Polish relations (1253-1569). Lithuanians and Poles were neighboring nations sharing some enemies, leading to much cooperation. Eventually (1386), Lithuanian grand duke Jogaila (Polish: Jagiello) was crowned as a king of Poland, establishing a joint dynasty and even more contact. While Poland was smaller in size, it was more Western in culture. Wishing to integrate into the "framework of Europe" and end the devastating wars against German orders, Lithuanians chose to adopt Western practices such as Christianity, administration, and heraldry. These practices generally came to Lithuania in their Polish variants, leading the formerly pagan Lithuanian high society to become outwardly somewhat similar to their peers from Poland.

Lithuanian-Jewish relations (1253-1569). After grand duke Gediminas invited western craftsmen and merchants to Lithuania, the first Jews arrived. Afterward, Lithuanian rulers granted numerous privileges for Jews, giving them a special status that made them "free people" rather than the property of local nobles (as most non-noble Lithuanians were at the time). In general, Lithuanian leaders saw Jews as useful for the economy, while Lithuanian peasants intermingled little with Jews.

One of the letters of Gediminas that invited foreign craftsmen into Lithuania. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Lithuanian-Turkic relations (1253-1569). By the 15th century Lithuanians have conquered Turkic lands (modern-day southern Ukraine). Grand Duke Vytautas the Great brought local populations of Tatars and Karaims from there to Lithuania. Typically, they lived in separate districts and towns. Each minority at the time had its own role; while Karaims were town dwellers like Jews, Tatars were generally expected to serve in the military like the Lithuanian nobility. Both groups were allowed to continue professing their faiths, erecting kenessas, and mosques.

A wooden Tatar mosque in Raižiai, one of the traditionally Tatar villages. While this particular mosque has been constructed in 19th century, the unique Lithuanian Tatar style has been likely continuously used since the times Tatars arrived. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

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