The eastern coast of the Baltic Sea
inhabited by the Baltic nations

1. Historical background

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The people inhabiting the southeastern coast of the Baltic Sea are now known as the Balts. It is a term coined by linguists, who used it to refer to one of the Indo-European language families and the corresponding ethnolinguistic community. The western Balts, known as the Prussians, inhabited the western parts of the region reaching the delta of the Vistula River as early as the Middle Ages. Tribes along the Daugava River united somewhat later to form the Latvian ethnic group, while the territory between the Prussians and the Latvians was inhabited by the Lithuanians.

The latter part of the European Middle Ages from the 10th to the 13th centuries saw the emergence of the Baltic geographical area, the boundaries of which have remained mainly the same to the present day. Archaeological excavations in this territory have established the existence of relatively advanced agriculture and increasingly uniform methods of the cultivation of cereals, which indicates the presence of communication routes and active circulation of both population and goods. This led to the emergence of more progressive social structures, bigger territorial units, referred to as ‘lands’, and, on the whole, to a more progressive evolution of feudalism. These developments were similar to processes taking place in Europe at the same time, which was rising from the chaos of the early Middle Ages.

Gothic church in Zapiskis (16th century)

The peaceful and steady evolution of the Baltic tribes, however, was disrupted by German expansionism, which reached the Baltic lands and led to the Crusades there. In 1202, the Knights of the Sword (a branch of the Templar Order) settled on the territory of the present-day Latvia and, competing with the Bishop of Riga and the Hanse, started a campaign for the subjugation and Christianization of Lithuania. Almost at the same time (1224-30), at the invitation of the Mosurian Duke, the Teutonic Order, which had been driven out of the Kingdom of Jerusalem after it lost the battle for Saint-Jean-d’Acre, settled at the mouth of the Vistula River. The Teutonic knights engaged the Prussian tribes in battle and succeeded in occupying all their territory as far as the Nemunas River. (After World War II this region was occupied by Russia and has been known since as the Kaliningrad, formerly Königsberg, Region). But the Prussians and the Latvians were to experience a different fates: in the north the Knights of the Sword united with the Teutonic Order and, simply, Christianized the Latvians and made them serfs. After converting to Protestantism, this Germanic population evolved into a small group of big landowners who became known as the Baltic barons. The Prussians, however, who by that time, judging by the their religion, had evolved into a full-fledged nation, put up a tough resistance. But in the end they were subjugated and eventually annihilated through gradual Germanization and intensive colonisation. The Prussian language died about 1700, and, perversely, the Prussian name passed on to the most militant nation of the German Empire.

The Master
of the Teotonic Order

Against this background of general resistance to those who spread the Gospel by sword and enslavement, emerged the Lithuanian nation in circumstances that were slightly different from those of its neighbours. At the beginning of the 13th century, not without major obstacles, the Lithuanians founded a sovereign centralised state, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Although by that time the expansionist ambitions of the Knights of the Sword had been curtailed and the northern borders of Lithuania were stable, for two centuries (the 13th and 14th centuries) Lithuania was forced to wage a continuous war with the Teutonic Order, which was driving east from the Prussian territory until 1410 when it was finally defeated at Tannenberg.

The Battle of Tannenberg (1410)

The Grand Duchy of Lithuania, a powerful pagan state , ruling also over a large territory of Orthodox eastern Slavs, accepted the Catholic faith at the end of the 14th century. At that time it was waging long and exhaustive wars with the Teutonic Order in the west and the increasingly more powerful Principality of Moscow in the east, and it was forced to seek the support of Poland. Closer relations between the two states began with the election of Grand Duke Jogiello of Lithuania as the Polish king. Accepting the Polish crown (1386), Jogiello pledged to introduce Christianity in Lithuania. He fulfilled the pledge in 1387. Charged with the task, the Polish clergy accomplished it formally by introducing Christian religious institutions without bothering very much about what local population's beliefs were. The result was a peculiarly peaceful coexistence of paganism and Christianity. Officially, state officers and noblemen recognised the Almighty of the Christian world, but they did not interfere at all with the adoration of pagan gods, so-called 'domestic gods', by the populace. This situation lasted well into the 15th and 16th centuries, until the beginning of the Reformation movement.

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Copyright: BALTOS LANKOS, Vilnius, 1995.