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

2. Vilnius in the 16th century

First pagePrevious pageNext pageLast page

After its Christianization in the 14th century, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania entered into a dynastic union with the Kingdom of Poland. This ambiguous situation lasted until 1569 when, threatened with the extinction of the Jegellonian dynasty, both countries signed the Lublin Treaty and concluded a final union. This was a fatal act which led to the gradual erosion of the sovereignty of Lithuania despite the existence of two parallel governments, two armies and two administrations. By the end of the 18th century, the federal Polish-Lithuanian Republic was declining slowly but steadily, and was eventually partitioned between its great neighbours - Germany, Austro-Hungary and Russia, the latter taking a lion’s share.

Vilnius. Engraving by T.Makowski (1600)

In the 16th century Lithuania was a multi-ethnic state with its capital Vilnius, a big city of 20,000 inhabitants, dominated by the steeples of numerous Catholic churches interspersed with the onion domes of Orthodox churches, the minarets of mosques and the façades of synagogues. It was a metropolis of a well-organised and well-administered state, ruled by a few noble families, the Radvillus, Gasztoldus, Pac and Sapieha. The official language of the Office of the Grand Duke was Old Slavonic, which later, after some hesitation about the introduction of Latin, was replaced by Polish, the language of the Church and, increasingly, of the nobility and the gentry. Nonetheless, state rulers returning to Vilnius would be pompously welcomed with Lithuanian hymns. The Jews, who had come to Lithuania at the invitation of the Grand Dukes, spoke Yiddish, and the Tartars prayed in mosques in Arabic. It was a European Renaissance city with its gates open to the East.

The title page
of the New Testament

Religious concord reigned in the capital and the whole country, stemming from the tradition of tolerance inherited from the pagan times when the Lithuanian dukes sent to rule over Slavonic cities would peacefully convert to Orthodox religion only to return to paganism when back at home. This traditional religious tolerance went hand-in-hand with an understanding of ethnic interests. Tolerance towards Orthodox believers, who , together with Catholics, participated in the work of various state institutions, was later extended towards Protestants as well.

The Reformation movement reached the Grand Duchy of Lithuania soon after its emergence in Germany. In Lithuania, it was active for about a century and affected not only the views of the population, but also the economy and politics of the state. Even before the beginning of the Reformation, Lithuania had been familiar with the ideas of the Renaissance, and people there created secular literature, wrote historical chronicles and poetry, although not in Lithuanian. Christianity had had little impact on the population of Lithuania, particularly its lower stratum, which became an additional argument of Protestantism against the mostly Polish clergy engaged in the unsuccessful introduction of Catholicism.

Nicolaus Radivillus Niger

As early as 1520, the Kingdom of Poland began to issue edicts prohibiting the circulation of Protestant writings and studies at Wittenberg University. In 1535, these edicts also became effective in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Still, religious struggle, conducted mostly in the form of discussions, at least around the middle of the century, continued rather peacefully: the Protestants had strong patrons and influential supporters - the Radvillus and other aristocratic families of the Grand Duchy - because the Reformation movement went hand in hand with aspirations for independence from Poland. In 1563, before a similar act in Poland, the Seimas (Parliament) of Vilnius adopted a privilege that granted freedom of religion to all the faiths without any exception. At about that time, Lithuania became the centre of the most radical Reformation trends in Europe.

The Reformation awakened Lithuania from cultural stagnation, inspired its social thought, literature and written language, stimulated its Catholic adversaries toward cultural activities, and in general, brought Lithuania closer to Europe. Lithuania can take pride in the fact that for a certain time in the latter half of the 16th century it was, from the political and religious point of view, the centre of Christian European liberalism and progressive religious thought.

A Postil by Mikalojus Dauksa

The cultural upswing of Lithuania can be explained by active dialogue between different faiths, which lasted for several decades and stimulated various cultural projects of the debating or, rather, competing parties. But we should also remember that in the 16th century Vilnius not Protestant and Catholic ideas intermingled. It was also a city where people of different nationalities lived side by side and communicated closely. The capital of the Grand Duchy became an important centre of Slavic and Jewish culture. It was here that Franciscus Skoryna, a Byelorussian with views similar to Protestantism, published his first books in 1522. Vilnius became a refuge for Ivan Fedorov, the famous Russian printer, who fled from Moscow after the mob incited by monastic scribes who feared competition had destroyed his printing shop. In a short time, Vilnius became the second Basel where printers competed with each other in printing books in different languages proclaiming conflicting beliefs. Freedom of opinion was surprisingly broad here; side by side with the Catholics, the Calvinists pursued their very broad activities, Orthodox monks had their own printing shop where they printed treatises against Catholicism.

Nevertheless, the Counter Reformation gained the upper hand in Lithuania at the end of the 16th century mainly because Poland was very much interested in maintaining Catholicism in this region and in strengthening the state union. To fight against the Reformation pro-Catholic forces invited the Jesuit Order to Lithuania. It immediately started to build a higher educational system as a counterbalance to Protestant schools, and founded a college that was promoted to the status of an academy in 1579. The success of the Counter Reformation can also be explained by the fact that in Lithuania the Reformation had affected mostly the higher stratum of society, so that much depended on the will of individual dignitaries. But even ousted from the state arena, the Protestants were able to survive on the land holdings of individual landowners. Pockets of such believers have survived to the present day.

First pagePrevious pageNext pageLast page
Copyright: BALTOS LANKOS, Vilnius, 1995.