Lithuania’s Christianization and the growth of the city

The wars of Jogaila and Vytautas coincided with great changes in Lithuania’s state life and culture

Lithuania’s Christianization and the growth of the city

The wars of Jogaila and Vytautas coincided with great changes in Lithuania’s state life and culture. In 1385 Jogaila signed the so-called Krewo Union. According to this union, Jogaila had to marry a young Polish princess Jadwiga, christen Lithuania and unite both states. In 1387 Jogaila destroyed a pagan temple in Vilnius, extinguished the holy fire, re-established a bishopric and built a cathedral. In the same year Vilnius was granted the right of self-government (so-called Magdeburg right), though its rudiments must have existed earlier. Having become the king of Poland (under the name of Wladyslaw Jagiello), Jogaila moved to Krakow, while Vilnius saw the beginning of Vytautas’ era.

In Vytautas’ times Vilnius became increasingly multi-national. Since Gediminas’ times Germans and Eastern Slavs – Ruthenians – lived in their own communities and had temples in Vilnius. Both communities settled in the suburbs, while inhabitants of the so-called inner city were local people. In the Lukiskes suburb Vytautas settled Tartar captives and granted them certain privileges, while Trakai became home to Karaites whom he had brought along from the Crimea (they settled in Vilnius as well). At about the same time the Jewish community started to grow in the capital, later to become its distinct and inseparable part.

The Flemish traveller Ghillebert de Lannoy who visited Vilnius in 1414 was the first to give a more extensive description of the city. According to him, there was a castle on the hill (its remains are still there), Vytautas’ palace stood in the castle courtyard, and a long and narrow city, mainly wooden, with several stone churches, sloped down from another more distant hill towards the castle. It is known that at that time there were two market squares in Vilnius, a smaller one at St. John’s Church, and a larger one in the place where the Town Hall was later built. Originally pavements were wood planking, but in Vytautas’ times many streets were stone-paved. Brick houses, particularly noblemen’s residencies, appeared.

Vytautas’ brother Sigismund who ruled briefly after his brother’s death in 1430, granted equal rights to the capital’s Russian Orthodox believers – before long they came to constitute one half of the members of the city board and guild elders. The so-called chancellery Slavonic language played an important role in the culture of Vilnius and Lithuania. Used in the chancellery of the Grand Duke, it was also the language of the Lithuanian chronicles and the famous code of the period law – the Statute of Lithuania.

It was not until the 16th cent. that the Lithuanian language acquired a written form, though for many – probably even the majority – city residents it was the native tongue. It is interesting to note that the observation of a semblance of Lithuanian to Latin led to the advancement of a project to proclaim Latin the state language. This project failed, as the Lithuanian aristocracy and the Grand Duke’s court itself rapidly became Polonized. It should be noted that in the old city of Vilnius there are German, Russian, Jewish and Tartar streets, but Lithuanian or Polish streets do not exist – these two nations have never been regarded as minorities. Having switched to the Polish language, local noblemen still considered themselves Lithuanians and often were rather hostile to indigenous Polish lands (the so-called Polish Crown). This situation persisted until the 19th and even 20th cent., becoming a source of numerous paradoxes.

In 1440, Jogaila’s son Casimir became the Grand Duke of Lithuania (four years later also the King of Poland). Though his son Prince Casimir never became a ruler, he surpassed his father. He was expected to ascend the throne of Hungary, but the elected Hungarian king Matthew Corvinus succeeded in blocking him. Pious and physically weak since childhood, the young Casimir led a spiritual life and in 1484 died of tuberculosis at the age of 25. His remains in the Vilnius Cathedral won fame for miracles, and in 1604 Casimir was elevated to the sainthood.

The cult of St. Casimir left a deep mark in the history and art of Lithuania. This saint of Vilnius is worshipped also far away from Lithuania, particularly in Latin America. The father of St. Casimir, Casimir Jagiellon, ruled Lithuania for 52 years. These years were extremely favourable for Vilnius that enjoyed a quiet and peaceful life, expanding alongside the Neris banks and slowly turning into a city built of brick. The Grand Duke restored its Magdeburg privileges. According to these privileges, the city was administered by a senior and the magistrate court consisting of 12 burgomasters and 24 councillors. However, not the entire city was subject to the citizens’ self-government. Since olden times a part of it was administered by the castle elder, another part by the bishop; later other jurisdictions appeared, e.g. assigned to monasteries.

Decrees and the court’s decisions were pronounced in Lithuanian, Polish, sometimes in German and also in the language of Eastern Slavs – Ruthenians. Vilnius was the seat of the Lithuanian Seimas and the noblemen’s council. In 1489 a mint started to operate. Markets used to be held on a weekly basis; in addition, Casimir granted rights for two large fortnight fairs – after the Epiphany and the Feast of the Assumption.

The Grand Duke of Lithuania and King of Poland Alexander Jagiellon (1492–1506) preferred Vilnius to Krakow; he was the only ruler of the Lithuanian-Polish state to be buried in the Vilnius Cathedral. In his times Vilnius became one of the major European cities. Alexander built a new stone Lower Castle, established the Arsenal and set up a pharmacy; he had the Vilnius Town Hall rebuilt, and citizens were ordered to build a stone wall surrounding the capital (Vilnius was threatened by Tartars’ attacks). In 1495 craftsmen – goldsmiths and tailors – established their first guilds in Vilnius; soon the number of guilds reached 20 (before that the sole citizens’ organizations were so-called mead fraternities).


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