On the Lithuanian Side of Vilnius in the 17th Century

Assessing the ethnic composition of citizens of Vilnius (and not only Vilnius) throughout its history is a tough task, because historical documents very rarely refer to the national identity of people, except Jews and Tatars, until the first general census of the Russian Empire in 1897. In the early stages of the city’s history (13th and 14th centuries) Lithuanians constituted the majority of Vilnius residents who had arrived from neighbouring Lithuanian lands. On the other hand, historical and archaeological sources from the 14th century indicate that already at that time Vilnius was a home for people from Western Europe (“Germans”) and Eastern Europe (Ruthenians). Christianity became the dominating religion in the 15th and 16th century and a number of surviving written sources provide given names, patronymics, family names and nicknames of Vilnans, written in Cyrillic script or Latin letters, mostly using their Ruthenian, Polish or Latin forms. It is unfortunate, but due to historical reasons, as Lithuania was expanding and rejecting Baptism – and the culture of writing together with it – for a long time, the country was left with no other option but to adopt the already formed system of Cyrillic script and written language from the conquered countries. After the Union of Lublin, the established system of writing and written language of the stronger partner of the union started gaining ground gradually. The written Lithuanian language was left with only one function, that of servicing spiritual needs.

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Speaking of the spread of the Lithuanian language among Vilnius residents in the late 16th century, we should mention a nasty example from 1592, the year of the first pogrom against Jews in Vilnius, when a group of furious citizens stormed Jewish homes and other property with mob on the street shouting in Lithuanian and Ruthenian “Beat them, beat them!”, according to the report by a court official made public by historian Sergei Bershadski.

Court sources: residents of Vilnius quarrelled in Lithuanian too

Konstantinas Sirvydas and Jonas Jaknavičius compiled and published several religious books, written in the Vilnius dialect, in the first half of the 17th century in Vilnius. Sirvydas also published the Polish-Latin-Lithuanian dictionary. Lithuanians constituted a large part of Vilnius citizens at that time. The book of metrics of the St. John Church in Vilnius provides numerous evidences of that as it features many Lithuanian personal names. In addition to that, the clergy of the church would preach sermons both in Polish and Lithuanian until the 1730s, according to philologist Zigmas Zinkevičius. Lithuanians constituted the majority of residents in the Ashmyany district around Vilnius and, partly, in the Lida district, let alone the districts of Trakai and Ukmergė.

“In the early 17th century, the surroundings of Vilnius were more or less Lithuanian. The sound of the ancient language of eastern Aukštaitija spoken by Lithuanian Vilnans was still widely common in the city itself at that time” (Zinkevičius).

Data from philological and historical sources confirm his findings, the example being property inventories that include plenty of personal names that sound like Lithuanian ones. On the other hand, many Slavicized Christian personal names of that time perhaps still mask the people who spoke Lithuanian, even though ethnonyms hardly can reveal the ethnic subjection of Vilnans. Judging by the results of the research carried out by historian Agnius Urbanavičius, most new residents of Vilnius arrived from those particular regions in the second half of the 17th century; therefore there is no reason to doubt that the ethnic situation was similar to that during earlier periods of history. Although Vilnius was already experiencing the processes of Slavicization, and the big city was the place where they could evolve faster, the Lithuanian language enjoyed little prestige and remained mostly the language of peasants.

In the Vilnius of that time, the issues of ethnicity was hardly important at all. According to historian David Frick, hardly anyone was interested even in the faith of the citizens. He offers a revealing court case from 1686 written in Polish and related to the Lithuanian word płaktynik (the flagellated one), when a citizen of Vilnius, feeling aggrieved for having been called by that name, sued his offender for the injury of honour. From that, Frick draws a conclusion that at least part of Vilnans could understand Lithuanian in the second half of the 17th century, but their knowledge of language was not sufficient, because the document states that the word is Lithuanian and provides its explanation in Polish. Polish nobleman Jan Chryzostom Pasek testifies in his memoires that people in Vilnius knew and spoke Lithuanian when he writes about his fight, in 1662, with several residents of the city and about the Polish-language verses he inscribed on a wall of a building. To insult Lithuanians who had ran away, he used several mangled Lithuanian words (kukutis – a hoopoe, gėras – good, batviniai – beetroot soup, Li[e]t[u]wos – Lithuanian) that offended the citizens even greater than the fact that their fellows suffered corporal injuries.

Traces of Lithuanianity in the place names of Vilnius

The Jesuits used the Lithuanian language in their dispute with the city’s magistrate in 1646 over land ownership in Lukiškės as they tried to explain certain place names in the city. For instance, they noted that a brook has a name of Solsupis because of other brook, Šaltupis (Hibernia), that has lost its tributary springs after they have been diverted to the city’s water supply system, hence the brook was renamed Sausupis, but later it became known under the name of Solsupis. There was a dispute over which hill should carry the name of Velniakalnis (or Pamėnkalnis, hill of the devils or mares, respectively). The Jesuits claimed that they own the hill that we call Pamėnkalnis still today, in the 21st century, but the city asserted that the hill has the name of Moliakalnis (clay hill), while Velniakalnis (Pamėnkalnis) is located on the border between the city and its suburb Paneriai (today we call it the Hill of Vilkpėdė). The proof, according to the city, was a wolf’s paw and a goat’s hoof impressed in the stone lying next to that hill. Both sides of the dispute invoked the Lithuanian language to make their case by using place names, such as Velno, Elno kalnas, Elnokalnas, and thus pointing to their Lithuanian origins. The commission, which included high-ranking officials of the GDL (even Albrycht Stanisław Radziwiłł, the Grand Chancellor of Lithuania, was a member of the commission), did not ask any questions or require explanations, which might mean that all the arguments were clear to them. Other court cases from the Vilnius of that time also feature Lithuanian words or place names. This indicates that residents of Vilnius used the Lithuanian language and considered it appropriate for communication.

One can only guess as to what the proportion of Lithuanians among Vilnans was, while the total number of inhabitants is estimated between 14,000 and 20,000 in the middle of the 17th century.

Leaving aside the somewhat significant German community of about 800 individuals and the yet small Jewish community of several hundred, as well as several hundred of other foreigners, the remaining majority of citizens are likely to have consisted of three approximately equal parts: Lithuanian speakers, Ruthenian speakers and Polish speakers. What are the facts that allow drawing such conclusions? Some of them are the scarce surviving historical sources indicating that, prior to the so-called “Deluge” (1655), even the Jesuits and the magistrate would invoke linguistic arguments in their disputes over land borders, with the Lithuanian language playing an important role. The court cases of the time sometimes involved the use of Lithuanian and Slavicized place names on equal terms.

Priests continued preaching sermons in Lithuanian for a long time since then in the parish Church of St John the Baptist and St John the Evangelist in Vilnius. A look at property inventories from the territories at the border of the present-day Lithuania and Belarus dating before the “Deluge” and after it yields plenty of Lithuanian family names. Historical investigations have revealed that even after the calamities in the middle of the 17th century the majority of newcomers (more than half of them) continued to arrive in Vilnius from the Voivodeship of Vilnius, let alone the people coming from other Lithuanian districts. Those are mostly theoretical assumptions that require more data and research to be validated.

Literature: Z. Zinkevičius, Lietuvių antroponimika. Vilniaus lietuvių asmenvardžiai XVII a. pradžioje, Vilnius, 1977.

Elmantas Meilus