The City Patriciates or Elites?

In early modern times, there was an elite that existed in many of the larger cities of the GDL and Europe, who have been given various names in historiography, including the patriciate, the elite, and the ruling class, among others.

The urban aristocracy identified with the Ancient Rome

The Latin term patricius, which became widespread during the Renaissance in the 15th century based on the example of ancient Rome (in 1516 the Nuremberg councillor and jurist Dr. Christoph Scheuerl used the word patricii when referring to the ruling families in the city at the time) in a narrow sense describes the city aristocracy (or nobles), which had special hereditary, social and political privileges, first and foremost being the right to hold power in the city government. This also existed in some Italian city-states (for example, Venice), and cities in Germany (for example, Nuremburg, Augsburg, and Lüneburg among others) and the Netherlands. These families were entered into special books, in which the patrician genealogy was traced along the male line. The patriciate existed only in large, economically strong and politically independent cities. These social groups would show their distinctive character with their close family ties among one another, and different kind of social communication, for example founding special societies and other similar things. The patriciates were also not homogeneous or social groups frozen in time but were constantly being constructed by and through society.

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The term patricius or patriciate, is often used too broadly in modern historiography in describing any social group that had economic and political power in a city with this word, regardless of the specific aspects of a city’s geography and social ties. This is why more and more researchers avoid using the word, as it is a term that traditionally specifies a far too narrowly defined social group for it to hold broader descriptive and clarifying value. The same goes for the historiography of GDL cities, where the traditional term “patriciate” is being replaced with the “ruling elite” and other terms. Even in the 16th century, in the Golden Era of cities, our cities were not as strong economically, politically and socially as those of the above-mentioned cities. From an economic or political point of view, the power of the most influential urban class in a city, and even within the society of the city, had to be shared with the state, with the Church, or with the aristocracy.

In defining a city’s patriciate, elite or ruling class, what is important is the question concerning the self-identity of its members, i.e. how much and in what way did its members distinguish themselves from others, what did they call themselves, etc.

The answers to these questions can help us in deciding what terms to use. The terms “patrician” and “patricians” along with other similar terms were used in Germany and other countries starting in the 16th century. What was used in the GDL?

Patricians in Vilnius and Kaunas

Data shows that this term was known in the capital of Vilnius in the 17th and 18th centuries. This is shown by the many mentions of the Latin term (patritius vilnensis, patriota) and Polish translation (patriciusz wileński). The Latin and Polish terms for “patriciate” were also used in Kaunas in the 17th and 18th century (cf.  patricius Caunensis, patriciusz kowieński); historian Alma Ragauskaitė provides examples from the late 17th and 18th centuries. Does this term mean the same as it did in Italy or Germany? Historian Zigmantas Kiaupa considers the Kaunas patricians (patriots) of the 16th century, a group who called themselves such and were called this by other people, as the oldest inhabitants of the city, a non-formal group for whom Kaunas was their homeland and “who understood this fact as the right to rule the city.” In principle this possibility did exist, because it seems there was a small group of German merchants that was at the source of Kaunas autonomous rule. However, it is not clear how they were able to preserve their non-formal patrician identity for several or more generation. The term “patrician” spread in Europe in the 16th century, thus it should have come to the GDL later. Did these patricians perhaps exist in 16th century Vilnius? It is less likely, as the ruling elite of Vilnius was rather varied at the end of the 14th century after the city received the right of self-rule, at least as far as religion is concerned. Of course, the situation may have changed in the second half of the 15th century and beginning of the 16th century. Unfortunately, there are few sources from Vilnius that have survived, which makes it hard to confirm or deny anything. In the case of Kaunas, the 16th century archive has survived, however no one has carried out collective biographical research on the term “patrician” concerning the people mentioned there.

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The Latin term “patricius”, which became widespread during the the 15th century, in a narrow sense describes the city aristocracy (or boiar class), which had special hereditary, social and political privileges, first and foremost being the right to hold power in the city government. However in the 17th and 18th centuries in Vilnius, the name “patrician” or “patriot” was used for individuals simply born in Vilnius, i.e. “those from here.” This name was also given to artisans and merchants, the descendants of members of the ruling elite and ordinary city burghers.

Serial sources, such as the matriculation books of European universities where arriving students were entered, have not been used in historiography for analyzing the European tradition of patrician identity up until the present. They contain various descriptions and titles, mostly in Latin, that described the students’ class and other social status – whether they belonged to the boiar class, clergy, or free professions, or other groups. One also can find the term ‘patrician’ (lot. patritius, patricius). For example, there are more than 150 ‘patricians’ from the German cities of Rostock, Lüneburg, Lübeck, Bremen, Hamburg as well as other cities that entered themselves into the book of Rostock University between 1559 and 1741, along with one or two individual from Gdansk, Elbing, Reval (Tallinn) and Riga between 1594-1621. This means that the self-identity of patricians in this region was strong.

Georgius Wesselius Lithvanus Conensis Patricius, or Kaunas patrician Jurgis Veselis, entered himself into the book of Rostock University in 1599. This is unique information. In an earlier entry in the matriculation book of the University of Königsberg in 1594, he was only listed as Georgius Wesselius Caunensis, i.e. Jurgis Veselis, Kaunas citizen. Unfortunately, we know nothing of his past and life, only that he was a citizen of Kaunas. Up until now, no one has managed to find whether a Vilnius citizen has ever been recorded in the matriculation book of a university

Between 1500 and 1630 only two students of about 1700 students in the matriculation books of universities in Silesian cities called themselves patricians (in 1690 and 1696), however in one of those cases it is the father of the student that is called a patrician (de patricio parent).

In Europe – royalty, in Lithuania – urban locals

Having analyzed many biographies of people called patricians or patriots in Vilnius sources from the 17th and 18th centuries, I would make the conclusion that the core of this concept was first territorial, and only then social. It describes those born in Vilnius and, it appears, people having property in the city, i.e. “locals.” For example, in 1647 patricians or those serving in the city had to pay one kind of tax for be part of the merchant class, while foreigners had to pay a different tax. In 1665 the magistracy promised merchants that in the future patricians would be given priority in being exempt from the old customs tax and in choosing new members for the magistracy. At the turn of the 19th century, the Polish phrase “w tym mieście urodzonego” that was in acta books located in the document register was translated in Latin as “patritius.” For a scribe, these words were synonyms. This status of “patrician” was emphasized when the circumstances demanded it, for example in becoming a member of a guild or corporation, inheriting property, taking over duties, or receiving privileges.

Artisans and merchants, the descendents of the members of the ruling elite, ordinary city burghers-civil servants and others were called “patricians.”

Young people most often had this title, even if they had no duties.

It is not clear what it meant at the time in Kaunas and other cities of the GDL and Poland (for example, the term “patrician” was used on a gravestone in Krakow in 1614, in a celebratory literary work in 1771 as well as other sources). Contrary to the 16th century, it would seem that the term “patrician” was not linked to the word “patriciate” in a social sense in Kaunas or Vilnius in the mid-17th century and 18th century, and did not mean that one came from the oldest, most respected and most influential families in the city. Its real meaning was geographical; that was how “natives” were called, i.e. descendents of city burghers. This is why Vilnius resident Elijus Krasovskis (Eliasz Krasowski) wrote in the mid-17th century the following: “I went to the city of Vilnius as a patrician to my fatherland (ad patrimonium),


Ką reiškė terminas „patricius“ XVII a. Vilniuje?, Tarp istorijos ir būtovės. Studijos prof. Edvardo Gudavičiaus 70–mečiui. Sudarė A. Bumblauskas ir R. Petrauskas, Vilnius, 1999, p. 319–334; A. Ragauskaitė, XVIXVIII a. kauniečių asmenvardžiai, Vilnius, 2005, p. 19–20, 21, 43, 122, 140.

Aivas Ragauskas