The Lithuanians expanded the territory of their State not only by fighting - Orbis Lituaniae

The Lithuanians expanded the territory of their State not only by fighting

Whom did the “no man’s land” belong to?

Before the Lithuanian state was created in the 13th century, the inhabitants of the country regarded the uninhabited territories as “no man’s” ownership, which everyone could freely make use of. When the state was forming, the ruler of Lithuania extended his power in the territories. Therefore, the understanding formed that the ruler had the right of the supreme owner of land, which the monarch could establish in “no man’s” territories beyond competition. The inhabitants of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, however, went on living for a long time as they had been accustomed to “since the olden days”. They used wastelands for their own needs, went hunting there, kept bees and fell forests. In this way the inhabitants expanded farming areas in wastelands, which lawfully were the ownership of the ruler, and it was possible to do engage in those activities with his permission only. Such self-will of the inhabitants was treated as the “illegal colonisation”. It was difficult to control it for some time. With the number of state positions of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the administrative apparatus growing, control strengthened. The material of court cases of the 16th century shows that litigations against illegally occupied forest areas by the inhabitants or hunting in the wastelands belonging to the ruler were quite frequently conducted. People did not realise yet that it was prohibited to behave like that. The inhabitants often stated that they did not know it and therefore behaved the way they had been used to behaving “since the olden times.” It was not always sought to occupy ever larger territories deliberately. Only large landowners who sought to expand their lands or exploited wood illegally seeking to sell such raw materials as resin, tar, ashes, etc. behaved like that. Foresters and other forest supervisors who appeared at that time limited such licence in the ruler’s woods. The expansion of the illegal colonisation was regulated in the Statutes of Lithuania, which prohibited it, and provided for fines imposed on unlawful hunting. In the 16th century the ruler of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania often granted the nobility lands in the forests, which foresters had to delimit and show to the new owner. People themselves also controlled the “illegal colonisation”. They did it especially often in the 16th century when large areas of land were already mastered. People who owned lands and forests legally informed the state officials of the violations.

“Conquests” without a gun

The “illegal” understanding of colonisation of the wastelands of the state borders was somewhat different. In the 14th-16th centuries forests and swamps corresponded with many sections of the borders of the territories of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the neighbouring states. Ambitious rulers of the states wanted a part (or perhaps the whole territory) of the territory of woodlands on the borderline to belong to the country rather than to the neighbour. However, in these wastelands there was no understanding of the highest ownership of an exclusively one ruler. In the second part of the 15th and the 16th centuries, when the process of settling territories of the neighbouring countries was in full swing and border wastelands were started to be colonised, the inhabitants expanded the territory of the states by “pushing” its border deeper into the wasteland.

The inhabitants of the neighbouring countries penetrated the border forests, cut them until they could reach one another.

In this way disagreements over the ownership of the illegally colonised lands arose. Disputes reached the officials and the latter informed the rulers about the disagreements between the inhabitants of the countries. For example, the Samogitian elder Jan Kęsgailaitis announced that the Prussian officials crossed the border and settled sixty people in the territory of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. 

Rulers of the neighbouring countries appealed to one another, presented their complaints that the frontier people, illegally occupying the wastelands, pushed themselves into the lands of the state. The rulers offered the ways of resolving the problem. For example, on 31 January 1509, the ruler of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania voiced his complaints through an envoy to the ruler of Moscow saying that the Muscovites illegally “occupied many areas of land and water, established new borders for themselves and seized many of our people, and they seized animals and property from others”, and asked him to form a joint commission of the officials to solve the problem. In 1511, the ruler of Moscow answered to the similar complaints presented by the ruler of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania saying that it was not the Muscovites who did harm on the state border but the inhabitants of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania who occupied the land in entire small rural districts and villages. The ruler of Moscow offered to send his officials to correct the violations. 

Living state “borders”

In the 16th century, the rulers constantly corresponded with one another about such problems, they wasted time until concrete solutions were arrived at. Sometimes the disturbances with respect to the borders threatened with military clashes. In 1542, the inhabitants of the border of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania near Katyčiai pushed their way into the Prussian lands and the dispute grew into a military conflict. At that time, it was a usual everyday phenomenon.

Quite often the state officials knew that the inhabitants of the country carried out illegal colonisation in the territories of other countries, but they did nothing because they understood that in this way the territory of landowners, small rural districts and the state was expanded.

For example, on 6 August 1543, the Duke of Prussia wrote to the elder of Simnas that an official of Įsrutė had informed him that the residents of Simnas ward were pushing their way into the Prussian lands, changing “pushing” the state border, which coincided with the squeezed in woodlands. The inhabitants even built a road and a bridge over the river and spoilt the earlier signs marking the border. It is obvious that the elder know about the colonisation. Seeking to “curb” the illegal colonisation on the borders and not to allow to “push” the border, in the 16th century the borders were inspected especially often, they were described and additionally marked. The state officials conducted inspections jointly and separately, after which they informed another country of the violations discovered.

Do You Know?

In renewing the borders on the non-colonised borderline, the officials often purposefully settled peasants there – created a colonised borderline, which prevented the residents of another country from occupying those territories.

Literature: T. Čelkis, Privačios žemėvaldos ribų nustatymas ir žymėjimas XV–XVI a. Lietuvos Didžiojoje Kunigaikštystėje // Istorijos šaltinių tyrimai, t. 3. Sud. Antanavičius D. Vilnius, 2011, p. 31–58. 

Tomas Čelkis