“True and Correct are the GDL Borders that Existed Since Ancient Times”

State borders according to the memory of the elders

The quoted phrase used to serve as a weighty argument for the officials of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania involved in negotiations over state borders with neighbouring countries between the 14th and 16th century. The existence of the “old borders” or the ones that “were there since old times” was supposed to make the other side’s negotiators believe that grand dukes of Lithuania used to reign over those lands prior to any other rulers. Testimonies by “old people” were very important in the delimitation processes (Latin delimitatio stands for establishing limits or borders). The old people would show where the “old and correct” borders had been. It was in 1356 that the negotiators of the GDL and Masovia involved in establishing the border between the two states opted for inspecting it accompanied by “old and reliable people.”

Establishing borders between the GDL and the neighbouring countries was a long and complicated process. Everything would start with the negotiations between the parties. Officials representing each country would put forward their delimitation projects drafted beforehand, the documents that included descriptions of preliminary border marks. The earliest known such papers, which the negotiators of the GDL presented to the German Order, date back to the 1410s. Some historians maintain that in the process of drafting such documents a ruler would send his authorised representatives to work in the areas where the future borders were to be established. The officials would question local residents and “old people” in order to gather information to be used as solid arguments during the negotiations. People working for the Chancellery of the GDL, experienced law practitioners, and individuals capable of handling negotiations used to do the preparatory work. The negotiating parties would discuss the border issues by sending letters too.

Negotiations in the “no man’s land”

In the case of smooth negotiations, the parties would arrange meetings of state officials. Following the mediaeval tradition, the timing of the meetings usually coincided with religious holidays, such as the Epiphany. The rulers, who cared about the safety of their negotiators, would address each other asking for the “security documents” that provided diplomatic immunity. In other cases, given that a peace convention had been summoned, the parties would announce temporary truce. For greater security, the location for talks was usually as open as possible, e.g. in the field or in the island surrounded by water. Very often meetings took place in bordering areas, pursuing the principle of the neutrality. In many instances, state borders were nothing more than uninhabited wastelands squeezed between the two countries – neutral territories for either negotiating party. For example, the negotiators of the GDL and Livonia met in 1445 in the Kurtsum wasteland. Lakes and rivers in bordering territories were considered neutral areas as well.

Do You Know?

Vytautas and Dmitri, the ruler of Moscow, held their negotiations in 1408 horseback in the stream of the River Ugra. The river was declared the state border after the talks.

Whenever the parties decided to summon special conventions, rulers would send experienced officials to represent them, usually on the principle of parity. The envoys would first of all present the papers testifying their mandates and identity. Then they would make the projects of state borders, and arguments accompanying the projects, known to the other side as well as preliminary demarcation of the boundaries making use of rivers, hills, woods, villages, water mills and other objects for that purpose. In 1413, during the talks between the GDL and the German Order, Vytautas claimed he had reigned over the lands around the Castle of Veliuona even before that castle was built. The representatives of the German Order argued that local people had been paying them hunting taxes since even earlier times. The second half of the 15th century saw the disputes over borders between the GDL and Livonia gaining momentum. In order to settle the issues, the parties would summon a number of conventions and would initiate negotiations, albeit almost always fruitless.

Quarrels over patches of land

If the negotiators succeeded in reaching an agreement, both parties would form commissions consisting of state officials who then travelled together to inspect and even demark the border holding additional talks when necessary. Very often the commissions included individuals who owned lands in bordering areas or acted as administrators of these lands. The commissions also included clergy who were responsible for taking oaths by the officials authorised to sign the treaties. After the negotiators arrived in the agreed location at the agreed time, they would present to each other official identification papers and would start inspecting the border.

The process involved plenty of discussions as each party wished to move the border for its own benefit.

Misunderstandings were common and they would often prevent the delimitation of certain stretches of the border. In 1425, while inspecting the border between the GDL and Prussia from Insterburg toward Kaunas, the officials reached a lake fed by three rivers. Vytautas wanted the border to be set along the river that ran the furthest into the territory of the Teutonic Order, while the Order requested just the opposite. The parties eventually agreed on the river running in the middle of the two. If the procedure continued uninterrupted, it would be followed by the interrogation of the locals. The negotiating parties questioned the locals most often throughout the 16th century, as the disputed territories were largely populated, and their testimonies provided ample negotiating power. Peasants holding land nearby the border were often distraught by the possible change of the demarcation line and therefore they actively participated in the delimitation processes, proving the legitimacy of the current border and affirmed their testimonies by oath.

In many instances “old people”, who had memorised plenty of information, would testify.

For instance, when the GDL and Livonia tried to adjust the border in 1542, the local residents claimed they “had lived beside this border since the times of our fathers and grandfathers.” Others argued they lived in the area where “borders were present in the times of Vytautas and after Vytautas, when these were Radziwiłł’s borders.” Sometimes the negotiating parties referred to written documents and description of earlier borders.

Living border signs

While adjusting the borders, especially in disputed areas, official used various man-made items to mark them. In the 16th century, as the internal colonisation was gaining momentum throughout the country, people were used to clearing plots of wastelands right beside the frontiers and would often enter foreign territories. In such cases, officials tended to purposefully resettle some people to wastelands and other areas close to the borders. Consequently, the colonised frontier area would serve as a “border mark” while the marked lines of an area would also be considered the borders of the state. In the most important areas, next to castles or strategic objects, the frontiers had been measured in miles using the “rope metering” method since the times of Vytautas’ reign. 

In only on very rare occasions the negotiators would mark the frontiers themselves. Usually other state officials did the job after the negotiations and border inspections had finished. Joint groups of officials from the GDL and a foreign country would visit and check all the disputed border sections before signing final border acts and confirming them by swearing oaths. Oaths were an inseparable element of bilateral treaties. It was in 1473 that the delimitation treaty between the GDL and Livonia was validated by oaths given by all the officials involved, their hands on the Holy Bible. It was only after this that seals were attached to the documents that the parties exchanged. After some time, the parties would recheck and correct the borders.

Literature: T. Čelkis, Lietuvos Didžiosios Kunigaikštystės sienų sutartys ir delimitacijos procedūra XIV–XVI a. amžiuje // Lietuvos istorijos studijos, t. 25. 2010.

Tomas Čelkis