Vilnius in 1636

The first written information about Vilnius goes back to the beginning of the 14th century, while iconographic material can be found from the second half of the 16th century. However information about Vilnius and its inhabitants until the middle of the 17th century is sporadic and scant. The city was markedly changed by the Russian occupation and fires that struck in the middle of the 17th century. This is why a survey of the buildings of Vilnius and their owners made in 1636 to ready for the visit of ruler Władysław IV Vasa that has survived is particularly valuable and informative.

The “side product” of the ruler’s visit – a comprehensive description of Vilnius

During the half year he stayed in Vilnius, Vasa took part in a celebratory procession taking the relics of St. Casimir to a chapel built for him in the Vilnius Cathedral that took place on August 14th. He saw the opera “The Kidnapping of Elena” (the first opera performance put on in Vilnius), went hunting a few times, took part in court proceedings, received envoys, and took part in the feasts of GDL nobles. The citizens of all Commonwealth cities had an obligation to house guests (except those who were able to receive an exemption). The city burghers housed those accompanying Vasa, including his courtiers, noble dignitaries and their servants, an orchestra, artists, and other persons serving the ruler. It’s difficult to imagine how the life of a regular Vilnan changed during the time a ruler visited Vilnius. Vasa’s royal functionaries would survey the buildings and living premises beforehand, check their privileges and allocated who would be staying where. These surveys showed the buildings’ owners, renters, and sometimes the former owners, their duties and professions, and the privileges that had received. The condition of the buildings was described, as was the number of living chambers, vestibules, which jurisdiction they belonged to (to which suburb, which didn’t have city rights). The surveys often just mentioned the manor estates of nobles, but did not describe them further (they were able to avoid the obligation of housing guests).

The small houses of simple city dwellers were also described, which would remain unnoticed in other historical sources.

The data from the 1636 survey allows us to understand the life of then-Vilnius in three separate layers – the city inhabitants, the city’s buildings, and the ruler’s manor.

There were 717 possessions (Latin “possessio,” or property) within the walls of the city, excluding churches, monasteries, Orthodox churches, the university, and the buildings of the Lower Castle complex.

A look at Vilnius’ old town and its inhabitants

The city centre of Vilnius (today the Old Town) in 1636 was comprised mostly of bricked structures, while wooden houses were seen more only on the small streets close to the city wall. There was also the occasional plot of land that was empty. The main streets (Pilies, Didžioji, Vokiečių, Dominikonų and Šv. Jono Street) were lined with almost only bricked houses. One could often see wooden houses on other streets, while on Trakų or Subačiaus street that led to the suburbs, wooden houses made up more than half of the buildings. Merchants owned the most houses in Vilnius’ Old Town. The houses of artisans were concentrated on four streets (the neighbourhood of Stiklių, Mėsinių and Žydų streets), Skapo Street and around the streets leading off it, as well as on the eastern side of Didžioji Street in the Russian neighbourhood. The guilds had their own buildings.

Merchants owned houses in prestigious places, and in Town Hall Square.

Artisans, including tailors, leather workers, cobblers, butchers, weavers and blacksmiths, had bought houses in the city centre. One can find the houses of many functionaries of the magistracy in Vilnius in 1636. Sometimes Vilnius city advisors and burgomasters had several houses. In the first half of the 17th century, the Jewish community received important privileges, and were then able to buy houses on Žydų Street and those houses nearby it. In this way, a unique Jewish neighbourhood was formed in the centre of the Old Town. Jews owned approximately 20 buildings (almost 3%). However, their number was more important, because Jews lived in a greater density than other city dwellers. A number of the houses were entered as hospitals, convents, or churches – they were rented out, while the income was used for supporting their causes. The hospitals of various confessions owned over 30 buildings in the city.

The Vilnan way of life “through a keyhole”

Most of the buildings on the main streets were two to three story houses, while on side streets they were one-story. The primary part of a residential house was the living chamber, which always had a vestibule with a stove. This was necessary to warm the living chamber during cold times and prepare food. The pantry situated near the living chamber was used as a storeroom, and sometimes as sleeping chambers. Some of the houses had a cellar, which also had storerooms, living chambers, with one even have a tavern. There were horse stables near almost every house, which could have from 2 to 20 horses. Spacious horse stables that could house 50 horses were built next to the manor estate of Vilnius burgomaster Ignotas Dubovičius (Ignacy Dubowicz). Even more horses could be housed in the horse stables near the manor estates of the nobility (which is not described in greater detail). There were public baths for hygienic purposes that operated in the city. In addition, baths of various sizes were located near every fourth house. Thus, city dwellers took great care in their cleanliness and health. What could be found in even greater amounts were pleasures: alcohol distilleries were built near almost half of the houses in Vilnius (55 of them are mentioned). The selling of alcohol was taxed, however the city dwellers could built as many distilleries as possible for their own purposes. Some houses even had two distilleries (for beer and spirits). A greater number of the houses did not have distilleries.

Literature: Mindaugas Paknys. Vilniaus miestas ir miestiečiai 1636 m.: namai, gyventojai, svečiai, Vilnius, 2006. 

Mindaugas Paknys