Vytautas: the Settler and the Foe Vanquishing King

The golden age of the Jews

The image of Vytautas among non-Christian communities was being created not only during the period of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania but in the 19th and 20th centuries as well. Based on the core image of the ruler, established in the days of GDL, it was further revised, recreated and popularized during later centuries, with the aim of forming a new identity (the case of Karaites). Attempts were undertaken to historically substantiate Vytautas’ connections with the state and good deeds accomplished (the cases of Jews and Tatars). The narratives describing Vytautas’ image were more exploited by the Tatar and Karaite communities than the Jews. In the Jewish community (and Jewish historiography), the period of Vytautas reign is called the Golden Age, and Vytautas is described as a prudent and tolerant ruler. The main activities and the image segment, attributed to Vytautas by the Jewish community, were the first privileges granted to Jews (granted to the Brest community in 1388 and extended to the Hrodna Jewish community in 1389), proclaiming Jews to be free people, not serfs anymore, and thus ensuring the legal situation of the Jewish community. In 1507, all the Jews residing in GDL were granted these privileges. Even in the late 16th—17th  centuries, the privilege granted by Vytautas to the Brest Jews, regardless of the fact that due to social changes and a different historic period it lost the applicability, kept being continuously mentioned as the first legal act strengthening the situation of the Jews. It was regarded as a symbol of the old stable past. The image of Vytautas, exalted during the interwar period of Lithuania, was used by Jews to substantiate the idea of Jews as old-time settlers of Lithuania.

The “White Khan” of the Tatars

In the narratives of Tatars and Karaites (which were developed under different circumstances) Vytautas is described as an exceptionally revered ruler, who had helped them to move away from the Golden Horde or the Crimean Khanates; the ruler who established local settlements for them (e.g., a village with forty Tatars); the ruler who granted them land in return for loyal military service and was seen by them as warrantor of their legal status, the ruler who introduced the tradition of tolerance in GDL.

Tatars mentioned Vytautas in their narratives, dedicated to the description of establishing their community. In the genealogies of many families Vytautas is elated as the ruler, during whose reign they settled in Lithuania. Two scenarios are usually found. In the first, his marches to the Golden Horde in the late 14th century are described. The legend goes that in 1397 Vytautas brought with him a large number of Tatar families (one version of this event was recorded by the Polish chronicler Jan Długosz 80 years after the date of the historic event. Subsequent authors often connected the story of moving the Tatar nation namely with Vytautas’ name. The other scenario is related to the Battle of Grunwald, upon a victorious completion of which the Tatars, invited by Vytautas to help in combat, stayed in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and received abundant land gifts. Different stories related to their settling down and the circumstances described stimulated debates (characteristic of both the contemporaries of the GDL period and historiography), whether the Tatars who had settled in GDL should be regarded as prisoners of war, or whether they should be looked upon as the warriors who contributed to Vytautas’ victory and therefore worthy of respect. The Tatar families which chose to be baptised were often known to designate Vytautas rule as the period, during which this crucial decision to convert was taken.

Instances can also be found when even a new personal name of the family was related to Vytautas. Thus, Vytautas’ prisoner of war, a courageous wounded warrior Kara–Mizra was given not only lands but a new name as well. Instead of Kara, (in Turkic language meaning black and having a negative connotation), he received the name of Bielak (the white). Vytautas was called by the Tartars “the White Khan,” highlighting his independence and might. At the beginning, Tatars would dedicate their Friday mosque prayers to Vytautas, later to the Polish Kings. As a ruler, Vytautas was exceptionally well-disposed towards Tatars; he was even attributed the powers to introduce changes in the fields usually regulated by religion. As the story narrated by Tatars goes, even polygamy was allowed to them by Vytautas, with the aim of increasing the number of loyal and trustworthy Tatars. The legend explaining the etymology of “a village of forty Tatars” is related to the story of their settling down in the lands donated by Vytautas; with one Tatar marrying four women and them giving birth to 40 sons.

The “Vatat Bij” of the Karaites

In their first address to the Sejm elected for four years, the Karaites of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth claimed the following: “We were brought to Lithuania by Vytautas, and to Poland by Władysław II Jagiełło. Ever since then, we have lived for several centuries in Lutsk, capital of Volhynia, and in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania we settled in Trakai, Panevėžys and Naujamiestis.” Later on, more numerous details of the Tatar legend were added to the story. In the 19th-beginning of the 20th century, when a new Karaim identity was developed, a more generic story was created about Vatat Bij (Karaim for “the foe vanquishing king”). There is no surviving testimony about the attitude of the Karaites of GDL toward Vytautas. However, frequent mention of his name as a noble rule helping them to settle down, as patron and intercessor for the Karaites, can be found in the Karaite verbal tradition, legends and fiction of later times. In these sources Vytautas emerges almost as a fairy-tale character. In the legend “About the Horse of the Grand Duke,” on the basis of which the Karaite poet Simonas Firkovičius wrote a poem in 1933, Vytautas even addresses the Karaites in their native tongue. Having taken over the legend created by Tatars about settling down in GDL, Karaites used one more element of the legend – namely, the image of Karaite warriors as bodyguards of the Trakai castles and the Grand Guke of Lithuania. Such imagery is not characteristic of Karaites living in other countries, because they are known to be related to crafts and trade.

During Karaite festivities or celebrations, the stories of Karaite warriors brought to Lithuania by Vytautas, serve as the basis for scenic pageants.

Do You Know?

In most cases, the action of Karaite narratives takes place in Trakai, regarded as a spiritual and cultural centre of the Karaite community. According to them, Trakai were founded by Vytautas with the aim of establishing a town specifically to be inhabited by Karaims, brought over from the Crimea. Exposed to ever declining Trakai castles, Karaites identified themselves with the guardians of the famous past in Trakai and Vytautas’ memory. An exceptional relationship with the ruler is also proven by the architectural solution found in the Karaite-inhabited part of Trakai. The part of their wooden houses facing the street has (and still has) three iconic windows – one for God, one for the ruler (meaning Grand Duke Vytautas) and one for the family.

Jurgita Šiaučiūnaitė-Verbickienė