Wood and salt: trade in the 15th–the first half of the 16th century - Orbis Lituaniae

Wood and salt: trade in the 15th–the first half of the 16th century

Merchancts of Vilnius offered luxurious silks and spices

After the baptism of Lithuania, the trade situation changed rapidly in the country. It is true, features of the epoch of the Grand Dukes still remained characteristic of it for some time.

Even at the beginning of the 16th century, the Grand Duke of Lithuania was not only the largest customer and consumer of luxury goods but also their distributor who gave out furs, fabrics, salt and other goods from the breadbaskets of his estates, stockrooms and treasuries to the courtiers and other merited people. Such customs interfered with the formation of trading (market) relations. However, the time of the “generous” rulers gradually came to an end, and the economic activity of the rulers was ever more often smothered by independent merchants.

For example, at the beginning of 1532, Sigismund the Old announced in one of his official decree to all the residents of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania that the resident of Vilnius would fulfil the duties of the Ruler’s merchant, would negotiate with other merchants over the goods necessary to the Ruler’s Treasury and would carry out operations at his own expense. 

By the 16th century the nobility had become engaged in the relations of a similar nature too. The joiner of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania Stanislovas Kęsgaila who died in 1554 left plenty of debts among which were the debts to the Jews for the fabrics, silk and other goods taken “since the young days”. 

Between the 15th and the 16th centuries trade relations developed rapidly in the cities and small towns. For example, in 1538, Vilnius Bishop Povilas Alšėniškis, ”when getting ready for his trip to Pinsk, provided himself with the goods, which he most likely would not be able to get elsewhere: nutmeg, saffron, ginger, almonds, cloves, cinnamon, cumin, rice, sultanas, sugar, and wine. By the way, when the Bishop resided in Vilnius, his servants bought bread of different kinds, fish, herring, peas, mushrooms and vegetables in the city markets and shops almost every day. Hence, the supply of goods was abundant in larger cities. Of course, markets of small Lithuanian towns could not offer such abundance of goods but they could have hardly sold only corn, meat and fish. The register of the income of the market of the town of Pasvalys of 1555 that has survived leaves no doubt that even in a distant Lithuanian town trade was carried out regularly (once a week).

International commodity exchange: wood for salt

Profitable international trade was conducted by the following cities located near the large rivers suitable for navigation (the Nemunas, the Bugas, the Dauguva) and their tributaries: Vilnius, Kaunas, Brasta, Polotsk. From the beginning of the 15th century all these cities were growing rapidly outrivaling the cities of the Dnepr river basin (in the present territory of Ukraine), which prevailed in trade at that time. Though trade with southern and eastern countries further remained of great significance, in its intensity it gave way to trade of the North Western region.

Salt was the commodity that was most often brought to Lithuania from the West.

The amounts of imported fabrics (woollen felt cloth and even silk), as well as herring that was an inseparable part of the diet of Lithuanian Christians, were large. In 1473 alone, more than 3 600 tons of salt, about 10 tons of herring and more than 30 rolls of fabric were brought to Lithuania from Gdansk by the Nemunas River. From the 15th to the middle of the 16th century the commodities that were most often exported from the Grand Duchy of Lithuania were wood products.

In 1473 merchants floated about 800 hundreds pieces of wooden half-finished products, 20 wood stems for vessel masts, more than 650 tons of ashes and other products from Lithuania to Gdansk by the Nemunas River.

The establishment of Hansa merchants’ office in Kaunas, the Union of North German towns – Hansa in which merchants of Gdansk prevailed, shows a systematic nature of international trade of this type. Though relations between the merchants of Lithuania and Gdansk varied during the period between the second half of the 15th– the first half of the 16th centuries, it was the merchants of Gdansk who became main partners to Lithuanian Rulers and private merchants. The merchants of Gdansk often lent money to the Rulers and received the right to rent forest in return. Therefore it is not surprising that in the first half of the 16th century they organised large-scale production of wood half-products in the woods on the banks of the Nemunas River (in present-day Suvalkija). 

The so-called cabins (Ger. Bude) where timber processed in different ways was produced (called by German names: wagenszocy, klepka and others), ashes and charcoal were burned, resin was boiled and potash was made (to fertilise the soil) were created there. It seems that the majority of production technologies of these products were brought to Lithuania by the people of Gdansk. 

Beginning with the 16th century, apart from the Ruler and the town merchants, not only the nobility but also low nobility became involved in international trade. This is testified to by the 1527 report prepared by the Ruler’s officials about the cabins of the noblemen in the lands along the left bank (Užnemunė) of the Middle Nemunas or by the news that reached Vitebsk in 1537 that the vessels of the local Voivod carrying goods were held up near Jurbarkas.

The revival of trade and cheeky smugglers

The revival of international trade made the authorities create ways of controlling trade and taxation: to establish customs houses, to control the conditions of transactions, to determine the routes of movement of goods. This provoked counter-measures of the individuals who engaged in trade – smuggling. 

In 1554, the Ruler was informed that on the border of Samogitia and Prussia trade was conducted evading customs houses. Customs officials from Kaunas were sent to Samogitia to elucidate the situation and later they told the following: “… When going from Rietavas forward they sent their carts with several officials. And those officials ran into fifty carts that belonged to the Tivun Stanislovas Šiukšta of Medingėnai in Samogitia, and these carts carried 100 barrels of salt. When the customs officials reported on that, the customs house sent its other customs officials to make clear what was going on there.. and wanted to confiscate the salt.

[But] as Šiukšta’s merchants (!) had their own officials they did not allow the salt to be taken away from them and beat and injured the customs officials, kind and noble men, and one kind noble man was beaten to death…”

The customs officials said that Šiukšta’s merchants were carrying corn to be sold in Prussia. The end of this story is interesting. The individuals who conducted illegal trade were taken to court and tried but they were not punished because the Elder of Samogitia interceded for them.

At the same time this case shows the extent to which international trade in corn of the Lithuanian noblemen increased until the middle of the 16th century, which they grew in their estates. The map of the North and Baltic Sea regions compiled by Olus Magnus and published in Venice in 1539 devoted great attention to vessels. Lithuania is marked in the bottom right-hand corner of the map in whose territory near the Nemunas River three variants of the vessel of the same type are drawn on the banks of the Nemunas River (smaller, larger and large covered boats). They are called NAVES FRUME(N)TARIE – boats for corn on the map. These are ancient freighters called “vytinės” in the writings of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania of that time. Hence, in the middle of the 16th century, an ever greater significance was attached to trade in corn in international trade of Lithuania. It is not surprising that as far back as 1559 the noblemen and persons belonging to the gentry managed to obtain the right from the Ruler to export corn grown in their estates abroad without paying any customs duties.

Literature: Kiaupa Z., Kauno istorija, t. 1, Vilnius, 2010.

Eugenijus Saviščevas