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Belarus and Lithuania are neighboring countries joined by united medieval history. Since its inception in the 13th century, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania expanded to Slavic lands absorbing entire modern-day Belarus and ruling it until the Grand Duchy's demise in 1795.

Lithuanian nobility families (with powers higher than those of the King) had manors and palaces both in modern-day Lithuania and Belarus. Belarus also had a fair share of castles that defended the Grand Duchy from Teutonic, Mongol, Rusian and Swedish invasions. The majority of such magnificent buildings are located near the Lithuania's capital city Vilnius. Vilnius is located merely 30 km from Lithuanian-Belarusian boundary meaning that much of Grand Duchy heritage is left "on the other side". Some of these 14th-18th-century buildings are completely rebuilt while others remain as romantic ruins.

Most famous among them are the Mir (Myras) castle and Nesvizh (Nesvyžius) Palace, both rebuilt and recognized as World Heritage by UNESCO.

Nesvyžius (Nesvizh) palace from the outside. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Ruzhany (Ružanai) Palace and Lida (Lyda) Castle are undergoing renovations. Atmospheric ruins at Golshiany (Alšėnai) still evoke memories of distant past while Kreva (Krėva) and Navahrudak (Naugardukas) defensive castles are ruined more. In Hrodna (Gardinas) two castles have been repurposed by Soviets and even used as workshops.

A multitude of old small Catholic and Orthodox churches and monasteries of the region also dates to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania era. They are Gothic or Baroque (the local form of Baroque is known as Vilnius Baroque and even the Cathedral of Belarusian capital Minsk is an example of this style). Orthodox churches here are similar in style to Catholic ones without the iconic domes.

Prior to the 19th century the areas where most Lithuanian castles and palaces stand had a Lithuanian-speaking peasant majority. However, this did not survive the onslaughts of Russian Imperial and Soviet russification. Currently, only some villages remain Lithuanian. The linguistic switch did not erode some other distinctive cultural traits: the borderland remains Catholic-majority (other Belarusians are largely Orthodox).

Map of Lithuanian castles in Belarus and southeastern Lithuania. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

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  1. Pan:

    Judging by your splendid Map of Castles above, the discerning eye cannot help but notice that the center of gravity of Litva’s majestic castles is in Belarus; somewhere in Navahradak, a capital of the old GDL that was established by Mindaug in its nascent days. This leads one to conclude that the “center”of the old GDL must have been in Belarus. Furthermore, one will also notice that the number of castles in Belarus outnumber those in Lietuva, not Litva, by 3 to 1, closely approximating the ratio of the White Ruthenian population to that of Lietuva’s population in the old GDL.

    The fallacious, and unproven claim, that Prior to the 19th century the areas where most Lithuanain castles and palaces stand had a Lithuanian-speaking peasant majority is truly a canard, because any Baltic indigenous peoples in the areas assimilated with the Slavs a millennium earlier. It is noteworthy that the huge impact of the Polish language was not mentioned as a factor in the assimilation of Lithuanian speakers. I wonder why?


    • Hello,

      1.The claim that Navahrudak/Naugardukas was the first capital of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (GDL) is based on Stryjkowski chronicle alone. Other sources claim that the capitals were moved this way: Voruta>Kernavė>Trakai>Vilnius. The location of Voruta (Mindaugas’s capital) is unknown. There are theories that it was in Vilnius or in Anykščiai, and another theory that there was not single capital at this time and that Mindaugas relied on “travelling court” mode of rule whereby he would move with his entourage accross his country’s lands where every local noble would be compelled to accept him and fund his entourage during his prolonged stay there (Voruta was in that case just one of his stops).

      2.The claim that Belarusians (White Ruthenians) outnumbered Lithuanians in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania 3-to-1 is incorrect. It is true that at one time Slavs outnumbered Lithuanians in the Grand Duchy 2-to-1 or 3-to-1 (under Vytautas the Great rule when GDL was at its highest territorial extent), but in fact a larger number of these Slavs were from modern-day Ukraine where the population density was bigger than from modern-day Belarus, also there were Poles and Russians. After GDL had lost the Ukraine, Podlasie and Smolensk areas GDL had an ethnic Lithuanian plurality, even though area-wise more of its lands had a Slavic majority than a Lithuanian majority; this was due to the fact that the ethnically Lithuanian lands were 2,5 times more densely populated. Research on the GDL population that I use here have been done by M. Balynski, K. Pakštas, among others.

      3.It should be noted that in various historical sources “Lithuanian” may mean anybody from the GDL, regardless of ethnicity (in the same way that “German” or “French” may mean both ethnicity and nationality today). In this comment and website I use the ethnicity, rather than nationality meanings for “Lithuanian” and “Belarusian”. GDL was ruled by ethnic Lithuanian rulers from Lithuanian lands; at that time religion was the most important identifier and while ethnic Lithuanians were pagan so were (in general) the Grand Dukes, then the Grand Dukes and the rest of ethnic Lithuanians converted to Catholicism (even though most o fpopulation in modern-day Belarus always were Orthodox Slavs). Throughout the history of GDL ethnic Lithuanian culture was thought of as the representative of the GDL: e.g. Lithaunia was not regarded by other Europeans as Christian while ethnic Lithuanians (and thus the Grand Dukes) were pagan, even though at the time the plurality of GDL population *were* Christians (Orthodox). After ethnic Lithuanians became Catholics a few rights were limited to Catholics alone and not to the Orthodox, showing their position as titular group. Of course, the nobility of GDL never did have a concept of ethnic purity, in fact it was vice-versa: Lithuanian and Slavic nobles intermarried quite often, their family (and offspring) adopting the culture of the particular land where they would live.

      4.You are correct that much of the eastern Baltic territories became Slavicised before GDL was established, however this was a very long process that did not cease forever after GDL was established. In 200 AD nearly all the modern-day Belarus was ethnically Baltic. By 1200 AD (and later) however most of it was Slavic, but the northwest (where many of the castles are located) were still Baltic (and these Baltic areas were then consolidated into a single Lithuanian ethnicity). I made the map present in this article (click here) of the reduction of Baltic area in different periods – based on various sources. The historical langauge areas may be deducted through various means, among them the prevalence of various word features in the placenames and hydronims. It is, for example, known that hydronims retain their names longer than settlement names, giving the possibility to date linguistic shift in various regions separately.

      5.Polonization (in both Belarus and Lithuania) dates mostly to the post-Union of Lublin era and at that time indeed some formerly Lithuanian and Belarusian speaking areas became Polish speaking (southeast Lithuania, northwest Belarus). It is mentioned in various other places of this website and the sister website, e.g. the articles on < a href=>Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Poles of Lithuania

  2. Not sure what’s the purpose of this article, as far as I can see it is just a reminder of the shared common and noble history between what now is called Lithuania and Belarus. However, applying these names retroactively would be a grave mistake. The article itself has some inaccuracies e.g. in referring to the original Slavic population of the GDL as White Ruthenians or claiming that “Prior to the 19th century the areas where most Lithuanian castles and palaces stand had a Lithuanian-speaking peasant majority”. Such claims unfortunately do not serve scientific but political purpose only… Historically, the Ruthenia’s land where GDL really took roots is called Black Ruthenia with Naugardukas being the capital thus it is a mistake to call them White Ruthenians. Then, majority of peasantry spoke the same language as nobility and this is the language Lithuanian Metrica was written in – precisely Ruthenian language. Some scholars claim it to be what is now called Belarus language as there are significant commonalities between the two. To better understand the languages delineation, it will be necessary to take into consideration the fact that Aukštaitija has been considered the nucleus of GDL and indeed the nobility spoke Lithuanian (but there was no such thing as written Lithuanian which was introduced about half a millennium later, all the official docs of GDL were written either in Ruthenian or Latin). Another big influential factor is Žemaitija which has its own unique dialect/language different from Lithuanian and its own unique distinctive history (these folks have different ethnicity and their presence next to Lithuania is quite a mystery). Žemaitija did not play any role in GDL until after the Battle of Žalgiris though. Hence, Aukštaitija (Lithuanian nobility) and Black Ruthenia (Naugardukas as the center of new emerging GDL power) were the 2 main ingredients for the birth of European superpower called the GDL. Add to this the fact than Naugardukas was the only Lithuanian city in history of GDL to host Church Metropolis (it was moved there from Kiev and then went to Moscow) and you get the picture. At the time there were no cities in Aukštaitija with significance and power than the capital of Black Ruthenia Naugardukas thus Mindougas selected it to be his residence/capital. Great move indeed.
    Lastly, early Great Dikes often switch branches of Christianity (even religion) going back and forth from Orthodoxy to Catholicism to back being pagans again depending on strategic interests and the balance of power. Thus, claiming them as Catholics would be highly misrepresentative. E.g. many Dukes remained purely Orthodox and what tipped the balance to Catholicism was integration with Poland. I did not intentionally provide dates to these historical facts in hopes an interesting party would investigate and see the history can’t be painted with very wide brush. Remember, the Greatest Polish poet of all times, who was born in Naugardukas, considered himself a “Litwin” and wrote “Litwa, my homeland…”. He wrote in Polish and was an ethnic Litwin as the artificial name “Belarussian” (introduced by Russian Empire) was not known at the time. The Great Duchy of Lithuania is much greater than a single language or specific geographical border; scholars who are trying to shoe-horn GDL into current Lithuanian boundary or national tradition are not serving scientific purpose. I almost feel an animosity reading many amateurs postings and blogs wrt GDl history (incl. those from Tomas Baranauskas). The biggest problem is they are faking history interpreting events based on their political and ethnical allegiance not following the true spirit of science. Which renders most discussions just moot.

    • Thanks for your comment,

      The fact that northwestern Belarus spoke Lithuanian is based on linguistic research. The spoken language in a territory at a given point in history can be determined the placenames and hydronyms there. It may be calculated what percentage of placenames and hydronyms in a given area are attributable to which language. Given the typical rate of change of such hydronyms and placenames, it can be calculated what was the linguistic composition in the area in the past. As most of the placenames and hydronyms are given by the locals rather than the “leaders” (e.g. villages are often named after the surnames of people living there), such calculation is good in attesting the prevailing languages among the local peasantry.

      Additionally, the fact that what is now the northwestern Belarus was much more Lithuanian-speaking than it is now may be seen from the censae, which began in the 19th century. Of course, by this time already the Lithuanian majorities were lost in many areas, but still, they existed in many towns and villages of modern-day Belarus, where they further eroded during the 20th century.

      Your claim that the “majority of peasantry [of the area] spoke the same language as nobility and this is the language Lithuanian Metrica was written in – precisely Ruthenian language” is unsubstantiated by proofs. In the Medieval era, the “spoken language” and “written language” did not coincide. This was the situation not only in the Eastern Europe but all over Europe, where Latin prevailed as written language whereas local tongues prevailed as spoken languages. A claim that the majority of GDL population (or “core-GDL” population) must have spoken the same language as was used by GDL scribes is, on itself, as unsubstantiated as a claim that the majority of Western European population must have still spoken Latin (if such claim would have been based on the fact it was the language used by its scribes and monks).

      It should be noted that at that era only a small minority of population knew how to write/read. Learning to read/write typically also included learning a “written language”, which was not the same as the spoken language. The “written language” was typically slow to change as it was isolated from the “uneducated majority”; it was also easily exported together with books/education/religion (often one and the same back then), making such “written languages” as Old Church Slavonic, Hebrew, Greek and Latin to be used by scribes well beyond the territories where they were ever natively spoken.

      The similarities between the Slavic language used by the GDL scribes and modern-day Belarusian should not be overestimated. Indeed, they have more similarities than the language of GDL scribes had with modern-day Lithuanian, as the language of the GDL scribes was Slavic. However, just as with most Medieval written languages, it is likely to have been considerably different from the language spoken even by the Slavic population of the GDL (e.g. in the modern-day Minsk area). Similarly, it cannot be claimed that by the 12th century France, Spain, Romania or Italy still spoke Latin, even though they have undoubtedly spoken languages more similar to Latin than, say, the German language was.

      As for the dukes shifting languages and religions, you are correct to some extent. However, the dukes who did it were mainly the ones who were sent to rule some particular territory and then adopt a local religion. Typically, the lower-ranking dukes sent to rule Orthodox lands would adopt Orthodoxy. As for the Grand Dukes (i.e. overall rulers), the general trend was that they were Pagans until Jogaila and Catholics after that. There indeed were politically-motivated exceptions, such as Mindaugas becoming a Catholic king and some disputed accounts of Orthodox conversions, but those were just that – exceptions.

      It should be noted that while the Pagan (and then Catholic) proto-Lithuanians ruled the GDL, there was no widespread persecution of other faiths or a state-religion as such concept was understood back then. There were some subtle differences in positions, with some limitations on the people of “other faiths”, but, compared to Western Europe, religious tolerance prevailed. Therefore, such religious minority institutions as the (Orthodox) Church Metropolis or key monasteries could have worked or have been funded by nobility (even the by the nobles that followed different denominations themselves), however, this is little indication of “political capital”. The location of Mindaugas’s political capital is not known for sure, it is argued by many historians that there was no capital at all at the time, with Mindaugas using the system of “traveling capital” whereas he would have traveled with his entourage from one noble to another (likely both those in Lithuanian-speaking and Slavic-speaking areas), living at their expense while there.

      It is also correct that the modern ethnic boundaries were not seen as such back in the Medieval era. However, the boundaries such as religious and linguistic ones were well understood even back then. Essentially, the modern ethnic boundaries were constructed ~19th century based on these earlier religious and linguistic boundaries. That is, the boundary between what were in Mindaugas-Gediminas times the “Baltic-speaking GDL Pagans” and “Slavic-speaking GDL Orthodoxes” eventually evolved into the boundary between Lithuanian and Belarusian self-identified nations (according to this definition, Samogitians were thus also subsumed into the Lithuanian self-identification).

      Back in the Medieval era, however, as you correctly note, the term “Lithuanian” had a different (broader) meaning, whereas the term “Belarusian” did not exist at all. I do not see a problem, however, with using the terms in their modern sense retroactively as that makes the comparisons easier. Many terms that have been established in the recent two centuries by the community of sciences/humanities are also being widely used retroactively, including the names of the ethnic, linguistic, religious groups, etc. For example, Greeks typically called themselves Romans until the 19th century and the Byzantine Empire called itself the Roman Empire throughout its existence, yet it is much more convenient for historians to use the terms “Greeks” and “Byzantine Empire” in the current history research on the Medieval era.

      If somebody would claim that “Back in Mindaugas times, Lithuanian peasants considered them to be a separate nation from Belarusian peasants”, this would be an unscientific claim. However, such claim is not made here. The fact that back in Mindaugas times (proto-)Lithuanian and (proto-)Belarusian peasants followed a different religion and spoke a different language, is, however, well-established, as is the drift of the approximate boundary between these two groups.

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