Wilno in 16th Century


After it's Christianization in the 14th century, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania entered into a dynastic union with the Kingdom of Poland. This situation lasted until 1569 when, threatened with the extinction of the Jegellonian dynasty both countries signed the Lublin Treaty which concluded the final union of both countries. By the end of the 18th century, the federal Polish-Lithuanian Republic was slowly declining and was eventually partitioned between its great neighbours, Germany, Austria-Hungary and Tsarist Russia, the latter country took a major share of those united countries.

In the 16th century Lithuania was a multi-ethnic state with its capital Wilno(Vilnius), a city of approximatley 20,000 inhabitants, it was dominated by the steeples of numerous Catholic churches interspaced with the domes of the Orthodox churches, there were also the minarets of Mosques and the facades of Synagogues. It was a metropolis of a well-organised and well-administered state, ruled by a few noble families, the Radzwill's, Pac and Sapieha.

The official language of the Office of the Grand Duke was the old Slavonic language, which later was replaced by Polish which was the language of the Church and more increasingly the language of the Nobility and Gentry. However, any state rulers returning to Wilno(Vilnius) would be ceremoniously welcomed with Lithuanian hymns.

The Jews who had come to Lithuania at the invitation of the Grand Dukes, spoke their own language, which was Yiddish, and the Tartars prayed in their Mosques in Arabic. Wilno was a European Renaissance city with its gates open towards the East

Religious concord reigned in the capital and the whole country, stemming from the tradition of tolerance inherited from the pagan times when the Lithuanian dukes who were sent to rule over Slavonic cities would peacefully convert to Orthodox religion. Upon return home they would return to paganism. This traditional religious tolerance went hand in hand with an understanding of ethnic interests.

The Reformation movement reached the Grand Duchy of Lithuania soon after its emergence in Germany. In Lithuania, it was active for about a century and affected not only the views of the population, but also the economy and politics of the state. Even before the beginning of the Reformation, Lithuania had been familiar with the ideas of the Renaissance, and people there created secular literature, wrote historical chronicles and poetry, although not in Lithuanian. Christianity had had little impact on the population of Lithuania, particularly its lower stratum, which became an additional argument of Protestantism against the mostly Polish clergy engaged in the unsuccessful introduction of

As early as 1520, the Kingdom of Poland began to issue edicts prohibiting the circulation of Protestant writings and studies at Wittenberg University. In 1535 these edicts also became effective in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Rreligious struggle was conducted mostly in the form of discussions, at least around the middle of the century, continued rather peacefully.

The cultural upswing of Lithuania can be explained by active dialogue between different faiths, which lasted for several decades and stimulated various cultural projects of the debating or, rather, competing parties. The capital of the Grand Duchy became an important centre of Slavic and Jewish culture. It was here that Franciscus Skoryna, a Byelorussian with views similar to Protestantism, published his first books in 1522. Wilno(Vilnius) became a refuge for Ivan Fedorov, the famous Russian printer, who fled from Moscow after the mob incited by monastic scribes who feared competition had destroyed his printing shop. In a short time, Wilno(Vilnius) became the second Basel where printers competed with each other in printing books in different languages proclaiming conflicting beliefs.

Nevertheless, the Counter Reformation gained the upper hand in Lithuania at the end of the 16th century mainly because Poland was very much interested in maintaining Catholicism in this region and in strengthening the state union. To fight against the Reformation pro-Catholic forces invited the Jesuit Order to Lithuania. It immediately started to build a higher educational system as a counterbalance to Protestant schools, and founded a college that was promoted to the status of an academy in 1579. The success of the Counter Reformation can also be explained by the fact that in Lithuania the Reformation had affected mostly the higher stratum of society, so that much depended on the will of individual dignitaries. But even ousted from the state arena, the Protestants were able to survive on the land holdings of individual landowners. Pockets of such believers have survived to the present day.