home    archive    search    downloads    subscription    contacts

Belarusian Review

News Briefs > Culture & Society

Belarusians in the Battle of Grunwald

The role of Belarusians in the Battle of Grunwald

The Battle of Grunwald  (Tannenberg, or Dubrovna)  was one of the largest battles of Medieval Europe. It took place during the war between the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Teutonic Order. The alliance of Kingdom of Poland led by King Jagailo and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (GDL) led by Grand Duke Vitovt decisively defeated the Teutonic Knights, led by Grand Master Ulrich von Jungingen. The military units from the regions of what is now Belarus took an active part in that battle, the fact that foreign historians tend to overlook due to the confusion in varying  terminology describing medieval  Belarusians.

July 15 is being marked this year in Belarus, Lithuania and Poland  as the 600th anniversary of this epochal  event.   In this conjunction, we will focus here  on one question:: What was the role of Belarusians’ ancestors in this battle? Before answering this question, we will first review the role of  the Belarusians in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (GDL).

The issue of Belarusians’ relationship to the titular nation of the GDL
For a long time, Soviet authorities not only concealed the fact that Belarusians’ ancestors comprised the majority of the GDL army in the Battle of Grunwald, but would not even mention the presence of Belarusians on the battleground, preferring rather to speak of ”Lithuanian” warlords and combat units — in the established sense of ”ethnic Baltic Lithuanians.” Fortunately, today’s Belarusian society is generally aware of the fact that squadrons from 25 Belarusian towns were the striking power of the GDL army in the Battle of Grunwald. However, contemporary western historians in a sense continue the Soviet tradition by regarding Belarusians as some kind of unformed mass in the Ruthenian ”bouillon.” The essential cause of this problem is due to the fact that during the GDL period there were no people calling themselves ”Belarusians,” because the term ”Belarus” was first imposed on our country by the Russian empire in the 19th century.

World’s history often records cases when the name of a territory , such as Macedonia or Prussia, shifts from one ethnic group to another. Similar fate met the term Lithuania (Litva), which in today’s academic world is identified exclusively with the present-day ethnically Baltic Lietuva. Yet a simple analysis of the political and cultural legacy of the GDL reveals that the names Lithuania and Lithuanians (Litva and Litviny in the original) in the historical arena referred precisely to ancestors of Belarusians, and not to some mysterious pagan ethnic Baltic ”kunigaik¹čiai” ( i.e. dukes) — unknown to any historical sources.

An example of this notion of Lithuania may be found in testimony by Grand Duke Jagailo, who in his official deed of February 20, 1387 stated that ” the ancient tradition of chasing the enemy out of our Lithuanian land (terrae nostrae Lithuanicae) in the folk language ( vulgo dicitur) is called ”pogonia” (”pahonia” means pursuit in Belarusian).(2) ”Pogonia” was also the name of the ancient coat-of-arms of the GDL, used on a seal by Polock duke Hleb-Narymont in 1388. And Jagailo testified that the general pursuit of the enemy was a military tradion of the Lithuanian nation, while referring to this custom in Belarusian.

Another example is duke Ivan Baba, of Druck dukes (Eastern Belarus), who joined the Muscovite army in 1432. The chronicles stated that Ivan Baba equipped his new pikeman squadron according to the ”Lithuanian” style (”po litovski”). This indicates that the Belarusian military tradition of that period bore no other name but ”Lithuanian.”

As a matter of fact , so far no one in today’s academic world has been able to rationally define where in the historical GDL nation, the Litvins, lies the boundary between ethnic Belarusians and the ”ethnic Balts-Lietuviai.” This is why the typically Soviet trick of dividing the historical Lithuanian parliament ( Pany-Rada — its name is also in Belarusian) by ethnicity into ”Belarusians” and ”Lithuanians” appears simply unreasonable ; as does the imaginary division of the GDL army into ”Belarusians” and ”Lithuanians,” which has been a long-time puzzle for Belarusians themselves. While families such as Zaberezinski, Ilinicz and Hrebtovicz were regarded as ”Belarusians,” Sakovicz, Svirski and Holszanski were considered (according to the Soviet tradition) ”Lithuanians” (read : ”Lietuviai”). The best example of the unscientific nature of dividing a single Slavic nation Litvins may be a statement found in a Soviet encyclopedia by the publisher Vadzim Dzieruzhynski, that the Polock duke Andrey Olgerdovicz was a ”Belarusian,” while duke Jagailo was a ”Lithuanian.” Thus, in an attempt to corroborate the ideologically ”correct” history of Belarusians, the Soviet ideology combined with Lithuanian mythogenesis made two sons of one father members of different ethnic groups.

One should observe another flaw of the Lithuanian historical school — the ultra-baltism, expressed by seeing all noble clans of Baltic origin — such as Radzivils, Kiezhailos etc. — as a core of the allegedly ”ethnic Baltic nation,” which should have supposedly born the name of ”Lietuviai” in those times. There is no need to say that the mentioned barons were never known as ”Lietuviai” in any historical sources, but were a part of the whole nation of Litvins (Litviny), which was Slavic-speaking, as stated by the Lithuanian Statutes of 1529, 1566 and 1588. First of all, one should not ignore the role of Yotvingians and Prussians in the ethnogenesis of the Belarusian nation, nor the fact that not all Balts evolved into today’s ”Lietuviai.” Secondly the mentioned barons of Baltic descent were undoubtedly bearers of Slavic language and culture, and were an integral part of the Litvins’ nation. This was clearly shown by the Belarusian historian Paul Urban on the basis of a number of Latin-language deeds written by members of Radzivil, Kiezhailo, Hiedyhold, Monivid and other families, in the 15th century. The translated texts of these documents often contain transliterated Slavic words and even whole phrases from the original speech — not only legal terms but vernacular phrases as well, that are completely comprehensible to today’s Belarusians.(6) The presence of these phrases shows that the original oral texts of the deeds were dictated undoubtedly in the Old Belarusian language. One should add here, that during the existence of the GDL no examples of the present-day Lithuanian language (Lietuviu kalba) have been found, neither in government documents nor in the private correspondence of the country’s political elite. This is because the only ”Lithuanian” language in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was the language of the GDL’s historical nation , Litvins, and it was the contemporary Belarusian vernacular, which may be illustrated by a multitude of examples, beginning with the first recording of the ”Lithuanian” (lithuanice) language in historical sources — from the lips of duke Keystut in 1351.(7) While summarizing the relationship of Belarusians’ ancestors to the titular nation of the GDL, it is necessary to to take into account the religious factor, undoubtedly dominant in Middle Ages. Today’s historical science fairly frequently refers to ”Pagan Lithuanians” ( i.e. Lietuviai in the context). Some contemporary western researchers, like S.C. Rowell, in their works, published in Cambridge, attempt to describe the early GDL as a kind of ”pagan empire in Central and Eastern Europe.” However, it is difficult to associate the Lithuanians of that time with ”paganism, ” especially taking into account the fact that a separate Lithuanian metropoly existed in the GDL since 1317 (8) (according to the byzantist H. Geltzer — since 1300) that united the episcopates of Novhorodok, Polock and Turov (exactly the entire territory of today’s Belarus). The metropolitan referred to himself as the ”Metropolitan of Lithuania” in his correspondence.(9) One should emphasize that establishing a separate metropoly in a given state was possible only on initiative of its ruler, in case of the GDL — of the Grand Duke. Then we shall attribute the establishment of the metropoly to Grand Duke Viten, who, by the way, was referred to as ”my son” by Polock bishop Yakov in his deed of 1297. (10) In 1331 Grand Duke Gedymin proposed to the Moscow metropolitan his candidate Arseny for the position of the bishop of Pskov. (11) In 1342 Grand Duke Olgerd, founder of two churches in Vitebsk, assured the inhabitants of Pskov that he was a baptized Christian. Olgerd also extended the jurisdiction of the Lithuanian metropoly to almost half the teritory of Kievan Rus’. Due to his efforts the Lithuanian metropolitan became Metropolitan of Lithuania, Kiev and entire Rus’ in 1378. Regarding the Battle of Grunwald itself, we shall note, that, according to the annalist, the ”whole Lithuanian army” was fighting on the battlefield under a banner with the image of St. George (Yury).

In light of the above facts, one may conclude that it is necessary to:
• Fundamentally reevaluate the religious identity of the GDL’s leading elite, and revisit the nature of their ”paganism.”
•Thoroughly research the history of Christianity on Belarusian territories in the early GDL period.
• Reevaluate the view of the titular nation of the GDL , now existing in today’s academic community, as well as to reconsider the contribution of Belarusians’ ancestors to this titular nation.

Thus, on basis of the above described facts we shall speak of the overall domination of Belarusians’ ancestors in the political and cultural life of GDL; they constituted the GDL’s titular nation of Litvins, a nation with a Slavic language and Christian traditions. This threshold leads us directly to understanding the GDL’s participation in the battle of Grunwald, where its army’s striking power consisted of squadrons from 25 Belarusian towns.

Grunwald: national myths in the context of historical facts
Modern Lithuanian historiography treats the Battle of Grunwald as a victory of the ”Lithuanian nation” (i.e. ”lietuvių tauta” in the context). ” When asked, for example, about the command language of GDL’s army in the Grunwald battle, the average Lithuanian will immediately reply that it was Lithuanian (Lietuvių kalba). Such a reply indicates the extent to which national myths prevail in today’s Lithuanian society. However, historical facts will hardly confirm such an opinion.

Let us recall the fact that Grand Duke Jagailo himself named the Lithuanian military tradition of general pursuit in the Slavic language. It is also unlikely that, for example, commanders of the Miensk squadron Yury Michailovicz, of the Mohilev squadron Andrey Volodzimerovicz, or of the Luck squadron Fiodor Ostrozhski , were able to speak the Baltic language now known as Lithuanian. The simple analysis of the composition of the GDL’s army shows that its majority was not , and could not have been, in command of this Baltic language. In the reality of the times, the possible use of bi-lingual commands also should be excluded. Considering the lack of time for making important decisions in wartime conditions, one may arrive at a generally logical conclusion that military commands were issued only in one language . From the practical point of view, it could not have been the Baltic language known as Lithuanian today. On the other hand, all historical facts speak in favor of Belarusian. For instance, duke Keystut in 1351 commanded the Lithuanian army in the Belarusian language. In a Latin -language source it was referred to as Litvanian ( lithwanice). Keystut’s call in Belarusian ”The ox is our discords. God is with us!” was not only correctly transliterated by the witness (”rogachina rozne nachy gospanany” — which is clearly the aforementioned phrase in Belarusian) , but also correctly translated into Latin (”cornutum ...iuramentum per nos ...Deus ad nos), thus corroborating the case. The phrase was recorded on pages of annals with remarks that duke’s words were expressed in the Lithuanian (lithwanice) language and relayed by his Litvin (Lithwani) warriors. It is clear that those warriors from Berestie, Dorohichyn, Horodno and Troki, as well as the duke himself, were speaking in a Slavic language.(14) Therefore, having evaluated the above facts one could hardly err by stating that on the Grunwald battlefield commands to the Lithuanian army were issued in the same Lithuanian language of Jagailo, in which he called Pogonia the ouster of the enemy from ”our Lithuanian land” — that is, in the Old Belarusian ”Lithuanian” language. Another argument in favor of the Old Belarusian language, is that annals do not record any examples of Baltic phrases by Jagailo or Vitovt, while containing many examples of spoken Old Belarusian. The Grand Duke Jagailo himself called this language the language of the Lithuanian people, as did the first Vilnia catholic bishop Andrey Vasila in 1398.

Nevertheless, the current Lithuanian historiography considers the Grunwald victory their achievement. It is very difficult to evaluate the role that today’s Lithuanians assign to Belarusians since the Lithuanian and as a result western, historiography regards Belarusians of that time as an undefined mass of Ruthenians. One example of this view may be the classicist of the contemporary Lithuanian historical school — Edvardas Gudavičius, who in his thorough ”History of Lithuania” has not even managed to list the GDL squadrons and banners that participated in the Battle of Grunwald. Thus, the Lithuanian reader has not been able to learn which allegedly ”Lietuvių” squadrons successfully defended the freedom of the ”Lietuviai nation” in 1410. It is difficult to learn the basis for such an approach by the nation that now bears a proud name of Lithuanians. However, the very presence of this approach testifies to at least two existing conditions.things. First of all, with the Lithuanian historical science retaining its present positions, it isn’t appropriate to speak about the perspectives of creating a consolidated Belarusian-Lithuanian version of history, based on historical facts. Secondly, such an attitude on the Lithuanian side does not at all favor an objective study of the political and cultural aspects of the GDL’s legacy.

Indeed, at that time the present-day Lithuanians’ ethnic territory of Samogitia (14) was occupied by the Teutonic Order, was written off by the Lithuanian Grand Duke, and did not take part in the events. Therefore, today’s vision of the Lithuanian science concerning the Battle of Grunwald may not be regarded as being based on historical facts. In words of the cited historian Gudavičius, it represents ”the policy of paupers.” Thus, a brief analysis of the Grunwald battle, as well as that of politics and culture of the contemporary GDL, points to the need for a thorough reevaluation of the view of the titular nation of the GDL now existing in today’s academic community.

It seems that the creation of a consolidated version of history , based on historical facts and not on national myth, would help to establish real cooperation between scholars of Belarus and Lithuania, as well as to contribute to the world’s understanding of who Belarusians really are. From the perspective of the future, it may positively influence the effectiveness of western countries’ ”Belarusian” political vector.

Six hundred years have passed since the Battle of Grunwald, which for many centuries defined the fate of not only Belarusian lands, but of all Europe. The best lesson for us from that time will be to honor the holy memory of our ancestors, who fought and died for the freedom of their country — the Grand Duchy of Lithuania — in the Battle of Grunwald in the year 1410.

Below is a list of all the banners (squadrons) of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, that took part in the battle.

1. Squadrons from the 25 towns located on the present territory of Belarus :
Horodno (commander — Michail Monivid)
Mohilev (commander — Michail Monivid)
Miensk, Zaslavl — one banner , (commander — Yury Michailovicz
Novhorodok (commander — Zhyhimont Keystutovicz)
Niesvizh ( commander — Siemion Niesvizhski)
Polock (commander — Ivan Niemira)
Sluck (commander — Alexander Volodzimerovicz

2. Other squadrons:
The Horde (commander — prince Dzhelaladin)
Volodymer - Volynski
Vilnia — two squadrons, (commanders — Voicech Monivid, Piotr Gasztovt).
Kiev (commander — Ivan Holszanski)
Luck (commander — Fiodor Ostrozhski)
Podolia — 3 squadrons
Troki — 2 banners (commanders — Yaunis, Hinvil)

Note: Personal and geographic names in this article have been transliterated in a way, that would preserve the phonetic rules of the Old Belarusian language.

Kiry³ Ka¶cian, L.L. M. Eur. is a Belarusian researcher of European Law, currently pursuing his PhD degree at the University of Bremen (Germany)
Alaksiej Dajlidaŭ - graduated from the Minsk Institute of Foreign Languages with a bachelor’s degree in Linguistics.

1. Друцкае княства і князі Друцкія / Друцк старажытны: Да 1000-годдзя ўзнікнення горада. – Мінск, 2000. с. 49-76; ПСРЛ. т. 12. М., 1965. с. 22; ПСРЛ. т. 25. М.; Л., 1949. с. 252.
2. Прывілей 1387 г. / Пер. з лац. А. Ліцкевіч // Вялікае княства Літоўскае. Энцыклапедыя. т. 3. Дадатак: А-Я. Мн., 2010. с. 426-427.
3. Довгялло Д. Битва при Грюнвальде 15 июля 1410 г. Вильна, 1909. с. 21.
4. Rowell S. C. Lithuania Ascending: a Pagan Empire within East-Central Europe, 1295-1345. — Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
5. Урбан П. Старажытныя ліцьвіны: мова, паходжаньне, этнічная прыналежнасьць. – Мн.: Тэхналогія, 2001. с. 113.
6. Ibidem, p. 40-46.
7. А. Латышонак. Нацыянальнасьць - Беларус. Вільня, Інстытут беларусістыкі, 2009. с. 86.
8. Gelzer H. Ungedruckte und ungenugend veroffentlichte Texte der Notitiae Episcopatuum, ein Beitrag zur byzantinischen Kirchen - und Verwaltungsgeschichte. // Abhandlungen der philologische-philosophischen Klasse der Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Munchen, XII. Munchen, 1901; Павлов А.С. О начале Галицкой и Литовской митрополий и о первых тамошних митрополитах по византийским документальным источникам ХIV в. // Русское обозрение. 1894. кн. 5 (май). с. 236-241.
9. Памятники древнерусского канонического права / Русская историческая библиотека, т. 6, СПб., 1880. стб. 92-94; Павлов А.С. О начале Галицкой и Литовской митрополий и о первых тамошних митрополитах по византийским документальным источникам ХIV в. // Русское обозрение. 1894. кн. 5 (май). с. 236-241.
10. Полоцкие грамоты XIII – начала XVI вв. / сост. А.Л. Хорошкевич. М., 1977. с. 37.
11. Московский летописный свод конца XV в. // ПСРЛ, т. 25. М., Л., - 1949. - с. 170.
12. Белоруссия и Литва / Авт.: Н.И. Петров, И.И. Малышевский, М.И. Городецкий и др. – СПб.: Тип. Т-ва “Общественная польза”, 1890. с. 76; Stryjkowski M. Kronika polska, litewska... t. ІI, s. 14, 58. Warszawa, 1846.
13. А. Латышонак. Нацыянальнасьць - Беларус. Вільня, Інстытут беларусістыкі, 2009. с. 86.
14. Sedlar, J.W. East Central Europe in the Middle ages, 1000 – 1500, Seattle: Univ. of Washington Press, 1994, p. 25.

This article appeared in
Belarusian Review, Vol. 22, No. 2
Copyright 2010 Belarusian Review
All rights reserved.

Kiry³ Ka¶cian, Alaksiej Dajlidaŭ

Printable Version Counter: 22
Belarus' Forum
Belarusian Culture
Belarusians Abroad
Chronicle of Events
Legacy of Chernobyl
Media Watch
News Briefs
Culture & Society
Freedom of Religion
Independent Media
Belarus & the World
Human Rights
Politics - Opposition
Politics - Regime
Thoughts and Observations
New Articles
Eastern Partnership ‘Absolutely a Success’ (06.07.2010)
Customs Union instead of WTO? (06.07.2010)
Oil “Export” Duties: Peculiarity of the Russian-Led Customs Union (06.07.2010)
Belarusian LACINKA - Its Second Wind (05.07.2010)
PACE Suspends its High-Level Contacts with the
Belarusian Government and Parliament
Democracy Needs to Feel US Support (05.07.2010)
Belarusians in the Battle of Grunwald (02.07.2010)
Fate of Isolated Minorities: Lusatia - Podlachia (02.07.2010)
Belarus Gears Up For Presidential Elections (02.07.2010)
National Park ”Bielavie¾skaja Pu¹ča” and the Council Of Europe Diploma (02.07.2010)
Polish Papers on Belarusian Poles (14.04.2010)
No Pro-Russian Party In Belarus, Russian Analyst Says (14.04.2010)
125 Cities Across the Globe For a Free Belarus (14.04.2010)
From Minsk With Love (14.04.2010)
Russian Tourists Ignorant About Belarus (13.04.2010)
Readers' Favorites
Kitabs, the Unique Phenomenon of the Belarusian Language in "Encyclopedia of the Belarusian language" (11004)
The Exchange Rate Policy for Belarus (10926)
Belarusian Weapons Exports:A Possible Source of Laundered Funds? (10300)
Vaclav Havel - in Defense of Jakub Kolas Humanities Lyceum (10004)
Belarusica at the AAASS Convention (9922)
Putin Doctrine: Immediate Threat to Belarus (9619)
Belarusian Currency: Problems and Perspectives (9515)
Is Lukashenka Winning Back Hearts and Minds? (9368)
Minsk Wants Compensation from Moscow for Abandoning National Currency (8926)
DZIADY and Kurapaty Unite the Opposition (8924)
Opposition Forms New Pro-European Alliance (8896)
Belarus Represented in the World Book Fair (8846)
The Sad State of Agriculture (8298)
EU Aid Misuse Fears (7948)
The Third Wave, or the regimes current tactics in dealing with independent NGOs (7908)