“White Rus”: A History of Belarus

For this week in our alphabet of History, will be (pun intended) looking at the History of Belarus. The history of Belarus is a narrative of invasions, wars, unifications and atrocities, but is of great value to any whose interests involve History. Because Belarus’ history is so encompassing, to avoid making this blog seem like a small essay, I will be focusing on Belarus from the earliest days of Human occupation, up until the late medieval period – pre-modern Belarus essentially. I may finish off Belarus’ history in a future blog, but here is the first half!

Continue reading ““White Rus”: A History of Belarus”


I found myself doing some research on the battle of Tannenberg 1410, a little while after its anniversary in 2010. I coursed a module on the Crusades as a university student and this is a topic I came across. Needless to say, I am not a military historian – but I thought this conflict in the Baltic, which is in essence one of the largest battles in medieval European history deserved some attention here in the blog. So today we will go for a flash back 605 years into the past to what currently is modern-day Poland.

This battle of Tannenberg, took place in a field between the adjoining villages of Grinwald and Tannenberg in 1410. As part of the later crusading movement, it has to be considered that the issue was not any more the reconquest of the Holy Land, but fighting the pagans across Europe, which was just as bad a threat to Christendom. The Teutonic Knights took it in their hands to dispatch justice in the name of God for this purpose. They targeted Lithuania because of various reasons. First of all, because most of the territory remained pagan, and the few people who were Christianised were Orthodox. Fortunately, or unfortunately for the Order, in 1386 a marriage between the royal families of Poland and Lithuania took place which lead to an alliance between the Order’s neighbouring states, and the Lithuanian conversion to Christianity. Yes, in case you were not aware, the Teutonic Knights decided that the best way to fight the enemy was to install themselves by the enemy, so in the Baltic, surrounding themselves by pagans and enemies… It is not clear if the acts of the Order were truly based on the fear of this alliance, greed for the neighbouring lands of their estate, or was just something to add to their wish for crusade. So, they decided with their upper hand that this alliance was just a joke and a pretended conversion to the true faith, therefore they needed to monitor and be cautious of what could come of this Polish-Lithuanian conjunction. And things eventually kicked off when trouble arose in Samogitia.

Samogitia had always been a problematic area. The territory lay in western Lithuania, just between the Teutonic lands of Prussia and Livonia, and rebellion against the Order’s influence was something common. But that time the Teutonic Knights went too far. At the beginning of the 15th century, Lithuania suffered from famine, particularly in the Samogitian lands. Poland sent supplies to this area, but they were seized by the Order, because their spies had evidences to think that they were actually transporting weapons rather than food and that the Lithuanian Duke wanted the Samogitians to rebel and exterminate the Order. This would not be something that the Duke would take kindly, and in a way he did the Order a favour by declaring war against them – Although they put that on hold due to an armistice that would expire the 24th of June (1410). In addition, the Order decided to capture the Lithuanian ruler, as they thought the truce would not apply him…Obviously violating the truce agreement, much to the anger of both factions. The resolution to this situation is what the events of the 15th of July, in 1410, came to be at Tannenberg.

June was used basically for recruitment and war preparation, because of the armistice. The Polish troops would configure about 20000 of the soldiers that fought the war. The ‘Banner’, (family or district polish unit), was subdivided into between 50 to 120 ‘lances’ of 2 to 5 men, that will fight along mercenaries from Bohemia and Moravia. War-hammers, pikes and ‘war-flails’ were the foot soldiers weapons. Cavalry would be Lithuania’s contribution to the allied army, as well as some Tartar and Russian troops. The Teutonic lines would count with not so many knights, but secular members of the Order, Prussian, Bohemian and Italian mercenaries, as well as other fellow crusaders. Once the truce was over, the action began. The 1st of July the Lithuanian and Polish armies gathered at Czerwinsk while the Order advanced to the site of Kauernick. Little victories were achieved by the allied forces on the 9th at the assault of Lautenburg, and the 13th when Gildenburg was captured and raided. Finally, the two armies will meet at Tannenberg-Grunwald-Zalgiris. (…Not enough with one name for a battle…).

The morning of the 15th of July was very eventful. Hours before the battle, the leader of the combined Polish-Lithuanian armies, King Wladislaw Jagiello, was praying when he was interrupted, several times, to be informed that the enemy had reached the place and was prepared for battle. Once both armies were settled in the battle field,  the Grand Master of the Order, Ulrich Von Jungingen, supposedly sent two swords to Jagiello and Vytautas (the Lithuanian Duke) to serve them in the battle, as they were destined to face each others during the battle. So, the fight started and the blood of both Christian crusaders and ‘miscreants-Saracens’ was spilt throughout the field. Apparently some controversial event stook place during the battle. There was a retreat of the Lithuanian ranks, which is still debated if it was due to panic or a Tartar strategy, to distract some of the Teutonic troops. Then, Jagiello was injured, but somehow saved by the Lithuanians, who came back and attacked the rear ranks of the Order. It seems that with this come back, the Teutonic troops were severely damaged, and in fact, Von Jungingen was killed, which lead to the demoralisation and escape of his knights. Thus, victory was proclaimed to the allied forces of Lithuania and Poland, and so they marched on to Marienburg (headquarters of the Order), which eventually would fall and with it, so would the Knights. In the process, Poland and Lithuania gained new territories which contributed to the assertion of their power in Central-Eastern Europe. Things got pretty ugly for the  Order. They became subjugated to the will of German princess, as they failed miserably in their mission, and their status as crusading order was next to nothing.

However, what I think is really important is that the battle of Tannenberg has remained in the memory of these people  ever since. And evidences of such a thing can be found through the 20th and 21st Centuries. During the First World War, in 1914, a battle was fought between the Germans and the Russians between the towns of Ortelsburg and Gildenburg. But it is known as the new battle of Tannenberg due to the use of German propaganda of the medieval battle, in order to re-establish their status and authority in this area. The Polish nationalism embraced the victory at Tannenberg so much that the in the area of Galicia, by 1910 there were around 60 towns and villages that had monuments commemorating the battle – most of them destroyed during the First and Second World Wars, and reconstructed during the 60s. Finally, the Bank of Lithuania had a very nice touch with the release of 3 commemorative coins, for the 600 anniversary of the battle. So perhaps the importance of Tannerberg 1410 goes beyond the new nation making and legitimisation in the Middle Ages. I remember asking myself: “was it actually that important?”. As a victory for the Polish-Lithuanian alliance, probably. As a crusade? Apart from a blatant failure, perhaps not so much. And this, of course, is if we even give it the benefit of the doubt in terms of crusading. After deep reflexion on the subject, it becomes evident that this was no crusade, but warmongering fuelled by the 15th centuries quarrels for power and self-assertion in Europe. Pretty much every European nation at the time had internal issues due to the still prolonged and devastating effect of the Black Death, as well as the worsening weather conditions probably due to the Little Ice Age. Once again, I am going to end in controversial terms and suggest that considering the events at Tannenberg as part of the crusading movement, is a narrowed academic way of judging the entire situation. I feel I never fully understood the importance of the conflict because I was studying it from the wrong perspective – I had no background in the socio-political-economic situations of the area, and I mostly had dealt with the Teutonic Knights as a crusader order, and not an identity of its own, with agendas to fulfill and acquisitions to obtain.


Merry Drinking and Home Food in Lithuania

By popular vote the guys decided July would be themed as “Food Month”. This is to say that we would look at the role food has played in history from different view points. When I came to choose my subject, I realised I had actually written about this previously: Pumpkins. So, I thought I’d take this opportunity to revisit some of the areas of the blog we have left for dead. I looked through our tags and discovered that the history of Lithuania only had one update. One of my dear friends, Karolina, happens to be Lithuanian and always tells me wonders about the food from her home. So today I welcome you to embrace the Lithuanian food spirit, and as a congratulations for getting a great grade in her Archaeology Dissertation: this one is for you!


Lithuanian cuisine has many elements in common with that of other Eastern European and Baltic countries, particularly Poland-after all they formed a great duchy and alliance since the Middle Ages. This is the reason why there are similar types of dumplings, spurgos and blynai in Lithuanian, Polish and many Jewish recipes. The staple foods from this area are things like barley, rye, berries, potatoes, mushrooms, and certain greens, suited to the climate of the region. However, the nation making and expansionism of certain countries in Europe had great impact in the cultural and collective identity of the country, which did also leave a mark in their culinary heritage. The absorption of Lithuania into the Soviet Union did produce severe changes in the way Lithuanian food was understood- like elsewhere, Soviet product and dishes took prevalence, replacing those of the native population. Nevertheless, the local traditions were kept alive in private garden plots that the Soviet government allowed the people in the region to keep. Families dedicated themselves to the cultivation and care of these plots as a way of keeping their identity and memory alive. Since the independence of Lithuania in 1990, returning to their old dishes and recipes has been an important cultural drive as a way of re-establishing Lithuanian identity.

Now, there is an incredible amount of Lithuanian delicatessen that I could spend hours talking about. Yet, I realised there is something that remarks this revival of cultural identity, and that I am very familiar with, which I believe exemplifies the Lithuanian spirit and identity in a concise way- and without having to induce anyone into a food coma. I believe that Lithuanian brews and drinks show the right amount of tradition and innovation that their entire cuisine represents.

One of the products that is highly celebrated since the Lithuanian independence is Alus -beer. In fact, Lithuanian beer has won several international awards and its finding its own niche within the European supermarkets. (I know this first hand – Karolina knows everything about beer!). They produce this in a traditional farmhouse brewing style. Since their independence, over 200 breweries appeared in the country; many have since closed, and it is acknowledged that perhaps only 70-80 of them are still functioning. In any case, these are local produce, with recipes unknown and dissimilar to other place in Europe and the world. Another traditional Lithuanian drink is Krupnikas (Starka). This is a honey like liqueur and it dates back to the 16th century, during the time of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. It is not so popular nowadays, and in fact the beverage has rather derive into a kind of trauktine, which is like an herbal vodka, that also has medicinal properties. Mead, or midus, also has an important place in Lithuanian history. As in the rest of Northern and Baltic Europe, mead was a common drink since ancient times. Experts believe that the Balts drank and produced mead since 1600 BC. The tradition continued and is reflected in the use of this beverage by noble families as a signed of distinction and identity throughout the Middle Ages and into the 16th century. Some academics advise that the Radvila family, one of the most famous aristocratic lineages in Lithuania, used and produced med heavily well into the 17th and 18th centuries. In the 20th century there was a rise in mead production, just like with bear. Beini Šakovas Prienai bier brewery was one of the first companies to start producing four different types of mead that they will let mature for at least five years before consumption. Lithuanian mead reached its peak when Aleksandras Sinkevičius was awarded his own production certificate by the Soviet Union in 1969 as a registered product. Thus the Lietuviškas midus because a honey brew technique recognised by the Soviet power as an achievement and drink innovation. Even though mead is not very common nowadays in Lithuania, its rich history still has a soft spot in the heart of the communities.


As an afterword, I think it is interesting to find out that food matters so much in Lithuania that, according to Alexander Belyi and Antanas Astrauskas, national legislation on  traditional culinary tendencies must prove a continuous use and recurrence of at least 100 years. This is heavily overseen by the Culinary Heritage Foundation, created in 2001 by Birutė Imbrasienė, trying to restore some of the traditional Lithuanian recipes of 19th century. As a cultural scholar, I find it fascinating that a nation can have such a deep reflection of their cultural changes and values imbued in their everyday use and consumption: food and drink. This is true of many cultures and communities, and I believe that throughout this month, you will become well acquainted with this phenomenon elsewhere. We usually take food for granted, even though is an intrinsic part of our existence.  As we change, it changes with us. What we drink and what we eat, and how we understand these things, shows our own character, who we are, and where we come from.

Review: Henryk Sienkiewicz – The Deluge

As the weather outside is frightful, and the fire is delightful, and we have no place to go, why don’t we read a good book for once? And, coming to that, why not a good old classic? And this classic book could be, perhaps, a nineteenth century romance, written by a Nobel Prize winner and, just for asking, staged in a relevant historical moment.

Well, there, in a corner in the library, was “The Deluge” the central volume in a trilogy written by the Polish literary hero Henryk Sienkiewicz. This is a story with plenty of incentives for the reader: there is a love story in the bombastic mood of the XIX century romantics; there is a terrible war, conquerors and defenders; there are traitors, friends, turncoats and all that fanfare. But above all, this is a story of personal redemption, the story of how a young brave man, confused between loyalties and desperate with love, finds his way through war and treachery till he becomes a national hero and the inspiration for his peers to defeat their bitter enemies, both inside and outside the Republic.

It is important to note that the political stage was quite strange for the modern standards: at the time when the story develops, late XVII century, there was a great political structure in Eastern Europe called the Dual Republic, which was, curiously enough, not a Republic but a Monarchy, and represented the union between the Great Duchy of Lithuania and the Kingdom of Poland, better known as the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. And the head of the state was not hereditary, but elective; this as one can understand, was not precisely the better foundations for stability.

So there we are, just in the middle of a war, going to and fro with Andrezj Kmicic, noble, adventurer, soldier of reputation, and deeply in love with his fiancée Aleksandra Billewiczówna. This is a man of character, brave but violent, extremely proud, and his character would eventually put him in trouble. Through the eyes of Kmicic we will see the treacherous politics of the age, the sense of fate, the seeking for redemption and the search for immortal love amidst impending difficulties. There are other strong and very well depicted characters in the novel, particularly the handsome gentleman Michal Wolodijowskyi, somewhat the reverse of Kmicic , that being a more balanced, better settled man with at least the same bravery and sense of honour. Inevitably, friendship will grow between both, and also between some of the other warrior and patriot characters, giving the whole work a very rich environment of comradeship and soldierly friendship which pervades every line. In fact that is one of the strongest points in the book, the other being probably the rich portrait of a society overwhelmed by the strength of war and politics, mainly depicted by the deeds of the knighthood of the realm, but also in little brushstrokes about the feeling of the rural inhabitants, and the relations between nobles and servants. The weakest part, as it is usual with the Romantic writers, is the love story, extremely excessive and with too much affectation, and a wording that sometimes, to the modern ear, sounds quite more hilarious than tragic.

If you like a good action story, then this will suit you too. There is plenty of fighting, being the siege of Jasna Gora Monastery a centre-piece not only in the book but also in the creation of the Polish national spirit, which for sure was one of the aims pursued by Sienkiewicz at the time of its writing. That is another thing you have to think about when reading this book: that it is not only a very enjoyable piece of literature but also a political statement in behalf of a people who had been subdued for a long time, although not precisely by those enemies menacing in the events related in this novel, in this case Sweden, but by some new enemies who were beginning to rise, as the story suggests, in Russia and Prussia.

The character of Kmicic or his alter ego Babinic, alias very conveniently used when changing sides to cover his previous steps, is then composed of all those elements: bravery, nationalistic feeling, friendship, endurance, love over gold and matter, ingenuity…that Sienkiewicz would like to associate with the Polish people, so creating what is surely one of the more charismatic characters of the epic literature of the XIX Century.

Now go to your local book store or library and ask for The Deluge. Open it, with a good cup of tea or chocolate by your side, get in the mood for love and war, and, just in case you are of the inquisitive kind, submerge yourself in a fascinating yet poor known part of Europe’s history… And if you are of a romantic inclination, then you can sigh and cry with the almost impossible relation between our hero and his would-be-fiancée (and, of course, legendary belle)… Or if you just want to leave reality behind and enter a world of glorious deeds and everyday heroism, but you do not like elves and trolls…this is a book for you. o more volumes to go!