Gediminas (ca. 1275 – winter 1341) was the monarch of medieval Grand Duchy of Lithuania with the title didysis kunigaikštis (вялікі князь) which would be literally translated as Grand Duke, but more correctly High King according to the contemporary perception. The later construct for its translation is Grand Duke (for its etymology, see Grand Prince). He was the ruler of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania 1316–1341, which chiefly meant monarch of Lithuanians and much of Rus'. He was the true founder of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania as an empire. He has a reputation of inveterate pagan who fiercely resisted all attempts to christianize his country, though the case is actually somewhat more complex.
Which translates as:
In his letters to the papacy in 1322 and 1323, he adds Princeps et Duke Semigallie (Prince and Duke of Semigallia). In contemporary Low German he is styled simply Koningh van Lettowen, mirroring the Latin Rex Lethowye (both "King of Lithuania"). Gediminas' right to use Latin rex, which the papacy had been claiming the right to grant from the 13th century, was controversial in some Catholic sources. So for instance he was called rex sive dux ("King or Duke") by one source; Pope John XXII, in a letter to the King of France, refers to Gediminas as "the one who calls himself rex"; however the pope did call Gediminas rex when addressing him (regem sive ducem, "king or duke").
He was supposed by the earlier chroniclers to have been the ostler of Vytenis, Grand Duke of Lithuania, but more probably he was Vytenis' younger brother and the son of Butvydas (Pukuwer), another Lithuanian grand duke. In any case, his purported Rurikid origin was a later fake. According to the latest research, even his grandfather cannot be named with certainty. Gediminas became Grand Duke (didysis kunigaikštis) of Lithuania in 1316 at the age of 40 and ruled for 25 years.
He inherited a vast domain, comprising Lithuania proper, Samogitia, Navahradak, Podlachia, Polotsk and Minsk; but these possessions were environed by powerful and greedy foes, the most dangerous of them being the Teutonic Knights and the Livonian Order. The systematic raiding of Lithuania by the knights under the pretext of converting it had long since united all the Lithuanian tribes against the common enemy; but Gediminas aimed at establishing a dynasty which should make Lithuania not merely secure but mighty, and for this purpose he entered into direct diplomatic negotiations with the Holy See. At the end of 1322 he sent letters to Pope John XXII soliciting his protection against the persecution of the knights, informing him of the privileges already granted to the Dominicans and the Franciscans in Lithuania for the preaching of God's Word, and desiring that legates should be sent to receive him also into the bosom of the church.
On receiving a favorable reply from the Holy See, Gediminas issued circular letters, dated 25 January 1325, to the principal Hansa towns, offering a free access into his domains to men of every order and profession from nobles and knights to tillers of the soil. The immigrants were to choose their own settlements and be governed by their own laws. Priests and monks were also invited to come and build churches at Vilnius and Navahradak. In October 1323 representatives of the archbishop of Riga, the bishop of Dorpat, the king of Denmark, the Dominican and Franciscan orders, and the Grand Master of the Teutonic Order assembled at Vilnius, when Gediminas confirmed his promises and undertook to be baptized as soon as the papal legates arrived. A compact was then signed at Vilnius, in the name of the whole Christian World, between Gediminas and the delegates, confirming the promised privileges.
But the Christianizing of Lithuania was by no means to the liking of the Teutonic Knights, and they used every effort to nullify Gediminas far-reaching design. This, unfortunately, was too easy to do. Gediminas chief object was to save Lithuania from destruction at the hands of the Germans. But he was still a pagan reigning over semi-pagan lands; he was equally bound to his pagan kinsmen in Samogitia, to his Orthodox subjects in Belarus, and to his Catholic allies in Masovia. His policy, therefore, was necessarily tentative and ambiguous, and, might very readily be misinterpreted. Thus his raid upon Dobrzyń, the latest acquisition of the knights on Polish soil, speedily gave them a ready weapon against him. The Prussian bishops, who were devoted to the knights, at a synod at Elbing questioned the authority of Gediminas letters and denounced him as an enemy of the faith; his Orthodox subjects reproached him with leaning towards the Latin heresy; while the pagan Lithuanians accused him of abandoning the ancient gods. Gediminas disentangled himself from his difficulties by repudiating his former promises; by refusing to receive the papal legates who arrived at Riga in September 1323; and by dismissing the Franciscans from his territories. These apparently retrogressive measures simply amounted to a statesmanlike recognition of the fact that the pagan element was still the strongest force in Lithuania, and could not yet be dispensed with in the coming struggle for nationality.
At the same time Gediminas through his ambassadors privately informed the papal legates at Riga that his difficult position compelled him for a time to postpone his steadfast resolve of being baptized, and the legates showed their confidence in him by forbidding the neighboring states to war against Lithuania for the next four years, besides ratifying the treaty made between Gediminas and the archbishop of Riga. Nevertheless in 1325 the Order, disregarding the censures of the church, resumed the war with Gediminas, who had in the meantime improved his position by an alliance with Wladislaus Lokietek, king of Poland, whose son Casimir III now married Gediminas' daughter Aldona.
An alternative view of the supposed readiness of Gediminas to be converted to Christianity is taken by Stephen Christopher Rowell in the book Lithuania Ascending: A Pagan Empire within East-Central Europe 1295-1345. Rowell believes that Gediminas never intended to become a Christian himself, since that would have offended the staunchly pagan inhabitants of Žemaitija and Aukštaitija, the ethnic heartland of Lithuania. Rather, his strategy was to gain the support of the Pope and other Catholic powers in his conflict with the Teutonic Order by granting a favourable status to Catholics living within his realm and feigning a personal interest in the Christian religion.
Rowell points out that the formulation of the letter to Pope John XXII of 1322 was intentionally vague, and that the phrase "fidem catholicam recipere" could be interpreted as "accept Catholicism for himself", or simply "welcome the Catholic faith to Lithuania (i.e. allow Catholics to practice their religion there)". As he states on page 197 of his book:
The ambiguity of the phrase "fidem recipere" is surely deliberate. It gives the impression that the grand duke is asking for baptism and indeed it does mean this. However it is also so vague that it could simply mean that the Catholics were welcome in Lithuania. This is the admittedly casuistical meaning Gediminas later chose to give to the periphrases his letters employ for conversion.Rowell also shows that while Gediminas allowed Catholic clergy to enter his realm for the purpose of ministering to his Catholic subjects and to temporary residents, he savagely punished any attempt to convert pagan Lithuanians or to insult their native religion. Thus in about 1339-40 he executed two Franciscan friars from Bohemia, Ulrich and Martin, who had gone beyond the authority granted them and had publicly preached against the Lithuanian religion. Gediminas ordered them to renounce Christianity, and had them killed when they refused. Five more friars were executed in 1369 for the same offence.
Rowell describes the cremation of Gediminas in 1342 as being a fully pagan ceremony, including human sacrifice, with a favourite servant and several German slaves being burned on the pyre with the corpse. All these facts demonstrate that Gediminas remained faithful to his native Lithuanian religion, and that his feigned interest in Catholicism was simply a ruse designed to gain allies against the Teutonic Order.
Rowell points out that the Templar Order had been suppressed only two decades previously by the King Philip IV of France with the connivance of the Pope Clement V, and that that had encouraged Gediminas and other enemies of the Teutonic Order (eg the King of Poland and the Archbishop of Riga)to believe that a similar suppression of that Order might be achieved with Papal blessing. The letter of 1322 is to be understood in that political context.
While on his guard against his northern foes, Gediminas from 1316 to 1340 was aggrandizing himself at the expense of the numerous Slavonic principalities in the south and east, whose incessant conflicts with each other wrought the ruin of them all. Here Gediminas triumphal progress was irresistible; but the various stages of it are impossible to follow, the sources of its history being few and conflicting, and the date of every salient event exceedingly doubtful. One of his most important territorial accretions, the principality of Halych-Volynia; was obtained by the marriage of his son Lubart with the daughter of the Galician prince; the other, Kiev, apparently by conquest.
While exploiting Slavic weakness in the wake of the Mongol invasion, Gediminas wisely avoided war with the Golden Horde, a great regional power at the time, while expanding Lithuania's border towards the Black Sea. He also secured an alliance with the nascent grand duchy of Muscovy by marrying his daughter, Anastasia, to the grand duke Simeon. But he was strong enough to counterpoise the influence of Muscovy in northern Russia, and assisted the republic of Pskov, which acknowledged his overlordship, to break away from Great Novgorod.
Gediminas died in the last week of 1341 (presumably he was killed in time of coup d'état). He was married three times, and left seven sons and six daughters. Two of his sons perished in battle. Jaunutis initially ruled Vilnius after the death of his father and was formally Grand Duke of Lithuania until his elder brothers Algirdas and Kęstutis returned from military campaigns in Ruthenia and forced him to abdicate his throne in their favor.
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