The beginnings of the Giedraitis family are inseparable from the beginning of Lithuania herself. According to the so called Second Edition of the Lithuanian Chronicle the originator cum eponym of the family called Giedrius, was a brother or Grand Duke Traidenis, and they both descended from Zivinbudas who, as supreme ruler of Lithuania, led the 1219 negotiation with Galich Volyn. This provenance is confirmed by all circumstantial evidence; and it is totally consistent with the earliest and the most important written document concerned with the family's history's history: Vytautas's privilege for the lake Aisetas settling the family's dispute over it with the then bishop of Vilnius. This document, issued in Trakai in the interval 1399-1429, refers collectively to "the Princes of Giedraiciai". Apart from formally confirming the family's right to the title of Prince, it clearly demonstrates that it is early fifteenth century the Giedraitises were already numerous; had there only a small number of kinsmen, they would have been named individually. Thus, c. 1400"the Princes of Giedraiciai" already had a long history.
Vigorous multiplication of a family leads to material and the social differences among its members, and such was a fate of the Giedraitis. An historian remarked that in the course of the fifteen century this family came to resemble a Scobish clan numerous, united genealogically, and stratified economically. With one difference however: it was a specifically Lithuanian princely clan. A good model for such a family group would be a Chinese "conical hat", its apex representing the historical significant "central core" of the clan, and it slopes the outwardly concentric layers of social strata, all the way down to the materially modest furthest brim. The model needs one future qualification: it was a dynamic model in the sense, that the central core had never been protected by legal constraints such as primogeniture, but was open to pressures of competition. As a result, the central core was an ever changing meritorious, continuance reforming from a succession of branches or lines endowed with sufficient talent and determination for this roll, and it's responsibilities. The interesting and probably unusual aspect of this social process among the Giedraitises was the total discipline with which the clan as a whole accepted such spontaneous changes at the top. It seems that its membership well understood not only the benefits of a genealogicaly cemented solidarity, but also the advantages of undisputed leadership.
During the second half of the sixteen century the so called "branch of Bartholomew" of which Bishop Merkelis was to become the most outstanding member assumed the role of the clan's central core. The branch's originator, Merkelis's grand father Prince Bartholomew Giedraitis(d. 1524), was by no means rich or influential. But his son, Prince Mattew (d. c. 1562/3), the bishops father, was talented and ambiticus. As governor (namiestnik) of Kernave and Maisiagala he was chosen in 1551 for a difficult diplomatic mission to Ivan Grozny. Polish Historiography still repeats after Wolff that he was a mere diplomatic courier (goniec). This is incorrect. Olaus Magnus refers to him as legatus and orator, and the records of Posolskii Prikaz speak of the audience by the Tsar to Mathew Giedraitis, during which the envoy (poslannik) of King Sigismond II (in Lithuania:Grand Duke Sigismond III) August delivered a speech and presented gifted. The mission must have been judged satisfactory, since it was followed by the advancement of Mathew to the important governesship (namiestnictwo) of Vilnius, and by the title of a Grand Ducal Marshal (masszalek hospodarki). In short, Matthews was a respectable career which propelled this branch of the clan to a status of its leadership, and which brought in its wake substantial material benefits. This new wealth was not in the same class as that of, for example, the Gasztoldts or the Radziwwills, but it was sufficient for the endowment (in the next generations) of an important monastic foundation in Videnikiai(1618) as a memorial to Blessed Mykolas Giedraitis (d. 1485), first cousin of Merkeliss grandfather Barthojomew.
Most importantly, it was more than sufficient to ensure that the sons of Matthew received a first class education. The Polish historian J. Suchotski includes the Giedraitises among the old princely elite of prestige(as distinct from the new elite of power), still significant because of the aura of dynastic provenance, but even more so because of its high educational standards. This tradition was to be continued by Merkelis. During the 1550s we find him (with his brother Kasparas, the future Chamberlain (podkomorzy) of Kaunas) at the University of Konigsberg, from whence Merkelis moved on to the Univrsities of Wittemberg, Tubigen and Leipcig. Even though he did not seeks a degree a custom common among the well off young men of the time the Vatican noted in 1576 his knowledge of canon law and theology.
Merkeliss itinerant academic career brought him close to protestantism. It is very unlikely that he ever abandoned his allegiance to Rome. But the intellectual climate in which he grew up and matured, would have been conductive towards the sophisticated Erazmian stance which he finally assumed: that of a reformer from within the Church.
At the same time he was also asquiring experience of worldly affairs on a European scale. He was a secretary to Sigismond Augustus;we see him in 1587 in Cracow at the coronation of Sigismond III Vaza(in Lithuania: Grand Duke Sigismond IV), and elsewhere in Poland repeatedly as a Senator of the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth (Rzeczpospolita); in 1575 he goes to Paris to receive from his protector Henry III of France(and still King of Poland and Grand Dukee of Lithuanian) the royal appointment to the bishopric of Samogitia; like his father before him, he undertakes a diplomatic commision visa a visa Muscovy (1586).
And yet, in spite of the attractions of a wider political stage, Merkelis unlike so many of his peers remained committed first and foremost to the immediate affairs of Lithuania. I venture to suggest that this can only be explained by the unique background bestowed on him by his family. We recalled that he was at the very centre of the central core of the clan; a clan spread laterally and stratified socially; and because of this stratification a clan totally integrated into Lithuanian society. For this particular man of promise there was no escape from Lithuanian identity. The clearest measure of this identity was Merkeliss fluency not just in the Lithuanian language, but in its Samogitian dialect. This particular qualification was highlighted when the Chapter of the Diocese of Samogitiaa wrote in 1575 to the Pope requesting the confirmation for Merkeliss election as bishop.
The details of his distinguished service to the Grand Duchy, to his diocese, and to his people, are outside the scope of his essay. Here it is sufficient to emphasis his position as a politician, and most importantly as a patron of the written Lithuanian language. In politics he was a Lithuanian patriot. Originally opposed to the plans of union with Poland, he was later persuaded that there was no other option. But even after signing the Act of the Union of Liublin, and in spite of his newly found loyalty to the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth as a higher political form he remained a powerful spokesman for the Grand Duchys separativnes within the Commonwealth. The analogy with this religious position is striking, and not really all that surprising.
He also understood and in this tarsightedness was exemptional within the Lithuanian elite of the day that the survival and development of his peoples language was so condition sine qua non of the ultimate flowering of Lithuanians national identity. To this cause he contributed in a decisive manner. Under his protection and guidance Mikalojus Dauka, canon of the Samogitian diocese, translated into Lithuanian Ledesmas Catechism(1595) and then Wujeks Postilla(1599), the latter undoubtedly the most important relic of the Lithuanian language of the sixteen century. One may say without exaggeration that Bishop Merkelis Giedraitis was the founder at the birth of Lithuanias written culture.
To day he is acknowledged as one of the spokesman of the family. But the
interesting between him and his clan was a two way process. The scale and quality
of his lifes work was a direct result of the two specific gifts bestowed upon him by
the clan; the prestige of its dynastic origins enhanced by the tradition of learning, and
the unqualified integration of the clan and, with it, of its central core
into Lithuanian society. These two attributes, enhanced by Merkelis own contribution,
continued to flourish. Bishop Jozeph Arnulph Giedraitis(d. 1838), successor to
Merkelis in Varniai, himself became a protector of, and a contributor to, the young
Lithuanian literature that began emerging in the early nineteenth century.
[Lithuanian version][Foreword][Postilla][M. Dauksa and M. Giedraitis][Homeland][Customs][Language][History][Gallery][National Programm][Events][Mass Media][News][Information][Contents][Guest Book][Home]
Cultural Association Editorial Board, 1998.
Comments to: email@example.com
Page updated 2003.05.15.