SAMOGITIA

By Simas Suziedielis

Samogitia (Zemaiciai, Zemaitija), western part of Lithuania bounded by the Nevezis river in east, the Baltic Sea on the west, theDubysa Nemunas river on the south, and the Latvian border on the north. The major portion of the region constitutes the Western Upland, but its name refers to the lowlands stretching along both sides of the Nevezis, which divides western and eastern Lithuania. Both the region and its inhabitants came to be called zemaiciai (lowlanders; nom. Sig. Zemaitis); the derivative Zemaitija became the accepted designation for the region fairly recently. Similarly, the Lithuanians living in the more elevated areas of eastern Lithuania are known as aukstaiciai (highlanders). In the 1322 treaty between Lithuania and the Livonian Order the region is listed under the name Samaythen. Latin and German sources of the 13th-15th century refer to the area as Samaiten, Samaitae, Zamaytae, Samagittia, Samattae, Samethia, and from the 16th century onwards, as Samogitia. The latter name has been retained to the present day in the English language. 

Before the emergence of the unified Lithuanian state, Samogitia was ruled by regional princes. The Volynian Chronicle relates that two Samogitian princes, Erdvilas and Vykintas, were among the twenty signatories to a treaty with Volynia (1219). Although nothing more is known of Erdvilas, Vykintas sides with the Livonian Order and the princes of Volynia against Mindaugas, who was then in the process of uniting the different Lithuanian principalities under his banner. Vykintas died in battle in 1251. His alleged son Treniota took part in the assassination of Mindaugas in 1263 and succeeded him as Lithuania’s ruler. He was murdered in 1264. No other Samogitian prince ever ascended to the throne, which following his death was assumed by the Vytenis-Gediminas dynasty (1295-1672).For more than two hundred years Samogitia played a central role in Lithuania’s wars against the crusading order of the Teutonic Knights. The protracted conflicts began with clashes with the Knights of the Sword, who had established bases in Livonia in 1202-1203 and had begun raiding Lithuania in 1229. After the Lithuanian victory at the battle of Saule-Siauliai in 1236, the Livonian Knights joined ranks with the Knights of the Cross, who had gained a foothold in Prussia in 1230. These two branches of the Teutonic Order were prevent from uniting by Samogitia, situated between Livonia and Prussia. As a result, the region was intensively andCathedral of Telsiai systematically attacked and raided. Before the final subjugation of the Prussians by the Knights of the Cross in 1283, attacks of Samogitia were carried out from Livonia. On several occasions the invading Christians suffered serious losses at the hands of the Lithuanians, namely at the battles of Skuodas (1259), Durbe (1260), and Lielvarde (1261), Subsequently both branches undertook campaigns against Samogitia. Year after year, Samogitian fortresses were attacked , farms and crops were put to the torch, livestock rustled away, women and children enslaved, and able bodied men killed. The inhabitants living closer to the Nemunas river were forced to move deeper into Samogitia, where they found refuge in the region’s plentiful and extensive forests and marshes. While their secret underwater fords led to the fortresses and safety, these passageways served as traps and barriers against the attacking crusaders. However, during the cold winter months, when the marshes and rivers froze, their sanctuaries became vulnerable. The district of Medininkai, the central part of Samogitia, was attacked in 1314, when approximately, 700 persons were taken prisoner. In 1329 the fortress of Medvegalis, in which several thousand soldiers, women, and children had taken refuge, was stormed by the crusaders. The king of Bohemia, John of Luxemburg, and the French poet Guilaume Machaut, who later made famous this attack, both took part in the siege. Between 1345 and 1382, the Knights of the Cross attacked from Prussia some 70 times, while the Livonian Knights of the Sword made 30 military forays. The Lithuanians retaliated with 31 attacks of Prussia and 11 on Livonia. Since the Germans viewed Samogitia and Lithuania as serious obstacles to further expansion to the East (Drang nach Osten), the bitter warfare held in the balance not only the future of Samogitia but also that of the entire Lithuanian state.

Kestutis, the prince of Trakai who ruled Lithuania jointly with his brother Algirdas, was particularly energetic in defending Samogitia. During their rule no territory was lost to the Germans. But after the death of Algirdas in 1377, and the murder of Kestutis in 1382, the country’s political situation afforded an opportunity for the Order to gain Samogitia by means of negotiations with the new rulers of Lithuania, the cousins Jogaila and Vytautas. In 1382 Jogaila ceded Samogitian territory up to the Dubysa river , while in 1398 and 1404 VytautasCathedral of Telsiai gave away Samogitia as far as the Nevezis river. The Order soon built several fortresses in the acquired territory and to subdue the inhabitants began taking hostages from Samogitian nobility. These measures proved to be ineffective. The Samogitians revolted in 1401 and 1409 and drove out the Teutonic Knights. The latter revolt was indirectly aided by Vytautas who had decided to engage the Knights in a decisive battle. But even after the order’s defeat at the battle of Tannenberg (1410), the Order did not give up its pretensions to Samogitia, and diplomatic manoeuvring over its control continued for the next decade. Emperor Sigismund of Luxembourg was asked to rule on the validity of the Order’s claims to the region and in 1420 announced a decision in favour of the Order. Naturally, this was not acceptable to the Lithuanians who finally settled the question by completely defeating the Teutonic Order in 1422. Because of the long struggle with the Teutonic Knights, Samogitia was more or less isolated and evolved differently from the remainder of the country; the county’s rulers granted its inhabitants privileges not conferred upon others. When other areas Lithuania were divided into palatinates after the Polish system, Samogitia remained a separate administrative unit with a nominal degree of autonomy. It was governed by an elder(Lith. Seniunas) elected at the dirtiness of the nobility and approved by the Grand Prince. Samogitia also retained its administrative structure of townships, which were ruled by appointed officials, although the nobility had a strong voice in local government matters. There were more private than royal estates and more free farmers than elsewhere in the country. The common citizen, the peasant, had more rights than his counterpart in Lithuania. Instead of being a serf, he only paid a certain fee to the estates. Samogitian landscape

The inhabitants of Samogitia were also the last to accept Christianity. In 1413 Vytautas and Jogaila accompanied by several priests began baptising the population. In 1415 a delegation of sixty Samogitian nobles visited the Council of Constance to announce the territory’s conversion . The diocese of Samogitia or Medininkai was established in 1417, with its centre at Varniai. Vytautas endowed the diocese with land and provided funds for the construction of the cathedral and parish churches (in Ariogala, Kaltinenai, Kelme, Kraziai, Luoke, Raseiniai, Veliuona, Vidukle). The first bishop was Canon Mattheww of Vilnius, who administered the diocese from 1417-1422. But the conversion of the Samogitian population proceeded very slowly, especially in the more remote areas; as late as the 16th century, there were only 38 churches and the people still practised their pagan religion. Consequently the Calvinist Reformation movement had a great success in Samogitia, particularly among the nobility. Protestantism, however, was not able to survive the Catholic Counter Reformation, which was led by the Samogitian Bishop Merkelis Giedraitis (dead 1609). Of considerable significance to the religious and cultural life of Samogitia was the Jesuit college at Kraziai (1616-1773). The Jesuits had been invited by Bishop Giedraitis in 1608; a few years earlier the Franciscans had settled in Kretinga (1602). At the beginning of the 17th century the Marian Shrine at Siluva gained wide recognition throughout the country. The Samogitian countryside became and miniature chapels erected along the roadways, in farmsteads, and cemeteries.

In 1795 Samogitia along with the rest of the country was annexed by Tsarist Russia, and from 1843 onwards in no longer formed a separate administrative unit but was made part of the newly created province of Kaunas. During the 19th century, it was in Samogitia that theLukstas Lithuanian national renascence movement found its strongest support. Samogitian authors such as Dionizas Poska (dead 1830), Silvestras Valiunas (dead 1831), Simonas Stanevicius (dead 1848), Simonas Daukantas (dead 1864) were to a great part responsible for arousing the interest of their fellow countrymen in their language folklore, and history. Resistance to russiffication increased markedly between 1864 and 1904 in response to the ban of Lithuanian books and literature. The Samogitians were the first , under the leadership of Bishop Motiejus Valancius (dead 1875), to organise an effective clandestine book smuggling network to circumvent the ban. Bloody clashes between Russian troops and the local population occurred when the former began closing churches and monasteries. Especially severe were the riots at Tytuvenai (1864), Kestaiciai (1886), and Kraziai (1893).

The main distinguishing feature of the Samogitians in their manners of speech. Their dialect is one of the two major speech patterns of the Lithuanian language; the other is aukstaitich or High Lithuanian. Until fairly recent times their manners of dress and living habits also set them apart from the rest of the country. The Samogitian women favoured bright colours, wide striping divided into checks, and fancy scarves. The wooden buildings of the farmsteads were usually arranged in the two groups: surrounding a clean yard stood the living quarters and the granary , and around the farmyard – barns for threshing and livestock, and other farm buildings. The dwelling house (troba) was a long wide structure, equality divided by a large chimney with an anteroom on each hearth. Changes in the Samogitian way of life began during the period of independence (1918-1940). This was mainly due to a closer integration of the Lithuanian population brought about by a centrally organised school system and increased communications. The Samogitian ethnic traits have almost entirely disappeared since World War II and the Soviet occupation, when forced collectivisation resulted in large-scale transfer of peoples from their traditional homesteads to new communal living areas.

 


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Samogitian Cultural Association Editorial Board, 1998.
Comments to: samogitia@mch.mii.lt

Page updated 2003.05.15.