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Medieval Lithuania

              Social strata:   Introduction |  Leitians





       The Lithuanian historical sources of the first half of the 14th–16th c. contain scanty data about a certain group of servitors of the grand duke of Lithuania the so-called Nom. sg. leitis, Nom. pl. leičiai < *leitjai (leythey, leyty, leytten, лейти) (leich’ai). At the end of the 19th century this group of servitors was described by Russian historians Matviej Ljubavski and Fiodor Leontovitch. They, however, found no evidence about social exclusiveness of this group. F. Leontovitch made an attempt to find out the origin of the name of this group (лейти from laikau “I keep”). As this was a Lithuanian word, which was recorded as early as 14th–15th centuries, Konstantinas Jablonskis included it into his collection “Lithuanian words in the old Lithuanian chancery language”. Whereas, linguist Kazimieras Būga supposed that German Lette could have been the older name of Lithuanians. It is a common knowledge that Letts called Lithuanians Nom. sg. leitis, Nom. pl. leiši. Owing to the unique Lithuanian ethnonym linguists reconstructed the old name of Lithuania without suffix *Leita (>leitis). From it *Leita>*Leituva>Lietuva “Lithuania” has been derived (J. Otrębsky, A. Salys, K. Kuzavinis, Z. Zinkevičius, S. Karaliūnas). However, neither historians nor linguists made attempts to find out whether there existed any relation between leičiai as a social stratum in Lithuania and leičiai as an ethnic group. Meanwhile, there existed records – Lithuanian dialects: some inhabitants of south and southwest localities of Samogitia knew that Nom. pl. leičiūkai (<leičiai) were Lithuanians highlanders who distorted the Samogitian language, i. e. were uneducated frightful inhabitants of woods. Samogitians did not identify themselves with leičiai. These data are taken from the “Glossary of the Lithuanian Language”. Most of them were collected by brothers Juškos in the first half of the 19th century, i. e., are rather late. However, more careful investigation of historical records yielded by far earlier data that administrative territories inhabited by leičiai as a social stratum, i. e., sovereign’s servitors, were called Lietuva, Lietava “Lithuania”. From historical records we learned that the same word leitis was used in rather early years of Lithuanian state to name ether Lithuanians, Lithuania das land Litten, die Litischen konige (1348), krygen Litten (1433) or “court people” (leythy) (1407). The semantic dualism of this word is evident in historical records in the reign of Vytautas the Great. One participant of Luck conference from the Wroclaw city council wrote in his letter in January, 1429, about emperor’s intention to honor Vytautas the Great with king’s of Lithuania – Leičiai – crown: machen herczog Wytolten eynen konyng der Leytten. Whereas, in 1407 Vytautas himself presented Vilnius elder Manvydas with many of his leičiai (leytey) from Kareikiai (Markovo District).
       Thus, the historical records and Lithuanian dialects testify that from the beginning of the 14th till the middle of the 16th century the same word leičiai was used to name Lithuanians and a certain social structure of the Lithuanian nation. i. e., leičiai were “Lithuanians among Lithuanians” who served the grand duke. We can maintain that it was not a coincidence that one and the same word was used in the first ages of the Lithuanian State history to name evidently different objects – ethnos and social structure.
       Most data about the leičiai of Lithuanian sovereign court reached us from the 15th and the first five decades of the 16th century. They were orderly distributed in Vilnius and Trakai manors of the grand duke of Lithuania. The greatest number of leičiai was concentrated in the manors of Trakai Palatinate: Kaunas, Gegužinė–Perelozai, Kanevas–Dubičiai, Lieponys, Rodūnia, Eišiškės, Semeliškės, Trakai, Valkininkai, Žiežmariai, Žaludokas, Alytus–Simnas, Daugai, Stakliškės, Birštonas, Darsūniškis, Merkinė, Vosyliškis. Somewhat less – in the Vilnius Palatinate: Ašmena, Anykščiai–Rokiškis (at the end of the 15th century the Rokiškis District was separated from Anykščiai), Utena, Sudervė, Vilnius (?), Maišiagala, Švenčionys, Ukmergė (Vilkmergė), Markovo manors. In Samogitia they are known only in the Batakiai and Vilkija manors. However, in Samogitia there were families of nobility from manors called Leičiai in the Viduklė District. Leičiai could be found far away from the ethnic nucleus of Lithuanians: in Lososna manor of Slonim District center, a few manors of Kiev Palatinate near the Pripiet’ river. The Lithuanian historical records contain evidence of leičiai as sovereign’s servitors between 1407–1547. Their main inhabited territory was bordered in the north, west and south by the Šventoji, Neris and Nemunas rivers (without the Grodno land) and in the east – by Ašmena, Markovo and, partly, Breslauja Districts. Their conscription to sovereign included leičiai service. For this reason they were free of corvee in sovereign’s manor. However, the latter conscription was introduced for them in 1529 by sovereign’s regulations to governors of Vilnius and Trakai manors. Since the mentioned year the information about leičiai has become scanty. During the “Valakai land reform” in the middle of the 16th century leičiai as a social group ceased to exist and there was no trace of them in the records from the second half of this century. There survived names of villages Leičiai (Laičiai), Leitiškės (Laitiškės) etc., which, presumably, were inhabited by their offsprings, and family names – Leitis, Leita, Leičiūnas, etc.
       Investigations proved it difficult to answer the question what occupations and duties were included in the leičiai service. Some records plainly describe the occupation of leičiai in, e.g., Rodūnia and Švenčionys manors – they were stablemen (had to feed and breed sovereign’s horses). However, we can judge from the historical records that this was not the only occupation of Lithuanian leičiai: in many cases they were simple farmers. On the other hand it is interesting why there existed special groups of servants, stablemen, who were in charge of sovereign’s horses. Many families of Lithuanian noblemen originated from leičiai, i.e., a part of leičiai entered nobility and not peasantry. From the beginning of the 15th century leičiai without exceptions represented court people (court servitors). They possessed their lands (alodium) which were inherited from generation to generation. Their life had some elements of personal freedom, e.g., leitis could abandon his land and, having returned after some time, resume its cultivation. A deeper investigation into these circumstances revealed that from the 15th century there existed two kinds of leičiai. One group included free people who temporary cultivated the leičiai-abandoned land or joined leičiai families. They were temporary leičiai. They could use the rights and privileges of leičiai but also had to share their duties. Legal acts referred to them as leičiai. However, having abandoned the leičiai land or family they again would become free people. Another group included the real leičiai. In the letters of state chancery they were sometimes referred to as “eternal leičiai”. Though leičiai belonged to sovereign they, nevertheless, possessed certain freedom – they could go away. It is interesting that such leičiai having abandoned their lands would preserve their status of leičiai. Their social status and service were inherited from generation to generation. Some manor survey documents helped to elucidate different facets of their service to the grand duke. The most conspicuous services were to bread chargers, to act as servants at war, attendants in travel, farmers. Generalizing we can say that the leičiai service was, most likely, a sort of military service to the grand duke.
       During this period the social stratum of leičiai had some distinguishing features. First of all – Lithuanian form of the name leitis. Not many social groups of Lithuania preserved the Lithuanian name in the central state chancery of Lithuania (where Ruthenian was the official language). Scribers did not find Slavonic (Ruthenian or Polish) equivalent. The word “leitis” is a substantive attribute derived from the noun *Leita – the old form of name Lithuania (Lietuva). “Leitis” is a man of “Leita” (in our case Leita is represented by the Lithuanian sovereign). A word leitis originated in the 5th century, later on “got loose” from its original meaning and entered the historical records as a word nominating a certain stratum of Lithuanian society. The exclusive position of leičiai was well reflected by the fate of leičiai lands. The empty and temporary leičiai-abandoned lands were strictly distinguished. The latter had temporary owners who had to admit the leičiai on their return. However, the quantity of empty patrimonial lands was larger. They were dispeopled naturally, when leičiai died, and their lands were thus transferred to the grand ducal disposition. No data is available that at least one inhabitant of Lithuania would have been conferred the status of leitis in the 15th–16th century. Whereas, it was still possible to be promoted to the rank of grand ducal household people or to be transferred to other social strata. For example, some ordinary people became trackers (asačnykai), serfs, riders, neighbors (kaimynai) or even boyars. Evidently, in the 15th – first half of 16th century there ceased to exist such social conditions which would create the stratum of leičiai and make it socially important. The real leičiai (sometimes referred to as “eternal leičiai”) represented an old disappearing social stratum. They could not be replaced. To make it more clear, nobody had the right to do so. We can judge that leičiai were under the wardship of custom and law by the fact that sovereigns were reluctant to give them out. They would often emphasize their unwillingness to give their leičiai out or accept new ones. Only horse feeders deserved similar attitude.
       Historical sources about leičiai of the 15th–16th century allowed to identify a characteristic of feudalism closed professional group of people who were protected by customary law. At the time under consideration this group was vanishing but had ancient origin, was called by an old name of Lithuanians and Lithuania and had the wardship of Lithuanian ruler.
       As the vanishing stratum leičiai have not left exhaustive data about themselves and that is why every more informative fact deserves a thorough study. The leičiai of Lososna manor in the Slonim District are known from some acts of 1504–1541. Once in these statements they were called by another, in the understanding of those times, more suitable term литва (Lietuva). The form of this gloss variant is strange because it differs from the usual one: the Lososna leičiai are distinguished not by ethnic signs – as is without reservations required by today’s system of notions – but as a group of sovereign’s household people, i. e., *lietuva is in this case a nomination of legal position and kind of obligations. The ethnic connotation, if any, is of minor importance. According to the mentioned statements along *lietuva/ leičiai the Lososna manor had some other services: town-dwellers, peasants (people). The latter included ethnic Lithuanians who did not belong to *lietuva. The historical records revealed a similar structure in the Anykščiai District (1532–1597). This was the Leičiai or Lietuva (летувска) Field (woytowstwo, vaitija). Historically Lithuania used to have different in size administrative and legal territories nominated by a word which coincided with the state name *lietuva, leičiai, litewska, литва. These territories could include one village (settlement), a few villages (laukas/vaitija “Field”) or even represent a District “valsčius”. Such District was found in Samogitia – the former Karšuva land. It included the territories called Litavienai<Lietavėnai situated in the environs of Tauragė and northwards near the Jūra river. In the 14th century the considered territory had the status of District (Littowin lant). However, at the beginning of the 18th century it consisted of only few villages belonging to a noble family of Samogitia. Nobility from the Leitkapiai manors of Viduklė District and peasants from Leitkapiai village of Batakiai District (16th–17th c.c.) were related with the mentioned Litavienai. The analysed data were collected in different places of Lithuania. They unanimously testify that to call the leičiai service by synonyms *lietuva, lietuviška “Lithuanian” was no fault. This notion included legal, administrative and servile characteristics of leičiai stratum. There existed legal and servile territories inhabited by particular people “Lithuanians in Lithuanians” who served their ruler as leičiai, his *lietuva “Lithuanians”. The ethnic meanings interlace because the same word was used to denote the state and its nation.
       In the Southeast Samogitia the known Litavienai and leičiai settlements most probably appeared at the end of the 13th – first decade of the 14th century. They were founded by grand duke Vytenis because Samogitians living in the territory between the Neris mouth and Nemunas lower reaches had started to pay tributes to Teutonic Knights and local nobility instigated the free communal peasants against him. His persuasions to jointly resist the Teutons were counteracted by Samogitians. In the battles between Lithuanians and Samogitians hundreds of warriors perished. For this reason the sovereign established his courts/manors in Viduklė, Batakiai (Aukaimis), Karšuva. These manors were inhabited by his people leičiai (Lithuanians). By their efforts several district territories were created which were subordinate only to the central authorities. These territories served the purpose to defend the Southwest Samogitia and Lithuania, concomitantly, against the Teutonic Knights aggression. Leičiai served as frontier guards, warriors of the first front line. Besides, they probably suppressed the pro-Teutonic attitudes of some Samogitian noblemen – it can be surmised by the fact that some noble families of Samogitia escaped to Prussia in the beginning of the 14th century. Leičiai were Vytenis’ people, his Lithuanians, because his brother Gediminas being a vicegerent in Samogitia had his own castle (castles) which was named after his name, Gediminas castle. Gediminas’ people probably lived in Ged(i)miniškės, Ged(i)minai settlements (A. Nikžentaitis). The grand ducal manors established in Samogitia always caused enmity of local people. In the middle of the 15th century grand duke Kazimieras promised that no new grand ducal manors would be established.
       Almost the identical establishment was found in the Anykščiai District in the middle of the 13th century. According to the documents of 1532 leičiai were still automatically taken as “sitting” by the German border (y лейтях, на немецком py6eжи/жеребьи). This was not the 16th century border with Livonia. The latter even then almost coincided with the present Lithuanian–Latvian border. The German border was de facto limited in the 13th century between the territories of Mindaugas’ kingdom and Livonian Order. According to Mindaugas’ document of 1261 (considered falsification) this border ran along the Šventoji, Latava, Vašuoka, Viešinta and Lėvuo rivers. Running along present Anykščiai, Viešintos and Surdegis it divided into two parts the Leičiai/Lietuva Field (vaitija) known from the historical sources of the 16th–18th centuries. The “vaitija” belonged to Anykščiai District (known from 1440). The former Anykščiai District was called Lietuvos “Lithuania’s” as is now its central castle on the Šeimyniškėliai hill-fort near Anykščiai town. In one document of the end of the 14th century its name was written as Borchwal nomine Lettow, In our opinion the leičiai in Anykščiai District were Mindaugas’ leičiai, his Lithuanians. They had to protect the state border because by the Šventoji river the enemy could easily reach the heart of the state. It must be pointed out that the territory inhabited by leičiai was established between Deltuva, Nalšia and Sėla. Such geographical situation made it possible to easily suppress the separatist aspirations of local people.
       The defense territory leičiai/*lietuva in the Lososna manor of Slonim District must have been established also in the reign of Mindaugas (1236–1263). It was situated in the southwest from Slonim, between Kosovo and Rožany (Ružana) townships. This territory was involved into complicated relations between Mindaugas and Vaišelga on the one hand and Halich–Volyn’ on the other. The Ipat’evskaia Chronicle informs that the Shchara, Jaselda and Zelva rivers, beyond which the territory of Slonim leičiai was situated made the line which Galichians avoided to trespass while pursuing the Lithuanian warriors. The said territory have much in common with above discussed ones: established on the border zone of the Lithuanian state of the mid–13th c., it was served by sovereign’s people leičiai/*lietuva (Lithuanians), headed by sovereign’s family member (Vaišelga of Naugardukas/Novogrudok was Mindaugas’ son). This territory had mobile mounted guards who guarded the route into the heart of the state or ensured the security in the rear of the Lithuanian army assaulting the Galichians.
       The fourth similar territory must have been in the Gegužinė–Perelozai manor situated at the confluence of the Neris and Šventoji rivers. A leičiai settlement Rukla with a small hill-fort has been known there from the beginning of the 16th century. Rukla is related with Mindaugas’ son Ruklys. The names of localities still remind us that this territory had once been inhabited by leičiai: two streams Lietauka (<Lietava) and Lietavočka (<Lietavėlė) and a village Litovka. This small territory ruled by Mindaugas’ son was established to protect the waterway into the country and to crush Tautvilas (Kernavė) who actively opposed Mindaugas. Part of Tautvilas’ possession was included into Ruklys’ territory. Besides, the confluence of šventoji and Neris and a straight road to the Nemunas river was an important intersection of trade routes. The duties of leičiai might have included the service in the state customs.
       The defense of state borders was the main duty of leičiai in the 13th century. The Ukmergė, Anykščiai, Utena and Švenčionys Districts inhabited by “leičiai” made a line which was paralel to the line made by localities “Vokiečių siena” немецкий рубеж (German border), Vokės (=vokiečių) vartai (German gates) in those districts. In Švenčionys archeologists uncovered and investigated the Rėkučiai defensive rampart dated to the 13th century. This earthwork is a fragment of German border (against the Sword Brethren) fortifications. It is possible to reconstruct also the southeast fragment of Lithuanian border which was defended by leičiai. Part of it is represented by the discussed Lososna leičiai/*lietuva. Besides, the BokŠtai District (in 1733) located in the northeast from the mentioned territories, near the Beržūna (Berezina) river, included two administrative parts: Bokštai District and Lithuanian “vaitija” (woytowstwo Litewskie). The “Lithuanians” were represented by “nobility” boyars (bajorai), i.e., free peasants. The District was inhabited by serfs. According to family names we can judge that Lithuanians and Belarussians lived on both parts of Bokštai. The District was divided into two parts rather on legal and administrative than ethnic basis. There we have a territory similar to the territories called Lietuva (Lithuania) in Anykščiai, Žemaičiai (Samogitia), Slonim, Gegužinė–Perelozai. Such territorial structures as the one in Bokštai District were characteristic of the 13th century and served the purpose of the state border defense. The Slonim leičiai were connected through Novogrudok castle with Bokštai near the Beržūna river thus forming a southeast defense line.
       We discussed some fragments of the state defense lines (in the northeast and southeast Lithuania and in the southwest Samogitia) which were created in the first half of the 13th – beginning of the 14th century. The term terminos Letvinorum “Lithuanian borders” appeared in the sources of Teutonic Orders in 1243. The available data reveal that the earliest historical records refer to sovereign’s leičiai as guards of the state border. At the same time they may have fulfilled the function of police which suppressed the opposition against the central state power. A new order was introduced by grand duke Vytenis (1295–1316) when the border castles were watched for two months by mounted warriors from various parts of the state. Leičiai differed from such temporary guards in that they were permanent peasants-warriors who lived near the castles. They repaired the castles in peacetime and defended in the wartime. The leičiai border defense was an older form of border guard than the one introduced by Vytenis. Perhaps it lost its efficiency and was substituted by a new form of defense.
       There existed a part or a half of the grand duke in many lands (districts) which made up the Lithuanian state in the 14th–16th c. Historical records make it possible to separate it from other part which was as though not the grand duke’s according to legal or servile aspects (the later was inhabited by district people, tributers). In major territories, e.g., Karšuva, Volyn’, the sovereign’s part was called Lithuanian District Lietuvos/Lietavėnų valsčius. The lands included into District were called Lithuanian Field Leičių/Lietuvos (lietuvių) vaitija (laukas) in the Anykščiai, Viduklė, Bokštai Districts. In small Districts (valsčiukai in the Trakai Palatinate) sovereign’s part included all of one or few leičiai village. In all cases grand duke’s domains were called Lietuva “Lithuania” and its variants Lietava > lietavėnai, Leita/leičiai, литва, litewska. Notwithstanding that in the 15th – first half of the 16th century this structure changed and was disappearing its mentionings could still be found in historical records. It was inherited from the 13th century and, perhaps, earlier. Only such structure could be described in some statement of Mindaugas’ times: “Lietuva” Lithuania, his domain (Datum in Lettovia, in curia nostra). In such domains of a sovereign we find leičiai. They are related with the earliest form of sovereign’s court. They were the first people who founded the court – sovereign’s servitors. Sovereign’s courts were established in strategical places where the centralizing power of Lithuania had to penetrate: in the border zone, near the major water and land roads, in places were the opposition was too strong. These circumstances legally and administratively distinguished the leičiai from others. Leičiai always were on a more favorable position. The roots of the privileged position of leičiai took their beginning on the eve of the Lithuanian state. Their economic significance at that time had to be more important as they were the only creators of sovereign’s court. When an estate of nobility was still lacking their military service was more important: they were guards, warriors – some of them later became noblemen. The name of their social stratum indicates that they originated from the same Lithuanians as a sovereign himself. The same ethnic origin was a strong direct link with the sovereign. Such link in barbarian states was a sufficient basis to promote even a non-free serf.
       The main features of leičiai stratum were characteristic of pre-state and pre-feudal tribal organization. Leičiai had patrimonial land, their status applied to all family members, they could admit other free people as leičiai, had right to carry weapons, to take part in war. Leičiai evoked from the most numerous part of pre-state society – free people. It is proved by the circumstance that an own patrimonial leitis of a sovereign (i.e., not free) had a right to leave, i.e., had freedom. Thus leičiai were free as all free people. They declined their freedom on their own will. It is hardly possible to force a person into a privileged social stratum. Leičiai served their sovereign with their land and only nominally restricted their natural freedom. Leičiai composed a social structure of Lithuanian society which was created by the grand duke. Perhaps, we can call it an archaic social political structure of the future Lithuanian nation, warband (S. Karaliūnas) or remains of some tribe. In historical records the term leičiai is used as “social stratum, service” and as “Lithuanian ethnos”. The social stratum concentrated around the Lithuanian sovereign (and called by one of the synonyms of Lithuania) ensured the expansion and strengthening of sovereign power. In barbarian states the noble were those who helped to extend king’s power and participated in military expansion. They were members of warband. Leičiai had all features of a warband: chief whose power they strengthened and protected and with whom they were directly connected by the same name, service and dwelling place (in sovereigns domain); chief in his turn distinguishes them from among others and protects them. Such warriors leičiai were efficient in the times of Mindaugas. On the other hand the term warband is too narrow to describe the leičiai stratum. It appeared as a bridge leading Lithuanians from tribal to state society and it is only natural that it reflects a miniature unequal society. The actual inequality stood out even in the earliest stages of this stratum formation. Not all leičiai became Lithuanian noblemen. Not all of them became free peasants (“bajorai”, agrarii milites, “noblemen”). On the contrary many of them became serfs. For this reason the leičiai social formation reminds a small model of early Lithuanian society – society changing its tribal attributes to the state ones. Territorially it was distributed in the area bordered by the Šventoji, Neris, Nemunas rivers, Ašmena, Markovo and Breslauja Districts. This area represents the old ethnic nucleus of Lithuanian tribes, the zone of Lithuanian Barrow Culture. The leičiai social stratum is distinct on the eve of the Lithuanian State (the end of the 12th – first half of the 13th century). It was H. Łowmiański who described Mindaugas’ warband as the one, which had just been born; the relations between chief and his warriors were based on rules, which developed in tribal epoch. Leičiai as sovereign’s servitors from Lithuanian tribes turned into a tool of tribal society which helped to create the Lithuanian State.

(Text from: Artūras Dubonis. Lietuvos didžiojo kunigaikščio leičiai : iš Lietuvos ankstyvųjų valstybinių struktūrų praeities. Vilnius: Lietuvos istorijos instituto leidykla, 1998. P. 147–157)

Debatable Interpretation

       In the names of 'Leta', 'Lata', 'Late', 'Leite', and 'Lietauka' there are three variations of the stem: in the Lithuanian version there is a stem liet- (Liet-uva = Lithuania < Liet-ava < *Leit-ava); in the Slavic version we can trace the stem lit- (Litva = Lithuania); and in the Latvian-Letgalian version the stem lat- can be seen (with an 'a' from 'e' after Slavic influence) (Latvis 'Latvian', *Latva > Latvija = Lettenland, Latvia). All three variants go back to a form with the 'ei' diphtong, *Leita, this includes all the names of the Latvians, Lettenland, Letgalians, Letgale, as well as the Lithuanians, and Lithuania. (...)
       Then the name leitis (Lith. pl. leičiai) went through further shifts in meaning. As A. Dubonis demonstrated from fourteenth- to sixteenth-century documents, it denoted a privileged stratum in Lithuanian society, most likely the horsemen of the dukes. Both A. Dubonis and S. Karaliūnas consider the Leitisi to be the Lithuanians. However, I presume that *leitis (pl. leiši) could have been the name of a common Lithuanian-Latvian tribe greatest in number. (...)
       (...) The tribal name of the Leitis group survived in the choice of word in western sources (starting from the thirteenth century), particularly in Heinricus: in the early thirteenth century King Mindaugas' title was rex Lettowiae; Gediminas' in the early fourteenth century was rex letwinorum, letphinorum, and in a German charter koning van Lethoven, Lettowen. Heinricus used three names for the area: Lettonia referred to the whole, including Lithuania with its inhabitants the lettonus 'Lithuanians'; Lettia a smaller region of today's Vidzeme and the left banks of the Daugava's middle reaches with its settlers the lettus 'Latvian'; and finally Lettigalia, the eastern province of the lettigals.

Endre Bojtar. Foreword to the Past: A Cultural History of the Baltic People, Budapest: Central European University Press, 1999, p. 136–138.

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