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Medieval Lithuania

              Social strata:   Introduction |  Leitians

Social strata

        The society of Medieval Lithuania was a rural society, while the towns just began to emerge.
        During the early Middle Ages (5–11th centuries) the chiefdoms were emerging in the territory of Lithuania. This process is reflected in “ducal” graves which appeared in the 5–6th centuries. This highest social stratum in about 11th century began to transform itself to the real dukes which were maintained by taxpayers. Until the end of the 13th century there were a lot of minor dukes – every district was headed by a separate local duke occupying place of a chief of an earlier period. These dukes were subjects to the dukes of lands, and since the creation of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (c. 1183) – to the Grand Duke. In the 14th century the district dukes were replaced by the stewards, called tivuns (tijūnai). Tivun vas a representative of the sovereign, administrator of a district and judge.
        Until the 14th century most of the husbandmen were still free farmers (laukininkai). Since the immemorial times their farms was an inheritable property of separate families. The later sources refer to such farms as “smoke” or “service”. Every “smoke” or “service” had a duty to pay tribute to duke.
The prisoners of war were rendered to slaves – šeimyniškiai. They had no land of their own and were working in the manor of their lord (sovereign or boyar).
        There were also a group of dependent people with a higher status in the sovereign manor – the Leitians. The Leitis was an ancient ethnonym for Lithuanians. They were the Lithuanians in a narrow sense, “the sovereign’s people”, his backing in districts scattered all over the state, especially in districts which had a strategic significance. Though the Leitians were a category of dependent peasants, due to their close relationship to the sovereign they were privileged in a certain sense.
        One more peasant category of ethnic origin were the Bartians – the 13th century refugees from Prussia (the land of Barta first of all) and their progeny.
        Eventually various categories of dependent peasants appeared in the sovereign’s manors. They were distinguished by different duties, determined by the features of their economical activity or ethnical origin.
        In the 14th century, during the fights with the crusaders, the large stratum of the boyars (bajorai) was forming intensively. Their main duty was military service; therefore they used to be exempted from other duties and became the most privileged stratum of the society. However the boyars were not equal among themselves. The farmsteads of the numerous minor boyars scattered among villages or huddled together in the boyar villages differed little from the peasant farmsteads. In the meantime the richer boyars had dependant people of their own.
        The farmers that fell under power of the boyars were called “neighbours” (kaimynai). They were living in the neighbourhood of the boyars and were working in the land, given them by the boyar.
        As a boyar, who had dependent people, was able to prepare for the military service better, in the early 15th century the Grand Duke Vytautas began to grant the former free peasants to the boyars in numbers, i. e. to grant them the state duties of these peasants. The peasants, granted to the boyars, were called veldams. In the beginning they were obliged to do a part of their duties in favour of the state, but soon all their duties were granted to the boyars, including the right to judge and administrate them. The veldams fell in an absolute power of the boyars and lost their right to relocate. Their duties, as well as that of the peasants, who stayed in the possession of the state, grew rapidly, while their rights diminished. The process of enslavement of the peasants was developing intensively in the 15th century and ended finally in the 16th century.
        The administrative reform of 1566 legitimized the boyar democracy – all state affairs were discussed in the regional parliaments (seimelis) of nobility and in the Parliament (Seimas) formed of their representatives. However the peasants and townspeople lost any political significance.

       Tomas Baranauskas


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