The name Balts refers to people who speak Baltic—an Indo-European language—and who lived in north-central Europe in the region of the south and east Baltic sea, centered in present-day Latvia, Lithuania, western Russia (the enclave around Kaliningrad oblast), and northern Poland. The term was first used in the 19th century in reference to peoples living near the coast and later applied to peoples of the entire language family. The name AEsTII refers to people in that region in ancient texts, but there is no way to know with certainty whether they spoke a dialect of Baltic or some other language.
The CURONIANS, Letts, Selonians, and Semigallians are and Yotvingians (Sudavians) are considered the primary considered the primary Baltic groups ancestral to modern groups ancestral to modern Lithuanians (see Lithuanians: Latvians (see Latvians: nationality). The Lithuanians nationality). The third Baltic group is Borussians (Old (Lithuanians proper), a Lithuanian subtribe the Samogitians, Prussians, not to be confused with the general term
Prussians used for all inhabitants of the historical region of Prussia), among whom can be grouped Bartians, Galindians, Notangians, and Sembians. The Nadruvians and Skalvians, living to the north of the Borussians are sometimes classified as Borussians and sometimes as western Lithuanians.
There were movement and intermingling among these peoples, so drawing cultural and historical distinctions among them based on language differences is difficult. For example, southern Curonians occupied northern parts of Lithuania, the semigallians lived in both northern Lithuania and southern Latvia, and the Livs, a Finnic-speaking people, occupied parts of what is now northern Latvia. These groups intermingled and no doubt share in the ancestry of modern Latvians and Lithuanians. it can be said that the western Balts are generally considered to have evolved into the modern Latvians and Lithuanians. The eastern Baltic tribes tended to spread eastward into present-day Belarus and Russia and were Slavicized after the northward expansion of the Slavs, which started in the seventh century c. e. The Borussians were Germanized over the centuries.
The Corded Ware pottery culture began after 3500 b. c.e., when a pastoral, cattle-raising way of life, along with the pottery style, was adopted over a wide region in northern and central Europe. It may also have been at this time that people adopted the ancestral Indo-European language. For Balts, as for peoples elsewhere, the Corded Ware way of life entailed far greater mobility than at any time since the beginning of the Neolithic Age when farming was adopted. Corded Ware graves typically contain an assemblage of pottery vessels—cups, strainers, and flagons—that appear to indicate rituals of hospitality involving drinking perhaps alcoholic beverages. Such rituals would have eased the strain of meeting with strangers during travel and helped to forge social bonds. Corded Ware graves also contained stone battle-axes (rather than the woodsmen’s axes of the past) indicating another means of dealing with possibly hostile strangers.
By 3000 b. c.e. ancestors of various Finno-Ugrians had settled the Baltic Sea region. The original home of the proto-Baltics, meanwhile, was probably situated in present-day western Russia northwest of the upper reaches of the Dnieper River. They may have been descendants of Neolithic peoples from the Danube region and peoples of the Corded Ware culture. They probably migrated westward to the Baltic Sea region by about 2000 to 1500 b. c.e. The Baltic language family was probably evolving at this time as well. The last millennium b. c.e. saw the first typical Baltic culture appear, in particular, brushed pottery and the appearance of hill forts. This period also saw the first burial cremations.
The first Baltic tribes known from written sources emerged in the valleys of the Niemen and Neris (Wilja) Rivers in the period between the first and fourth centuries c. e. Coastal peoples of the Baltic Sea are mentioned in ancient texts as glaesum (amber)-gathering Aestii, probably Baltic speaking, with whom trade relations were established by the Romans. Linguistic evidence (based on names of rivers and other bodies of water) suggests a boundary between Baltic speakers and Slavic speakers in early modern times (during the latter half of the first millennium c. e.). The boundary ran on a northwest-to-southeast line east of the vistula River from the Bay of Gdansk to the Pripet Marsh, and from there northeastward to the Niemen River. East of the Niemen were Finnic-Ugric groups. The western boundary of this Baltic territory roughly coincides with the change in ecological zone from deciduous and pine and oak forest in the west to deciduous-spruce forest in the east, which may in part have led to the cultural difference. It is thought that proto-Balts and proto-Slavs in the boundary area between the two groups intermingled their cultures to a considerable degree until historic times.
The only Baltic languages to have survived are Lithuanian and Latvian. Old Prussian, of which there are surviving written records, has been extinct since the 17th century Other Baltic dialects, such as Curonian, died out even earlier. Scholars originally placed Baltic and Slavic together as one of the Indo-European branches, labeled Balto-Slavic (or Balto-Slavonic). But it is now generally believed that the similarities of Baltic and Slavic dialects result from extensive contact among peoples rather than from a shared linguistic parent. Finnic elements also helped shape some Baltic dialects.
The second-century c. e. geographer Ptolemy, living in Alexandria in North Africa, was the first to identify specific tribes of Balts—the Galindians, a subtribe of Borussians, and the Sudovians, an alternate name for Yotvingians. Not until the ninth century did other specific tribes come to be cited by names that endured and can be verified. In the earliest accounts the Balts are described as seafaring peoples who, by the fifth century, carried out raids on other coastal peoples, especially in Scandinavia.
Balts and Vikings
In about the ninth century, the beginning of the Viking Age in the East, the Vikings from Sweden and Denmark battled the Balts—in particular the Curonians in Courland along the Baltic Sea and the southwest shore of the Gulf of Riga. A motive for the attacks was retribution against the successful raids on Swedish and Danish trading towns; another factor was the struggle for control of the river mouths and usable ports from which traders could penetrate the Continent and trade with the Mediterranean region. The Balts would continue to offer fierce opposition to the Vikings for centuries as they expanded southward.
In the late 12th century Latvia was visited by merchants from western Europe who set out on trading journeys along the Western Dvina (Daugava) River to Russia. With them were Catholic missionaries, who attempted to convert the pagan Baltic and Finnic tribes. The first Catholic missionary to the homeland of the Balts in 1160 was a German priest named Father Meinhard. His goal was to establish a foothold in the region for the Roman Catholic Church by converting the Livs. As an enticement toward conversion, he decided to build a church and a castle at Ikskile to provide the native population with a stronger fortified position. In return he induced the Livs to be baptized in the Daugava River. After the castle was completed, the local population returned to the Daugava, this time to wash off their baptism. Father Meinhard convinced Pope Innocent III that a more aggressive approach was needed. This occurred in the form of the first Baltic crusade, sanctioned by Pope Innocent III in 1198. Bishop Meinhard was succeeded by Bishop Berthold, who arrived with a contingent of German soldiers. Berthold, who took an active role in the fighting, was killed. Berthold was replaced by Albert von Buxhoevden of Bremen in 1199. Albert’s strategy to subjugate the recalcitrant Balts was to take hostages to Germany, where they were taught to be good Catholics. The soldiers who accompanied Albert were given land grants called fiefs, a policy that established German landholders in the region.
Albert began the construction of the city of Riga in 1201; because of its location it became the center of trade and military expansion in the Baltics. In 1202 Albert founded the Order of the Brothers of the Army of Christ (also known as the Brothers of the Sword, the Sword Brothers, and the Sword Bearers), which managed to unite and control the various military factions. The Brothers of the Sword subdued the Livs by 1207, thereby creating a new tax base for the Catholic Church and producing soldiers for the conquest of the remaining tribes. In 1209 the Brothers of the Sword conquered the Selonians, who had retained major control of the Daugava waterway. In 1210 the Curonians attacked Riga, destroying a number of German vessels.
Over the next years the Germans fought with the remaining tribes. Brutalities in these cruel wars were committed by crusaders, immigrant German knights and burghers, nobles, militiamen, and mercenaries, as well as by native allies. Native troops were responsible for gathering loot, rounding up prisoners, and searching fields for hiding places and refuges.
The task of the crusaders was made easier by the fact that the tribes had no central government. In 1214 the Letts fell, after which the Esths, a Finnic people, turned to Russia for support against the German onslaught. In response Albert received the assistance of Denmark in his final push for domination. In 1219 the Danish and German forces were able to overpower the Esths.
Albert died in 1229. In 1236 new Germanic recruits arrived in Livonia eager to engage in conquest. After suffering a defeat at the hands of the Lithuanians and Semigallians at Saule (near modern Siauliai) in northern Lithuania and losing many of their knights, the Brothers of the Sword joined with the Teutonic Knights of Prussia to form the Livonian Order of the Teutonic Knights in 1237. The Teutonic Knights had been campaigning in Prussia since a call for a crusade to them by the Poles against the pagans in 1226. In 1242 the allied knights suffered a defeat by the Russian Slavs under Alexander Nevsky at Lake Peipus at the boundary of western Russia, which checked their eastward expansion. Soon afterward the Baltic tribes to the south—Lithuanians and Samogitians—were united under Mindaugus, who became the first king of Lithuania in 1253.
The Curonians succumbed to the Livonian Order in 1269. The next year saw the establishment of the state of Livonia, a political union of territories belonging to the Livonian Order of Teutonic Knights and the Catholic Church in Latvia and Estonia. By 1283 in Prussia the Teutonic Knights had defeated the Borussians and Yotvingians and established the region as a papal fief, practically exterminating Baltic-speaking people there. In 1466 East Prussia was ceded to Poland, and West Prussia remained under the control of the Teutonic Knights as a fief of Poland and later became part of Germany (see Germans: nationality).
The Teutonic Knights continued to vie for power in Lithuania over the next century. In 1410 a united Lithuanian-Polish army defeated them at Tannenberg (modern Stebark, Lithuania). Although the Balts had preserved authority in their homeland, the independence of the Baltic peoples was lost for centuries in the 1560s, the start of a period during which Latvia and Lithuania were handed back and forth by Russia, Poland, and Sweden. After the decline of the crusading orders many of the knights remained in the region as a landowning aristocracy and enjoyed special privileges under foreign rule.
Early Balts are thought to have been raiders more than settled agriculturalists—seafarers who, as did Vikings, raided coastal settlements. Those who farmed and herded domesticated animals also kept bees, hunted small game, and gathered berries and mushrooms. They were also traders. Besides providing an access to the east, the Baltics had other natural resources that were desirable to foreign marketers. Amber, honey wax (the by-product of beekeeping), grains, and fur and forest products needed for shipbuilding were some of the natural resources that attracted merchants to this region. The presence of artifacts from throughout Europe, as well as Arabia, at archaeological sites offers proof of extensive established trade routes.
Amber In the fifth to ninth centuries the Borussians developed trade, mostly in amber and its products, along the “Amber Way” up to Pannonia (roughly modern Hungary). An important by-product of the conquest of the Balts by Germans was the decline of the local amber-working traditions. After taking control of Prussia, the Teutonic Order also seized the rights to all amber. The local people who kept amber for themselves were hanged. A public scaffold was erected as a reminder of the punishment for “stealing” amber.
Hanseatic League The lack of universal currency in the city of Riga caused constant economic instability as various tribal factions minted their own coins using different silver content and weights. Not until 1282 did the German merchants of Riga join the Hanseatic League, a commercial union of German cities and towns and their merchants, which increased their political and economic power base. The towns of Cesis, Limbazi, Koknese, and Valmiera soon followed. The Hanseatic League regulated trade throughout the Baltic region and encouraged monetary standardization.
Isolated Baltic farms were typically united for economic and defensive purposes, with councils electing leaders and making community decisions.
The society of the Balts was known for the lack of beggars. The richest people reportedly
Provided for poor tribal members, and a thief would be forgiven if he could prove he had stolen for food.
Baltic tribes built large hilltop fortresses from logs. Building in stone and brick began only after the arrival of Christian missionaries and crusaders.
The wooden buildings of farmsteads were usually arranged in two groups: surrounding a clean yard stood the living quarters and the granary, and around the farmyard were barns for threshing and livestock, and other farm buildings. The dwelling house was a long wide structure, equally divided by a large chimney with an anteroom on each hearth. Wooden buildings were used for public assemblies—to deliberate, to cook food together, or simply to amuse themselves.
The Balts had a highly evolved sense of decoration, as demonstrated by their elaborate patterns on clothing. They had a unique folk art and their own writing symbols. Gifted craftsmen made luxurious and durable clothes for celebrations, as well as weapons and tools comparable to those throughout the rest of Europe.
Lithuania has been referred to as the “land of songs.” Many of the dainos (folk songs) sing of pastoral life and work, such as tilling, harvesting, and grinding corn. There are many love and wedding songs, humorous songs, and songs about the lot of the woman. The Lithuanians have a highly original type of singing, peculiar to them alone, the so-called sutartines, unique polyphonic songs in which two or three melodies are sung in parallel. Dance is closely linked with song. Very popular are round dances (the dancers form rings and dance while singing). Most of the dances also reflect various work tasks.
Latvia is also known for its traditional folksongs. More than a million quatrains (a group of four lines of verse) reportedly exist. Men played hankies (stringed instruments of varying shapes and designs, found throughout the Baltic sea region, among Finnic peoples as well) and various wind instruments, while women sang.
Paganism Among the deities of the various peoples were Father sky and Mother Earth
Southern Ural Mountains of southwestern Russia
13th century C. E. to present
Turkic; possible Finnic as well
(Mara) and the spirits who aided her, such as the Mother of Forest and Mother of Wind. Thunder is another god, responsible for rain that punishes one’s enemies. Laima is the giver of life and establishes destiny. Velis is a name for the “spirit” after death that travels to the Land of Velis ruled by the Mother of Velis. Religious celebrations revolved around the change of seasons, such as winter and summer solstice, and the growth cycles of crops and various rites of passage.
Conversion to Christianity The Balts were the last European people to convert from paganism to Christianity Many of them still worshipped their old gods and observed their old customs as late as the 16th and even the 17th century Upon its arrival in Lithuania, Christianity eventually did away with many of the old customs and traditions while dressing some others in Christian robes. Christian holidays, such as Christmas and Easter, retained pagan elements, which varied from one ethnographic region to another.
Burials Archaeological investigations indicate that by the second century some Balts, especially those living closer to the coast, stopped using collective burial mounds and instead buried their dead unburned in individual, level skeletal graves. Inland Balts began the practice by the fifth-sixth century
Historians of various medieval cultures depicted the ancient Balts as barbarians to whom the religious orders bore the one true religion and advanced culture. Yet archaeological finds have demonstrated the richness of their traditions.
Philip Bonosky Devils in Amber: The Baltics (New York: International, 1992).
Eric Christiansen. The Northern Crusades (London: New York, 1998).
Marija Gimbutas. The Balts (New York: Praeger, 1963).
Algirdas Sabaliauskas. We, the Balts (Vilnius, Lithuania: Science and Encyclopedia, 1993). Arnold S. Spekke. The Ancient Amber Routes and the Geographical Discovery of the Eastern Baltic (Golden, Colo.: Ares, 1976).
-. Some Problems of Baltic-Slavic Relations in
Prehistoric and Early Historical Times (Milwaukee: Slavic Institute, Marquette University, 1962). Arnold S. Spekke and Omeljan Pritsak. Viking Relations with the Southeastern Baltic/Northwestern Russia: The Perspective of the Slavs, Finns, and
Balts (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute, Harvard University, 1982). Stephen Turnbull. Tannenberg 1410: Disaster for the Teutonic Knights (Oxford: Osprey, 2003).
Nobertas Velius. The World Outlook of the Ancient Balts (Vilnius, Lithuania: Mintis, 1989).