‘Magdeburgien’ in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania:

The Grand Duchy of Lithuania existed between the thirteenth and eighteenth centuries, in personal union with Poland since the end of the fourteenth century and in real union from 1569 onward. Among its urban settlements, the foremost were those – over 250 in number – endowed with the rights of Magdeburg law, under which they governed their own affairs. They amounted to around eight or nine per cent of all municipalities in the Grand Duchy, where small, semi-agrarian market towns were the dominant type of settlement. The historical sources called the settlements under Magdeburg law ‘Magdeburgian towns’ and their residents ‘citizens of Magdeburg law’, while the constitutions of the municipalities and of their courts of law were termed ‘Magdeburgien’. This terminology served to represent the municipality in self-governance and its key components, with the adjective ‘Magdeburgian’ applied to seals, coats of arms, the collections of laws and ordinances called Stadtbücher in German, citizens’ oaths, and municipal officials; its use also originates partly from the academic literature, and it remains firmly anchored in the collective memory of this part of the world.

There were various types of Magdeburgian towns and cities. The largest and most numerous were those termed ‘grand ducal’, which were directly subject to the supreme authority of the Grand Duke and stood on his domains. Just one city in self-administration belonged to the Catholic church: Medininkai (Varniai), the heart of the diocese of Samogitia, which received Magdeburg law in 1635. The Grand Duchy’s noble families granted, or sought the granting of, Magdeburg rights to almost 30 localities in today’s Lithuania and beyond – in Belarus, in Poland and Ukraine. Academics refer to settlements of this type, established in the Grand Duchy in the sixteenth century, as private Magdeburgian towns. To the end of expediting the development of these urban localities, the houses of Sanguškos (in Polish: Sanguszkowie), Chodkevičiai (Chodkiewiczowe), Sapiegos (Sapiehowe), Kiškos, Radvilos (Radziwiłł) and others applied the Magdeburg model to the extant settlements on their private estates. The Radvilos family, part of the Grand Duchy’s political elite since the fifteenth century, took on a leading role in this regard.

Kėdainiai is a typical example of a private Magdeburgian city in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Its first mention in written sources occurred in 1372. Located in central Lithuania on the banks of the river Nevėžis, on the trading routes linking Vilnius and Kaunas with Riga and Kaliningrad, it began to flourish in the fifteenth century, after its gifting to the Radvilos family by Casimir IV Jagiellon, Grand Duke of Lithuania from 1440 to 1492 and additionally King of Poland from 1447 onward. In 1544, Ona Radvilaitė (1525–1560) of the house of Radvilos married Stanislovas Kiška (d. 1554), voivode of Vitebsk, a match that saw Kėdainiai enter the possession of the noble Kiškos family. The couple converted to Protestantism, supporting its then most radical strand, the Anti-Trinitarians, and thus making Kėdainiai into a key centre of the Reformation in the Catholic Grand Duchy. The Kiškos saw to it that Protestant merchants, trades- and craftspeople settled in Kėdainiai, ordered the construction of a river port, and improved and expanded the settlement’s layout and structure. A new, Great Market Square came into being alongside the old marketplace. Jonas Kiška (1547–1592), castellan of Vilnius, continued his parents’ endeavours, achieving the establishment of the first craftsmen’s guild in the city and the construction of a further marketplace beside which the suburb of Knypava came into being and drew German merchants from Kaliningrad to settle there.

On 15 April 1590, upon Jonas Kiška’s request, Sigismund III Vasa, King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania from 1587 to 1632, conferred Magdeburg law upon Kėdainiai. From the point of view of the required formalities, it would have been sufficient for Jonas Kiška himself to grant the privilege of autonomous administration; however, Jonas, like most Lithuanian nobles, was anxious to attain robust legitimacy and prestige, and therefore joined in the common practice of obtaining Magdeburg rights via charter issued by the sovereign. The privilege of 1590 confirmed the entitlement of Kėdainiai and its residents to use ‘Ius Maideburgicum, quod et Theutonicum vocant’ like Vilnius, Kaunas (Kauen) and other municipalities in the Grand Duchy.[1] The Kings of Poland and Grand Dukes of Lithuania were likewise the issuers of all subsequent confirmations of the privilege (in 1648, 1650, 1701, 1762, and 1792). The original document of 1590 conferred on the citizenry the right to use the city’s coat of arms and seal, bearing the heraldic symbols of the Kiškos family.

Kėdainiai’s autonomous administration under Magdeburg law did not achieve its full extent until the first half of the seventeenth century, after another marriage propelled the city back into the hands of the Radvilos family of magnates; its Reformed Protestant branch, the dukes of Biržai und Dubingiai, ruled the city until the end of that century. In 1627, Kėdainiai’s lords, Kristupas II Radvila (1585–1640), Grand Hetman and voivode of Vilnius, and his wife Ona Kiškaitė Radvilienė (1593–1644), granted the city a privilege altering its coat of arms and giving it the right to use elements of the Radvilos family arms for civic purposes – the wing of a one-legged eagle bearing in its claw a horseshoe with three crosses, which last represents a reminiscence of the city’s erstwhile governance by the house of Kiškos. Further documents set out the dates, days and hours of weekly markets and annual fairs, permitted the establishment of additional tradesmen’s and craftsmen’s guilds, and legitimised an merchants’ guild.

Kristupas II Radvila sought to advance Kėdainiai’s development by inviting merchants and skilled craftsmen of various ethnicities and faiths to settle there. During the seventeenth century, the city experienced settlement by its first Jewish residents, alongside an influx of Reformed Scots fleeing religious persecution at home. These latter new arrivals set up business in trade and crafts, building their houses by the Great Market Square in the city centre, and soon gained access to its upper echelons, exerting their influence on the religious life of Kėdainiai’s Reformed parish. A small Orthodox community from the Grand Duchy’s eastern territories settled alongside the Knypava marketplace and had a church built for their worship needs. Thus Kėdainiai, whose life was once dominated by its Lithuanian and Polish residents of the Reformed faith, acquired a multicultural, multi-denominational character.

The construction of a new quarter with its own marketplace followed soon after these developments; it received the name Jonušava, after the son of the city’s then lord. The associated charter (Handfeste), issued in 1643 by Ona Kiškaitė Radvilienė, guaranteed economic privileges and legal immunity to the new district’s settlers, who were primarily German Lutherans and initiated the establishment of a church, a school and a hospital in the quarter.

The reign of Duke Jonušas Radvila (1612–1655) was of such significance to Kėdainiai’s development that he has acquired the epithet of its second founder. He issued Kėdainiai with over 30 charters, regulations and other documents, and called upon the citizenry to involve themselves actively in the city’s administration. At his request, Władysław IV Vasa, Grand Duke of Lithuania and King of Poland from 1632 to 1648, confirmed the city’s privileges on 28 April 1648, renewing and supplementing the Magdeburgian charter of 1590 and extending legal legitimation to two distinct municipalities with Magdeburg law: old Kėdainiai, populated by residents of local origin and Reformed Scots, and ‘new’ Kėdainiai or Jonušava, home of the German Lutherans. Both these communities received the right to their own coats of arms, but were to retain the municipal and juridical institutions, formed by non-discriminatory election, as set out in the regulations issued by Jonušas Radvila in 1647: ‘All officials are to be elected without regard to their nationality, origin or religion’.[2] The ‘oath defined in Magdeburg law’ signalled a citizen’s affiliation and allegiance to his city.[3] A specific decree issued by the city’s lord in 1652 required not only members of its administrative authorities, but also other citizens to take the oath; the latter, upon doing so, received ‘identity cards’ signed by the Lord Mayor and bearing the seals of both ‘old’ Kėdainiai and Jonušava.

Kėdainiai had offices of self-governance after its endowment with Magdeburg law in 1590, with sources making reference to a reeve, mayor, councillors, lay judges and clerks. It was not until the tenure of Jonušas Radvila, however, that the municipality and its court received precise terms for their constitution and regulations governed the activities and privileges of the city’s administrative bodies. In smaller Magdeburgian towns and cities in the Grand Duchy, the reeve, who served as the representative of the ruler to whom the town belonged, was usually a nobleman installed in the office for life. Kėdainiai was a rare exception in this regard, having adopted, on the initiative of Duke Jonušas Radvila, a model of choosing the reeve that had been in place in Kaunas since the end of the sixteenth century and in Vilnius since the early seventeenth century. As of 19 October 1647, the municipality of Kėdainiai had the chartered prerogative of proposing four noblemen of its own choosing to the city’s lord, who would select one of them as reeve.

The Magdeburgian structure in Kėdainiai had clear legal demarcation lines. The city’s privilege of confirmation, issued in 1648, emphasised the necessity of electing six lay judges, two mayors, four councillors and a city clerk ex civibus et per cives[4]. Kėdainiai’s city regulations, issued in 1653, set out the requirement to ‘explicitly separate’ the remits of the city institutions on the basis of the Magdeburgian charter (Handfeste). This meant that all actiones civiles, including contracts and agreements of various types, the taking on of debts, transactions regarding assets, will-making, and other business not related to criminal matters, were the domain of the mayor and councillors. The reeve’s and lay judges’ court heard penal cases.[5] The municipal officials were instructed to draw on existing sources of Magdeburg law in their activities and use imperial law where these did not provide the requisite information.

In other municipalities under Magdeburg law, only part of the community was involved in operating and sustaining the Magdeburgian structures; in Kėdainiai, by contrast, the entire citizenry was part of the system. We know of the existence there, from the end of the sixteenth century, of decemviri (ten-man commissions), and Duke Jonušas Radvila initiated the legitimation by charter of this institution tertius ordo communitatis in the mid-seventeenth century. These representatives of their citizenry, having sworn an oath under Magdeburg law, were charged, among other things, with ‘protecting the privileges, rights, good order and freedoms of the city’.[6] They were present at meetings of the municipal administration in an observer capacity and audited the city’s finances, as well as electing the lay judges, councillors and mayor.

It must be said, however, that Jonušas Radvila did not extend these freedoms and privileges to the city’s growing Jewish community. Kėdainiai’s Jewish residents were subject not to civic jurisdiction, but to that of the ducal court, and settled in a separate area of the city, close to the old market square, where a synagogue was built. Jewish residents also founded some guilds. Jonušas Radvila supported business in the city and the establishment of craftsmen’s guilds; he issued a letter in 1652 inviting German merchants and tradesmen to settle in Kėdainiai, emphasising the favourable location of the city ‘in which trade from Prussia, Latvia, Courland, Samogitia and Lithuania proceeds publicly’ and ‘free exercise of religion, of both the Augsburg and the Lutheran confession, [takes place] with each in their own separate churches, and, what is more, [is] privileged with German Magdeburg law’.[7] Jonušas Radvila also set great store by Kėdainiai’s expansion. In 1654, he limited its residents’ building activities to the construction of stone houses with tiled roofs and the stone paving of squares, streets and courtyards. The Great Market Square received an imposing church for the Protestant Reformed faith, in Renaissance style, and a town hall – both still stand today.

Jonušas Radvila’s specifically targeted activities, the participation of the citizenry in the city’s governance, peaceful coexistence among various faith denominations, and the religious tolerance that characterised life in the city were key factors in its rapid development at this time. By the mid-seventeenth century, Kėdainiai’s population had grown to over 4,000 residents from six different ethno-religious groupings. In Jonušas Radvila’s reign, Kėdainiai became an important centre of Protestant life, with a school for higher academic learning, libraries, and a printing press which in the year 1653 produced the central contemporary Lithuanian printed work, a collection of religious writings in the Lithuanian language (Knyga nobažnystės krikščioniškos) with whose preparation the mayor Steponas Jaugelis-Telega (c. 1600–1668) had been involved.

After the death of Jonušas Radvila, who had joined other nobles in accepting the protection of Protestant Sweden in the Treaty of Kėdainiai concluded in 1655, the city’s peaceful and prosperous existence changed, and the political unrest and violent conflict that erupted after the dissolution of the union with Sweden took their toll. From 1659 onward, Boguslavas Radvila (1620–1669), a cousin of Jonušas, took charge of the city, and fulfilled its residents’ pleas for the restoration of order – specifically of the former Magdeburgian order. In addition to this, he granted trading privileges, founded new craftsmen’s guilds, and renewed and confirmed the city’s administrative regulations. The unstable political situation and the stagnant economy, however, hindered Kėdainiai’s further development. In the eighteenth century, once the ducal line of Biržai and Dubingiai had died out, the city passed into the hands of the Catholic branch of the noble families Nesvyžius and Olyka. Kėdainiai never regained its former flourishing state; yet, thanks to its residents’ efforts, the central elements of Magdeburgian civic structures remained in place. After the dissolution of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth at the end of the eighteenth century and the occupation of the Grand Duchy’s erstwhile territory by Russia, Kėdainiai lost its Magdeburgian administration, but the urbanistic structure of its old town bears witness to this day to what was once the ‘most civic city’ in Lithuania.

By Jolanta Karpavičienė


[1] Lietuvos magdeburginių miestų privilegijos ir aktai [Privileges and documents of Lithuania’s Magdeburgian cities], vol. 3: Kėdainiai, ed. Antanas Tyla, Vilnius 2002, pp. 78–82.

[2] ibid., p. 191.

[3] Ibid., p. 222.

[4] Ibid., p. 200.

[5] Ibid., p. 251.

[6] Ibid., p. 253.

[7] Ibid., pp. 227–229.



Lietuvos magdeburginių miestų privilegijos ir aktai [Privileges and documents of Lithuania’s Magdeburgian cities], vol. 3: Kėdainiai, ed. Antanas Tyla, Vilnius 2002.

Further reading

Algirdas Juknevičius, Kaip „terra Gaudine“ tapo „civitas Caiodunensis“ – Kėdainiai XIV – XVII a. [How ‘terra Gaudine’ became ‘civitas Caiodunensis’], in Miestų praeitis 2 (2010), accessible online at http://senas.istorija.lt/html/mts/mp2/.

Jolanta Karpavičienė, Das sächsisch-magdeburgische Recht in den Kleinstädten Litauens, in Grundlagen für ein neues Europa. Magdeburger und Lübecker Recht in Spätmittelalter und Früher Neuzeit (= Quellen und Forschun­gen zur Geschichte Sachsen-Anhalts 6), ed. Heiner Lück, Matthias Puhle and Andreas Ranft, Cologne/Weimar/Vienna 2009, pp. 83−116.

Marceli Kosman, Kiejdany – historia w cieniu wielkiej legendy [Kėdainiai – in the shadow of the great legend], in Z dziejów kultury prawnej. Studia ofiarowane Profesorowi Juliuszowi Bardachowi w dziewięćdziesięciolecie urodzin [From the history of legal cultures: marking the 90th birthday of Prof. Juliusz Bardach], Warszawa 2004, pp. 539–552.

Edmundas Rimša, Lietuvos privačių miestų herbai [Coats of arms of the private cities and towns of Lithuania], in Lietuvos miestų istorijos šaltiniai [Historical sources from the cities and towns of Lithuania], vol. II, ed. Zigmantas Kiaupa and Edmundas Rimša, Vilnius 2001, pp. 76–168.

Edmundas Rimša, Pieczęcie miast Wielkiego Księstwa Litewskiego [The civic seals of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania], Warszawa 2007.

Antanas Tyla, Kėdainių magdeburginio miesto teisių ir valdymo raida [The development of the privileges and administration of the Magdeburgian city of Kėdainiai], in Lietuvos magdeburginių miestų privilegijos ir aktai [Privileges and documents of Lithuania’s Magdeburgian cities], vol. 3, Kėdainiai, ed. Antanas Tyla, Vilnius 2002, pp. 6–32.

Rimantas Žirgulis, Three Hundred Years of Multiculturalism in Kėdainiai, in The Peoples of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, ed. Grigorijus Potašenko, Vilnius 2002, pp. 130–140.

Cite as:

Jolanta Karpavičienė, Kėdainiai. ‘Magdeburgien’ in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, in Magdeburg Law. A building block of modernen Europe, 25/11/2020, https://magdeburg-law.com/historic-city/Kedainiai/

A version of the original German text previously appeared in Gabriele Köster and Christina Link (eds), Faszination Stadt. Die Urbanisierung Europas im Mittelalter und das Magdeburger Recht (catalogue of the eponymous exhibition, 1 September 2019 – 2 February 2020), Dresden 2019, pp. 263–266.


A history of Christianisation and religious tolerance:

The city of Vilnius finds its first preserved written mention in a letter of 25 January 1323 written by Gediminas, Grand Duke of Lithuania from 1316 to 1341, at a time when the office was not yet held by Christians. Gediminas’ letter was an invitation to Christians from all over the world, and particularly to merchants, craftsmen and tradesmen from German towns and cities (including Magdeburg), to come and settle in Vilnius. Archaeological excavations point to an earlier date for the foundation of this settlement at the confluence of the Neris and the Vilnia, from which latter river it takes its name.

In the fourteenth century, the territory occupied by today’s Vilnius hosted a handful of settlements with various ethno-denominational strata of residents. The inhabitants of what was known as the ‘lower town’ were merchants and practitioners of crafts and trades, supplying goods and services to the Grand Duke’s court. On the other side of the Vilnia was the ‘town in the curve’, home to the local pagan population. We know of written documents testifying to the location – alongside the trading and communications route to the Grand Duchy’s eastern lands – of Vilnius’ civitas ruthenica, where the Orthodox Christian community lived, evidently having arrived from the areas of the Grand Duchy settled by East Slavs (the ancestors of today’s Belarusians and Ukrainians). A population of German Catholics lived in the west of Vilnius; the church of St Nicholas, built to meet their worship needs in a town yet to become Christian, still stands today.

The Christianisation of the Grand Duchy was a decisive factor in Vilnius’ further fortunes. The personal union with Poland established in 1386 and the Catholic baptism of Lithuania in the subsequent year marked the region’s collective turn to the West. This context of ‘Occidentalisation’ and of the spread of Western culture brought, among other things, Magdeburg law to Lithuania. During the baptism of Lithuania in February and March of 1387, Jogaila, Grand Duke of Lithuania from 1377 to 1381 and from 1382 to 1401 and King of Poland between 1386 and 1434, conferred ‘Magdeburg law, called German law’ upon ‘citizens, residents and [upon] the whole community’.[1] Although Vilnius’ population comprised distinct ethno-denominational segments, the city’s endowment with Magdeburg law represented an attempt to forge a unified citizenry and place it on solid legal foundations. Eventually, Magdeburg law evolved into a model for a type of self-administration in line with Western principles, for Vilnius and other Lithuanian municipalities. The subsequent advancement of the Grand Duchy’s urbanisation unfolded in alignment with that of municipal self-administration under Magdeburg rights. Around 250 cities, towns and smaller settlements in the Grand Duchy, in areas variously belonging today to Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, Poland and Russia, received Magdeburg law in the course of the four centuries that followed.

Sources from this period are too scarce for us to reconstruct in detail the beginnings of autonomous administration in Vilnius after its endowment with Magdeburg law. For more specific insights into this law’s application, we rely on privileges issued subsequently. Foremost among these is the charter granted to Vilnius in 1432 by Grand Duke Sigismund (Žygimantas) Kęstutaitis (reigned 1432–1440). ‘Jus Theutonicum quod Magdeburiense dicitur’, or, in the Ruthenian version, ‘prawo nemeckoje Magdeburskoje’, was to be considered as conferred upon the entire city, to both the Catholic citizenry and residents and the Ruthenians – ‘civibus et incolis […] tam fidei catholicae cultoribus quam etiam ruthenis’.[2] The first of these definitions encompassed Germans, Poles and Lithuanians baptised Catholic; the second referred to Orthodox East Slavs. This charter and subsequent privileges of confirmation assure Vilnius and Kraków of their mandate to retain Magdeburg law – the then Polish capital is an exemplar of the eastward spread of Saxon-Magdeburg law from eastern Central Europe. Over time, Vilnius took on an outpost role in this respect, cited as an example for other cities and towns in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania when it came to the conferment of Magdeburg law.

The practice of granting Magdeburg law to apply both to Catholics and to Orthodox was likewise usual in the privileges of confirmation issued by later monarchs keen to strengthen the economic and social position of Vilnius as their capital. The reign of Alexander Jagiellon (Grand Duke of Lithuania from 1492 to 1506, additionally King of Poland from 1501) was a significant period in this context. As well as confirming and extending the extant Magdeburg rights, Alexander decreed numerous new regulations of benefit to the city, including tax and toll relief and staple rights, and established Vilnius’ first craftsmen’s guilds. His most significant reform was the privilege he issued in 1505 which ordered the construction of a city wall, giving Vilnius a topographical and urbanistic structure of a type characteristic of the newly-established cities of eastern Central Europe during the eastward settlement of Germans in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Vilnius’ fifteenth-century town hall was the seat of its administration.

A letter issued on 9 September 1536 by Sigismund I the Old (reigned 1506/07–1548), Grand Duke of Lithuania and King of Poland, set out precise terms for the internal constitution of Vilnius, aligned with the ethno-religious composition of its population. Its Council comprised 24 councillors and twelve mayors, each of whom held their office for life. Half of the officials were Catholic and the other half Orthodox; the sources indeed refer to the ‘Catholic’ (or even the ‘Lithuanian’) and the ‘Ruthenian side’ of the Council. The ‘sitting Council’ was the active committee of this body, consisting of six of the thirty-six members (councillors and mayors) at a time, chosen on a rota basis with ethno-denominational parity – two of the four councillors and one mayor were Catholic and likewise for the Orthodox. Sigismund I’s letter directed that the city treasury and the privileges were to be kept in a box with four locks; the Catholic mayor was to hold two of the keys and the Orthodox mayor the other two.

Sigismund I additionally instituted a separation between the remits of the Council and the lay judges’ bench, with the reeve and the bench possessing the right to use a distinct seal which – like that of Magdeburg’s Schöffenstuhl – showed Christ as Judge. This parallel symbolically embodies the shared identity tying together the European cities that were under Magdeburg law. As a rule, between four and twelve lay judges served in Vilnius, half of them Orthodox and half Catholic. This principle of parity extended to the administration and auditing of the city’s finances and to the city’s clerical offices, with Catholic and Ruthenian clerks assigned to the Council and the lay judges’ court. The spread of Protestantism commencing in the mid-fifteenth century and the establishment of the United Church did not effect fundamental change to the dual structure of the city’s constitution under Magdeburg law, but did modify to a degree the ethno-denominational composition of its administrative bodies. Protestants joined the Catholic and United church members the Orthodox side of the Council or the bench. The United Church in Vilnius had more members than did the Orthodox community, which eventually, from the end of the sixteenth century, saw the ‘Orthodox’ become the ‘United’ side. Reeves, however, were always Catholic. The Magdeburian constitution of Vilnius remained intact until the dissolution of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

An analogous ethno-religious proportionality was in evidence in the merchants’ guild (communitas mercatoriae) of Vilnius, a body comprising 60 men which, in the mid-seventeenth century, gained the right to exert direct influence on the city’s administration and in the monitoring of its financial affairs. The craftsmen’s guilds similarly followed various principles of ethno-denominational diversity and corresponding representation. The statutes of the capmakers’ guild, for instance, approved in 1636, stipulated the annual election of four guildmasters (senjores/starszyje) – two Catholics and two adherents of the United Church – as administrative officials. The administration of the tanners’ guild consisted of two Catholics, two United Church members and two Lutherans, referred to as ‘Germans’ in the guild’s statutes of 1672. Beginning in 1663, the members of the locksmiths’ guild held annual elections of two guildmasters ‘from among Lithuanians’, that is, Catholics, and the third ‘from among Germans’, i.e. Lutherans.

Until the mid-seventeenth century, Vilnius enjoyed what the literature has termed a ‘golden age’, blossoming into an important point of intersection for East-West trade. It continued as the capital of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and at this point counted over 20,000 residents from various ethnic groups and religious denominations, living in peaceful coexistence. Alongside Vilnius’ Lithuanian, Polish, German and Ruthenian populations lived people of nationalities íncluding Italian, Hungarian and Dutch. Most of the city’s residents were Catholic and attended one of its 23 Catholic churches; there were also nine United churches and one each for the Orthodox, Lutheran and Calvinist denominations. The city’s Tartar population, the descendants of fourteenth-century immigrants from the Crimea to the Grand Duchy, who lived at the city’s fringes, and the Jewish residents who had successively moved to the city, had mosques and synagogues respectively. The non-Christian communities of Vilnius lived under separate privileges granted them by the rulers of the time. Tartars and Jews did not possess citizens’ rights and did not fall under the jurisdiction of the Magdeburian administration.

Vilnius’ constitution under Magdeburg law did not encompass the entirety of the city’s territory. Some particular districts, known in German as Jurisdiken, were subject to state authorities, the Bishop of Vilnius, other ecclesiastical institutions, or the nobility. The disruption these circumstances caused to the city’s administrative, territorial and legal unity was both reflected and countered in the need they inspired for Vilnius to seek and identify a joint way forward. The religious groupings and denominations lived relatively peacefully alongside one another in the city, as we know from sources including written communications between the authorities governing Vilnius’ various administrations. Occasional conflicts in periods of religious unrest were nevertheless inevitable, and included the clashes between Catholics and Calvinists in the first half of the seventeenth century which resulted in the latter’s place of worship being moved extra muros. Major altercations with significant bloodshed did not occur, and religious tolerance generally continued to prevail.

From the mid-seventeenth century onward, however, Vilnius faced highly unfavourable conditions for its continued development. Troops from Moscow besieged it for six years, plundering it and wreaking destruction; at this time the city sustained the loss of substantial holdings from its archives, as suffered similarly by Magdeburg during the Thirty Years’ War. After the end of its occupation by Russia between 1655 and 1661, Vilnius recovered slowly, but continued to struggle with troublesome tendencies in the political, social and economic development of the Grand Duchy. Economic decline set limits on foreign trade; permanent military conflict with Sweden and Russia, the Great Northern War, epidemics of plague, and famines weakened agriculture, shrank the urban population, and altered the city’s ethnic and denominational mix.

Despite all the ensuing damage and difficulty, Vilnius remained the largest city in the Grand Duchy’s territory to govern itself via Magdeburg law, which its citizenry prized as the core of their social standing and which undergirded their collective confidence. The city’s elite defended its legal immunity with reference to its privileges under Saxon or Magdeburg law.

When, in 1776, a decree of the Sejm led to the dissolution of authorities of self-administration in numerous cities in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Vilnius retained Magdeburg law, whose career in Lithuania did not end with the demise of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1795; after the incorporation of most of the erstwhile Grand Duchy into Tsarist Russia, Magdeburg law continued in force, at a formal level, in the centres of the Russian administrative districts and particularly so in Vilnius. The external loss of its autonomy notwithstanding, the city retained its internal Magdeburian constitution, and its institutions their application of Saxon-Magdeburg law; their official letters to the Tsarist authorities noted explicitly that Vilnius adhered to Magdeburg law and its time-honoured privileges. As time passed, however, successively tightening restrictions burdened this autonomous administration, increasing swathes of which found themselves subsumed into the Russian imperial system. The Duma, created in 1808 pursuant to Russian laws, took on administrative functions that had previously been the business of the Council or the city authorities. Five years after this, the office of reeve was abolished and the lay judges’ bench dismissed. There followed the announcement in 1840 of the final abolition of the Statutes of Lithuania and of Saxon-Magdeburg law in the western parts of the Russian Empire, including Lithuania. This saw the end of Magdeburg law’s application in Vilnius. The dissolution of the independent municipal authorities came in 1866.

Diversity of ethnicity and faith is a tradition of Vilnius which has endured through the centuries and to this day, with various religious, national and cultural groups living together in peace in a city whose historic heart was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1994.

By Jolanta Karpavičienė


[1] Zbiór praw y przywilejów miastu stołecznemu W.X.L. Wilnowi nadanych [Compendium of rights and privileges for Vilnius, the capital of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania], ed. Piotr Dubiński, Wilno 1788, p. 1

[2] Ibid., pp. 2–5.



Zbiór praw y przywilejów miastu stołecznemu W.X.L. Wilnowi nadanych [Compendium of rights and privileges for Vilnius, the capital of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania], ed. Piotr Dubiński, Wilno 1788.

Further reading

Henryk Baranowski, Bibliografia Wilna [Bibliography of Vilnius], vol. 2, Miasto [city], with contributions from Z. Baranowska and J. Goławska, Toruń, 2000; vol. 3, za lata 1999–2005 oraz uzupełnienia [for 1999–2005, with supplementary additions], with contributions from J. Goławska, Toruń 2007.

Juliusz Bardach, Ustrój miast na prawie magdeburskim w Wielkim Księstwie Litewskim do połowy XVII wieku [Constitution of the towns and cities in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania endowed with Magdeburg law, to the mid-seventeenth century], in Juliusz Bardach: O dawnej i niedawnej Litwie [On Lithuania old and new], Poznań 1988, pp. 72–119.

David Frick (ed.), Wilnianie. Żywoty siedemnastowieczne [People of Vilnius: Life in the seventeenth century] (= Bibliotheca Europae Orientalis, vol. 32, Fontes 2), Warszawa 2008.

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Cite as:

Jolanta Karpavičienė, Vilnius. A history of Christianisation and religious tolerance, in Magdeburg Law. A building block of modernen Europe, 25/11/2020, https://magdeburg-law.com/historic-city/Vilnius/

A version of the original German text previously appeared in Gabriele Köster and Christina Link (eds), Faszination Stadt. Die Urbanisierung Europas im Mittelalter und das Magdeburger Recht (catalogue of the eponymous exhibition, 1 September 2019 – 2 February 2020), Dresden 2019, pp. 257–261.