Vilnius Show on the map

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.

David Frick, Kith, Kin, and Neighbors: Communities and Confessions in Seventeenth-century Wilno, Ithaca/London 2013.

Jolanta Karpavičienė, Magdeburger Stadtrecht im Großfürstentum Litauen im europäischen Kontext, in Akten des 36. Deutschen Rechtshistorikertages, Halle an der Saale, 10. – 14. September 2006, ed. Rolf Lieberwirth and Heiner Lück, Baden-Baden 2008, pp. 489–509.

Kęstutis Katalynas, Vilniaus plėtra XIV– XVII a. [Expansion of Vilnius in the fourteenth to the seventeenth centuries], Vilnius 2006.

Zigmantas Kiaupa, Some Characteristics of the Municipal System of Lithuanian Towns under Magdeburg Law in the Late Middle Ages, in Muzeum Historyczne Miasta Krakowa (ed), Europejskie miasta prawa magdeburskiego. Tradycja, dziedzictwo, identyfikacja. Sesja komparatystyczna Kraków, 13–15 października 2006, Materiały konferencyjne. European Cities of Magdeburg Law. Tradition, Heritage, Identity: A Comparative Conference, Kraków, October 13–15, 2006, Conference Proceedings, Kraków 2007, pp. 129–135.

Aivas Ragauskas, Vilniaus miesto valdantysis elitas XVII a. antrojoje pusėje (1662–1702 m.) [The ruling elite of the city of Vilnius in the second half of the seventeenth century], Vilnius 2002.

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

Cite as:

Jolanta Karpavičienė, Vilnius. A history of Christianisation and religious tolerance, in Magdeburg Law. A building block of modernen Europe, 25/11/2020,

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.