Letters of Gediminas, the first communication campaign of Lithuania, turn 696

In 1323 the Grand Duke of Lithuania Gediminas wrote a letter inviting craftsmen, merchants, knights and farmers from the Western countries to come to Lithuania. The name of Vilnius was mentioned for the first time ever, and therefore the date of this letter is considered to be the birthday of Vilnius. Nevertheless, introduction of Vilnius was not the main aim of Gediminas’s letter. What did the ruler of Lithuania actually want to achieve? Could we call these letters the first international communication campaign of Lithuania and if so, was it successful?

Extraordinary action

“Duke Gediminas sent letters to three addressees namely, the Pope of Rome, cities under the Hanseatic League and the monks of the Dominican order and the Franciscan order.

In his letters, the Duke described the conflict with the Teutonic Order from his point of view and also did what was quite popular in Europe at that time namely, invited merchants, craftsmen and representatives of almost all social groups to come to live in Lithuania” tells Mr Rimvydas Petrauskas, historian and professor at History Faculty of Vilnius University, one of the most known experts of Medievalism in the country.

He states that writing letters was a momentous decision made by the Duke, because nothing similar has happened in Lithuania before and long after. Also, considering that writing was just emerging in Lithuania at that time, the form of a letter was an innovative way of communication.

Rewritten and circulated

In Middle Ages, Lithuania was a heathen country and though being recently united and becoming stronger, it was isolated politically. Thus, Gediminas wanted to find a peaceful way to communicate with the Christian West Europe. It was the first diplomatic attempt to establish Lithuania’s position in Europe, stop attacks by the Teutonic Order and stimulate economic growth in Lithuania.

“Gediminas did not have many choices at that time; there were no yet newspapers to disseminate the news and information, thus letters were forwarded by messengers.

In one of his letters, the Duke asked to rewrite the letter ant attach its copy to the church door whereas the original version should be sent further. It is a kind of viral campaign of that time, when letters and transcripts thereof were going from hand to hand, and the church door served as the Facebook wall nowadays” says Mrs Rita Saunorytė Norutienė, Managing Partner of Agency 1323.

“At that time in Europe people did not read privately, and a piece of information published in a public place such as the door of a church was one of the most effective ways of publicity. Gediminas also sent letters to the monks of the Dominican order and the Franciscan order. Probably it was presumed that letters would be rewritten in the monasteries and announced to the public as well as forwarded elsewhere, in this way reaching as much audience as it was possible under conditions existing at that time” tells R. Petrauskas.

Attempt to downplay the importance of the letters

Letters of Gediminas encountered some difficulties on their way to the addressees: it is known that  members of the Teutonic Order seized one letter and broke the seal of the Duke, thus trying to diminish reliability of the letter.

“A seal of a country ruler was used to confirm the authenticity and validity of a document. In his subsequent letters Gediminas resented such conduct of the Teutonic Order, because it interrupted his communication channel” explains the historian.

“If to compare with the present time, the breach of the seal would be the same as if hackers broke down a website or seized an email and attempted to falsify the announced information or published fake news” adds communication specialist.

According to R. Petrauskas, it was a form of information war in the Middle Ages, and that war is characteristic to every epoch, differing only in the methods and technologies used.

Attractive offer formulated

“When inviting Western foreigners to come to Lithuania, the Duke Gediminas offered tax concessions, granted plots of lands and various privileges. It is the same as nowadays favourable tax conditions offered by free economic zones or various incentives offered by the governments to the coming investors” says R. Saunorytė Norutienė.

According to the history professor, the Duke was well aware of the invitation conditions, and he offered the things which were the most attractive to the newcomers.

“But just sending invitation was not enough. It was important to provide the newcomers with free life and guarantee the same life quality that they were used to. Here one should have in mind that Lithuania was still a heathen country at that time, but Gediminas invited Christians to come and live in his country, mentioning there were some churches already built and promising to build even more of them.

Gediminas wanted to attract the most valuable assets of that time namely, the people who were familiar with new technologies and knew how to use them, who knew how to farm, trade and do crafts. In any European country newcomers were the ones who would stimulate economic growth and it seems that Gediminas was well aware of that” explains R. Petrauskas.

The then opinion formers

In addition to the residents of the cities of Hanseatic League, letters of Gediminas were also sent to the Pope of Rome, bishops and the Dominican order and the Franciscan order.

“It was a kind of addressing the opinion formers of that time with the view to present them with information directly so that they were aware of Lithuania’s position and possibly support it when any relevant issues will need to be settled in the future” says communication specialist.

“In my opinion, Gediminas has chosen addressees very properly and successfully. If he really wanted to be christened, he must have negotiated this question with the Pope. But if he wanted the Western Europe to hold the opinion that activities of the Teutonic Order aimed not only to promote Christianity, first of all, he had to gain amiability of the Pope and his surroundings.

Also, sending letters to the cities was another good solution. Cities belonging to the Hanseatic League in the Northern part of Germany were highly interested in trading in the Baltic Sea region, and thus there were many chances that they would respond to Gediminas’s invitation” says R. Petrauskas.

A gift left for us

There are 6 letters of Gediminas that have remained until nowadays. He wrote those letters within the period of two years which means it was a very active communication. But the most important thing here is that these letters in part achieved their purposes.

“Gediminas did not accept Christianity, but in addition to military means, his diplomatic policy proved to be a very effective way to fight against the Teutonic Order. Besides, the year 1323 marks the first written international treaty signed by the heathen Lithuania and Livonia, obligating to keep truce for 10 years. This treaty helped the Lithuanian ruler to recover a little bit from the war with the Teutonic Order” summarizes R. Petrauskas.

In the 14th century, when letters of Gediminas were written and sent, Vilnius and Polockas were inhabited by small yet powerful communities of the German merchants. In Vilnius, they settled in the area of the present Vokiečių (German) Street around St Nicholas Church and became an important cultural part of the city, in addition to the already existing communities of Lithuanians and Ruthenians.

“It can be concluded that the first international communication campaign of Lithuania was successful, because most of its aims were achieved at least in part and one could hardly expect to achieve more considering the then conditions” sums up R. Saunorytė Norutienė. “Besides, Gediminas has left a gift to the future generations which he probably was not thinking about at the time: his letters are the written documents mentioning the name of Vilnius for the first time, and in the years to come we will celebrate this date as the birthday of Vilnius”.