ISSN 0024-5089
Copyright © 2015 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.

Volume 61, No.1 - Spring  2015
Editor of this issue: Almantas Samalavièius

Book Review

David Frick. Kith, Kin, and Neighbors: 
Communities and Confessions in Seventeenth-Century Wilno 
Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2013. IS BN 978-0-8014-5128-7. $69.75. 

Vilnius is a city that bridges West and East in the popular thinking of many Lithuanians. Its Old Town has streets and quarters with interesting names that must have had more appropriate significance at one time. Glass, Horse, and Meet Shop Streets; Jewish, German, and Tartar Streets; Mill Alley; Market Square, Fish Market, and Little Market are just some examples. Folktales and urban legends attempt to account for some names and locations. The names allude to a wealth of rich and diverse narratives about the city. The challenge is to imagine the past of the city with its anecdotes, without reifying the past. 

David Frick has researched the social and cultural history of seventeenth-century Vilnius, primarily using two censuses. Wùadysùaw IV Waza, king of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and grand duke of Lithuania, made five trips to Vilnius, the second capital city. His vast retinue included his royal court and even an Italian opera company. His quartermaster was tasked with locating suitable lodgings before each visit, a daunting challenge. He not only records who lived where, but also what they did for a living, where they worked, and who they housed as tenants. Guild records provide information about business circles. Church baptismal, marriage, and death registers reveal a much larger network of circles. Court documents shed light on social conflicts within the city. Frick brings this formidable information together to paint a detailed picture of the religious, cultural, social, and business life of Vilnius.

Around 1650, Vilnius is a city of some twenty thousand Poles, Lithuanians, Germans, Ruthenians (speakers of East Slavic dialects that would later become Byelorussian), Jews, and Tartars, speaking six different native languages. Polish was the lingua franca (Frick opts for Polish spelling and nomenclature in his book). Five Christian denominations have houses of worship, as do Jews and Muslims. The university brings students from across the commonwealth and beyond. The markets supply the city with local and regional vegetables, fruits, and meats. The guilds and craftsmen market their wares within the city through market places and well beyond though far-flung trade routes. 

Frick traces the travels of the quartermaster in mapping out the demographics and buildings of the city. Generally, burghers owned real estate in neighborhoods along confessional lines, but rented beds and rooms based on market forces. Clergy called upon their flocks to avoid religious communion with other denominations, apparently to no avail. Lutherans served as godparents to Catholic children as frequently as Uniates (Byzantine-rite Catholics) intermarried with Orthodox. Interfaith godparenting and marriages served to develop business networks or cross hierarchical social divisions. Jews and Muslim Tartars maintained clearer lines of religious separation. Frick often uses cemeteries to determine the religion of residents, because of the complex web of interconfessional marriages and second marriages, especially in the case of widows. Housing was cramped and offered little privacy. A bed could be located in a hallway, or a bedroom could sleep several unrelated tenants, resulting in many court cases to settle domestic disputes. 

Calendars served as another source of conflict. The Gregorian (Western Christian) and Julian (Eastern Christian) calendars, as well as the Jewish and Muslim, had conflicting holiday dates. Catholics and Orthodox Christiams celebrated Marian holidays and saints’ days; the Protestants largely did not. Religious calendars impacted secular holidays, based on the Western calendar. This affected everyday schedules: Residents of one confession could be fasting, while others engaged in religious revelries, with song, dance, and aromatic, rich meals. Markets could be closed for some, while others were trying to address grievances in court. 

Vilnius had multiple jurisdictions as well. The church, the nobility, the guilds, religions (such as the Roman Catholic Bishop, the Jews, and the Tartars), and the magistracy all had different, overlapping realms of authority in the city. This led to occasional juridical confusion. For example, a craftsman with a complaint about the public drunkenness of university students near his shop had to figure out which court held jurisdiction and which might be predisposed to rule in his favor. Domestic violence and spousal abuse occurred, with the courts granting separations and divorces. Court cases were heard quickly, within days if not hours of filing. Most legal and commercial documents were written in Polish, although exceptions were frequent. Some documents contain multiple languages: A document written in Polish or German could include Latin, Ruthenian, or Polish inserts that flawlessly follow the grammar of each language. Courts used Polish, but apparently resorted to local languages to overcome the linguistic limitations of some petitioners. 

Education was complex. Churches sponsored faith-based primary schools. Promising Catholic pupils could travel elsewhere to study or end up at Vilnius University, which had about 1,100 students in the lower levels and 110 students in theology and philosophy. Lutheran schools prepared to send their pupils to Königsberg or elsewhere in Germany. The Reformed school sent their graduates to German Calvinist universities. Orthodox families, without an institute of higher learning of their own, sent their sons to Catholic or Protestant universities, but apparently not to Greek, Bulgarian, or Turkish ones. Burghers sought to send their sons abroad to continue or complete their studies. Most residents did not belong to the elites nor receive an education. The guilds accepted apprentices and journeymen, preparing them to become masters. The guilds provided economic, fraternal, social, and religious benefits to their members. Even the poor were allowed to form a guild built on principles of self-help; this extended to the elderly of the city. Such efforts supplemented the charity offered by churches. 

The most profound political event of the century was the six-year Muscovite invasion and occupation of Vilnius. Many residents of all confessions fled to exile, especially to Königsberg. Poland was no safe haven against Muscovy. When Russians migrated into abandoned residences, disputes over legal ownership quickly ensued. The city returned to normal commercial life under the new government, along with more ownership conflicts. The Orthodox rose in prominence during the new political situation, while the Uniates felt oppression. 

Frick concludes his cultural history of Vilnius with an epilogue on “Conflict and Coexistence.” Vilnius serves as an example of a post-Renaissance, multiethnic, and multireligious city in Europe, comparable only to Lvov. For all the romantic notions of harmonious life, Vilnius had the same types of social and violent conflict as other European cities. Jews, in particular, suffered periodic violent attacks. The Catholic elite at the University were prone to harass Protestants, verbally and physically. Vilnius also had its share of violent crime. Frick argues Vilnius achieved tolerance among the Christian denominations. Roman Catholics, at least theoretically, were equal partners with the Protestants and Orthodox in terms of magistracy and commerce. Restrictions during the second half of the century increased Roman Catholic prominence. The Uniate Catholics felt disadvantaged by both their Roman coreligionists and the Orthodox Christians. 

Frick is Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of California-Berkley. He is proficient in Polish, Slavonic, and Russian, and holds credentials in history as well. He provides a meticulous study of cultural life from a variety of disparate sources. Independent of one other, they could only leave a murky impression of seventeenth century Vilnius. Frick provides scrupulous detail, almost to a fault, and proposes credible conclusions for the dynamics he uncovers. I can only imagine the card file he must have created, with thousands of names and notes from all his sources. These allowed him to connect the dots between the different spheres of life in Vilnius. He does share interesting anecdotes about the Glass, Horse and Meet Shop Streets; Jewish, German, and Tartar Streets; Mill Alley; and Market Square, Fish Market, and Little Market mentioned earlier. Frick’s research emphasizes religious interconfessional relationships in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. His current book, Kith, Kin, and Neighbors, with its emphasis on complex religious intersections, serves as a major milestone in his greater research project. 

Vilius Rudra Dundzila