Feb 252019

On this date in 1336 4,000 defenders of the hill fort of Pilėnai in the grand duchy of Lithuania committed mass suicide rather than be taken captive by Teutonic Knights. The location of Pilėnai is now unknown and is the subject of academic debates, but it is well known in the history of Lithuania due to its heroic defense against the Teutonic Order in 1336. The fortress, commanded by duke Margiris, attacked by a large Teutonic force, tried in vain to organize a defense against the larger and stronger invader. Losing hope, the defenders decided to burn their property and commit mass suicide to deprive the Order of prisoners and loot.

The attack and the defense of Pilėnai were briefly mentioned in several contemporary chronicles, including Epitome gestorum Prussiae (Brief History of Prussia) by a Sambian canon, Der Chronist von Wolfenbüttel (Chronicler of Wolfenbüttel), Annalista Thorunensis (Annals of Thorn), and Kurze Reimchronik von Preussen (Short Rhymed Chronicle of Prussia). However, these sources recite the basic facts and do not provide enough information to reconstruct the events.

The only contemporary source that describes the events in greater detail is the chronicle of Wigand of Marburg. However, Wigand’s original German text has not survived. His work is known from a Latin translation commissioned by Jan Długosz in 1464. Several excerpts of the original German text were published by Caspar Schütz (died 1594) and Stanislaus Bornbach (died 1597). When Theodor Hirsch prepared Wigand’s chronicle for publication in Scriptores Rerum Prussicarum, he included these excerpts alongside the Latin translation. In particular, Hirsch believed that Schütz’s text on Pilėnai was more complete and accurate copy of Wigand than the Latin translation. This opinion has been widely accepted and historians used Schütz’s text, which paints a much more heroic and dramatic picture of Pilėnai, as Wigand’s original. This long-standing belief has been challenged by Lithuanian historian Darius Baronas. He has shown that Schütz’s text was an unreliable and embellished retelling of Wigand’s work. Therefore, the only reliable source is the Latin translation of Wigand’s chronicle.

The Teutonic Order waged a decades-long Crusade against the grand duchy of Lithuania in hopes of converting it to Christianity. In early 1336, the Order organized a major campaign into Lithuania. Their force included Louis, Margrave of Brandenburg, counts of Henneberg (most likely Johann I, Count of Henneberg) and Namur (most likely Guy II, Marquis of Namur), and other nobles from France and Austria. In total, according to Wigand of Marburg, there were 200 nobles. Another German chronicle, Der Chronist von Wolfenbüttel, counted a total of 6,000 soldiers.

Let’s pause for a minute here and take stock of what was happening. The Teutonic Order was created out of the general milieu of crusading at a time when Crusaders had suffered many defeats in Palestine. The Crusades were initiated to “free” Christian holy sites, such as Jerusalem and Bethlehem, from Muslim occupation so that Christians could go on pilgrimages – safely. Understandable in a way, although there were also Muslim holy sites in those regions also. The underlying issue was a simple head on collision of cultures – Islam vs Christianity. By the time of the Crusades this collision had been underway a very long time. With Palestine firmly in Muslim hands in the 14th century, the Teutonic Order turned its attention elsewhere, and found a suitable adversary in the non-Christian regions of the Baltic States. Their stated aim was to convert those regions to Christianity – supposedly for their own good – by whatever means necessary. Killing, raping, pillaging, and enslavement were all on the agenda – very Christian!!!

We do need to remember that Christians burned heretics alive at this time – for their own good. So they were being consistent – that is, consistently awful. We also need to remember that the Lithuanians were no teddy bears either. They routinely sacked and pillaged areas of the Holy Roman Empire and so needed to be contained in some way. They also had their own nasty habits when it came to their treatment of those captured in war that I won’t repeat here in case you have just eaten. Christianizing them, however, would only mean that they traded one hideous set of practices for another. I am not knocking Christianity, by the way, only what medieval holy orders believed Christianity was. “I am going to burn you alive to prove what a gentle and loving follower of Jesus I am” is not a message I approve of.

On the feast day of Saint Matthias (which was February 25th that year, because it is 6 days (inclusive) before the 1st of March and 1336 was a leap year), a large force of Teutonic Knights attacked Pilėnai, located in Trapėnai land, where around 4,000 people from four different lands sought shelter from the invasion. Wigand’s description of further events paints a chaotic and bloody scene. He claims that the people panicked as soon as they saw the Christian army and decided to burn their belongings and commit suicide. It was said that one old woman killed a hundred people with an ax before killing herself. Others managed to escape on horseback. Duke Margiris attempted to organize a defense, but soon was overwhelmed by the attackers who threw burning wood and stones into the fortress. Margiris then cut his wife with a sword, threw her body into the fire, and killed his loyal guards and followers. Thus, Pilėnai fell and the Order collected the remaining prisoners and loot. Kurze Reimchronik von Preussen mentioned that 5,000 people were killed and only a handful escaped.

That is all of the information available from contemporary sources. Later historians and authors added many heroic and dramatic details. For example, they added a large pyre and murder of children and women; the 4,000 people seeking shelter in the fortress became 4,000 armed soldiers; Lithuanians bravely and determinedly defended the fortress but chose death over converting to Christianity and becoming slaves of the Order; Margiris cut his wife in half and then killed himself; the Teutonic soldiers were moved by the terrible sight and noble sacrifice and returned to Prussia without loot. Possibly some of these details were inspired by similar events from the antiquity, including mass suicides in Astapa following the destruction of Illiturgis (206 BCE), to “death or victory” defense of Abydos (200 BCE), and mass suicide during the desperate Siege of Masada (c. 74 CE). It is difficult, if not impossible, to evaluate all the descriptions because our main source is a German chronicler who saw Lithuanians as heathens and enemies.

I have given quite a number of Lithuanian recipes in past posts, so you can take your pick of them, or follow this one for šaltibarščiai, cold beetroot soup made with kefir (fermented mare’s milk).