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History of Lithuania

Early History

The first people arrived on the territory of modern Lithuania in the 10th millennium BC after the glaciers had retreated and the last glacial period had ended. According to historian Marija Gimbutas, the people came from two directions: from the Jutland Peninsula and from present-day Poland. They brought two different cultures as evidenced by the tools they used. They were travelling hunters and did not form more stable settlements. In the 8th millennium BC, the climate became much warmer and forests developed. The people started to gather berries and mushrooms from the forests and fish in the local rivers and lakes. They traveled less. During the 6th-5th millennium BC, people domesticated various animals, the houses became more sophisticated and could shelter larger families. Agriculture did not arrive until the 3rd millennium BC because there were no efficient tools to cultivate the land. Crafts and trade also started to form at this time. Proto-Indo-Europeans came around 2500 BC, and the identity of the Balts formed about 2000 BC.

The first Lithuanians were a branch of an ancient group known as the Balts, whose tribes also included the original Prussian and Latvian people. The Baltic tribes were not directly influenced by the Roman Empire, but the tribes did maintain close trade contacts

The first written mention of Lithuania is found in a medieval German manuscript, the Quedlinburg Chronicle, on 14 February 1009.

Grand Duchy of Lithuania

During the 11th century, Lithuanian territories were included in the list of lands paying tribute to Kievan Rus', but by the 12th century, the Lithuanians were plundering neighbouring territories themselves. The military and plundering activities of the Lithuanians triggered a struggle for power in Lithuania, which initiated the formation of early statehood and was a precondition of the founding of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.

In the early 13th century two German religious orders, the Teutonic Knights and the Livonian Brothers of the Sword, conquered much of the area that is now Estonia and Latvia, in addition to parts of Lithuania. In response, a number of small Baltic tribal groups united under the rule of Mindaugas and soundly defeated the Livonians at Šiauliai in the Battle of Saule in 1236. In 1250 Mindaugas signed an agreement with the Teutonic Order and in 1251 was baptized in their presence by the bishop of Chełmno (in Chełmno Land.) On 6 July 1253, Mindaugas was crowned as King of Lithuania and state was proclaimed as Kingdom of Lithuania. However, Mindaugas was later murdered by his nephew Treniota which resulted in great unrest and a return to paganism. In 1241, 1259 and 1275 the kingdom was ravaged by raids from the Golden Horde.

In 1316, Gediminas, with the aid of colonists from Germany, began restoration of the land. The brothers Vytenis and Gediminas united various groups into one Lithuania.

Gediminas extended Lithuania to the east by challenging the Mongols who, at that time, Mongol invasion of Rus'. Through alliances and conquest the Lithuanians gained control of significant parts of the territory of Rus. This area included most of modern Belarus and Ukraine and created a massive Lithuanian state that stretched from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea.

When Gediminas was slain, his son Algirdas suppressed the monasteries, but Algirdas's son, Jogaila, again made overtures to the Teutonic Order and concluded a secret treaty with them. His uncle Kęstutis took him prisoner and a civil war ensued. Kęstutis was eventually captured, imprisoned and put to death, but Kęstutis's son Vytautas escaped.

Jadwiga of Poland was strongly urged by the Poles to marry Jogaila who had become the Grand Duke of Lithuania in 1377 and for the good of Christianity, Jadwiga consented and married Jogaila three days after he was baptised. Jogaila and Lithuanians in general favoured this marriage as the alliance with Poland gave them a powerful ally against the constant threat of Germany and Muscovy from the east.

On February 2, 1386, the Polish Parliament (Sejm) elected Jogaila as King of Poland. Before Jogaila was Crowned as a king of Poland, the second and the final Christianisation of Lithuania was carried out.

Lithuania remained sovereign state but the highest social class in Lithuanian nobility became increasingly influenced by Christian culture and language and the countries grew closer. Many cities were granted the German system of laws (Magdeburg rights), with the largest of these being Vilnius, which since 1322 was the capital city of Grand Duchy of Lithuania.

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