Battles in the History of Medieval Lithuania

  • Tomas Baranauskas
Keywords: medieval warfare, Lithuanian battles, fights with the Teutonic Order, expansion to the Ruthenian lands


Battles are defined as military encounters involving formations sufficient to act under their individual banners. These can be armies of individual dukes or counties or lands. The minimal threshold for a military encounter to be defined as a battle is that it should involve not fewer than 300 combatants on each side. Smaller encounters are defined as skirmishes. Historical significance of a battle should be assessed taking into account its impact on further military and political developments. Any battle having a significant impact on the context of the nearest decade should be viewed as decisive. In the history of Lithuania, the period of 1203–1435 was a time of great medieval battles. Their abundance was determined by two warfare fronts, namely, the Lithuanian war against the Teutonic Order and the expansion to the Ruthenian lands. Out of 45 battles of the above-mentioned period reviewed in this paper, 27 were fought against the Teutonic Knights and the Livonian Brothers of the Sword (four against the latter), fourteen in the Ruthenian lands and for the Ruthenian lands (against the Ruthenians and the Tatars), two against the Poles, and two were battles of domestic feuds. Incidentally, although the statistics of the Ruthenian front looks rather modest, the warfare was hardly less intense than the one with the Teutonic Knights, as the available source material on these fights is much more fragmentary. The paper outlines ten battles which can be identified as decisive. These are the battles of Saulė (1236), Durbe (1260), Aizkraukle or Ascheraden (1279), Garuoza (1287), Medininkai (1320), Strėva (1348), Blue Waters (1362), Vorskla (1399), Tannenberg (1410), and Pabaiskas (1435). Many of them have received a lot of attention in the historiography; however, the battles of Garuoza, Medininkai and, partly, even Aizkraukle are still neglected. Besides that, it should be admitted that the impact of certain battles is hard to evaluate due to the shortage of data . These are the battles of Ropaži (1205), Usvyaty (1226), Toropec-Usvyaty (1245), Protva-Zubtsov (1249 m.), and Irpen (1323 m.); they carry attributes of decisive battles, too. Although historiography tends to concentrate on victories, almost half of the reviewed battles (namely, twenty) were lost by the Lithuanians, including two decisive battles of Strėva and Vorskla. These two incurred a major damage to the situation of the Lithuanian state. Hence, although the Lithuanian state managed to maintain the upper hand in the fights of the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries, it was far from easy, and painful defeats were part of the deal (see Table 5). Eleven of the reviewed battles took place within the territory of modern Lithuania and may be subject to archaeological research. However, the precise location can be identified only in two cases (Pabaiskas in 1435 and Palanga in 1372) and, in two other cases (Strėva in 1348 and Rudamina in 1394), the locations can be established within a certain range of certainty. Regarding the locations of other battles, which so far have been identified only approximately and often inaccurately, hypotheses can be raised and proved or rejected using methods of archaeological research. As for the battles that took place outside Lithuania, archaeological research should probably concentrate on the ones that happened near or on the ice of well-identified lakes (Usvyaty in 1226 and 1245, Zhizhitsa in 1245, and Kotelno in 1426 in Russia, and Nebеl in 1262 in Ukraine), as such sites may preserve some sunk medieval munitions.