Yotvingians – Mighty Warriors of the Baltic Sea
The Yotvingians were one of the most influential tribes to live near the Baltic Sea. Their name is known from the first historical books of the world. Despite their centuries of domination in the area of modern-day Poland and some of the surrounding area, they appear to modern people as mysterious and are often misunderstood.
It is unknown when the Yotvingians first appeared. According to Herodotus, they were a tribe which lived beyond the Scythian cultivators, one of the nations along the counsel of the river Hypanis, currently known as the Bug River. Herodotus called them Neuri, but in modern historiography they are known as Jaćwingowie (in Polish), Jatvingi (in Latvian), Jotvingiai or Suduviai (in Lithuanian) or Sudauer (in German). They were a strong warrior culture with fighters and hunters who dominated the lands which they conquered.
The Problem of a Name
The name ‘Yotvingians’ has many different variations. Claudius Ptolemy in the 2nd century AD called them Galindai kai Soudinoi (Σουδινοί), suggesting links to another mysterious tribe called Galinds. According to the Peter von Dusburg, a famous medieval writer, their name was Galindite or Suduwite. Dusburg was famous for his works for the Grand Master of Teutonic Order by describing the history of the territory which belonged to them. Other medieval names for the tribe were Sudowite, Sudowit and Sudowia.
Representation of Ptolemy. ( Public Domain )
In the Hypatian Codex, dating back to 1425 AD, they were called Jatviezie, Jatviažin, Jatviagy, zemlia Jatveskaja, na zemliu Jatviažs´kuju, etc. Moreover, in other sources referring to them there are names like: Jazviagi, Iazvizite, Jazvizite, Yazvizite. In the documents of the Emperor Sigismund of Luxembourg from 1325, the area of the Yotvingians is called Suderlandt alias Jetuen. Thus, there are many more names for the same tribe, so early research about them was quite difficult. To clarify this situation, A.S. Kibin suggested to call them Yotvingians. Other researchers finally agreed to this name.
The Land of the Yotvingians
The region where they lived is known as Yotvingia. It was located in the area of modern Belarus, Lithuania, and Eastern Poland by the Narew River. Nowadays, it is mostly the Podlaskie Voivodeship of Poland, Hrodna Province in Belarus, and part of Lithuania.
Yotvingians have been famous since ancient times for being strong warriors and supporting other armies during wars. They were admired for their skills in warfare. The area which belonged to them was described by the armies which they fought.
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Their history suggests many encounters with other tribes. For that reason, they probably didn't keep much of their own style in art or traditions over the years. They were apparently similar to other Baltic tribes and perhaps also influenced by the tribes of the North, or the Scythians.
In 944, during the treaty between the Kievan prince Igor and the emperor of the Byzantine Empire, the Yotvingians were hired by the Kievan ruler. Also Vladimir I of Kiev, in 983, hired them to add to his army.
The Yotvingians were Pagans until 1009 AD, when their ruler Netimeras was converted to Christianity by Bruno of Querfurt. The official change of the religion, however, didn't alter the war-like tendencies of the society. During the medieval period, they raided Volhynia, Lublin, Masovia, and many other places. Their enemies tried to stop them, but usually it was a tough challenge.
Map showing the territory of the partially assimilated Yotvingians. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
One of the most famous battles against the Yotvingians took place on June 23, 1264, when the Duke of Kraków, Bolesław V the Chaste, led a mission against them. During the battle of Brańsk, which took two days, the leader of the Yotvingians - Komata was killed. The Yotvingian forces were defeated. It took a few years, but the army eventually regained their strength. However, twenty years after the battle with the Krakovian army, the Teutonic Knights attacked the Northern Yotvingians weakening the tribe yet again.
On September 27, 1422, Yotvingia was divided between the Teutonic Knights, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, and the Kingdom of Poland. It was the beginning of a new chapter in the history of the warriors of the Baltic area. Since then, the Yotvingians have been recognized not for their land, but their language.
The Language Which Identified a Nation
Yotvingians spoke in the language known as Sudovian. It is a Baltic language, closely related to Old Prussian. Sudovian is a dialect of Old Baltic, with influences of other local languages. The Yotvingian language has six grammatical cases: nominative, vocative, accusative, genitive, dative, and locative. It also has a complex morphology and a variety of moods.
The language is mainly preserved in Christian books written in Old Prussian. According to the Old Prussian Catechism, published in Koningsberg in 1545, the Sudovians understood Prussian. Although they spoke somewhat differently, they could understand each other. In 1535, John Poliander described 32 villages which used this language. In 1684, Christoph Hartknoch recorded a group of people speaking this language in the land of ancient Yotvingia.
Map showing the territory of the Yotvingians and other Baltic tribes c. 1200. (CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Linguists suggest that the language of the Yotvingians influenced all of the languages which exist on their ancient land. Some words taken from their language appear in the Lithuanian, Belarusian, and Polish languages.
The Imprints of a Lost Tribe
The long history of the Yotvingians found its end in the 19th century. In 1860, a census by the Belarusian clergy in the Grodno (Hrodno) area, recorded 30,929 inhabitants identifying as Yotvingians. However, people stopped identifying themselves as a part of this tribe after two world wars.
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A 16th-century view of Grodno. ( Public Domain )
Nowadays, the Yotvingians are a lost tribe, which only remains alive in the memory of historians and in traditions. The number of people fascinated with this ancient tribe is still impressive. Polish, Belarusians, and Lithuanian people still organize celebrations connected with this tribe’s history. Researchers believe that future excavations may bring more information about all the Baltic tribes. The most interesting source for this data appears to be the battlefields, where tribes such as the Yotvingians often met their fates.
Featured image: A group of Yotvingians ( yotvingians.wordpress.com)
Grzegorz Białuński, Studia z dziejów plemion pruskich i jaćwieskich, 1999.
Łucja Okulicz-Kozaryn, Życie codzienne Prusów i Jaćwięgów w wiekach średnich (IX-XIII w.), Warszawa, 1983.
Jerzy Nalepa, Jaćwięgowie – nazwa i lokalizacja, 1964.
Jerzy Strzelczyk, Zapomniane narody Europy, 2006.
The Prussian Language and Sources. Available from: prusowie.pl/jezyk/The-Prussian-language-and-sources.php
Who were the Prussians? Available from: http://prusowie.pl/prusowie/who_were_the_prussians.php
Yotvingian DNA. Available from: http://www.suduva.com/virdainas/yotvingian_dna.htm