Life in the Baltic lands in the middle ages was full of dangers. In the 13th century, the old rivalries between the local tribes were accompanied by fights against the Knights of the Cross, and the Knights of the Sword. By comparing the art of warfare practised by local tribes and alien Germans, one can notice considerable differences in technical issues, such as weaponry, fortifications, and strategies, as well as in warfare customs. In this respect, the Livonian Chronicle by Henry of Latvia is particularly telling. While Germans and other western Christians would adhere to the knightly rules of war in Livonia, local Baltic and Finno-Ugric peoples acted very much like the barbarians did during the times of the Great Migration of the Nations.
Scouts and guides in medieval Lithuania
© DELFI / Karolina Pansevič

German scouts versus Baltic witchcraft

The collision between Balts and westerners in the 13th century was not as catastrophic as the one between the whites and the American Indians in the 15th and 16th century but just because the differences between the former societies were not that evident and powder weapons had not yet been invented. Nevertheless, Balts and Indians have certain similarities, such as the magic-filled worldview which commanded the ritualization of warfare and the use of means of magic. The chronicle by Henry of Latvia reveals the fact that the Baltic tribes would frequently, although not always, use witchcraft rather than scouts whenever they wanted to learn about ambushes and similar arrangements by their foes. In turn, the Germans would always make use of their scouts' intelligence. Usually it was local people under the German jurisdiction that acted as scouts. The intelligence gathered by them would be extremely useful for the Germans on many occasions. For instance, prior to descending on the warriors led by duke Svelgates, "German and Semgal scouts convey their return path to their own warriors after analysing it carefully." The scouts were active the next day as well by providing more accurate information on the new route the Lithuanians plan to take on their way home.

Intelligence, the new aspect in warfare borrowed from Germans

German reconnaissance operations served as an example for Lithuanians. It is not by coincidence that history sources never mention witchcraft employed by the army led by the Grand Duke of Lithuania in order to establish the location of an enemy or the outcome of a battle. Lithuanian scouts performed their tasks already in the middle of the 13th century. It was a group of scouts that Mindaugas had sent forth to warn about the threat arising from Tautvilas and Daniel, the duke of Galicia. "Lithuanians sent a patrol to the Lake Zviata. And [they] chased them across swamps, down to the River Shchara. All warriors gathered and started conferring saying that [Lithuanians] already know about us, not willing to go to the war. Daniel made a clever speech: "We will bear a disgrace from Lithuania and from all countries unless we reach [it] and turn back tomorrow."

Mounted scouts would best perform tasks of intelligence and reconnaissance. In this respect, the warfare practice in Lithuania must have been similar to that in other European countries from the 13th century as the latest.

The order paid back in its own coin

Presumably, the German Order's intelligence was more advanced in the organisational point of view compared to that in Lithuania. It was the commanders of the bordering castles, such as Ragainė (Ragnit), Klaipėda (Memel) and Daugpilis (Daugavpils), who predominantly were in charge of the intelligence. They would coordinate the actions of the scouts under their supervision by assigning them personal tasks and conveying the information gathered by them to the Marshal who resided in the Castle of Königsberg or to the Grand Magister who resided in the Castle of Marienburg. The reconnaissance undertakings would be carried deep inside the country as well. The German Order's spies were particularly active in the turn of the 15th century. They did their best to get operational data, in particular during the Žalgiris (Grunwald) campaign, and to track people's spirits throughout the country. Many documents of that kind have survived to reach our times.

On the other hand, the lack of sources is a key obstacle on the way to recreating a comprehensive picture of the Lithuanian scouts. Certain aspects of military operations, however, serve as hints to understanding the reconnaissance activity. In the winter of 1283, for instance, Lithuanians were preparing to raid Semba, the arrangement that the command of the German Order had learned in advance about. Lithuanians, however, eventually decided to stay at home. It was the next day that "Lithuanians invaded Semba and, hindered by no one", did what they had planned. There were more of the cases like this. The developments at the lower reaches of the River Šventoji in 1370 equalled to a "war of nerves" as Lithuanians were waiting for the Livonian couriers on their way back from Prussia. For a considerable period of time, they did not know if Lithuanians planned to ambush them. Finally they managed to break through, although bearing losses, after having secured the help from the Castle of Grobina. Situations like that indicate that Lithuanian scouts had experience in counter-intelligence as well.

Understandably, this type of activity required proper organisation. Scientific insights allow guessing that groups of scouts were connected via a certain rudimentary system of subordination, the evidence being duke Kęstutis's nobleman Maldis who, as Wigand of Marburg writes in his chronicle, served as a senior scout.

The dangerous job of the guide

During raids into foreign lands, both German and Lithuanian warriors usually made use of the guides who were expected to know the territory well and show the most suitable routes. Very often deserters served as guides for the enemy. Neither Lithuanian nor German side were able to avoid deserters. People under the jurisdiction of the Lithuanian nobleman, named Dirsūnas, captured in 1371 the commander of the Tamaviškės Castle and one more person who agreed to become a guide for the Lithuanians. The year 1371, it seems, was a successful one for Lithuanians as "the same year six men with their wives companied with the heathens to the great misfortune for the Christians because they knew the routes. Hence Kęstutis, with his recruited army, attacks Seehesten from far away. He turned the lower part of the castle in to ashes and wrecked havoc in the surroundings, killing and capturing Christians and causing plenty of mischief." The name of the guide who served duke Kęstutis – Lapė (a fox) – clearly reflects the personal qualities that the guides were expected to possess.

The crusaders made use of the services of similar kind too. One Daukintis guided in 1373 the commander of the Insterburg Castle and his warriors to the River Nemunas, close to the contemporary town of Darsūniškis, where they managed to seize a number of horses. Some people would be turned into guides against their will. In 1364, raiding crusaders captured a "holy man" (an oracle or perhaps a Christian hermit) who "promised to lead them to the place where they would find plenty of heathens." Very often, however, the guides would find themselves in dire situations, as the fate of Hanke Paschedach, a servant to the Livonian marshal, shows. Despite of being a Christian, he fled to the pagan lands. In Lithuania, Paschedach was captured by the Livonian crusaders who punished him with death although the deserter promised taking the brothers "to the place where they will find and be able to kill" many pagans, men and women.

Many scouts managed to serve both Germans and Lithuanian, the fact that they belonged to the small social group which would spread operative information in both directions.

Cartography of a private domain: the 1645 map of the Duchy of Biržai

European cartography experienced a considerable rise in the 16th and the first half of the 17th...

Food in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania

In the 13th and 14th centuries, both pagans and Christians suffered from starvation because the lack...

Pilėnai and Margiris

Pilėnai is a place that looms over the landscape of Lithuanian history. It is a place shrouded in...

The mythology of the Battle of Saulė

The raid of the Christian army against Lithuania in 1236 was dictated by the political circumstances...

How Lithuania helped shape Sweden’s elegance

Politics is the new black, regardless of which one you choose, fictional or real. Just as many...

Top news

Lithuania declares nationwide emergency due to coronavirus threat

The Lithuanian government declared on Wednesday a nationwide emergency in an effort to minimize...

Installation of Chinese CCTV in Kaunas raises security concern

The installation of a CCTV system produced by Chinese company Hikvision in Lithuania's...

Police chief in Kaunas Zukauskas sacked

Darius Zukauskas , chief of Kaunas County Chief Police Commissariat , has been dismissed from the...

Lithuanian author long-listed for prestigious UK literary award

Noir Press announced that Lithuanian author Grigory Kanovich has just been long-listed for the...

Lithuanian model Ieva hits the London Fashion Week catwalk

A Lithuanian student from Kėdainiai swapped designing clothes for modelling them at one of the...