Old Prussians

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Old Prussians, Baltic Prussians or simply Prussians (Old Prussian: Prūsai; German : Pruzzen or Prußen; Latin : Pruteni; Latvian : Prūši; Lithuanian : Prūsai; Polish : Prusowie; Kashubian : Prësowié) were the indigenous peoples from a cluster of Baltic tribes that inhabited the region of Prussia. This region lent its name to the later state of Prussia (see King in Prussia). It was located on the south-eastern shore of the Baltic Sea between the Vistula Lagoon to the west and the Curonian Lagoon to the east. The people spoke a language now known as Old Prussian and followed pagan Prussian mythology.

German language West Germanic language

German is a West Germanic language that is mainly spoken in Central Europe. It is the most widely spoken and official or co-official language in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, South Tyrol in Italy, the German-speaking Community of Belgium and Liechtenstein. It is one of the three official languages of Luxembourg and a co-official language in the Opole Voivodeship in Poland. The languages that are most similar to German are the other members of the West Germanic language branch, including Afrikaans, Dutch, English, the Frisian languages, Low German/Low Saxon, Luxembourgish, and Yiddish. There are strong similarities in vocabulary with Danish, Norwegian and Swedish, although those belong to the North Germanic group. German is the second most widely spoken Germanic language, after English.

Latvian language Baltic language, official in Latvia and the European Union

Latvian or Lettish is an Eastern Baltic language spoken in the Baltic region. It is the language of Latvians and the official language of Latvia as well as one of the official languages of the European Union. There are about 1.3 million native Latvian speakers in Latvia and 100,000 abroad. Altogether, 2 million, or 80% of the population of Latvia, speak Latvian. Of those, around 1.16 million or 62% used it as their primary language at home. The use of the Latvian language in various areas of social life in Latvia is increasing.

Lithuanian language Language spoken in Lithuania

Lithuanian is an Eastern Baltic language spoken in the Baltic region. It is the language of Lithuanians and the official language of Lithuania as well as one of the official languages of the European Union. There are about 2.8 million native Lithuanian speakers in Lithuania and about 200 000 abroad.


During the 13th century, the Old Prussians were conquered by the Teutons. The former German state of Prussia took its name from the Baltic Prussians, although it was led by Germans. The Teutonic Knights and their troops transferred the Baltic Prussians from southern Prussia to northern Prussia. Many Old Prussians were also killed in crusades requested by Poland and the popes, while others were assimilated and converted to Christianity. The old Prussian language was extinct by the 17th or early 18th century. [1] Many Old Prussians emigrated due to Teutonic crusades. [2]

State of the Teutonic Order Crusader state formed by the Teutonic Order during the 13th century Northern Crusades

The State of the Teutonic Order, also called Deutschordensstaat or Ordensstaat in German, was a crusader state formed by the knights of the Teutonic Order during the 13th century Northern Crusades along the Baltic Sea. The state was based in Prussia after the Order's conquest of the Pagan Old Prussians. It expanded to include at various times Courland, Gotland, Livonia, Neumark, Pomerelia and Samogitia. Its territory was in the modern countries of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Russia and Sweden (Gotland). Most of the territory was conquered by military orders, after which German colonization occurred to varying effect.

Germans are a Germanic ethnic group native to Central Europe, who share a common German ancestry, culture and history. German is the shared mother tongue of a substantial majority of ethnic Germans.

Kingdom of Poland (1025–1385) Polish state from the coronation of the first King Bolesław I the Brave in 1025 to the union with Lithuania and the rule of the Jagiellon dynasty in 1385

The Kingdom of Poland was the Polish state from the coronation of the first King Bolesław I the Brave in 1025 to the union with Lithuania and the rule of the Jagiellon dynasty in 1385.

The land of the Old Prussians was larger before the arrival of the Polans, consisting of central and southern East Prussia and West Prussia. In post 1945 terms, the Old Prussian territory is equivalent to the modern areas of Warmian-Masurian Voivodeship (in Poland), the Kaliningrad Oblast (in Russia) and the southern Klaipėda Region (of Lithuania). The territory was also inhabited by Scalovians, a tribe related to the Prussians, Curonians, and Eastern Balts.

Polans (western) Ethnic group

The Polans were a West Slavic tribe, part of the Lechitic group, inhabiting the Warta River basin of the historic East Germania and contemporary Greater Poland region in the 8th century. They were one of the main tribes in Central Europe and were closely related to the Vistulans, Masovians, Czechs and Slovaks.

East Prussia province of Prussia

East Prussia was a province of the Kingdom of Prussia from 1773 to 1829 and again from 1878 ; following World War I it formed part of the Weimar Republic's Free State of Prussia, until 1945. Its capital city was Königsberg. East Prussia was the main part of the region of Prussia along the southeastern Baltic Coast.

West Prussia province of Prussia

The Province of West Prussia was a province of Prussia from 1773 to 1829 and 1878 to 1922. West Prussia was established as a province of the Kingdom of Prussia in 1773, formed from Royal Prussia of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth annexed in the First Partition of Poland. West Prussia was dissolved in 1829 and merged with East Prussia to form the Province of Prussia, but was re-established in 1878 when the merger was reversed and became part of the German Empire. From 1918, West Prussia was a province of the Free State of Prussia within Weimar Germany, losing most of its territory to the Second Polish Republic and the Free City of Danzig in the Treaty of Versailles. West Prussia was dissolved in 1922, and its remaining western territory was merged with Posen to form Posen-West Prussia, and its eastern territory merged with East Prussia as the Region of West Prussia district.


The names of the Baltic Prussian tribes all reflected the theme of landscape. Most of the names were based on water, an understandable convention in a land dotted with thousands of lakes, streams, and swamps (the Masurian Lake District). To the south, the terrain runs into the Pripet Marshes at the headwaters of the Dnieper River; these have been an effective barrier over the millennia.

Balts ethnic group

The Balts or Baltic people are an Indo-European ethno-linguistic group who speak the Baltic languages, a branch of the Indo-European language family, originally spoken by tribes of central Eastern Europe in the west to the Moscow, Oka and Volga river basins in the east. The Baltic languages form a part of the wider group of Balto-Slavic languages.

Masurian Lake District Place in Poland

The Masurian Lake District or Masurian Lakeland is a lake district in northeastern Poland within the geographical region of Masuria, in the past inhabited by Masurians who spoke the Masurian dialect. It contains more than 2,000 lakes. The district had been elected as one of the 28 finalists of the New 7 Wonders of Nature.

Pinsk Marshes Natural region in Belarus and Ukraine

The Pinsk Marshes, also known as the Pripet Marshes, the Polesie Marshes, and the Rokitno Marshes, are a vast natural region of wetlands along the forested basin of the Pripyat River and its tributaries from Brest to the west to Mogilev to the northeast and Kiev to the southeast. It is one of the largest wetland areas of Europe. The city of Pinsk is one of the most important in the area.

Arms of Brandenburg.svg
Arms of East Prussia.svg

History of Brandenburg and Prussia
Northern March
pre-12th century
Old Prussians
pre-13th century
Margraviate of Brandenburg
1157–1618 (1806)
Teutonic Order
Duchy of Prussia
Royal (Polish) Prussia
Kingdom in Prussia
Kingdom of Prussia
Free State of Prussia
Klaipėda Region
1920–1939 / 1945–present
1947–1952 / 1990–present
Recovered Territories
Kaliningrad Oblast

The original pre-Baltic settlers generally named their settlements after the streams, lakes, seas, or forests by which they settled. The clan or tribal entities into which they were organized then took the name of the settlement.

This root is perhaps the one used in the very name of Prusa (Prussia), for which an earlier Brus- is found in the map of the Bavarian Geographer. In Tacitus' Germania , the Lugii Buri are mentioned living within the eastern range of the Germans. Lugi may descend from Pokorny's *leug- (2), "black, swamp" (Page 686), while Buri is perhaps the "Prussian" root.

Bavarian Geographer medieval manuscript listing the tribes of central and eastern Europe

The epithet "Bavarian Geographer" is the conventional name for the anonymous author of a Latin medieval text containing a list of the tribes in central-eastern Europe, headed Descriptio civitatum et regionum ad septentrionalem plagam Danubii.

<i>Germania</i> (book) book by Tacitus

The Germania, written by the Roman historian Publius Cornelius Tacitus around 98 AD and originally entitled On the Origin and Situation of the Germans, was a historical and ethnographic work on the Germanic tribes outside the Roman Empire.


The Lugii were a large tribal confederation mentioned by Roman authors living in ca. 100 BC–300 AD in Central Europe, north of the Sudetes mountains in the basin of upper Oder and Vistula rivers, covering most of modern south and middle Poland. Most archaeologists identify the Lugians with the Przeworsk culture. While possibly Celtic-influenced in early Roman times, the Lugii were regarded as Germanic by the end of the 1st century. They played an important role on the middle part of the Amber Road from Sambia at the Baltic Sea to the provinces of Roman Empire: Pannonia, Noricum and Raetia. A tribe of the same name, usually spelled as Lugi, inhabited the southern part of Sutherland in Scotland. The Lugii have been identified by many modern historians as the same people as the Vandals, with whom they must certainly have been strongly linked during Roman times.

The name of Pameddi (Pomesania) tribe is derived from the words pa ("by" or "near") and meddin ("forest") or meddu ("honey"). [3] Nadruvia may be a compound of the words na ("by" or "on") and drawē ("wood") or nad ("above") and the root *reu- ("flow" or "river"). The name of the Bartians, a Prussian tribe, and the name of the Bārta river in Latvia are possibly cognates.


The Bartians were an Old Prussian tribe who were among the last natives following a pre-Christian religion before the Northern Crusades forced their conversion to Christianity at the cost of a high percentage of the native population. They lived in Bartia, a territory that stretched from the middle and lower flow of Łyna river, by the Liwna river, and Lake Mamry, up to the Galindian woods. The territory is quite precisely known from description in Chronicon terrae Prussiae, dated 1326.

Cognate word that has a common etymological origin

In linguistics, cognates are words that have a common etymological origin. Cognates are often inherited from a shared parent language, but they may also involve borrowings from some other language. For example, the English words dish and desk and the German word Tisch ("table") are cognates because they all come from Latin discus, which relates to their flat surfaces. Cognates may have evolved similar, different or even opposite meanings, but in most cases there are some similar sounds or letters in the words, in some cases appearing to be dissimilar. Some words sound similar, but do not come from the same root; these are called false cognates, while some are truly cognate but differ in meaning; these are called false friends.

In the 2nd century AD, the geographer Claudius Ptolemy listed some Borusci living in European Sarmatia (in his Eighth Map of Europe), which was separated from Germania by the Vistula Flumen. His map is very confused in that region, but the Borusci seem further east than the Prussians, which would have been under the Gythones (Goths) at the mouth of the Vistula. The Aesti (Easterners), recorded by Tacitus, were 450 years later recorded by Jordanes as part of the Gothic Empire.

Folk etymology led to the belief that each Prussian tribe was named after a tribal leader or his wife, such as the mythical leader Warmo ruling the Warmians.[ citation needed ]


At the beginning of Baltic history, the Old Prussians were bordered by the Vistula and the Memel – earlier Mimmel – river, which outside of Prussia is called Neman , with a southern depth to about Thorn at the Vistula river, which was Prussian, and the line of the river Narew. The Kashubians and Pomeranians were by the year AD 1000 on the west, the Poles on the south, the Sudovians (sometimes considered a separate people, other times regarded as a Prussian tribe) on the east and further south, the Skalvians on the north, and the Lithuanians on the northeast. The Sudovians began at about Suwałki.

At the end of the 1st century, Prussian settlements were probably divided into tribal domains, separated from one another by uninhabited areas of forest, swamp and marsh.[ citation needed ] A basic territorial community was perhaps called a laūks, a word attested in Old Prussian as "field". [4] This word appears as a segment in Baltic settlement names, especially Curonian, [5] and it is found in Old Prussian placenames such as Stablack , from stabs (stone) + laūks (field, thus stone field). The plural is not attested in Old Prussian, but the Lithuanian plural of laukas ("field") is laukai.

A laūks was formed by a group of farms, which shared economic interests and a desire for safety.[ citation needed ] The supreme power resided in general gatherings of all adult males, who discussed important matters concerning the community and elected the leader and chief; the leader was responsible for the supervision of the everyday matters, while the chief (the rikīs) was in charge of the road and watchtower building, and border defense, undertaken by Vidivarii .[ citation needed ]

The term laūks must have included the fortifications, if any, and the social superstructure, but the village itself went by another name: kāims. [6] The head of a household was the buttataws (literally, the house father, from buttan, meaning home, and taws, meaning father).

In the natural course of competition and heredity, some chiefs must have become very powerful, acquiring various laūks and kāims as subordinate entities. The Balts entered history in the early 2nd millennium BC and were organized into these larger social entities, one of which was termed a "duchy" by non-Baltic writers.[ citation needed ]

Because the Baltic tribes inhabiting Prussia never formed a common political and territorial organisation, they had no reason to adopt a common ethnic or national name. Instead they used the name of the region from which they came — Galindians, Sambians, Bartians, Nadruvians, Natangians, Scalovians, Sudovians, etc. It is not known when and how the first general names came into being. This lack of unity weakened them severely, similar to the condition of Germany during the Middle Ages.

The Prussian tribal structure is most fully attested in the Chronicon terrae Prussiae of Peter of Dusburg, a priest of the Teutonic Order. The work is dated to 1326. He lists eleven lands and ten tribes, which were named on a geographical basis. These were:

Map of Prussian tribes in the 13th century. The indicated cities/castles were built by the Teutonic Knights to facilitate the conquest. Prussian clans 13th century.png
Map of Prussian tribes in the 13th century. The indicated cities/castles were built by the Teutonic Knights to facilitate the conquest.
see also
1 Pomesania PomesanienPamedėPameddi Pomesanians
2 Varmia Ermland,
VarmėWārmi Warmians
3 Pogesania PogesanienPagudėPaguddi Pogesanians
4 Natangia NatangenNotangaNotangi Natangians
5 Sambia SamlandSembaSemba Sambians
6 Nadrovia NadrauenNadruvaNadrāuwa Nadruvians
7 Bartia BartenBartaBarta Bartians
8 Scalovia SchalauenSkalvaSkallawa Skalvians
9 Sudovia SudauenSūduvaSūdawa Sudovians,
10 Galindia GalindienGalindaGalinda Galindians
11 Culm KulmerlandKulmasKulmus

The Voyages of Ohthere and Wulfstan (in Anglo-Saxon) (English translation) describes a voyage by a Norseman called Wulfstan to the land of the Old Prussians, to the area around Elbing; he describes their funeral customs.


Medieval depiction of Prussians killing Saint Adalbert, the missionary bishop; part of the Gniezno Doors, c. 1175. Gniezno Cathedral detail 02.jpg
Medieval depiction of Prussians killing Saint Adalbert, the missionary bishop; part of the Gniezno Doors, c. 1175.

The Aesti are called Brus by the Bavarian Geographer in the 9th century.

More extensive mention of the Old Prussians in historical sources is in connection with Adalbert of Prague, who was sent by Bolesław I of Poland. Adalbert was slain in 997 during a missionary effort to Christianize the Prussians. [7] As soon as the first Polish dukes had been established with Mieszko I in 966, they undertook a number of conquests and crusades not only against Prussians and the closely related Sudovians, but against the Pomeranians and Wends as well. [8]

Beginning in 1147, the Polish duke Bolesław IV the Curly (securing the help of Ruthenian troops) tried to subdue Prussia, supposedly as punishment for the close cooperation of Prussians with Władysław II the Exile. The only source is unclear about the results of his attempts, vaguely only mentioning that the Prussians were defeated. Whatever were the results, in 1157 some Prussian troops supported the Polish army in their fight against Emperor Frederick Barbarossa. In 1166 two Polish dukes, Bolesław IV and his younger brother Henry, came into Prussia, again over the Ossa River. The prepared Prussians led the Polish army, under leadership of Henry, into an area of marshy morass. Whoever did not drown was felled by an arrow or by throwing clubs, and nearly all Polish troops perished. From 1191–93 Casimir II the Just invaded Prussia, this time along the river Drewenz (Drwęca). He forced some of the Prussian tribes to pay tribute, and then withdrew.

Prussian Hag - Old Prussian statue, now in Gdansk Prussian Hag.JPG
Prussian Hag – Old Prussian statue, now in Gdańsk

Several attacks by Konrad of Masovia in the early 13th century were also successfully repelled by the Prussians. In 1209 Pope Innocent III commissioned the Cistercian monk Christian of Oliva with the conversion of the pagan Prussians. In 1215, Christian was installed as the first bishop of Prussia. The Duchy of Masovia, and especially the region of Culmerland, become the object of constant Prussian counter-raids. In response, Konrad I of Masovia called on the Pope for aid several times, and founded a military order (the Order of Dobrzyń) before calling on the Teutonic Order. The results were edicts calling for Northern Crusades against the "marauding, heathen"[ citation needed ] Prussians.

In 1224, Emperor Frederick II proclaimed that he himself and the Empire took the population of Prussia and the neighboring provinces under their direct protection; the inhabitants were declared to be Reichsfreie , to be subordinated directly to the Church and the Empire only, and exempted from service to and the jurisdiction of other dukes. The Teutonic Order, officially subject directly to the Popes, but also under the control of the empire, took control of much of the Baltic, establishing their own monastic state in Prussia.

In 1230, following the Golden Bull of Rimini, Grand Master Hermann von Salza and Duke Konrad I of Masovia launched the Prussian Crusade, a joint invasion of Prussia to Christianise the Baltic Old Prussians. The Order then created the independent Monastic State of the Teutonic Knights in the conquered territory, and subsequently conquered Courland, Livonia, and Estonia. The Dukes of Poland accused the Order of holding lands illegally.

During an attack on Prussia in 1233, over 21,000 crusaders took part, of which the burggrave of Magdeburg brought 5,000 warriors, Duke Henry of Silesia 3,000, Duke Konrad of Masovia 4,000, Duke Casimir of Kuyavia 2,000, Duke Wladislaw of Greater Poland 2,200 and Dukes of Pomerania 5,000 warriors. The main battle took place at the Sirgune River and the Prussians suffered a decisive defeat. The Prussians took the bishop Christian and imprisoned him for several years.

Numerous knights from throughout Catholic Europe joined in the Prussian Crusades, which lasted sixty years. Many of the native Prussians from Sudovia who survived were resettled in Samland; Sudauer Winkel was named after them. Frequent revolts, including a major rebellion in 1286, were defeated by the Teutonic Knights. In 1283, according to the chronicler of the Teutonic Knights, Peter of Dusburg, the conquest of the Prussians ended and the war with the Lithuanians began.

In 1243, papal legate William of Modena divided Prussia into four bishopricsCulm, Pomesania, Ermland, and Samland — under the Bishopric of Riga. Prussians were baptised at the Archbishopric of Magdeburg, while Germans and Dutch settlers colonized the lands of the native Prussians; Poles and Lithuanians also settled in southern and eastern Prussia, respectively. Significant pockets of Old Prussians were left in a matrix of Germans throughout Prussia and in what is now the Kaliningrad Oblast.

The monks and scholars of the Teutonic Order took an interest in the language spoken by the Prussians, and tried to record it. In addition, missionaries needed to communicate with the Prussians in order to convert them. Records of the Old Prussian language therefore survive; along with little-known Galindian and better-known Sudovian, these records are all that remain of the West Baltic language group. As might be expected, it is a very archaic Baltic language.

Old Prussians resisted the Teutonic Knights, and received help from the Grand Duchy of Lithuania during the 13th century in their quest to free themselves of the military order. In 1525 Grand Master Albert of Brandenburg-Ansbach secularized the Order's Prussian territories into the Protestant Duchy of Prussia, a vassal of the crown of Poland. During the Reformation, Lutheranism spread throughout the territories, officially in the Duchy of Prussia and unofficially in the Polish province of Royal Prussia, while Catholicism survived in the Prince-Bishopric of Warmia, the territory of secular rule comprising a third of the then Diocese of Warmia. With Protestantism came the use of the vernacular in church services instead of Latin, so Albert had the Catechisms translated into Old Prussian.

Because of the conquest of the Old Prussians by Germans, the Old Prussian language probably became extinct in the beginning of the 18th century with the devastation of the rural population by plagues and the assimilation of the nobility and the larger population with Germans or Lithuanians.[ citation needed ] However, translations of the Bible, Old Prussian poems, and some other texts survived and have enabled scholars to reconstruct the language.


  1. Encyclopædia Britannica entry 'Old Prussian language'
  2. Meddu can be traced to the Proto-Indo-European root *medhu-.
  3. "Lie - Mikkels Klussis" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 10 October 2010. Retrieved 20 September 2018.
  4. It has various spellings, including -laukas, -laukis, and lauks.
  5. Attested in manuscripts as Caymis, and from the same PIE root as the modern German Keim and Heim (Middle High German kaim and haim), meaning sprout and home. The root is *tkei- (to settle) for both, from which English acquired the word home .
  6. Wikisource-logo.svg Herbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). "St. Adalbert (of Bohemia)"  . Catholic Encyclopedia . New York: Robert Appleton Company.
  7. Recent Issues in Polish Historiography of the Crusades Archived 2007-11-28 at the Wayback Machine Darius von Güttner Sporzyński. 2005

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Chełmno land is a historical region, located in central-northern Poland.

Pomesanians ethnic group

Pomesanians were one of the Prussian clans. They lived in Pomesania, a historical region in modern northern Poland, located between the Nogat and Vistula Rivers to the west and the Elbląg River to the east. It is located around the modern towns of Elbląg and Malbork. As the westernmost clan, the Pomesanians were the first of the Prussians to be conquered by the Teutonic Knights, a German military crusading order brought to the Chełmno Land to convert the pagans to Christianity. Due to Germanization and assimilation, Pomesanians became extinct some time in the 17th century.