The ‘Golden Age’ and the ‘Dark Times’ of Vilnius

The name Vilnius first appears in the Grand Duke Gediminas’ letters of 1323. The city will therefore celebrate its 700 years’ anniversary in the year 2023. Polish as well as Lithuanian historians notice that the city attained its greatest glory and power in the first centuries of its existence, and the 16th century is often called the ‘Golden Age’ of Vilnius. The 16th century was therefore chosen as the time of the highest prosperity in the history of Vilnius. The first half of the 17th century is considered to be a prolongation of the preceding prosperity.

The Muscovite occupation of 1655-1661 was chosen as the turning point between the ‘golden’ and the ‘dark’ ages. As it is written in the book Vilniaus miesto istorija [The History of Vilnius]: “The feudal Lithuanian state allowed many wars to continue, and not all wars were successful. But never before had enemy troops captured the capital of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. It was not until 1655 that the army of an alien state took Vilnius and kept it occupied for six years. In the years of the war and occupation the city survived several fires, plagues and famines, losing more than a half of its population. This was not an accidental disaster; it was the result of a weakening of the state. (J. Jurginis, V. Merkys, A. Tautavičius. Vilniaus miesto istorija. –>Vilnius: Mintis, 1968, p. 163.)

As early as in 1929, the Polish historian M. Lowmianska had called attention to the 1650s as the beginning of a reduced significance of Vilnius (<M. Lowmianska. Wilno przed najazdem moskiewskim 1655 roku. – Warzszawa; Wilno, 1929>). This thought has been revived in Lithuanian contemporary historiography. In the middle of the 17th century Vilnius suffered a great deal and was never again to achieve such heights of its former glory and power in Europe.

It is certainly true that in the later periods the city went through many wars and hardship.

One might come across a well-founded opinion that the darkest time for Vilnius was the German Nazi occupation in the years of the World War II. However, the participants of the project, students of Vilnius University, have chosen 1655 as the turning point between the ‘golden’ and ‘dark’ ages. This choice enables us to consider the history of Vilnius from the perspective of the realities of the 17th century; it provides us with a fresh view of the 17th century and also highlights the city’s 16th century past.