As a new cultural region, Lithuania-Rus’ (Ruthenia) evolved in the territory of the formerly prosperous Kievan Rus’ – the first state of the Eastern Slavs, officially baptized in 988. By the second half of the fourteenth century it was integrated into the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (GDL), a multi-ethnic state that was home to a number of Baltic peoples, Rus’ Slavs (future Belarusians and Ukrainians), Tatars, Armenians, and Jews. (This territory is now within the borders of five national states: Belarus, Ukraine, Lithuania, eastern Poland and south-western Russia.) The political disintegration of Kievan Rus’, starting in the 1130s, and the sack of Kiev by the Mongols in 1240 resulted in the redistribution of power in the region. By the mid fourteenth century one can speak of three main cultural and political spheres, heirs to the Kievan legacy: Northern Rus’ (Novgorod Republic), South-Western Rus’ (Lithuanian Rus’/Ruthenia) and North-Eastern Rus’ (Muscovy). While the Orthodox Slavs in these areas pursued the cultural and religious orientation of their predecessor state (ecumenically sharing a metropolitan of Kiev and all Rus’, subjected to the Byzantine patriarch), new political, economic and social circumstances, as well as dynastic allegiances, led to the development of significant cultural differences.
A great number of residents in the GDL were Orthodox. Pagan Lithuanians were not only tolerant of Orthodox customs but adapted the Slavic language for their bureaucracy, while some élites converted to Orthodox Christianity. Throughout the fourteenth century, the Orthodox ecclesiastical hierarchy in Ruthenia, supported by Lithuanian princes, claimed their right of succession to the Metropolitanate of Kiev and refused to accept the metropolitan who resided in Northern Rus’, moving first to Vladimir and then to Moscow. At the same time, the enduring ecumenical spirit of the Rus’ Orthodox Church promoted cultural interaction between Muscovy, Novgorod and Ruthenia.
The hostile relationship between Lithuania and the Prussian Teutonic Order made Lithuanian princes look for an ally in Poland. After the conclusion of the dynastic and political union between Lithuania and Poland in 1385 (Union of Kreva), Polish Catholicism played a prominent part in the cultural and political life of Lithuania and challenged the former authority of the Orthodox Church. The year 1387 saw the beginning of Lithuania’s Christianization, while the victory at the battle of Grunwald in 1410 brought relief from the Teutonic Order.
Similar to Orthodox iconography (art) and chant (music), writing (literature) was considered sacral in nature. The culture of writing was one of anonymity and humility, with no personalization. Following and studying fundamental texts was considered valuable, while innovation and creation of new texts was considered to be of secondary importance. These principles nourished the tradition of collection and preservation of canonical texts. For the sake of the soul’s salvation, books were relentlessly copied and reedited, resulting in multiple redactions of various compilations (edifying “sborniki,” such as the Pchela, Patericons, Prologues, etc.)
In general, bookmen in Lithuanian Rus’ continued the tradition of Kievan Rus’, which primarily adopted the ascetic literature from Byzantium and not the humanistic Greek literature that combined Christian and classical traditions. The Byzantine patriarchate controlled the religious and administrative network across Slavic lands, providing the main channel through which Greek texts and ideas were transmitted. One of the most compelling examples is the canonization of Vilnius martyrs in Constantinople around 1374 by Patriarch Philotheus Kokkinos and the creation of their vitae in Greek, followed by South Slavic and East Slavic translations (the Life (Passion) of Three Lithuanian Saints (Martyrs), Anthony, John and Eustathius).
The late-fourteenth-century cultural-political life of the GDL is characterized by its openness to outside (southern and western) influences and contacts combined with its devotion to the ecumenical Orthodox tradition inherited from the Kievan Rus’. This period was marked by strengthening ties with Byzantium and the Balkans on the one hand and the beginning of a long-term relationship with Catholic Europe on the other. At the same time, the interaction of the Orthodox religious tradition with the pagan customs of the Lithuanian élite led to the development of the idiosyncratic vernacular culture and the democratization of the literary Ruthenian language. This is especially manifest in historiographic writings (The Lithuanian chronicles).
The Slavic Orthodox revival in fourteenth-century Rus’ lands is connected with the activity of foreign bookmen, primarily from the Balkans, who brought to the Rus’ lands a new literary fashion (the panegyric style and the device of word-weaving) and new texts. The major figures of this trend include Cyprian and Gregory Camblak.
The GDL’s and Poland’s rulers were actively engaged in promoting church unification. Already in 1358, Charles IV negotiated with the Grand Duke Kęstutis over the conversion of Lithuania. After the evangelization of Lithuania, the King of Poland Jagiełło and the Lithuanian Grand Duke Vytautas pursued the church union to bring unity to their states inhabited by Catholics and Orthodox. At the request of Jagiełło and Vytautas, a Ruthenian delegation headed by Metropolitan Gregory Camblak traveled to the Council of Constance to discuss the possibility of church union. Camblak’s speech at the council is a skillfully crafted apology of the Rus’ Orthodox Church (the Sermon to the Council of Constance).