‘The Most Civic City’

Boruch Chaim’s History of Keidan contains a passing reference to the town, in 1590, receiving the “Magdeburg rights.” I researched this enough to include a short explanation of these as a set of rules, under which municipalities could administer their own affairs. But what was that really about? And why is it referred to as the “Magdeburg rights”? What’s Magdeburg anyway?

I’ve recently been listening to a podcast series called “History of the Germans”, which I recommend only if you have lots of both time and interest. (After more than two years of weekly installments, it’s up to Episode 126, and only somewhere in the 16th century.) Anyway, the narrator has several times mentioned the German city of Magdeburg, which finally moved me to Google the place for background. And that led to an impressive website called – naturally – magdeburg-law.com.  Here one finds a map of Europe, with more than 1,000 cities and towns marked as those where the code of rules and rights named for that city were adopted. And even more impressive, a writeup about some of the most important examples of towns where these rules helped shape economic and political history. Kėdainiai, you guessed it, is among these. Check it out here. 

The Grand Duchy of Lithuania existed between the thirteenth and eighteenth centuries, in personal union with Poland since the end of the fourteenth century and in real union from 1569 onward. Among its urban settlements, the foremost were those – over 250 in number – endowed with the rights of Magdeburg law, under which they governed their own affairs.

The article goes into Kėdainiai’s history, nobility and ownership in considerable detail, describing how its Lithuanian and Polish overlords embraced the Protestant Reformation and welcomed ethnic and religious diversity.

Jonušas Radvila’s specifically targeted activities, the participation of the citizenry in the city’s governance, peaceful coexistence among various faith denominations, and the religious tolerance that characterised life in the city were key factors in its rapid development at this time. By the mid-seventeenth century, Kėdainiai’s population had grown to over 4,000 residents from six different ethno-religious groupings.

Germans, Scots, Belorussians and Jews as well as Poles and Lithuanians managed to get along for several centuries. Only after the Russian empire took over in the late 1700s did the legal and political environment shift toward authoritarianism.

After the dissolution of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth at the end of the eighteenth century and the occupation of the Grand Duchy’s erstwhile territory by Russia, Kėdainiai lost its Magdeburgian administration, but the urbanistic structure of its old town bears witness to this day to what was once the ‘most civic city’ in Lithuania.

About Andrew

Retired journalist, Keidan descendent.
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