The Early Female Correspondence from the 15th to mid-16th Century | Orbis Lituaniae
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The Early Female Correspondence from the 15th to mid-16th Century

Female correspondence in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was way behind that in Western Europe both quantitatively and qualitatively. Historians know several surviving letters written by Western women and dating to the High Middle Ages (from the 11th to 13th century). The correspondence became more widespread there since the 14th century as female representatives of the elite families got used to writing private letters which usually included their everyday routine related to children, business, marriage etc. In some instances, Western historians can use impressive sets of female letters in addition to separate ones. In Lithuania of that time, writing letters apparently was an exclusive privilege of the literate men working for the Grand Dukes as no women’s letters from that time have been found yet. The first letters and acts either dictated by the Grand Duchess of Lithuania or written in her name date back to the years of Vytautas’ rule (1392–1430) and have been compiled in his chancellery. In spite of the fact that several of the first known letters by grand duchesses and representatives of the elite were documents written in their name, these women should be considered authors, according to James Daybell, a contemporary British historian who has been investigating letter-writing in the 16th-century England for many years.

The dictated letters

Although we cannot be sure that the Grand Duchess Ona, Vytautas’ wife, was literate, we do know that she acquired St. Dorothea’s biography. Two acts written in Latin and sealed with her personal emblem are among her material heritage, including the 1392 undertaking in favour of the Queen of Poland Jadwiga compiled in Astrava, and the 1413 letter to Konrad Frankenberg in which she asked him to represent her daughter Sofia and herself in the court case against Sigismund of Luxemburg in relation with the future of Samogitia. Uliana, Vytautas’ second wife, also left two known letters, both written in her name to the Great Master of the German Order (in 1423 and 1426), both in German and both sealed with her personal emblem. Top officials of the Order replied her in German, but Władysław II Jagiełło, the King of Poland, wrote her an undated letter in Latin.

First known letters written by women from the elite families of the GDL date back to the second half of the 15th century.

They include a 1454 letter written in the name of Hanna, the wife of Ivashko Dovoynovich who was a well-off noble and the Elder of Bielsk. The letter, in Latin, apparently was written by her personal scribe or a churchman to inform the wife of Petr Solthowitz, a resident of Gdansk, about the church bell they had ordered. The late 15th-century letter in German to the commander of Ragainė by Jadwiga, a daughter of Olechno Sudymuntowicz, who was the leader of the Lithuanian nobility, is another example of the female correspondence of that time. The undated and unsigned letter, which bears a seal with the Coat of Arms of Horns, was written by a scribe too at the end of the rule of the Grand Duke Casimir. In her private letter, Jadwiga complained about the Muscovite captivity of her husband Stanisław Bartoszewicz. It is likely that female correspondence, in Ruthenian, existed at that time in the eastern lands of the GDL. The close environment of the Grand Duke Gediminas featured the Orthodox clergy, while his wife Uliana was from Tver where earliest written documents of the ducal court date back to the late 13th century. The fact that historians know of just several early acts and letters written by Lithuanian women leads to the conclusion that writing letters was not widespread among them at that time.

Women in Lithuania started writing letters at least one hundred years later than their counterparts in Western Europe. The beginning of the female correspondence is attributable to the late 15th century when Lithuania became part of the European “culture of scribe-offices” at least at the bottom level. It was around that time that the number of literate people started to rise, hence the volume of letters written by aristocratic women of the GLD grew in line. Some letters were handwritten by women themselves, while the scope of issues they would touch upon in their correspondence widened.

The correspondence of queens

The epistolary genre still was mostly widespread among wives of the rulers of the GDL.

Between the end of the 15th century and the middle of the 16th century, all queens of Poland and Grand Duchesses of Lithuania spent some time behind their writing desks.

All of them were literate and educated, and many knew several languages. In fact, they were compelled to write letters – sometimes with a help of their secretaries and scribes – due to their social status and their role in family and public life. The surviving collection of correspondence by Grand Duchesses of the GDL is impressive enough as it includes more than 300 female letters from the turn of the 16th century. Only some of them were written by the wives of the rulers themselves though. As an example, Barbara Radziwiłł wrote on her own just eleven of her 53 surviving letters and a postscript of the sole known letter to her mother. Another 15 letters were compiled by Barbara’s personal secretary Stanisław Koszucki. Queen Bona Sforza had a number of scribes and secretaries, including Walerian Protasiewicz who worked for her until 1544 leaving the job for Maciej Kalecki, a priest from Mankolin. Jan Szymkowicz would sign the queen’s documents at his own discretion since 1541. Seven of her letters to the secretary of Charles V, the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, signed by the queen herself, have recently been found in Spain. Two of the queen’s secretaries wrote another pair of her recently discovered letters, this time to the Cardinal Antonio de Granvelle (1517–1586).

Wives of the Lithuanian rulers used Polish, Ruthenian, Latin, Italian and German languages to write to their family friends, relatives and other people inside the country and abroad. Their choice of language depended on tongue fluency of the author and the addressee as well as on general traditions of communication. Neither Barbara Radziwiłł nor Helen wrote in Latin simply because they did not know the language. Bona Sforza, in contrast, was a polyglot and used almost all languages in her correspondence although she experienced some difficulties in understanding Polish in the early years of her rule. It was around 1530 in Krakow that she tried to read a letter from Jerzy Radziwiłł who at that time was the Castellan of Vilnius but “ordered her scribe to read it as she could not understand Polish properly.” Many Queens and Grand Duchesses used Latin, the common language of communication of the time, in the letters they wrote or dictated. But since the majority of women in the GDL did not know Latin in the first half of the 16th century, Queen Bona Sforza used Polish for correspondence with the elite of the GDL and Ruthenian in letters to some Ruthenian people living in Lithuania.

Women’s letters: health and children

The number of the aristocrat women writing letters grew considerably from the late 15th century to the mid-16th century in the GDL.

Women’s letters are no longer a rarity in the 1450s and 60s as letter writing became a usual part of life for many noble women. The volume of surviving correspondence by the aristocrat women, however, is lower than that of Queens and Grand Duchesses. The several dozen known letters of the noble women written by 1565 include epistles by Barbara Radziwiłł, a wife of the Castellan of Vilnius, and her daughter Barbara Radziwiłł, as well as by Elżbieta Radziwiłłowna Sieniawska, who was a wife of the voivode of Bielsk, by Hanna Narbutowa, a wife of the voivode of Podlachia, and by Maria Palubinska who was a duchess and a widow of the late voivode of Podlachia, Ivan Kopoch. The other two noble women involved in epistolary communication were the two wives of voivodes of Vilnius, Kataryzna Iwinska Radziwiłłowa and Elżbieta Szydłowiecka, the Poles who moved to Lithuania after their marriage. The small number of surviving letters does not reflect the true situation of the time. The aforementioned correspondence provides indications to letters received from other noble women. For instance, Barbara Radziwiłł would exchange letters with Sofija Chodkiewiczowa, a wife of Stanisław Kieżgajło who was the butler of the GDL, as well as with her own sister Hanna Kiszkowna, a wife of the elder of Vladimir. Zofija Goštautienė, a wife of the voivode of Vilnius, wrote several letters to the Queen Bona Sforza. The noble women who had secretaries or scribes since the late 15th century should also be added to the list of female letter writers. Barbara, a widow of the former castellan of Trakai Olehno Dowojnowicz, had a personal scribe, in 1467, just like Elżbieta Radziwiłłowa and Zofija Goštautienė (in 1541) who both were wives of the voivodes of Vilnius. This means that women from the most influential families could communicate in written form since the late 15th century.

Health was the first and foremost problem that worried the recipients of the letters. Inquiries regarding health feature each and every exchange of epistles between women. They also often wrote about their family issues. Elżbieta Radziwiłłowa,, a wife of the castellan of Vilnius, mostly wanted to tell mother and husband about her children, their health, clothing and jokes, the latter often in joyous tones. Widows sometimes contemplated issues related to the partition or sale of large areas of land they had inherited as well as the economic situation and harvest in their possessions. From 1540s on, women’s correspondence features a new subject, that of interceding for their relatives or other individuals. Therefore, the main topics women of the GDL wrote about at that time mostly included issues related to their families and economic problems. In addition to that, they would sometimes intercede for the people they considered favourable to themselves.

R. Ragauskienė, A. Ragauskas, Barboros Radvilaitės laiškai Žygimantui Augustui ir kitiems. Studija apie XVI a. Lietuvos Didžiosios Kunigaikštytės moterų korespondenciją, Vilnius, 2001.

Raimonda Ragauskienė