Frühneuzeitliche Karte von Kronruthenien, Podolien, Volhyn’ und der Ukraine

A question of perspective – Eastern European observations on premodern border zones

Guest editorial by Sven Jaros (IOS Regensburg)

When we speak about premodern borders, we clearly aren’t speaking about lines but about zones1. This was not only caused by the inability to control the current of goods and people over a large space, but mainly because the belonging and not-belonging to premodern political and administrative entities was defined rather through interpersonal relationships than territorial divisions2. This vagueness intensified when political borders collided with cultural borders. In my recently published dissertation, I studied the border zone between Latin and Orthodox Christianity in Eastern Europe, or – to be more precise – in a region called “Crown Ruthenia” in the 14th and 15th century3. This area might be far away from French or German speaking territories which are the main subject of this blog. But I believe that we can observe many common features worth to be discussed jointly and thus linking European history and overcoming still too efficacious ideological borders from the 20th century.

In the following, I would like to discuss three main questions: (1) What and where is Crown Ruthenia? (2) What qualities of borders can be observed? (3) How was the liminal character seen by contemporaries?

What and where is Crown Ruthenia?

The region of Crown Ruthenia evolved as western part of the Kievan Rus’, which expanded after the orthodox baptism of Vladimir I., Grand Prince of Kiev, in 988/9894. During the 12th and 13th century, this realm split into several different political units. Most of them came under Tatar rule after 1241. The western principalities – with the main settlements Volodymyr, Chelm and Halych – however, were able to preserve a certain degree of autonomy. Their ruler Danylo was even crowned king in 1253 by a papal legate. His dynasty ruled over the western principalities in fluid constellations until the beginning of the 14th century.

A map of Central and Eastern Europe with Crown Ruthenia in the center.
Crown Ruthenia (here Red Ruthenia) within the frame work of Central and Eastern Europe (map taken from Thomas Wünsch and Andrzej Janeczek (Ed.), On the Frontiers of Eastern Europe. Warsaw 2004, p. 11).

The economic, cultural, and dynastical bonds to the surrounding powers – namely the Golden Horde as legal suzerain, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, the Duchy of Masovia and the kingdoms of Hungary and Poland – were very strong. In 1323, the last two sons of the Danylovych dynasty were murdered. After their successor Boleslaw Yurii II was poisoned in 1340 as well, a long struggle over the dominion evolved, mainly between the recently reunited kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. In 1366 the region was divided: While Lithuania received the northern part (Volhynia), Poland obtained the southwestern region with the main settlements of Sanok, Przemyśl, Lviv, and Halych. This area was to become Crown Ruthenia. The eastern part (Podolia) was ruled mainly autonomously by two Lithuanian princes, the Koriatovych brothers5. Although the treaty of 1366 was not the end of territorial shifts, this division remained more or less stable, even when Poland was first ruled by the Hungarian king Louis I. of Anjou and later began to merge with the Grand Duchy of Lithuania following the dynastical bond between the daughter of Louis, Jadwiga, and the Lithuanian Grand Duke Jogaila (after his baptism and coronation he was known as Władysław II. Jagiełło) in 13866. It took until 1434 for the Ruthenian territories under Polish rule to become a regular voivodship. This administrative entity stayed intact until the partitions of Poland-Lithuania at the end of the 18th century when it was annexed by the Habsburg Monarchy and later united with all of the territory towards Kraków until the Silesian border. This large region became known as Galicia, which was a recourse to the old Hungarian claim dating back to the 13th century. In the course of certain reforms in the first half of the 19th century, Galicia became a separate kingdom within the Habsburg Realm.

A graffiti of the map of Galicia on a wall in Lviv
A graffiti of Galicia within the borders of the Habsburgian kingdom on a wall in Lviv (taken by Sven Jaros 2011).

The different political and cultural ties described above made the region an apple of discord between different imperial and national aspirations during the 19th century. After the collapse of the Habsburg monarchy, the region was annexed by the newly founded Polish State. After World War II, the region was divided between the Soviet People’s Republics of Poland and Ukraine. This division was unchallenged by the downfall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Today, the little village of Medyka east of Przemyśl, which was once – due to its central location – one of the favourite dwelling places of king Władysław II Jagiełło during his visits in Crown Ruthenia, marks the border between Poland and Ukraine. As a footnote I might add that it is one of the few border stations which can be crossed on foot.

Fences, pedestrian and road leading towards the Polish-Ukrainian border
The border crossing between Poland and Ukraine near Medyka (picture by Sven Jaros 2016)

Which qualities of borders can be observed?

The most tangible aspect for border characteristics in Crown Ruthenia might probably be its military position on the western edge of the Mongol/Tatar dominion. The region was frequently raided not only by Tatar campaigns but by Lithuanian troops as well. Consequently, after conquering the region in the 1340s, military safeguarding was the priority of Polish policy, as can be observed in charters and historiographical sources alike7. As a result, the eastern border of the Polish realm moved gradually eastwards, as Gotthold Rohde so famously observed8. Parts of the still existing Halych castle are said to date from that period.

Picture on Halych Castle, lying on a hill above the city of Halych
Halych Castle, partly dating from the 14th century (wikimedia commons).

However, the impression of military antagonism must be put in relation to the economic, social, and political entanglements between the Golden Horde and its western neighbours that existed throughout the centuries9.

The same can be said about the religious border in Crown Ruthenia where the Orthodox and Latin spheres collided – not to forget the Armenian, Jewish, and Muslim influences. In 1349, delegates of Kazimierz III. of Poland reported in Avignon how the king was able to subjugate the Ruthenian territories with divine support but under strenuous efforts. Now, seven bishoprics and one archiepiscopal see could be founded10. But the road to a lasting Latin church organisation was much more complicated and Kazimierz never witnessed its realisation during his lifetime. In 1375, the Silesian Duke Władysław Opolczyk, who ruled over Crown Ruthenia on behalf of king Louis I., still complained about the peripheral location of the designated archiepiscopal seat in Halych: Not only was the city remote and without proper walls, it was also neighboured by the infidel Tatars on one side, and the likewise infidel and schismatic Lithuanians on the other11. He therefore requested permission to move the archiepiscopal see to the much more central city of Lviv. A wish only realised decades later during the reign of Władysław II. Jagiełło in 141412.

Likewise, the orthodox sphere was not free of its own complications concerning a lasting church organisation for the Ruthenian territories, even though it possessed a much older tradition. But in the 14th century, the long-lasting battle over dominion between the Grand Duchies of Moscow and of Lithuania within the orthodox sphere had already begun – with the consequence, that Metropolitanates were founded and abandoned frequently.13. Again, it was the Polish king Kazimierz III. in his final years, who sent a request to establish a separate orthodox church province for his newly conquered territories to the Patriarch in Constantinople. In 1371 – one year after his death – an orthodox metropolitanate with its seat in Halych was (re-)founded. This led to the parallelism of Latin und orthodox ecclesiastical institutions in Crown Ruthenia.

The ceiling of the Lublin Chapel with byzantine frescos
Where East meets West: The Chapel of the Lublin Castle. Gothic architecture with byzantine style frescos. Unesco World Heritage Site (picture by Sven Jaros 2012).

Thus, when Central European diplomats discussed the challenges of different religions and confessions under one rule during the negotiations of the Westphalian Peace Treaty in the 17th century, Crown Ruthenia had already a century long experience with these kinds of phenomena. Here, the groundwork was laid for later events, such as the establishment of the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth or the Church Union of Brest 1596. The consequences of the latter are still visible today in the dolorous controversies between the Ukrainian and the Russian Orthodox Church14.

The overlapping religious spheres led also to a social and cultural heterogeneity, which could best be observed topographically. The emerging cities were dominated by Latin inhabitants, mainly Poles and Germans, and – especially in Lviv – Armenian and Jewish communities. In contrast, the rural surroundings were largely Ruthenian, complemented by a migration of Wallachian settlers from East to West along the Carpathian Mountains. Whereas old Ruthenian property rights were mainly respected under the new rulers, the scarcely populated area soon became the destination of settlers from Poland, Mazovia or Bohemian lands and to a lesser degree from Lithuania or Podolia. Over the course of one or two generations, they formed a kind of trans-confessional noble community15.

The social heterogeneity could also be observed in different administrative traditions and customs which lasted far into the 15th and 16th century. The transformation from a mainly orally organised Ruthenian principality to a regular voivodship within the kingdom of Poland was a gradual and non-linear process that I described as iterative. For example, Iurij Zazuliak showed impressively that oral testimonies remained to have higher value at court than written documents.16. Concerning royal charters, it seemed that it was within the decisional power of the recipients whether those documents were issued in Latin or Ruthenian. In consequence we can observe the parallel existence of charters in both languages, occasionally even bilingual charters (see picture below).

Two parchements connected by seal strings.
A exceptional example of bilingual charters: The verdict of a Court Ruling from Medyka 1404: two pieces of parchment, one with the Latin and below with the Ruthenian text, both jointly sealed. (Kraków, Biblioteka kziążąt Czartoryskich, Perg. Nr. 272 (OA)– picture by Sven Jaros 2015).

Even after 1434, Ruthenian didn’t lose its importance as an administrative language. In the course of the 16th century, it became common to translate those charters when they were presented for the purpose of their confirmation17.

To summarise: While the political border of the Polish kingdom moved eastwards, the newly conquered territories gained an especially heterogeneous character with many different religious, social, and administrative units existing within and next to each other.

How was the liminal character seen by contemporaries?

Already during the middle of the 12th century, Matthew, the bishop of Cracow, wrote to Bernard of Clairvaux: Ruthenia quasi est alter orbis18. And in 1323, the Polish king Władysław Łokietek described the region in his letter to the Pope as „imperturbable shield“ against the cruel Tatars19. It became quite a tradition to emphasise this liminal status when requesting financial support from the Papacy, especially during the campaigns of Kazimierz III20. But far too often, these exceptional rhetorical framings dominate the perception of this region. By closer examination, they prove to be highly situational. The fact that they were described as fierce enemies of the faith didn’t prevent Kazimierz neither from paying tribute to the Khan of the Golden Horde for his Ruthenian territories either from mentioning them as allies against the Lithuanians a few years later.21.

Of course, one should not misjudge this heterogeneity as a multicultural paradise of harmony. Certainly there was conflict, but not in a sense of a spectacular „clash of civilisations” in the sence of Samuel Huntington. To give just two examples: In 1378, Gregorius Stecher, a Polish burgher of Lviv, complained before Duke Władysław Opolczyk that he was hindered to farm his property outside the town properly due to the old Ruthenian practice of compartmentalising22. And in 1416, the orthodox priests of Stradch complained in front of the king that his governor unjustifiably claimed taxes from them, even though their village was no royal property23. One might find similar examples on the Iberian Peninsula. To identify some middle ground between a probably too harmonious ‘convivencia’ and a too dichotomic clash of Christians and Muslims, Brian Catlos proposed the concept of ‘conveniencia’24, which can easily be applied to other regions such as Crown Ruthenia.


As my last remark on the Iberian Peninsula already showed, I wouldn’t dare to claim that these ambivalences can exclusively be found in Crown Ruthenia. Anti Selart very well described the ways in which different people addressed the liminal character of Livonia, which were always specifically adjusted towards the respective recipients and the expected outcome25. Nils Bock, Georg Jostkleigrewe and Bastian Walter even collected examples of such context-sensitive liminal framing in Central Europe26. Moreover is not just a specific of premodern periods – if I might add a short example from my new field of research: During a workshop on Border Commissions in the 19th and early 20th century, organised by Stefan Rindlisbacher and Luminita Gatejel in November 202127, we discussed many examples where the clarity of a border was to a large extend a question of scale: What might seem clear when sitting over a map on a conference table in Berlin or Paris would become highly fluid when standing in the field and trying to transfer that line. Thus, no matter how different our times and spaces of research might look in the first place, they might have at least one thing in common: Clear borders are only visible from afar, and trying to make them impervious was, is, and never will be a good idea.

  1. See e. g. Nikolas Jaspert, Grenzen und Grenzräume im Mittelalter. Forschungen, Konzepte und Begriffe, in: Klaus Herbers and Nikolas Jaspert (Ed.), Grenzräume und Grenzüberschreitungen im Vergleich (Europa im Mittelalter, 7). Berlin 2007, pp. 43–72; David Abulafia and Nora Berend, Medieval Frontiers: Conepts and Practices. London/New York 2002. []
  2. See e. g. Andreas Rüther, Stadtrecht, Rechtszug, Rechtsbuch: Gerichtsbarkeit im östlichen Mitteleuropa seit dem 12. Jahrhundert, in: Herbers/Jaspert (Ed.), Grenzräume, pp. 123–143, here p. 123; Dietmar Willoweit and Steffen Schlinker, Deutsche Verfassungsgeschichte. Vom Frankenreich bis zur Wiedervereinigung Deutschlands. Ein Studienbuch, 8th edition, 2019, p. 37. []
  3. Sven Jaros, Iterationen im Grenzraum. Akteure und Felder multikonfessioneller Herrschaftsausübung in Kronruthenien (1340–1434). (Europa im Mittelalter, 41). Berlin 2021. []
  4. See for the following political context: Jaros, Iterationen (2021), pp. 45–57. []
  5. Vitaliy Mykhaylovskiy, European Expansion and the contested Borderlands of Late Medieval Podillya,
    Ukraine. Leeds 2019. []
  6. Robert Frost, The Oxford History of Poland-Lithuania, vol. 1: The Making of the Polish-Lithuanian Union, 1385–1569. Oxford 2015, pp 47–49. []
  7. See Jaros, Iterationen (2021), p. 59 f. []
  8. Gotthold Rhode, Die Ostgrenze Polens. Politische Entwicklung, kulturelle Bedeutung und geistige
    Auswirkungen im Mittelalter bis zum Jahre 1401 (Ostmitteleuropa in Vergangenheit und Gegenwart, 2.1). Köln 1955. []
  9. Sven Jaros, Between East and West. Crown Ruthenia between the Golden Horde and the rising power of the Polish Kingdom, in: Vitaliy Nagirnyy (Ed.), Rus’ and the world of the Nomads (the second half of the 9th – 16th c.) (Colloquia Russica. Series I, 7). Kraków 2017, pp. 281–290. []
  10. Idem Rex, divino mediante auxilio, non sine gravibus sumptibus et expensis infidelium Ruthenorum
    terras sive Ducatus, in quibus possunt constitui et creari septem diffusi Episcopatus cum suo Metropolitano, sue potestati et dominio iam subiecit, Vetera Monumenta Poloniae et Lithuaniae gentiumque finitimarum historiam illustranta, 4 voll. Ed. Augustin Theiner. Rom 1860–1864, here vol. 1, No. 702, p. 531; see Jaros, Iterationen (2021), p. 78. []
  11. Vetera Monumenta Poloniae. Ed. Theiner, vol. 1, No. 967, p. 719; see Jaros, Iterationen (2021), p. 199. []
  12. see Jaros, Iterationen (2021), p. 200. []
  13. See as an overview Sophia Senyk, A History of the Church in Ukraine, vol. 2: 1300 to the Union of Brest (Orientalia Christiana analecta, 289). Roma 2011. []
  14. See Andreas Kapeller, Die Kiewer Rus: Geteilte Erinnerung in der Ukraine und in Russland (2019). []
  15. See e. g. Andrzej Janeczek, Udział szlachty w kolonizacji Rusi Koronnej. Migracje rodów i ich nowa własność (XIV–XV w.). Próba ujęcia syntetycznego [The participation of Nobels in the colonization of Crown Ruthenia. The Migrations of Families and their property (14-15 c.)], in: Wioletta Zawitkowska / Anna Pobóg-Lenartowicz (Ed.), Rody na Śląsku, Rusi Czerwonej i w Małopolsce. Średniowiecze i czasy nowożytne. Stan badań, metodologia, nowe ustalenia. Rzeszów 2010, pp. 59–91., here p. 90; Maciej Wilamowski, Magnate Territories in Red Ruthenia in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Century. Origin, Development and Social Impact, in: Wünsch/Janeczek (Ed.), Frontier (2004), pp. 81–118. []
  16. Iurij Zazuliak, Oral Tradition, Land Disputes and Noble Community in Galician Rus’ from the 1440s to the 1460s, in: Gerhard Jaritz and Michael Richter (Ed.), Oral History of the Middle Ages. The spoken word in Context (Medium aevum quotidianum. Sonderband 12 / CEU Medievalia, 3). Krems / Budapest 2001, pp. 88–107; Jaros, Iterationen (2021), p. 266. []
  17. To name two examples from the Registers of the Royal Chancellery (Metryka Koronna – MK): Mk 63, f. 190v (from 1542): … privilegiii de Ruthenico Idiomate in latinum translatum… (2) right: MK 71, f. 28v (1546): … litteras Ruthenicas Illustris olim Wladislai ducisquarum litterarum fideliter in polonicum ydioma translatarum. []
  18. See Jaros, Iterationen (2021), p. 45. []
  19. Monumenta Poloniae Vaticana. vol. 1 u. 2: Acta Camera Apostolica. Ed. Jan Ptaśnik. Kraków
    1913, here vol. 1, p. 73; see Paul Srodecki, “Scutum inexpugnabile contra crudelem gentem Tartarorum”. The use of the “Christian outpost” propaganda to legitimize the conquest of Galicia-Volhynia under the two last Piast kings of Poland, 1323–1370, in: Vitalyj Nagirnyj (Ed.), Principalities in lands of Galicia and Volhynia in international relations in the 11th–14th centuries (Colloquia Russica. Series 1, 2). Kraków 2012, pp. 114–120; for the whole bullwark discourse in transnational perspective see Paul Srodecki, Antemurale Christianitatis. Zur Genese der Bollwerksrhetorik im östlichen Mitteleuropa an der Schwelle vom Mittelalter zur Frühen Neuzeit (Historische Studien, 508). Husum 2015. []
  20. See forthcoming Sven Jaros, Against Tatari, Rutheni et Litfani, hostes fidei. Role and ambivalence of the ‘crusading idea’ concerning the Polish integration of Ruthenia in the 2nd half of the 14th century, in: Norbert Kersken and Paul Srodecki (Ed.), Defending the Faith: Crusading on the Frontiers of Latin Christendom in the Later Middle Ages (2022). []
  21. See Jaros, Between  East and West (2017), p. 284. []
  22. Akta grodzkie i ziemskie (AGZ), vol. 3, Lwów 1872, No. 25; see Jaros, Iterationen (2021), p. 98. []
  23. AGZ vol. 3, No. 87; see Jaros, Iterationen (2021), p. 187. []
  24. Brian Catlos, The Victors and the Vanquished. Christians and Muslims of Catalonia and Aragon, 1050–1300. New York 2004. []
  25. Anti Selart and Matthias Thumser (Ed.), Livland – eine Region am Ende der Welt? Forschungen zum Verhältnis zwischen Zentrum und Peripherie im späten Mittelalter (Quellen und Studien zur baltischen Geschichte, 27). Köln et al. 2017, especially the article by Selart with p. 30. []
  26. Nils Bock, Georg Jostkleigrewe and Bastian Walter (Ed.), Faktum und Konstrukt. Politische Grenzziehungen im Mittelalter. Verdichtung – Symbolisierung – Reflexion (Symbolische Kommunikation und gesellschaftliche Wertesysteme. Schriftenreihe des Sonderforschungsbereiches 496, 35). Münster 2011. []
  27. See the CfP:; the conference report is forth coming on HSozKult. []

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