- Kith, Kin and Neighbors: Communities and Confessions in Seventeenth-Century Wilno by David Frick
In Kith, Kin and Neighbors, David Frick analyzes the ethno-confessional relations between the inhabitants of Wilno (Vilnius) in the seventeenth-century Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Although well known for its ethnic and confessional diversity, the city and its intertwined social networks have rarely been treated as extensively as in this book. Based on an impressive range of source material collected over years of research, the book surveys the Vilnians’ sphere of life, private and social, from birth to earth, baptism to deathbed, and everything in between.
What makes reading the sources particularly enthralling is the topographical setting re-created for each story. The place, house, or street is depicted not only as background but also, in a way, to serve as one of the characters: it corrals people together, generates confrontations, and forces them to look for ways to coexist. The royal quartermaster’s surveys (“lustrations”) of the intramural houses of Wilno as potential lodgings during the king’s visit provide the basis. These reports have been drawn into maps of the city, the houses numbered and referred to throughout the book. Frick’s technique of placing the people and their negotiations of confessional and religious differences on the physical map brings to life the daily reality of Wilno, where Roman Catholics, Calvinists, Lutherans, Orthodox, Uniates, Jews, and Muslim Tatars were inextricably entangled in networks of family, friendship, trade, cooperation, and confrontation across ethnic and confessional lines.
Seventeenth-century Wilno emerges as an exceptional mix of cultures and identities whose coexistence was conditioned by practical needs rather than ideological tolerance. It is particularly enlightening to see how, even in the aftermath of the great confessional earthquakes of the sixteenth century, which is often viewed in historiography as the basis for intense antagonism, the Vilnians looked for mutual understanding in their daily interaction. This did not necessarily mean amicable relations between individuals, but their readiness to face each other, even in [End Page 662] court. This makes one of the main arguments of the book: “the society that litigates together stays together” (p. 274). The Vilnians were welded together through conflicts as well as coexistence. A strong testimony to the sense of community is presented in the analysis of documents from the period of the Muscovite occupation of Wilno (1655–61) and the exile into which many Vilnians chose to enter together, regardless of their ethnic or religious heritage.
Frick manifests an unparalleled familiarity with his sources. From tiny fragments of documentation he builds up a multidimensional picture of a society with its various functions, leading from microhistorical cases to a compelling story of a bustling early-modern city. The range of languages used for the investigation is one indication of the multilingual reality of the seventeenth-century Wilno, and their reading is something Frick truly masters, pointing out nuances in the choice of words or tongue. By extending his sources from court books to memoirs, private letters to church records, he also gives voice to those that often remain unheard; the abused and victims of discrimination and violence, both domestic and public.
Frick’s work is an inspiration and a treasury of information to any scholar dealing with almost any aspect of early-modern European history. It is exuberant in detail, yet not overburdened; such a book could have been written very differently. Frick leads the reader by the hand through the streets of a city throbbing with life, echoing to the sounds of bells from different churches and an almost Pentecostal variety of Vilnian voices. The book is an exciting time-travel guide besides its scholarly excellence.