Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Tolerating the Intolerable: Lessons Learned from Dr. David Frick's Lectures in Lithuania

Dr. David Frick with book Kith, Kin, and Neighbors
Last week, Dr. David Frick, a professor of History and Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of California Berkeley, visited Lithuania to deliver a series of lectures based on his book Kith, Kin, and Neighbors: Communities and Confessions in Seventeenth-Century Vilno.

Dr. Frick began his lecture, titled “Tolerating the Intolerable: Coexistence in Seventeenth-Century Vilnius” with the following address:

To say that early modern Vilnius was a multi-confessional city risks understating the variety of competing and overlapping demands that religions, cultures, languages, and ties of ethnicity made upon individual Vilnans; it also obscures the means by which co-existence in the city was made feasible.  In my comments today, I will attempt to locate Vilnius on the map of confessional Europe:  to assess the range of its multi-confessionalism; to reveal some of the manners and mechanisms its citizens developed for encouraging, facilitating, and sometimes imposing toleration among its inhabitants; and to place the city on a spectrum of the solutions found in contemporary European communities for addressing the problems that arose when members of more than one confession attempted to live in one city—from exclusion at one extreme to types of inclusion at the other.

In the course of an hour, he took me and the other audience members back to 1665, to a place known then as Vilno, a modestly-sized city populated by Poles, Lithuanians, Germans, Ruthenians, and Tatars (in addition to some numbers of Scots, Italians, and other immigrants). These people worshipped in 23 Catholic, nine Uniate, one Orthodox, one Calvinist and one Lutheran church, one chief synagogue, and one mosque; they spoke Polish, Ruthenian, German, Yiddish, Lithuanian, and some Tatar; and they prayed in Latin, Church Slavonic, Hebrew, Aramaic, and a little Arabic.

For me, and I’m sure for many of you reading this post as well, such a city is not unique. We, after all, live in a globalized society. But imagine yourself in 1665. For that matter, imagine yourself in a royal city in 1665. English Parliament was in the process of enacting the Five Mile Act, seeking to enforce conformity to the established Church of England. The Portuguese were battling Spain to retain their independence. In what is now present-day India, the Mughals were fighting the Maratha Empire for territorial gains. And yet, within all of this madness, there existed the city of Vilno.

With a population of just 20,000, it was well behind Cracow, the former capital of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, to say nothing of Gdańsk/Danzig, or the cities of northwestern Europe and northern Italy. But here, men and women of various ethnicities and confessions not only lived near one another; they lived with one another. They shared their homes, they married across confessional divides, they respected religious rituals. In short, they tolerated one another. Even the Jews, although they were concentrated in a few streets in the city center, were by no means ghettoized.

Lecture "Tolerating the Intolerable" at Vilnius University
“One imagines the surprise of visitors from outside,” wondered Dr. Frick, “as they registered the cacophony of the bells; the competing and intersecting religious and secular processions; the variety of dress, grooming, and speech patterns, and the occasional, more or less gentle, mutual derision; the simultaneity of feasting and fasting; the sense of passing from neighborhood to neighborhood, in each of which one set of customs might predominate, but tokens of all varieties might be present, at times in the same family; and above all the sense that all this variety could be publicly expressed and in all corners of the city?”

I can't help but wonder, even now, in this 21st century of globalization, would we marvel any less at a city in which “all the religions, companies, and sects have freedom of conscience, in which no one is hindered?” A few lessons, I think, can be learned from the 17th-century Vilnians: above all else, to tolerate what we find intolerable, and to simply coexist.