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The north-eastern part of Germany, as far west as the Elbe and Saale, was, from the fifth to the tenth century, almost exclusively inhabited by nations of the Slavic race. Various Teutonic tribes—among them the Burgundians, the Suevi, Heruli, and Hermunduri—had before this taken up their temporary residence along the Baltic, between the Vistula and the Elbe. In the great migration of the Asiatic-European nations, which for nearly two centuries kept in motion all Europe from the Icy Ocean to the Atlantic, and extended even to the north of Africa, the warlike German nations moved towards the south-west, and Slavic tribes traversing the Danube and Vistula, in immense multitudes, took possession of the countries which they left. Those who came over the northern Vistula, settled along the coasts of the Baltic as far west as to the Elbe and Saale, and as far south as to the Erzgebirge (Ore Mountains) on the borders of Bohemia.

These Slavic tribes were called by the Germans, Wenden, Lat. Venedi, for which we prefer in English the form of Vendes, rather than that of Wends. It appears indeed that this name was formerly applied by the Germans indiscriminately to all the Slavic nations with which they came in contact; for the name Winden, Eng. Vindes, which is still, as we have seen, the German appellation for the Slovenzi, or the Slavic inhabitants of Southern Germany, is evidently the same in a slightly altered form. The name of Wenden, Vendes, became, however, in the course of time, a specific appellation for the northern German-Slavic tribes; of which, at the present day, only a few meagre remnants are left. They were nevertheless once a powerful nation. Five independent branches must be distinguished among them.

We first name the Obotrites, the former inhabitants of the present duchies of Mecklenburg, and the adjacent country, west, north, and south. They were divided into the Obotrites proper, the Wagrians in Holstein, and the Polabae and Linones on the banks of the Elbe and Leine; but were united under a common chief or king. They and their eastern neighbours the Wiltzi, (Germ. Wilzen, Lat. Veletabae,) with whom they lived in perpetual warfare, were the most warlike and powerful among the Vendish tribes. The Wiltzi or Pomeranians lived interspersed with the Kassubes, a Lekhish tribe, between the Oder and the Vistula, and were subjugated by the Obotrites in A.D. 782. It was however only by the utmost exertions, that these latter could maintain their own independence against their western and southern neighbours, the Germans. Conquered by Charlemagne, they regained their independence under his successors, and centuries passed away in constant and bloody conflicts and alternate fortunes. In the middle of the twelfth century, however, they were completely subjugated by Henry the Lion, duke of Saxony and Bavaria. He laid waste their whole country, destroyed most of the people, and compelled the few remaining inhabitants and their prince, to accept Christianity from his bloody hands. In A.D. 1167 he restored to this latter, whose name was Pribislaus, a part of his kingdom, and gave his daughter Matilda in marriage to the son of Pribislaus, who, a few years later, was made a prince of the empire, and was thus gained over to the German cause. His descendants are the present dukes of Mecklenburg; and it is a memorable fact, that these princes are at the present day the only sovereigns in Europe of the Slavic race. German priests and German colonists introduced the German language; although we find that Bruno, the chief missionary among the Obotrites, preached before them in their own language. The Slavic dialect spoken by them expired gradually; and probably without ever having been reduced to writing, except for the sake of curiosity when very near its extinction. The only documents of it, which have come down to us, are a few incomplete vocabularies, compiled among the Polabae and Linones, i.e. the inhabitants adjacent to the Elbe, in Slavic Labe, and to the Leine, in Slavic Linac.

Long after the whole region was perfectly Germanized, a few towns in the eastern corner of the present kingdom of Hanover, were still almost exclusively inhabited by a people of Slavic race, who in the seventeenth century, and even to the middle of the eighteenth, had preserved in some measure their language and habits. But, since the Germans were strongly prejudiced against the Vendish name,—the nations of this race, especially those in the western part of the German territories, being despised as subjugated tribes, and inferior in general knowledge and information,—they gradually renounced their national peculiarities. Towards the close of the seventeenth century, when Hennings, German pastor at Wustrow, took great pains to collect among them historical notices and a vocabulary of their language, he found the youth already ignorant of the latter, and the old people almost ashamed of knowing it, or at least afraid of being laughed at by their children. They took his inquiries, and those of other intelligent persons, in respect to their ancient language and usages, as intended to ridicule them, and denied at first any knowledge of those matters. We find, however, that preaching in the Vendish language of this region was still continued for some time later. Divine service was held in it for the last time at Wustrow, in the year 1751. According to the vocabularies which Hennings and a few others collected, their dialect, like that spoken in Lower Lusatia, was nearly related to the Polish language; partaking however in some peculiarities of the Bohemian, and not without some of its own.[1]

The second great Vendish tribe, the Wiltzi or Pomeranians (Germ. Wilzen), also called Veletabae, were, as we said above, subjugated in A.D. 782 by the Obotrites; and the country between the Oder and the Vistula formed for more than a hundred and fifty years a part of the great Vendish kingdom. They regained, however, even before the final dissolution of this latter in A.D. 1026, the partial independence of their own dukes; who attached themselves to Germany, and afterwards, under the name of the dukes of Pomerania, became princes of the empire. In the year 1124 the first Pomeranians were baptized by Otho, bishop of Bamberg; and the place where this act was performed, Ottosbrunnen (Otho's Well), which five hundred years ago was encircled by four lime-trees, is still shown to the traveller. As they received religion and instruction from Germany, the influence of the German language can easily be accounted for. German colonists aided in spreading it throughout the whole country. The last person who understood the old Pomeranian language, is said to have died in the year 1404. No trace of it remains, excepting only the names of places and persons, the Slavic origin of which can be recognized throughout all north-eastern Germany by the terminations in its, enz, ik, or ow. In A.D. 1637 the line of the old Pomeranian dukes expired, and the country fell to Brandenburg, with the exception of that part which Sweden usurped at the peace of Westphalia. The island of Ruegen, which till A.D. 1478 had its own native princes, belonged to this latter. It is the principal seat of German-Slavic antiquities. The ancient Rugians and their gods are mentioned by Tacitus, and described by Saxo Grammaticus. The old chronicles and legends, founded on still older traditions, speak of a large and flourishing city named Vineta on the small island Wollin, south-east of Ruegen, once the principal seat of the western Slavic commerce, and, as Herder calls it, the Slavic Amsterdam. This city is said by some to have been destroyed by the Danes; by others to have been ingulfed in the sea by the sinking of the ground beneath it. Modern inquirers, however, have doubted whether it ever existed; and, hard as it is to renounce the many poetical associations attached to such a subject,—so similar to those which fill the mind in thinking of Pompeii and Herculaneum,—their objections have not yet been satisfactorily refuted.

The third separate branch of the Vendish stem were the Ukrians, or Border-Vendes, Germ. Ukern, from Ukraina, border. They lived in the territory which afterwards became the margravate of Brandenburg, and were divided into several tribes, as the Hevelli on the banks of the Havel, the Retarians, etc. Their situation was such, that constant conflicts between them and the guardians or watch of the German frontiers, the Saxon margraves on the other side of the Elbe, were unavoidable. These served gradually to extend the German marches or frontiers further and further, until in the year 1134 Albert the Bear, count of Ascania, finally conquered the Vendes. The Slavic inhabitants of this region were cruelly and completely destroyed; the country was repeopled by German and Dutch colonists, and given as a fief by the emperor to Albert the Bear, the first margrave of Brandenburg. Brandenburg was the German form for Brannibor, the most considerable of the Vendish cities, after which the country was called. The names of places, many of them altered in a similar manner, are indeed the only weak traces of the Vendish language once spoken in this part of Germany. No tribe of the Vendes seems to have been so completely extinguished; the present inhabitants of Brandenburg being of as pure a German origin, as those of any other part of Germany.

The descendants of only two Vendish tribes have preserved their language; and even these, from powerful nations spread over the surface of at least 4800 geographical square miles, have shrunk into the comparatively small number of scarcely two hundred thousand individuals, now inhabitants of Upper and Lower Lusatia. Nearly all of them are peasants; for the higher classes, even if Slavic blood perhaps runs in their veins, are completely Germanized. These tribes are the Sorabians, Lat. Sorabae, Germ. Sorben, in Lusatia, divided into two different branches. They call themselves to this very day Servians, or rather (as also their brethren on the Danube) Serbs; their language, the Serbish language. Although in fact two distinct tribes, and speaking different dialects, yet their early history cannot well be separated. After the dissolution of the great kingdom of Thuringia by the Francs and Saxons in the year 1528, the Sorabians, or Sorbae, took possession of the countries left by the Hermunduri, viz. the territory between the Harz mountains, the Saale, and the Erzgebirge, and extended their dominion in a northern direction to the seats of their brethren, the Ukrians, and towards the east as far as to the region in which their near relations, the Lekhes. about the same time had settled. They made slaves of the few German inhabitants whom they found scattered through this country; and according to their industrious habits, began immediately after their arrival to cultivate the soil, to build cities, and to trade in the productions of the country. Although not strictly a warlike people, they were able for several centuries to defend their frontiers against the frequent attacks of their German neighbours on the other side of the Saale, and to give them trouble in return. But they yielded before the arms of Charlemagne; and after a short interval of renewed independence, they were completely subjugated and made tributary by Henry I. Their country, according to the German custom, was divided into marches, and populated with German settlers. These latter more especially occupied the towns, and built villages among the woods and mountains; whilst the Vendes, chiefly addicted to agriculture, continued to occupy the plains. But even on the plains, there soon arose the castles of German knights, their masters and oppressors; and the Vendish population was by degrees reduced to the miserable condition of serfs.

In the year 968, the first attempt was made to convert them to Christianity, partly by the sword of the conqueror, partly by the instruction of Christian missionaries. But more than one century passed away, before the Christian religion was fully introduced among them. Benno, bishop of Meissen, who died in A.D. 1106, at the age of ninety-six, acquired by his activity in the work of converting the Vendes, the name of the apostle of the Slavi. The obstinate resistance with which the Christian religion had been rejected by them, can easily be explained by the unjudicious, nay flagitious way, in which it was presented to them by the Germans; who came among them, the sword in one hand and the cross in the other; and exacted moreover from them the sacrifice of their language, their customs, their whole nationality in exchange. The naturally childlike and submissive disposition of the Slavi rendered them in all other regions, as we have seen, willing to receive the Christian doctrines, more especially when their superiors themselves acted as their apostles, as was in some measure the case with the Russian Vladimir, Jagello in Lithuania, etc.[2] But the mode described above, which was adopted by the German heroes, not only among the Vendes, but also some centuries later among the old Borussians, could not but rouse all their feelings of pride and nationality to a decided resistance. Even when the Germans refrained from force, their means of conversion were equally opposed to the spirit of Christianity. Bishop Otho of Bamberg, for instance, was accustomed, when on his missionary travels, to have fifty or more wagons in his train loaded with cloth, victuals, and other supplies, in order to reward on the spot those who submitted to baptism.[3]

But the holy light of Christianity, even after the Vendish tribes had embraced its doctrines, did not clear up the darkness of their fate. The whole humiliating relation between masters and serfs in Germany, which still degraded the last century, was unknown to the free ancient Germans, among whom only the prisoner of war was a slave; and is derived from the period of the submission of the Vendes. The Germans indeed seem to have considered them as an inferior race, and treated them accordingly. The contempt with which the old historians speak of them, is revolting to every liberal and unprejudiced mind, and can hardly be explained. For the Sorabians seem to have been at the time of their submission, superior on the whole to the Germans in respect to civilization; although in consequence of this contemptuous treatment, they in the course of time fell far behind them. Despised and oppressed, they were kept for centuries in a state of ignorance and neglect; from which, it seems, they could only escape by renouncing their Slavic peculiarities, and above all their language. The use of this latter before courts of justice was in the fourteenth century forbidden by law throughout most of the country. In the beginning of the same century, the Vendish language was still sometimes heard at Leipzig, but not afterwards. In the villages also it became wholly extinct fifty or a hundred years later; and only single words passed over into the German language. But this was not the case with their usages and other national peculiarities; there are still several tribes, nay the peasants of whole provinces in this part of Germany, in whom the Slavic origin can be distinctly traced.[4] Their language however was driven into the remotest eastern corner of their former extensive territory; and is there, and only there, still to be heard. We speak of the province called Lusatia, situated between Saxony, Bohemia, Silesia, and Brandenburg, of which the greatest part is at present under the Prussian dominion, and the smallest but richest portion under that of Saxony.

Lushitze, Lusatia, Germ. Lausitz, signifies in Slavic, a low marshland. This name was formerly applied only to the north-eastern part of this province, or Lower Lusatia, which is, or was at least at the time of the Vendish settlement, a country of that description. At a later period, the name was carried over very improperly to the south-western part, or Upper Lusatia, a beautiful and mountainous region. Lusatia was given by Henry I, as a fief, to the margrave of Meissen. In the course of the following centuries, its two parts were repeatedly separated and reunited, alternately under the dominion of the last named margrave, of Poland, or of Bohemia, without however belonging to the German empire. In the fourteenth century it was at length incorporated with Bohemia, and remained so for nearly three hundred years. To this circumstance alone the partial preservation of the Vendish language is to be ascribed. At the peace of Prague, A.D. 1636, it was allotted to Saxony. At the congress of Vienna in 1815, it was assigned, with the exception of the smaller half of Upper Lusatia, to Prussia, to which monarchy it still belongs.

1. Language of the Sorabians in Upper Lusatia.

The cities of Bautzen, Zittau, Kamenz, Loebau, and their districts, form the Saxon part of Upper Lusatia. Of its 195,000 inhabitants, about the fourth or fifth part still speak the Vendish language. In the north-eastern part of Upper Lusatia, which belongs to Prussia, there is about the same proportion of Vendish inhabitants. In both territories the whole number of Vendes is about 100,000. Their language is very nearly related to the Bohemian; where the Sorabians of Lower Lusatia and the Poles pronounce the letter h, the Upper Lusatians and Bohemians give the sound of g. Both Lusatian dialects have of course lost very many of their original peculiarities; thus both have adopted the article from the German language.

The Reformation exhibited here, as every where, its favourable influence on the vernacular language. The bishops of Meissen, to whose diocese Lusatia belonged, had indeed repeatedly admonished the priests and curates, to whose care the spiritual welfare of the poor Slavic Lusatians was intrusted, to learn the language of the people; but no particular pains was taken; and the Romish clergy, who spoke of the natives with the utmost contempt, were quite satisfied to hear the people say Amen and Kyrie Eleison after their own Latin prayers. As Lusatia lies near to the scene of Luther's earliest influence, the Gospel was preached early to the Slavic inhabitants by some of his followers; and it had the natural consequence, that the Romish clergy also began to give some attention to the vernacular language. In 1550, if not before, a Sorabian translation of the New Testament, the manuscript and perhaps the autograph of which is preserved in the library of Berlin, was completed; but it was never printed; probably because during the melancholy period of the “Interim" so called, which commenced about that time, the energies of the Protestants were in some measure paralyzed. Towards the end of the century Luther's smaller Catechism, and several other religious and doctrinal tracts, were translated from the German, mostly by clergymen, and introduced into the schools; chiefly the village schools; for the cities were steadily becoming more and more Germanized.

The neglect and decline of the Sorabian population was however always painfully felt by some patriotic individuals; and the very injudicious and tyrannic attempts of their German rulers, during the seventeenth century, to eradicate the language and supplant it by the German, found in all places only a reluctant and forced submission. But the effect of appointing every where German magistrates and German pastors was irresistible. The language was gradually forgotten by the rising generation; and hardly a Vendish book was printed during the first three quarters of the seventeenth century. Indeed hardly any one knew how to write in a language, the orthography and grammar of which had not yet been subjected to any rules or principles.

In 1679 the Jesuit Jacob Ticinus, a native of Lusatia, in a little Latin pamphlet, advised his countrymen to adopt the rules of orthography current in the Bohemian language, so nearly related to their own.[5] But the Protestants among them, who constituted the principal part in number and respectability, rejected his advice; and preferred to adopt the rules established shortly afterwards by a German clergyman, Z.J. Bierling.[6] This was a system between the Bohemian and the German, and is still observed. It was probably a sense of the approaching danger of an ultimate total extirpation of their language, that roused the slumbering Vendes again to some efforts. Parts of the Gospels were published towards the close of the same century by Michael Frenzel; and in 1706 the whole New Testament appeared in a Vendish translation, conformed to Luther's German one.

A translation of the whole Bible, made by several Protestant clergymen, was first published in 1729; and has been twice reprinted. A version for Catholics, by A. Swotlik, is extant in manuscript. A German hymn-book for the latter already existed in 1696; and in 1710 the Protestants were likewise supplied with one. In the former the orthography of Ticinus was followed; while the latter was printed according to the system of Bierling. Thus this handful of people, surrounded by German adversaries and underminers of their nationality, and who would have had hard work enough even if they had stood as one man in their own defence, were split into parties, even in things the most indifferent; and thus made their own weakness still weaker.

The Protestants succeeded at last in the establishment of a seminary for the education of Vendish ministers at Leipzig in 1716. Another was instituted at Wittenberg, A.D. 1749. Their literature continued to be almost exclusively of a religious kind; and consisted mostly of translations from the German. Another Wendische Grammatica was written by G. Matthei, one of the translators of the Vendish Bible. A dictionary was prepared by Frencel.[7] Both works can now only be considered as curiosities. The latter proceeds upon the firm conviction, that the Slavi were originally Hebrews; and contrives to point out in all the substantives or nouns of the Sorabian language a certain degree of analogy. The only philological works, which will be of use to those who may wish to study this Slavic dialect in our day, is a short grammar by Seiler,[8] and a more modern one by J.P. Jordan. The latter has adopted the system of orthography best adapted to the language, viz. that introduced by Dobrovsky for the Bohemian.[9]

The Upper Lusatian dialect has acquired in this way a degree of cultivation, which of course, since most of those who speak and read it are of the common people, comparatively few are able to appreciate. In religious hymns, there is no deficiency; and several cantos of Klopstock's Messiah have been translated into it by Moehn, in the measure of the original. In regard to the popular songs of the Sorabians, a kind of poetry in which most Slavic nations are so rich, no pains was taken until recently to discover whether they had any or not. But when on the publication of the remarkable Servian ballads, the interest of the German public in this species of poetry became strongly excited, the Saxon minister of state, baron Nostitz, himself an esteemed German poet, turned his attention particularly to this subject; and succeeded in collecting several little songs full of that sweet, half pensive, half roguish feeling, which characterizes Slavic popular poetry in general. They were translated by him and communicated in manuscript to his friends: but whether they have ever been printed we are not informed.

This subject, however, was not long suffered to rest. Two societies have been formed within the last twelve years, one at Breslau among the students of the university natives of Lusatia; the other at Bautzen among the scholars of the Gymnasium or High School; for the promotion of their native language and extending the knowledge of the antiquities of their country. Both these societies of the rising generation are favoured and assisted by gentlemen who take a general interest in Slavic affairs. Another learned society, called “The Scientific society of Upper Lusatia,” a union of scholars, had been founded previously. In 1836, this society offered a premium for collecting a certain number of genuine songs with their melodies, still extant among the common people. The result has been a very valuable collection. The first numbers appeared in 1841; and the whole will form a standard work in the literature of popular poetry. It was an agreeable surprise to find, that even these isolated Slavic tribes, who have been so long separated from other nations related to them, were still in possession of a store of genuine Slavic ballads and ancient melodies; while, on the other hand, many other ballads were found among them, in which the influence of their German neighbours, or perhaps their own influence on the latter, could be distinctly traced. Ballads and ditties, known to have been sung centuries before in Hessia or on the Rhine, rose suddenly from the night of an unheeded existence: disguised, indeed, but easily recognized, in a Slavic dress, which bore indications of the same antiquity.[10]

2. Language of the Sorabians in Lower Lusatia.

Lower Lusatia, or the north-eastern part of the Lusatian territory, together with the adjacent circle of Cotbus in Brandenburg, has about the same number of Vendish inhabitants as the upper province. The dialect they speak has a strong affinity with the Polish; but is, like that of their brethren in Upper Lusatia, corrupted by German interpolations, and even in a still greater degree. It is obviously on the decline; and we can only expect, that after the lapse of a hundred years or less, no other vestige of it will be left than written or printed documents.

The first book known to have been printed in this dialect, which is written according to a peculiar combination of the German letters, is Moeller's Hymns, Catechism, and Liturgy, Bautzen 1574. Their present literature, like that of Upper Lusatia, is confined to works for religious instruction, grammars, and dictionaries. Of the former they possess no small number. They have also a complete version of the Bible. The New Testament was translated for them as early as 1709, by Fabricius, and printed together with the German text. It has been repeatedly reprinted; and in the year 1798 a translation of the Old Testament by Fritze was added.[11]


[Footnote 1: Herder, in his Volkslieder, communicated a popular ballad from this dialect. See Literatur und Kunst, Vol. VII. p. 126, edit. of 1827-30.]

[Footnote 2: “On a certain day all the inhabitants of Kief were assembled on the banks of the Dnieper, and on a signal from the monarch, all plunged into the river, some to the waist, others to the neck; parents held their children in their arms while the ceremony was performed by the priests in attendance. Thus a nation received baptism, not only without murmuring, but with cheerfulness; for all were convinced that a religion, embraced by the sovereign and boyards, must necessarily be the best in the world” Foreign Quart. Review, Art. on Karamsin's History of Russia, Vol. III. p. 160. Compare Henderson's Travels in Russia, p. 191.]

[Footnote 3: See Cramer's Pommersche Kirchen Historie, LI. c. 29.]

[Footnote 4: Among others the peasants of the duchy of Altenburg, who are highly respectable through a certain degree of cultivation rare among German peasants, and distinguished for their wealth and prosperous condition. Although long since perfectly Germanized, certain Vendish usages have been kept up among them, more especially at weddings and similar festivals, the details of which are very interesting.]

[Footnote 5: Principia linguae Vandalicae seu Wendica, Prague 1679-1682.]

[Footnote 6: Didascalia sive Orthographia Vandalica, Bautzen 1689.]

[Footnote 7: De Originibus linguae Sorabicae M. Abrah. Frencelij, Budiss. et Zwickau 1693-96.]

[Footnote 8: Kurzgefasste Grammatik der Sorben-Wendischen Sprache, Bautzen 1828.]

[Footnote 9: Grammatik der wendisch-sorbischen Sprache in der Ober Lausitz. Im Systeme Dubrovsky's abgefasst, von J.P. Jordan, Prague 1841. Here may be mentioned also, Maly Sserb, i.e. der kleine Serbe, wendische-deutsche Gesprache etc. mit einem wendisch-deutschen und deutsch-wendischen Wuerterbuch, etc. von J.E. Schmaler, Bautzen 1841.—There exists besides this only one Sorabian Dictionary, and this in Latin, Vocabularium latino-sorbicum, by G.A. Swotlik, Bautzen 1721.]

[Footnote 10: Volkslieder der Wenden in der Ober und Nieder Lausitz, und mit den Sangweisen, deutsher Uebersetzung, etc. herausgegeben von Leopold Haupt und J.E. Schmaler, Grimma 1841, 2 vols. The second volume contains the songs in the dialect of Lower Lusatia.]

[Footnote 11: Philological works on this dialect are the following: Hauptmann's Wendische Sprachlehre, Luebben 1761. Kurze Anleitung zur Wend. Sprache, 1746. Megiseri Thesaurus Polyglottus, Frankf. 1603; including the Lower Lusatian. Several vocabularies of this dialect are extant in manuscript; see Schaffarik's Geschichte, p. 486.]

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