The Militias of Magnate Towns
Belorussia and Lithuania
16th - 18th Centuries

Anatol Hryckiewicz (Minsk, BSSR)
translated from Polish
Sigmund S. Birkenmayer
Eugenia J.Okoniewska
edited by
Margot Topkins Tutun

In historical literature there are no special studies devoted to the problem discussed here. However, its investigation possesses real significance, illustrating the dependence on military force in the magnate towns in carrying out policy, the basis for the make-up of militia organization, the legal grounds for militia recruitment, and the military and tactical functions actually fulfilled. Available sources give a scanty idea of the organization, number, and military readiness of the militias of magnate towns. A relatively large amount of data exists for Slutsk, less for Nesvizh, Birzhai, and Koidanov. Only fragmentary data exist for other magnate towns.

In carrying out their policy, the magnates of Belorussia and Lithuania relied on their towns not only as fortified points of defense. When necessary, towns mobilized their militias, and could be further utilized for the maintenance of permanent garrisons and concentration of local military groups made up of mercenary soldiers and servitude boyars. 

Town militias existed as early as the beginning of the 16th century, when Belorussians defended their towns from invasion by the Crimean Tartars. Town inhabitants, most likely generically related to the town militias of Kievan Ruthenia, allied themselves with the lord’s feudal detachments.

In practice, most militias were concentrated in larger, fortified towns and were utilized mainly for local defense. The existence of the town militia was of primary concern not only to the magnates, who strove to exploit all resources, including human ones, for the defense of their holdings, but also to the inhabitants of the towns themselves.

Working people were dependent on them for their safety since war affected them most of all. The conquest of a town by the enemy was accompanied by looting, rapes, murders, fires, epidemics and, not infrequently, considerable destruction to the town itself. Under conditions of feudal anarchy, frequent wars, and the decline of the central authority in the old Polish Republic, town militias represented a force able to defend the town and its possessions as well as the lives of its inhabitants. The town militias of Belorussia and Lithuania had no independent military significance; they carried on military operations only in defense of besiegement.

Military service of the majority of the townspeople in a magnate's town was considered a local obligation to the lord of the town, and not to the state. The magnate defined the principles of the practical application of this duty, and the higher officials of his administration, or the garrison commanders, exercised a general control over the fulfillment of this duty. As a rule, the magnates, while making use of the town militia, relied on the wealthy merchant class as well as on the members of the town board and the guild elders. One should note that the magnates regarded both the town militia and the towns themselves as tools, a means to political power, and often exposed the towns and their militias to grievous losses.

When danger arose, town inhabitants were obliged, as a part of the town militia, with weapons in their hands, to defend the town. Each townsperson and even guest--whoever then present — was expected to step forth together with servants and every kind of weapon. Every inhabitant of the town was duty-bound to participate in military drills, shooting practice, and to keep his weapons in good order. The time and place of the shooting practice were precisely determined.

The direct administration of the town militia was the responsibility of the town boards, town heads and persons designated by the town board. All the detailed problems concerning organization, administration, and supplies were resolved during town board sessions. During military operations, officers and sergeants of the town garrisons commanded units of the town militias.

The number of the town militiamen depended on the population of a town. And so, in May 1706, during the siege of the Nesvizh castle by the army of Swedish King Charles XII, the garrison of the Nesvizh stronghold included 110 townsmen. They formed the Nesvizh town militia. In December 1673, in Birzhai, 139 inhabitants were members of the town militia. The town militia of Koidanov, in the sixties and seventies of the 18th century was also numerous. One can assume that it numbered not less than 130 men, for in that period this was the exact number of Christian homeowners in Koidanov, and under the conditions of the system of the town militia all the townsmen were obliged to serve.

The most numerous was the Slutsk town militia. Every male in town, able to carry weapons, was assigned to regiments. The regiments were formed according to the place of residence in sections of the town. In June 1655, four regiments existed in Slutsk (Table 1). They were divided into hundreds, differing as to their numerical makeup. The largest number of hundred was in the two regiments named after the commanders of these regiments, the Slutsk town head and John Strzelnikowicz, which had been formed in the Old Town, ten hundreds from a total of eighteen.

The regiment formed from inhabitants of the New Town - the New Town regiment - was equal in number to the Ostrov regiment, another suburb of Slutsk. The inhabitants of Troichany, the second Slutsk suburb, were a part of the sixth hundred of the regiment of the Slutsk town head.

Table 1

Regiment Number
Slutsk Town Head 6 600
Mr. John Strezelnikowicz 4 400
The New Town Regiment 4 400
The Ostrov Regiment 4 400
Total Four Regiments 18 1,800

Part of the hundreds was made up of groups not attached to any unit. These men had come to Slutsk in time of war and subsequently settled there. Two hundreds of John Strzelnikowicz's regiment and also the fourth hundred in the Ostrov regiment were formed by these men. The magnates and upper classes preferred the policy of separating migrant and often restless elements from the remaining townspeople but also sought to take advantage of unattached people for the fulfillment of military obligation. Hundreds, numbering 100 men each, were divided into tens.  

The system of organization into tens also existed in other magnates' towns in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. In 1635, in Kopys' [sic] there were five hundreds, named after their commanders: Nalivaiko, Hrychno, Zakharchin, Matysko, and Kurylowicz. The town of Shklov in 1643 had 11 hundreds of townsmen, including four "trans-Dnieper" hundreds; these hundreds were also divided into tens. 

In the early 18th century the militia of Bykhov was also divided into hundreds and tens. In Birzhai in 1673 the town militia consisted of 14 tens; there were 10 men in each with the exception of two tens. One can assume most probably that an analogous composition of the tens also existed in the hundreds of the Slutsk militia. The Slutsk town militia numbered about 1800 men in the summer of 1655. 

As in Slutsk, the system of recruitment in Birzhai was based on a territorial and social principle. At the 1673 military review, on the right flank stood the two tens composed of the members of the town board and inhabitants of the center of the town, followed by tens of more of the town's inhabitants. A separately formed fourteenth group of ten consisting of tenants was also present. 

The decimal system of the division of the town's inhabitants into hundreds and tens existed in Slutsk as early as the twenties of the 17th century. In the second half of that century, the numerical composition of the regiments in Slutsk changed. This was caused by the events of war and by the migration of the population. 

On 7 June 1661 the military review of the town of Slutsk took place. Three regiments were presented: 1) the regiment of the Slutsk town head, consisting of three hundreds and a separate group of men under the monastery's jurisdiction, a total of 324 persons; 2) the regiment of Mr. John Strzelnikowicz, consisting of four hundreds, a total of 368 persons; and 3) the regiment of Mr. Nicholas Rahoza, probably from the New Town, consisting of three hundreds, a total of 327 persons. The total number of the Slutsk militia at that time was 1019 men, of whom 760 were house owners and their tenants and 259 were guests and unaffiliated. 

In 1681 in the three Slutsk regiments, dwellers of 922 Christian and 173 Jewish houses were represented. The militia numbered at least 1095 men, not less than it had been 20 years before. 

It is interesting to note that at the end of the 17th century the Jewish population of Slutsk formerly not part of the militia, was incorporated into the Slutsk regiments and expected by the magnate to help defend the town. Participation in the militia and, above all, extensive monetary contributions for the defense, participation in the work of strengthening the fortified points, and allotment of billets for the garrison soldiers and officers were part of this obligation. 

In the Slutsk military census of 1689, the Jewish population was already incorporated into the town regiments and hundreds. According to the data of that census, there had been preserved in Slutsk a division of the town's inhabitants into three regiments - two from the Old Town (the regiments of Marks and Olaikevich) and one from the New Town (the regiment of Hrehor Lapitzki). Assessment of the data in Table 2 reveals that each hundred consisted of over 100 men, an average of 138 men, all house owners. If we should take into consideration only the families of the townsmen, of which there were 1091, then each hundred would have an average of 121 men.

Table 2
Composition of Regiments
Slutsk, 1689

Regiment Number
Regiment of Marks 3 305
Regiment of Olaikevich 4 549
Regiment of Lapitzki 2 549
Total 9 1,246

The number of hundreds in Slutsk increased, but one regiment, Ostrov, was abolished after its destruction in the middle of the 17th century during a Russian-Polish war. 

The system of division of the inhabitants of Slutsk into regiments and hundreds continued to exist in the 18th century as well. Even in 1777, the inhabitants of Slutsk were divided into hundreds (there were five of these), with the exception of craftsmen belonging to guilds.  These were already excluded from that type of organization of the town's inhabitants. At that time, the latifundial administration and the town board utilized the hundreds for the purpose of collecting taxes. 

The system of division of the inhabitants of Slutsk into regiments was taken advantage of by the lord of the town as well as by the town board in the 17th and 18th centuries. Regiments were utilized not only for the defense of the town but also for guarding gates and walls, or guarding against fires.  The units were also used for fiscal purposes. Through regiments and hundreds, all kinds of taxes and fees were collected from the townspeople. Commanders of the military units, their colonels and assistants, were exempted from some obligations. They sometimes did not have to contribute to the construction of the defense walls, street lighting, or the billeting of garrison soldiers and officers. 

The decimal system of the militia of a Belorussian magnate's town was closely related to an analogous feudal town system in the former Ruthenian State. Novgorod, Pskov and other Ruthenian towns had such systems. The similarity of the hundreds concept between Belorussian and Ruthenian towns became even more striking as the fiscal function of this institution intensified. This occurred in both in Belorussia and Russia up to the 18th century, and could be seen in the so-called posad hundreds in Russian towns. 

As regards military organization, the decimal system of the militia of a feudal Belorussian town was derived undoubtedly from an identical system to old Ruthenian towns where armies were raised in hundreds and tens. Very similar was the system of the organization of the town militia in Novgorod and Pskov, which also had armies consisting of regiments and hundreds. Hundreds and tens existed also in the rifle troops in the Russian State in the 16th century. In fact, hundreds endured until the 20th century in Cossack cavalry and infantry detachments. 

The commander for four town regiments did not come from among the Slutsk townspeople. Directing the defense of the town and the almost 2000-man militia required special training.  Appointing commanders of military units was a function of the municipal board. The magnate's administration did not intervene in the internal matters of the town militia, correctly assuming that the upper-class townspeople would not allow anyone from among the town's poor to occupy commanders' posts. 

The record books of the meetings of the Slutsk town board in the second half of the 17th century contain many decrees in matters of the town's defense and the organization of the town's militias. The town regiments and hundreds are mentioned in the book of records in December 1654.  On July 20, 1655, during a war between the Russian State and the Old Polish Republic, a resolution was passed concerning the inspection of weapons and military equipment in the four town regiments. At that session, new commanders belonging to the regiments were elected.   

Four colonels were chosen; the Slutsk town head (from a wealthy merchant family - Semyon Volkovich; John Strzelnikowicz; the commander of the New Town regimen, Maxim Petryka; and the commander of the Ostrov regiment, Makita Dziortka. These men were wealthy, upper class townspeople. Possibly, when appointments to these posts were made, influence and wealth of these or other upper class townspeople were not the only personal traits taken into consideration. It was important to look for organizational abilities and personal courage, traits that would later manifest themselves among many Belorussian merchants on their frequent journeys with goods and money during attack by robbers or armed noblemen. The town board appointed to important command posts those individuals who enjoyed the confidence of not only the town board itself but also of the prince's administration. 

Every regimental colonel was assigned a lieutenant colonel. The commanders of hundreds had one to three aides apiece, called assistant commanders. However, in 1655, some commanders of hundreds stepped forth without their aides. Junior commanding officers were leaders of tens. They do not appear in the list of commanders as approved by a session of the municipal board. The appointing of these was probably left to the colonels themselves. In the Slutsk militia in July 1655 there were a total of four colonels, four lieutenant colonels, 18 commanders of hundreds, and 18 serving as their aides. Analogous posts existed also in the other magnates' towns of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. For example, the military census of the town of Birzhai of 14 December 1673 mentions commanders of units of tens. In the 18th c. in Bykhov there were commanders of hundreds and tens. Commanders of hundreds are recorded in Kopys' [sic] in 1635 and also in Shklov in 1643. 

The Slutsk military census of 1689 mentions three colonels, seven commanders of hundreds (two hundreds were commanded by their assistants, because the posts of commanders of hundreds were not filled), seven assistant commanders of hundreds, one lieutenant in a unit of a hundred, and four municipal standard-bearers. The colonels, the commanders of hundreds, and the lieutenant were merchants. Among the commanders of hundreds were master craftsmen--a kettle-maker, a shoemaker, and a weaver. 

In case of vacancy, the posts of colonels were filled at a session of the town council. Thus, in the records of a session of the town board of 30 October 1674 we read: “The post of colonel in the Old and New Town is vacant, for which it is necessary to elect and confirm persons nominated by their colleagues.” In the same way the posts of lieutenant and of commander of a hundred were filled, one of the latter usually receiving the higher rank. The records of the town board note that upper class townsmen were chosen for these posts.

Actually, the colonels decided upon filling these posts, so much so that at times the council would forget to confirm the appointments. Thus, on 16 August 1679, instructions were given to Colonel John Strzelnikowicz to remove the incumbent commanders of hundreds from their posts and to appoint in their place more competent ones at the next general military inspection. 

The weapons of the town militia reflect the development of military arms. Wealthy and propertied townsmen had with muskets, belswords, rifles, and pistols. In the year 1678, Ivan Skotchkevitch, a wealthy townsman and the elder of the Eastern Orthodox Brotherhood of Salvation, had a Cossack style belsword encased in silver, a couple of Torun muskets and a great quantity of firearms. In general, weapons were quite costly. For example, muskets available in 1673 from the Slutsk town armory cost 4z3. (gold pieces) each. Consequently, only merchants and master craftsmen could afford firearms. Townsmen of limited means had all kinds of cutting weapons, cold steel weapons e.g. battleaxes, and some were armed with whatever weapons they could get. 

The carrying of belswords and other weapons by Belorussian townsmen was a rather common occurrence. That is why all guild statutes, in almost identical words, prohibited the members of a guild to bring weapons with them to guild meetings to prevent bloodshed during arguments! And so, in the statute of the Slutsk guild of hosiers of Nov. 7, 1664, we read: “Having convened in a meeting, none of the elder and younger brothers ought to have with him a belsword, a cutlass, a knife or any weapon suitable for a fight.” Identical prohibitions appear in the statutes of furrier guilds, leather craftsmen, saddle makers, morocco craftsmen, locksmiths, blacksmiths, weavers, and shoemakers.  

The magnates of Belorussia and Lithuania imposed upon the townsmen the obligation of owning a weapon and keeping it in good condition. Every Birzhai townsman was duty-bound to have his own musket and coldsteel weapon. This was ordered by the decree of Prince Boguslav Radzivill during the sixties of the 17th century. In giving Birzhai its town charter in 1683, Princess Louise Caroline decreed that every Birzhai townsman should have a halberd or a musket and a belsword. The same custom existed also in Bykhov, where at the beginning of the 18th c. every townsman was obliged to have a manually operated gun--his own matchlock. The Slutsk townsmen had the duty, as asserts the inventory record of the year 1751, to possess weapons for military service. Furthermore, keeping the firearms in good condition was mandatory, as shown by a document from 1758 concerning Bykhov.  

Arming the townsmen was proposed not by the magnates but by the townsmen themselves. Thus, on 27 September 1592, a resolution of the head, of the mayors, councilors, and assessors of the whole town of Nesvizh obliged every townsman, on the basis of an earlier ordinance of the town board, to have a matchlock, powder, and bullets. He who did not fulfill this obligation paid the town treasury a fine of one stack of Lithuanian pennies. In Slutsk, in conformity with the law of 1621, a townsman who did not have his weapon in order paid the town treasury four stacks of pennies. 

The resolution of the Slutsk town board of 23 February 1655, decreed that the commandant of the town assign for the disposal of each colonel two garrison officers who would carry out, in the townsmen's houses, an inspection of the weapons owned by them. He who had a rifle should have it in order, and also powder and bullets for his rifle; and he who did not have a rifle should have a battleaxe, a halberd, or an iron fork.

In time of war, inspections of this kind were made in towns every month. For example, a notice was issued in Birzhai in 1648-1649 stipulating that everyone should have his weapon at home in readiness, and also powder and bullets. In an order to the Slutsk townsmen on 31 August 1655, it was decreed that each of the townsmen defending the walls who did not have firearms and was armed only with cold-steel weapons should bring with him five fist-sized stones for throwing at the enemy in the event of a siege. A part of the militia was even armed with harquebuses.  At the military inspection of the three regiments of the town of Slutzk on 7 June 1661, 760 house owners with their lodgers and 259 guests and unassociated ones had for personal weapons 532 rifles and 766 pieces of small arms. 

The inhabitants of the other magnate towns were also armed in this manner. In the decree of Prince Janusz Radzivill, the Lithuanian commander-in-chief, of 8 Dec. 1648, the inhabitants were ordered to have good muskets, powder, and bullets. At the military inspection in Birzhai on 14 December 1673, the inhabitants were armed with all kinds of weapons. The commanders of units of ten had battleaxes, and additionally, some of them had belswords. The remaining inhabitants were armed with muskets, guns, French guns, bandoleers, “bird” guns (small-caliber weapons firing small bullets), and pistols. 

There were 27 guns with a matchlock, which was still used as late as the 16th c.; there were 35 with a wheel-type lock which was used at the beginning of the 17th c; there were 23 with a flintlock from the 17th c.; and there were 37 with unspecified locks. The Birzhai inhabitants were equipped with small arms such as poleaxes, belswords, halberds, and swords. The townsmen serving in the militia of Koidanov and other magnate towns had their own weapons. If some of the poorer townsmen, especially tenants, did not have their own weapons, they received arms from the magnate's arsenal for the duration of the siege. 

In large self-governing in peacetime municipal weapon depositories housed the weapons of the townsmen and equipment and supplies of munitions. In the rescript of Prince Boguslav Radzivill in 1661, it was recommended to the Slutzk townspeople that each townsman who has registered in the census books, should deposit a matchbox musket for his own need in the public municipal weapons depository.  The prince assured that guns belonging to the townsmen would not be taken away for the garrison's use. 

It should be noted that a magnate did not compel townsmen to buy the costly modern weapons with a wheel-type lock or a flintlock at their own expense. Quite clearly, he treated the town militia as an auxiliary force and paid such scant attention to arming it with modern firearms. However, he saw to it that all townsmen would have firearms, even if they were of inferior quality. 

The mobilization of the town militia took place as it had in the Middle Ages. Usually a cannon shot and/or the beating of drums raised the alarm. Beating of drums was ordered in a resolution of the town board and the townspeople of Nesvizh of 27 September 1592.

Avoidance of military duty by the townsmen was punishable by fine. In Nesvizh, as in other places, not only the owners of houses but also the tenants who rented rooms (chambers) participated. In the mentioned resolution we read: “... and as soon as they beat the drum, let them come out at once, and especially a man and landlord in their own persons, as for a battle, under penalty of 12 groschen for the town administration.” 

In Slutsk, the commandant prepared orders concerning the action of the town militia at time of siege. This kind of order was confirmed at a town session of 31 August 1655 and recommended strict discipline during military operations, justified both by the war necessity and the need to prevent any kind of riots among the town poor. It was forbidden, in the event of an alarm, to ring church bells, to beat drums, and to gather in a disorderly crowd. All the townsmen were obliged to proceed from their houses to points of defense on the city wall which had been designated for regiments and hundreds. After the signal--a cannon shot from the Upper Castle--the hundreds, fully armed, were to occupy the defense sectors assigned to them.

If time allowed, hundreds gathered into regiments. In case of dire need they entered combat on their own. A hundred was then a basic tactical unit in the battle for the town. During an attack the townsmen were prohibited to make noise, to shout, and to insult the enemy. It was necessary to follow closely the orders of the garrison officers while making use of weapons. It was forbidden to shoot at great range, but it was necessary to aim at the enemy at a close range. To create the indispensable density of firing on the walls, members of the militia who had good firearms were dispersed evenly among townsmen who had only small arms and stones.

Under penalty of death, townsmen were not permitted to leave their defensive positions when fires broke out in the town. The putting out of fires during attack upon the town was the responsibility of women. To make it impossible for the enemy to occupy convenient positions for firing upon the town, and to make it difficult for him to establish his quarters around the town, unfortified suburbs were burned, as in 1655, when the Ostrov suburb was burned in Slutsk.  

In case of a prolonged siege, food rationing introduced. Only thanks to such strict measures was it possible for the garrison command to establish and maintain discipline during a siege of the town by the troops of Prince Trubetzkoy in September 1655. The order also attests to the fact that the town militias were subordinated to a military command consisting of professional officers who served the interests of the feudal lords. 

The military and tactical application of town militias was limited to the defense of town fortresses.  However, sometimes town militias were utilized outside the town in armed feuds between magnates. At such times, town militias would play a role similar to the detachments of nobles or mercenaries.  The town militia of Bykhov, in the 18th century, participated in the defense of the boundaries of their lord's dominion.  The military readiness of the militia was of no concern to the feudatories commanding it, which strove to attain their goals while disregarding the losses that the town militia might suffer.

The Koidanov townspeople in the second half of the 18th century suffered greatly. The town with its district had been pledged as a security to the Princess Voronetzki (1760 to 1778). The administrator of the pledge, a certain Dressel who had been appointed by the Voronetzkis, forced the Koidanov townspeople to gather a militia and to arm themselves at their own expense, after which he ordered them to make an incursion upon the estate of the Messrs. Kostrovitzkis in Novoselki. The militia was not favored by success. The town head, Nicholas Ponotchka, was killed, many townsmen died or were wounded, and their weapons were captured. 

One of the ways of maintaining military discipline during peacetime, concomitant with the military obligation of a magnate town, were so-called general military inspections. All the townsmen were obliged, on a designated day, or by hundreds within a few days, to appear, fully armed, in one of the town squares or in a determined place near the town.

In Slutsk, the place of inspections was the square in front of the New Fortress, with an area of 0.198 hectares. All who took part in the inspection were inscribed in a special register in which was also entered information about the condition of their weapons and equipment. Failure to appear at general inspections was severely punished. Inspections were sometimes scheduled quarterly in Birzhai in 1636; at other times, they were scheduled as needed.  Thus, in August 1672, the Slutsk town board, during a war of the Old Polish Republic against Turkey and Crimea, took measures to defend the town. The leaders of the hundreds of each town regiment were ordered to issue a disposition that people should prepare weapons, powder, and bullets, and appear at a general inspection within a week after the publication of the deadline. 

For the most part, however, general inspections were held once a year, as in Bykhov and Slutsk.  In the ordinance of the town of Slutsk of 1621, a yearly inspection was ordained in the last week before Christmas, 18 to 25 December. It was held in the presence of the elder, the captain or commandant of the fortress and the town head, and lasted three days. At the inspection every Christian house owner was to be present with a musket or a good long matchlock, and with good small arms such as a belsword, a cutlass, a saber, or a sword. The only ones who could be absent were those gravely ill or merchants on a long journey. These were obliged to send a substitute in their place to the inspection.  Widows and orphans with the permission of the town authorities, and depending on their financial condition, could also send a substitute.

The ordinance defined these inspections as no mere ceremonies but useful procedures. It stressed the necessity of having the registrar's office record each name and degree of preparation. It also said that that these registers must kept-- one copy in the town treasury and another in the castle. 

In time of war, not only the townsmen should appear at the inspection with their weapons but also temporary visitors such as inhabitants, together with their servants, of other Belorussian towns, both those belonging to the magnates and those to the king. The clergy living in the town were obliged to send to the inspection their menservants with weapons. However, these decrees for the time of war were issued not by the town board but by the magnate's deputies. 

During the siege of a town, even the noblemen living in the town were summoned to the town walls. This summons was usually accompanied by conferences with the commandant of the fortress with representatives of the nobility.

The Jewish population, in the middle of the 17th century was not incorporated into the town regiments, but did participate in the defense of the town. In the record of the session of the town board of Slutsk of 19 January 1655, attention was called to the fact that the Jews in this town had their own defense. 

At the end of the 17th century, the Jewish population of Slutsk was assigned to town regiments. Poles, Germans, and Russians living in the town were also incorporated into these bodies. 

The manifesto of Michael Casimir Radzivill to the town of Nesvizh (of August 1654) attests also to the participation of other groups of the population in the town militia. It makes reference to the fact that the Jews who had built their homes on town lots should be subordinated to the town board in the matters of performing guard and defense duty, and of constructing defense walls, and should take part in inspections.

An analogous situation existed also in Birzhai. Prince Janusz Radzivill ordered on 8 December 1648 that during inspection all people should take part whether living in the town as house owners or tenants, and of whatever nationality, social status, or financial condition. In the year 1673, in the inspection of the townsmen in the tens of the town militia, Lithuanians, Poles, Belorussians, Germans, Jews, and Scotsmen (proof of this are the first and last names of the townsmen members of the Militia) participated. In Bykhov, in conformity with the decree of vice-chancellor Michael Sapieha (1758), the militia included Belorussians, Poles, Tartars, and Jews, who would appear at the inspection within units of hundreds and tens, with their weapons. 

Even though, initially, town militias in magnate towns of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania consisted only of townsmen, later on they included all those inhabitants of a town who “swore bondage” to the lord of the town. This was related not only to the magnate's endeavor to strengthen the defense of his fortress, but also to his striving to unify the obligations of all the social and denominational groups of the town population, moreover, not only within the scope of defense. 

A magnate required that townsmen should participate personally in a military inspection. On December 8, 1648, Janusz Radzivill instructed the mayor and all the council of the town of Birzhai to strictly observe, and, above all, to see to it that everyone in his own person should come out of his house to the inspection. Sending in his place some domestic servant or some hired ruffian was frowned upon. 

In practice, however, wealthy townsmen as well as widows continued to send substitutes. At the inspection of 1673 in Birzhai, of 139 members of the militia 13 were hired substitutes (footmen) for upper class townsmen. The first unit of ten, consisting of members of the town council, was, with the exception of the commander, made up entirely of substitutes. 

At times, the town militias of magnates' towns included cavalry and artillery. The ordinance of the town of Slutsk of 5 May 1621, signed by the guardian of the then under-age Prince Boguslav Radzivill, and his paternal uncle, Christopher Radzivill, the commander-in-chief of Lithuania, provided for the formation of a cavalry detachment within the town militia. They decreed that everyone in the market square, and every merchant who has chambers in the market square, and every guildmaster, is to have in his house a good saddle, and all the horseman's outfit; and the commanders of the hundreds themselves should always have in their houses not only firearms and weapons but also horsemen's equipment.

It is characteristic that a cavalry detachment of townsmen was to consist only of wealthy members of this social class. The powerful class of Slutsk townsmen who fulfilled their military duty on horseback, resembled an analogous social group of mounted Vitebsk townsmen who, by the charter of 1597, had been given equal rights with the remaining Vitebsk townsmen (as opposed to the mounted autochthonous townsmen). One should also add that in Slutsk some members of the powerful town merchants were descended from the boyars who had settled in the town in the 15th to 16th centuries. 

However, in later documents of the middle of the 17th century is no mention is made of either the town cavalry in Slutzk or the cavalry service of the townsmen. A cavalry detachment was not necessary in the makeup of the town militia, since the lord of the town had increased his garrison several times by including cavalry units in it. 

In one of the charters for Birzhai, granted by Christopher Radzivill in May 1636 after a consultation with the townsmen, it was decreed that the townsmen, in return for an expansion of their rights, would perform a defined military duty for the defense of that frontier town and castle. For this reason also, quarterly inspections were introduced in order to check as well on the townsmen's ability to fire cannons, independently of checking their armament as infantrymen. This is the only instance known to us of utilizing the town militia to man the artillery. 

For combat preparation of the townsmen, magnates recommended to the town authorities that shooting practices, military training, and conferences be conducted. In the rescript of Prince Boguslav Radzivill of 25 January 1662 for the Slutsk townsmen, it was pointed out that a definite time and place should be designated for shooting practice. Also in the middle of the 18th century, it was everyone's duty to participate in military training and shooting practices. The Bykhov townsmen in the 18th century were obliged to take part in military training conducted under the supervision of commanders of tens and hundreds. 

Into the program of military training, magnates introduced an element of shooting contests, in order to encourage the townsmen to be combat-ready. General inspections, as a rule, ended with shooting contests. Thus, in the ordinance of Slutsk in 1621, Prince Christopher Radzivill recommended that at the shooting contests the following be present: the elder (the prince's deputy), the captain (commandant of the fortress), and the town head. It was they who were the judges of these shooting contests. They selected the best shooters from among the townsmen. If many shooters hit the target, then they would have to shoot at the target again.  

The contest lasted until all the losers dropped away, with the exception of the three best shooters.  The winners, whose triumph was proclaimed by the judges, were issued certificates bearing their names. The three winners received, along with their prizes, exemption from paying rent and from all the town obligations, with the exception of defense. In addition to such contests, monthly competitions were organized; however, these were not for everyone, as with the general inspection, but for volunteers only. The lord of the town would set up three prizes from the prince's treasury for winners in this kind of competition. The first winner would receive a musket, the second winner a belsword, and the third winner would get a spear.  

Prince Michael Casimir Radzivill Rybenka introduced a similar custom in 1731 in Nesvizh.  Citing an ancient custom in many towns of Europe and of the Old Polish Republic itself, Radzivill introduced yearly shooting contests in order to prepare the townsmen for the defense of the town and the castle. These contests were held at the beginning of summer on the third day of Whitsuntide holidays. They were held in particularly solemn circumstances and in a place specially provided for this purpose, behind the Benedictine Sisters Monastery.  The first shot was fired by the prince or a person designated by him. The second shot was fired by the prince's wife or, with her permission, by someone else. The third shot in sequence was fired by the governor of the Nesvizh castle, and the fourth by the Nesvizh town head. 

Then in sequence shots were fired by the members of the town board and by all the inhabitants of Nesvizh who had arrived at the contest with their weapons. The winner would be proclaimed the best marksman for a period of one year and, after the closing of the contest, he would receive in the Town Hall as a reward a velvet belt decorated with silver escutcheons. Should the prince himself, (or his wife, or the governor) win the first prize, he would give it up to an inhabitant of Nesvizh freely chosen by him in his place, and that one would receive the title of the best marksman. The award for the first shooter of Nesvizh was also an exemption for a year from all the obligations to the lord of the town and to the town board, as well as from taxes paid to the treasury of the Old Polish Republic. 

Magnates the establishment of prizes and exemptions for winners were not the only means of promotion of the contests. In one of the ordinances of Boguslav Radzivill in the second half of the 17th century, we read that the prince prohibited the shopkeepers to make a profit of more than two pennies per pound of powder during its sale to townsmen and town youths for use in the shooting practice. The town head set the tax on the sale of powder. 

Detachments of selected recruited townsmen were more permanent military units. This kind of detachment existed in Slutsk in the second half of the 18th century. The town’s selected men in Slutsk existed on an equal basis with the selected men's companies in the Slutsk garrison. They reported for duty voluntarily, and were exempted from obligations to the town and to the magnate.  The town's selected men did not have to give up, at the same time, their jobs in trade and crafts. 

In the military census of Slutsk, among the town's selected men we encounter a clothier, a hosier, a furrier, a maltmaker, a butcher, and a coachman.  However, the majority consisted of the town’s poor; the unaffiliated ones and demi-neighbors, often not having houses of their own. They devoted more time than the militia members did to military training under the command of a lieutenant, a professional soldier specially designated by the prince at a motion of the town board. The lieutenant commanding the town's selected men would receive his pay and uniform from the town board. It was also the town board that paid for a drummer selected from among the townsmen. The town’s selected men had their own scribe who would prepare their lists. They also had an officer cadet and most probably, a standard-bearer. 

The number of the town's selected men was not constant. In the seventies and eighties of the 17th century they numbered over 100 men. In the record of a session of the municipal board it was noted that the lieutenant of the selected men had been issued 82 muskets from the town weapons depository for distribution. At a session of 25 June 1680, the matter of purchasing 100 matchlock muskets for the town's selected men was considered. The town board stated on 25 June 1682 that the number of selected men from among the “unattached” townsmen had increased by 26 men and town muskets had been issued to them. Thus, there would be about 130 town's selected men in that period.

In the first half of the 18th century the number of the town's selected men decreased rapidly. In 1728 there were in Slutsk barely three such men. By this time the lord of the town was not particularly interested in an influx of men from town to the formation of his army. He had a sufficient number of soldiers from among petty menservants and the privileged rural population related to them. Also, for economic reasons, it was inconvenient for a magnate to draw the inhabitants to a town away from trade and crafts. 

Town militias in the course of the 16th to 18th centuries existed only in those towns that belonged to the magnates of Belorussia and Lithuania. The published data concerning the king’s towns in Belorussia show that there was no such armed force, for these places were related, above all, to the general social and political system of the Old Polish Republic and not to Belorussian tradition. 

With regard to organization, town militias differed clearly both from the feudal army of the Old Polish Republic (the Lithuanian and Crown armies) and from military formations in the private armies of the magnates of Belorussia and Lithuania. 

Under conditions of increasing anarchy in the Old Polish Republic in the 17th and 18th centuries the demands by the magnates of Belorussia and Lithuania for a military force kept increasing. Therefore, town militias were also summoned to take part in the defense of the magnates' landholdings. Consequently, a private town was for a magnate not only a source of income. The townsmen living in those towns came nearest to vassals of a sort, free men to be sure, but men who were obliged to serve the magnate militarily. 

The townsmen of Belorussian private towns, especially large ones, not only played a passive role of an auxiliary military force of the magnates' armies. They played an independent role as well. The magnates had to take them into account. And, primarily for this very reason, magnates in the second half of the 18th century seldom relied militarily on townsmen and other inhabitants of private towns. At the end of the 18th century, the role of town militias decreased, and the very organization of regiments and hundreds lost its military character and was transformed ultimately into administrative and fiscal units.

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 Compiled by Margot Tutun
Updated May 2020 by rLb
Copyright © 2001 Edward Rosenbaum


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