Balts (bôlts) [key], peoples of the east coast of the Baltic Sea. They include the Latvians, the Lithuanians, and the now extinct Old Prussians. Their original home was farther east, but from the 6th cent. they were pushed westward by the Slavs. In the 13th cent. the Teutonic Knights and the Livonian Brothers of the Sword conquered the region later comprising Estonia and Latvia and forced Christianity on the inhabitants. Pressed by the Teutonic Order, the Lithuanians formed (13th cent.) a unified state of Lithuania, which successfully resisted annexation and became one of the largest states of medieval Europe. In 1387, under Grand Duke Jagiello (King Ladislaus II of Poland), Lithuania officially adopted Christianity. The Teutonic Order lost (15th cent.) all but East Prussia, but descendants of the German knights and settlers continued to control land and commerce in Latvia and Estonia until the 20th cent. After the union (1569) of Lithuania with Poland, the Lithuanian nobility became thoroughly Polish in language and politics. The Estonians, a Finnic rather than a Baltic people, came under Swedish rule in 1561 and in 1721 passed to Russia, which by 1795 acquired all the Baltic lands. The incorporation of the Baltic nations of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia into the Soviet Union (1940) became a source of political disputes. All three countries gained independence in 1991. For earliest history to the 13th cent. see Marija Gimbutas, The Balts (1963).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
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