The Earliest Knowledge about Sudovians-Yotvingians and the Issue of Their Naming

  • Tomas Baranauskas
Keywords: Yotvingians, Sudovians, Dainavians, Polexiani


The earliest reference to the ethnonym ‘Sudovians’ can be traced back to Claudius Ptolemy’s Geography in the second century, where he mentions ‘Sudinoi’, a term similar to Sudovians. However, sources from the tenth to twelfth centuries originating from Slavic countries like Russia and Poland describe specific military encounters with the Sudovians-Yotvingians but use the term ‘Yotvingians’ almost exclusively to refer to them. Additionally, during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the name ‘Polexiani’ was known among the Poles, representing a territorial subgroup within the Yotvingians. Still, it cannot be considered a general ethnonym for all Yotvingians. Scholars have considered the ethnonym ‘Yotvingians’ to be particularly problematic, both for its linguistic uniqueness within the Baltic context and its possible connection to a Germanic personal name, Játvígr. Regardless of specific linguistic hypotheses, the link between this ethnonym and any Baltic hydronym appears problematic, making the existence of distinct territorial groups or ‘small tribes’ among the Yotvingians less likely. Instead, it could be viewed as an exoethnonym adopted by Slavic sources to refer to the entire ethnic group of the Yotvingians.
On the other hand, the ethnonym ‘Sudovians’ stands out due to its remarkable persistence over centuries, from the second-century ‘Sudinoi’ to its reappearance in the thirteenth century. It was primarily used by the Germans who arrived in the Baltic region during the thirteenth century and who were lacking their own tradition of ethnic nomenclature. Thus, they likely adopted this term from either the Prussians or the Sudovians themselves, as both groups shared linguistic and historical ties.
The existence of a distinct ‘Dainavian’ ethnonym among the Lithuanians, who were linguistically close to the Sudovians, can be explained through Jerzy Nalepa’s hypothesis. According to this theory, a separate territorial group or a small tribe existed among the Sudovians, and their name was later transferred to the entire major ethnic group, leading to the use of ‘Dainava’ as a synonym for all of Yotvingia-Sudovia. While this is just a hypothesis, it could explain the emergence of ‘Dainava’ as an ethnonym in the thirteenth century.
In summary, the ethnonym ‘Sudovians’ is the strongest candidate for representing the self-identification of the Sudovians-Yotvingians. In contrast, ‘Yotvingians’ and ‘Dainavians’ may have emerged as exoethnonyms due to their usage in Slavic and Lithuanian cultural contexts. The prominence of ‘Yotvingians’ in historical records can be attributed to rich information provided by Russian and Polish sources about the Sudovians-Yotvingians.