Old Words for a New World: Translating Christianity to Baltic Pagans

Type of project: National  |  Start date: 05/10/2023  |  End date: 04/10/2025

The conversion to Christianity in the Baltic lands was an epochal event in the Middle Ages, as it entailed profound changes in the organisation of political and social life. Lithuanians, Latvians and Prussians were the last pagans in Europe and their conquest and gradual conversion by the Teutonic Order was officially completed as recently as 1387, in Lithuania.

The Christianization of the Balts had two important cultural and linguistic consequences:

  • the birth of the written languages and the early literary monuments, i.e. the Catechisms
  • a profound change in the lexicon of the spiritual culture

Through the lens of the language, the project aims to gain a deep understanding on how Pagan Baltic peoples reacted to the introduction of Christianity and to evaluate to what extent Pagan Baltic identity has persisted and penetrated into the different Christian Confessions.

Catechisms will play a key role in this research, as they first document the reception of Christianity and as they offer the unique parallel text translated in all three Baltic languages: Old Prussian, Old Lithuanian and Old Latvian.


The research is divided into three connected and complementary aims that will be pursued through a deep synergy between the methodologies currently adopted in historical linguistics, historical-comparative study of religions, computational lexicography and knowledge representation.

  1. a systematic and contrastive study will be conducted focussing on the strategies adopted in translating the religious lexicon in the oldest Baltic Catechisms.
  2. the most representative religious terminology of the Baltic Catechisms will be formally described in a diachronic computational lexicon, structured according to the principles of the Explanatory and Combinatorial Lexicology elaborated by Mel’cuk.
  3. an in-depth analysis of the reception of Christian key concepts (e.g. Confession, Creed etc.) in the Baltics will be conducted. This will make it possible to identify the differences and/or analogies characterising this process compared, in diachronic perspective, to what happened in other European areas (Celtic, Slavic etc.).

Pagan and Christian concepts will be represented in a formal ontology. Catechisms will be stored in a digital repository, where each religious term will be linked to its corresponding lexicon entry and to a specific ontology concept, so to allow scholars to semantically access the textual content by means of sophisticated queries.

The resulting digital resources (digital archive, lexicon and ontology) will be considered for inclusion within the European research infrastructures for Digital Humanities and Cultural Heritage like DARIAH and CLARIN. This would make it possible to share the findings of the project, to enhance research and collaboration in this field, in line with the policy of EU research programs Horizon Europe.


Funding programme:
PRIN 2022

Funding body:
MUR (Ministero dell’Università e della Ricerca)


CNR-ILC role:

Project coordinator:
Pietro Umberto Dini (Università di Pisa)

CNR-ILC Research Unit Chair:
Silvia Piccini

Andrea Bellandi
Noemi Terreni