Wends (Old English: Winedas; Old Norse: Vindr; German: Wenden, Winden; Danish: vendere; Swedish: vender; Polish: Wendowie) is a historical name for Slavs living near Germanic settlement areas. It does not refer to a homogeneous people, but to various peoples, tribes or groups depending on where and when it was used.
In German-speaking Europe during the Middle Ages, the term "Wends" was interpreted as synonymous with "Slavs" and sporadically used in literature to refer to West Slavs and South Slavs living within the Holy Roman Empire. The name has possibly survived in Finnic languages (Finnish: Venäjä, Estonian: Vene, Karelian: Veneä), denoting Russia.
For the medieval Scandinavians, the term Wends (Vender) meant Slavs living near the southern shore of the Baltic Sea (Vendland), and the term was therefore used to refer to Polabian Slavs like the Obotrites, Rugian Slavs, Veleti/Lutici and Pomeranian tribes.
For people living in the medieval Northern Holy Roman Empire and its precursors, especially for the Saxons, a Wend (Wende) was a Slav living in the area west of the River Oder, an area later entitled Germania Slavica, settled by the Polabian Slav tribes (mentioned above) in the north and by others, such as the Sorbs and the Milceni, in the middle.
The Germans in the south used the term Winde instead of Wende and applied it, just as the Germans in the north, to Slavs they had contact with; e.g., the Polabians from Bavaria Slavica or the Slovenes (the names Windic March, Windisch Feistritz, or Windischgraz still bear testimony to this historical denomination). The same term was sometimes applied to the neighoring region of Slavonia, which appears as Windischland in some documents prior to the 18th century.
Following the 8th century, the Frankish kings and their successors organised nearly all Wendish land into marches. This process later turned into the series of crusades. By the 12th century, all Wendish lands had become part of the Holy Roman Empire. In the course of the Ostsiedlung, which reached its peak in the 12th to 14th centuries, this land was settled by Germans and reorganised.
Due to the process of assimilation following German settlement, many Slavs west of the Oder adopted the German culture and language. Only some rural communities which did not have a strong admixture with Germans and continued to use West Slavic languages were still termed Wends. With the gradual decline of the use of these local Slavic tongues, the term Wends slowly disappeared, too.
Some sources claim that in the 13th century there were actual historic people called Wends or Vends living as far as northern Latvia (east of the Baltic Sea) around the city of Wenden. Henry of Livonia (Henricus de Lettis) in his 13th-century Latin chronicle described a tribe called the Vindi.
The term "Wends" derived from the Roman-era people called in Latin Veneti, Venedi or Venethi, in Greek / Ouenedai. This people was mentioned by Pliny the Elder and Ptolemy as inhabiting the Baltic coast.
In the 1st millennium AD, during the Slavic migrations which split the recently formed Slav ethnicity into Southern, Eastern and Western groups, some West Slavs moved into the areas between the Rivers Elbe and Oder - moving from east to west and from south to north. There they assimilated the remaining Germanic population that had not left the area in the Migration period. Their German neighbours adapted the term they had been using for peoples east of the River Elbe before to the Slavs, calling them Wends as they called the Venedi before and probably the Vandals also. In his late sixth century work History of Armenia, Movses Khorenatsi mentions their raids into the lands named Vanand after them.
While the Wends were arriving in so-called Germania Slavica as large homogeneous groups, they soon divided into a variety of small tribes, with large strips of woodland separating one tribal settlement area from another. Their tribal names were derived from local place names, sometimes adopting the Germanic tradition (e.g. Heveller from Havel, Rujanes from Rugians). Settlements were secured by round burghs made of wood and clay, where either people could retreat in case of a raid from the neighbouring tribe or used as military strongholds or outposts.
Some tribes unified into larger, duchy-like units. For example, the Obotrites evolved from the unification of the Holstein and Western Mecklenburg tribes led by mighty dukes known for their raids into German Saxony. The Lutici were an alliance of tribes living between Obotrites and Pomeranians. They did not unify under a duke, but remained independent. Their leaders met in the temple of Rethra.
In 983, many Wend tribes participated in a great uprising against the Holy Roman Empire, which had previously established Christian missions, German colonies and German administrative institutions (Marken such as Nordmark and Billungermark) in pagan Wendish territories. The uprising was successful and the Wends delayed Germanisation for about two centuries.
Wends and Danes had early and continuous contact including settlement, first and mainly through the closest South Danish islands of Møn, Lolland and Falster, all having place-names of Wendish origin. There were also trading and settlement outposts by Danish towns as important as Roskilde, when it was the capital: 'Vindeboder' (Wends' booths) is the name of a city neighbourhood there. Danes and Wends also fought wars due to piracy and crusading.
After their successes in 983 the Wends came under increasing pressure from Germans, Danes and Poles. The Poles invaded Pomerania several times. The Danes often raided the Baltic shores (and, in turn, the Wends often raided the raiders). The Holy Roman Empire and its margraves tried to restore their marches.
In 1068/69 a German expedition took and destroyed Rethra, one of the major pagan Wend temples. The Wendish religious centre shifted to Arkona thereafter. In 1124 and 1128, the Pomeranians and some Lutici were baptised. In 1147, the Wend crusade took place in what is today north-eastern Germany.
This did, however, not affect the Wendish people in today's Saxony, where a relatively stable co-existence of German and Slavic inhabitants as well as close dynastic and diplomatic cooperation of Wendish and German nobility had been achieved. (See: Wiprecht of Groitzsch).
In 1168, during the Northern Crusades, Denmark mounted a crusade led by Bishop Absalon and King Valdemar the Great against the Wends of Rugia in order to convert them to Christianity. The crusaders captured and destroyed Arkona, the Wendish temple-fortress, and tore down the statue of the Wendish god Svantevit. With the capitulation of the Rugian Wends, the last independent pagan Wends were defeated by the surrounding Christian feudal powers.
From the 12th to the 14th centuries, German colonists settled in the Wend lands in large numbers, transforming the area's culture from a Slavic to a Germanic one. Local dukes and monasteries invited settlers to repopulate land devastated in the wars, to cultivate the large woodlands and heavy soils that had not supported agriculture beforehand, and to found cities as part of the "Ostsiedlung" (German eastward expansion).
The Polabian language was spoken in the central area of Lower Saxony and in Brandenburg until around the 17th or 18th century. The German population assimilated most of the Wends, meaning that they disappeared as an ethnic minority - except for the Sorbs. Yet many place names and some family names in eastern Germany still show Wendish origins today. Also, the Dukes of Mecklenburg, of Rügen and of Pomerania had Wendish ancestors.
Between 1540 and 1973, the kings of Sweden were officially called kings of the Swedes, the Goths and the Wends (in Latin translation: kings of Suiones, Goths and Vandals) (Swedish: Svears, Götes och Wendes Konung). After the Danish monarch Queen Margrethe II chose not to use these titles in 1972 the current Swedish monarch, Carl XVI Gustaf also chose only to use the title King of Sweden" (Sveriges Konung), thereby changing an age-old tradition.
The Wendish people co-existed with the German settlers for centuries and became gradually assimilated into the German-speaking culture.
The Golden Bull of 1356 (one of the constitutional foundations of the German-Roman Empire) explicitly recognised in its Art. 31 that the German-Roman Empire was a multi-national entity with "diverse nations distinct in customs, manner of life, and in language". For that it stipulated "the sons, or heirs and successors of the illustrious prince electors, [...] since they are expected in all likelihood to have naturally acquired the German language, [...] shall be instructed in the grammar of the Italian and Slavic (i.e. Wendish) tongues, beginning with the seventh Year of their age."
Many geographical names in Central Germany and northern Germany can be traced back to a Slavic origin. Typical Slavic endings include -itz, -itzsch and -ow. They can be found in city names such as Delitzsch and Rochlitz. Even names of major cities like Leipzig and Berlin are most likely of Wendish origin.
Today, the only remaining minority people of Wendish origin, the Sorbs, maintain their traditional language and culture and enjoy cultural self-determination exercised through the Domowina. The third minister president of Saxony Stanislaw Tillich (2008-2017) is of Sorbian origin, being the first head of a German federal state with an ethnic minority background.
Historically, the term "Wends" has also occurred in the following contexts:
With the diffusion of the term slowenisch for the Slovene language and Slowenen for Slovenes, the words windisch and Winde or Wende became derogatory in connotation. The same development could be seen in the case of the Hungarian Slovenes, who used to be known under the name "Vends".