Skip to main content
Select Source:

Sorbs

Sorbs

ETHNONYMS: Lusatian Serbs, Lusatians, Wends


Orientation

Identification. The Sorbs are an officially recognized national minority of Germany. While they do not constitute a separate political unit, they maintain a distinctive linguistic and cultural identity. The name "Sorb" derives from "Srbi" in their own language, and it rightly suggests a relationship to peoples elsewhere called "Serbs," but "Sorb" is preferable in that it is more specific. Similarly, the terms "Lusatian" and "Lusatian Serbs" are imprecise. "Wend" was long the designation of this group, but because it has negative connotations it is no longer in official usage. Nearly all information regarding the Sorbs is available only in Slavonic languages. The material for this article was taken from the one English-language study of the Sorbs, written by Dr. Gerald Stone of Hertford College, Oxford.

Location. The Sorbs inhabit the Lusatian region of Germany, which extends from approximately 80 kilometers southeast of Berlin to the Polish border on the east and the border of the Czech and Slovak Federative Republic in the south. The Niesse River separates the easternmost Sorbs from their Polish neighbors, and the Spree River runs from north to south through the length of the territory. The region itself is divided into two separate territories, each distinct from the other both topographically and linguistically. Upper Lusatia, in the southern part of the region, is predominantly flatland and is the more fertile territory; Lower Lusatia is dominated by wetlands and forest. These two environmental zones are separated by the "Serbska hola" (Sorbian heath), with its sandy soils, stands of conifers, and the brown coal deposits that contribute importantly to the region's economy. The two principal Sorbian towns are Bautzen and Cottbus.

Linguistic Affiliation. A debate continues as to whether Lower and Upper Sorbian (also called Lower and Upper Wend) constitute two dialects of a single language or are two distinct languages. Together they make up the Sorbian Subgroup of the West Slavonic Group of the Indo-European Language Family. Sorbian is closely related to Serbian, though as distinct languages, not as related dialects of one language. Whether we treat them as two separate languages or as two major dialects of a single language, each consists of several lesser dialects, six such dialects having been identified for Upper Sorbian, three for Lower Sorbian. Whether or not spoken Sorbian should be considered as consisting of two separate languages, there are clearly two distinct written forms.

Demography. The Sorbian-speaking population in Germany was estimated in 1976 to be between 60,000 and 70,000. Today nearly all Sorbs are bilingual in Sorbian and German.


History and Cultural Relations

Since the year 806, the history of the Sorbian people has been one of conquest and reconquest by others. Their earliest forebears were the Luzici (in Lower Lusatia) and the Milceni (in Upper Lusatia), two Slavonic tribes who migrated westward into the current Sorbian territory from the lands just to the east of the Oder River sometime in the fifth or sixth centuries a.d. The political autonomy they enjoyed during those early centuries was brought to an end in 806 by Karl, son of Charlemagne. Although the region changed political hands several times, the Sorbs never again attained anything approximating an independent political existence. Although their conquerors were, at various times, Polish, Czech, and Bohemian, they were most often and most thoroughly under Germanic rule. The Christianization of the Sorbs began early, with the Moravian missions possibly arriving as early as the ninth century. But it was the Reformation, with Lutheranism's preference for the use of the vernacular, that provided the impetus to develop a written language. The development and maintenance of a specifically Sorbian literature, and thus the possibility of maintaining a separate Sorbian cultural identity in the face of German policies of colonization and assimilation, were linked to the religion of the region in another way as wella sizable minority of Sorbs never converted from Catholicism. The Catholic church, recognizing the importance of these communicants in an Otherwise Protestant region, established the Wendish Seminary in Prague in 1706, providing a place where Sorbian students could become literate not just in German but in their own language as well. The 1700s and 1800s brought other changes to the Sorbian people. Once a rural population barred by law from participating in the life of the towns and banned from membership in the trade guilds, they were suddenly free to leave the land and enter wage labor. The linkage of the region to the rest of Germany by railroad in the mid-1800s brought Sorbian villages into more direct contact with the larger society, and by the 1880s the major industries of modern-day Lusatiabrown coal, iron, and glass makingwere firmly established. All these changes contributed to the development of a literate Sorbian bourgeoisie, which responded readily to the Panslavic movement that arose in Prague in the mid-1800s, slowing the rush to "germanicization" and permitting the florescence of a specifically Sorbian literary culture. Although both the Weimar Republic and the Nazi regime sought to restrain Sorbian efforts toward independence, the sense of a particularly Sorbian national identity never faltered. At the end of World War II, Soviet policies broke up the large landholdings of Lusatia, converted them back into agriculture, and introduced statutes that made Sorbian an official language. The special position of the Sorbs as an official national minority continued to be recognized after the Soviet Occupation Zone became the German Democratic Republic.


Settlements

In the past, Sorbs lived in rural villages, and as recently as 1945 many of these villages had exclusively Sorbian populations. Since 1945 the populations of all Lusatian communities have become a mixture of German and Sorbian peoples. While most Sorbs today live in houses of modern design and construction, the traditional house was built of wood, was gabled, and had a thatched roof. The woodwork was highly carved and colorfully painted.

Economy

The Sorbs were once restricted to a rural life-style, barred by law from participating in the trade guilds of the towns. But when serfdom was abolished in the early to mid-1800s, such restrictions were eased. There is now no single economic activity in which the Sorbs specialize. The region is largely agricultural, but the coal and iron industries, as well as glass manufacturing, are well developed and quite important. Sorbs participate fully in the life of the towns of the region, at all socioeconomic levels and in all fields of endeavor. Land and other property is privately owned.


Kinship, Marriage, and Family

Kinship. Sorbian kinship reckoning does not differ from the pattern followed by their German neighbors; it is bilateral, but with a strong patrilineal bias. Whether this was the case earlier in their history, prior to their "germanization," is unclear.

Marriage. There appears to be some preference for Sorbian endogamy. Marriage is monogamous. Weddings are religious as well as secular events.

Domestic Unit. The Sorbian household centers on the nuclear family (husband, wife, and their offspring) and tends today to be neolocal, at least in the towns. In the organization of the household, as in many other elements of day-to-day life, Sorbs differ little from the practices of their German neighbors.

Inheritance. Although property can be inherited by either sons or daughters, there is a bias toward sons over daughters.

Socialization. The distinctive elements of Sorbian culture, which are found in language and literature, music, women's costumes, and certain religious and secular traditions, are passed along through all three of the principal institutions of socialization: parents, the church, and the schools. Specific institutions dedicated to the maintenance of a specifically Sorbian cultural identity include the Domowina groups (first established in 1912, banned by the Nazi regime in 1937, and reestablished in 1945). Domowina groups are dedicated to "the advancement of creative cultural activity," and through their sponsorship of a variety of cultural performances (concerts, films, folk music, and the like), as well as through their direct involvement in local Sorbian schools, they seek to keep Sorbian traditions, particularly in the arts, alive and accessible to the population.


Sociopolitical Organization

The Sorbs are integrated into the social and political life of their communities, and they have no specific organizational units of their own other than the Domowina groups (discussed earlier). Membership in the Domowina and its local units (Serbski Domy, "Sorbian Houses") is voluntary, and, though popular, Domowina membership does not extend throughout the Sorbian-speaking population.


Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The Christianization of the Sorbian people began as early as the ninth century, with the influence of the Moravian mission. Since the Reformation, Sorbs have been predominantly Protestant, specifically Lutheran, but one area to the northwest of Bautzen remained, and remains today, Catholic. Local legends refer to a number of mythical creatures, the best known of which is the Waterman, a trickster figure who inhabits local bodies of water and who can disguise himself as a human, animal, or fish. Traditional folktales of the region feature a lively cast of ghosts, witches, and magical serpents.

Religious Practitioners. Formal religious practice based in the churches is led by either German or Sorbian priests and ministers. There has long been an emphasis on training priests and ministers in the Sorbian tongue; the Lutheran emphasis on the use of the vernacular was one factor in this development, and the need of the Catholic church to maintain a stronghold in a predominantly Protestant region was another.

Ceremonies. There are a number of specifically Sorbian traditions that may be grouped loosely under the category of "ceremonies," some of which are linked to the religious calendar. These include the use of decorated Easter eggs in a children's game similar to playing "marbles"; a ritual "walking of the borders," wherein the populace of a village makes a procession around the newly planted fields while singing hymns; and the Easter Ride, wherein formally dressed villagers ride off on decorated horses to visit a neighboring community bearing the altar cross and banners of their own village church. Many of these traditions are thought to have their roots in pre-Christian fertility rites. Another important event, recently fallen into disuse, was called the Spinning Evening, which took place on winter nights. Groups of up to twelve unmarried girls would meet regularly in one house over the period from 11 October to Ash Wednesday and share in the work of spinning. During these meetings there was much gossip, storytelling, and song. These Spinning Evenings were important because they provided a venue for passing along much of Sorbian oral history, folklore, and traditional music through the generations. In the past there were a number of ceremonies tied specifically to the celebration of the harvest. Today, life-cycle celebrations such as weddings and funerals are occasions for the adoption of special forms of the national costume.

Arts. Sorbian folk art is preserved in national costume and in the elaborate dying and decorating of Easter eggs. The distinctive Sorbian national dress is today worn only by women, and it includes extremely large hoods. While there has been some modification of the costume, reflecting the influence of fashion, traditionally it was made of brightly colored, heavy material and was highly embroidered. The specifics of the costume, the materials used, and the colors of the fabric vary somewhat across the villages of the region. The decoration of Easter eggs is not a specifically Sorbian art, as it is found throughout the Slavonic peoples, but it has achieved a special importance among the Sorbs and currently is undergoing an increased popularity. The visual arts are encouraged by the Circle of Sorbian Artists, founded in 1924. Sorbian literature is also highly developed and is encouraged by the Domowina People's Press. This literature includes nonfiction treatments of both traditional and scholarly themes, as well as poetry and fiction. The Sorbian People's Theatre was founded in 1948, but there are few Sorbian playwrights, so most performances are of the translated works of others. Music was always an important aspect of Sorbian life, particularly choral music performed by groups of young women in such venues as the Spinning Evenings. Of traditional Sorbian instruments only two are still played: the three-fingered fiddle and the bagpipes. There are a number of published collections of traditional folk songs. The earliest compositions were hymns for the most part, but secular composition began at least by the mid-to late 1700s. There is a lively Sorbian interest in choral movement; its most prolific and best-known practitioner is Jurij Winar, who has also published poetry and fiction.

Medicine. There is no information regarding indigenous Sorbian medical practices. As members of the larger German community Sorbs participate in the same health-care system as their non-Sorbian neighbors.

Death and Afterlife. Sorbian beliefs and practices regarding death and the afterlife are consistent with Christian teachings. Funerals are one of the ritual occasions for which Sorbian women will don national dress. The color of mourning, for the Sorbs, is white.


Bibliography

Stone, Gerald (1972). The Smallest Slavonic Nation: The Sorbs of Lusatia. London: Athlone Press.


NANCY E. GRATTON

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Sorbs." Encyclopedia of World Cultures. . Encyclopedia.com. 19 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Sorbs." Encyclopedia of World Cultures. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 19, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/sorbs

"Sorbs." Encyclopedia of World Cultures. . Retrieved August 19, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/sorbs

Sorbs

Sorbs: see Wends.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Sorbs." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 19 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Sorbs." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 19, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/sorbs

"Sorbs." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved August 19, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/sorbs