OLD POLISH ON-LINE
E Y E
T H E
Michael J. Mikoś
At the end of the fifteenth century and the beginning of the sixteenth century Europe enjoyed a period of rapid growth and prosperity. The population was increasing by 4-5 per mill each year. Thousands of people settled down in the burgeoning cities of Italy, France, England, and the Netherlands, and engaged in crafts, industry, and trade. Explorers and merchants brought to Europe rich supplies of gold and spices and established profitable new markets throughout the world.
Poland participated actively in this new age of expansion and growth. The powerful monarchs of the Jagiellonian dynasty ruled over a large country, stretching from the Baltic Sea to the environs of the Black Sea, and over adjacent Lithuania, Bohemia, and Hungary. A century without a major war allowed the multinational commonwealth to unify and to gain strength. The battles against Muscovy and Turkey were fought upon remote eastern frontiers, the Reformation brought no bloodshed.
Living conditions in Poland, just as in the rest of Europe, improved significantly. The number of city dwellers increased to 23% of the country population, as the major cities, Cracow, Gdańsk, and Wrocław grew to 20,000 people each in the middle of the sixteenth century. Agricultural production flourished. The expanding industrial and mercantile centers in Europe needed food and raw materials for their inhabitants. The prices for agricultural goods rose rapidly, allowing Poland to export lucratively its surplus, mainly grain, lumber, and cattle. Other exports included potash, wool, and products made of furs and hides.
These trade profits gave opportunity to the Polish gentry, who constituted about ten percent of the population but owned more than sixty percent of the land, to raise considerably their standard of living and to accumulate wealth. Gradually they began to assert their political power. The Sejm formed itself into the General Assembly, which consisted of two chambers: the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies composed of delegates chosen at the land diets. With a series of decrees, the deputies curtailed the freedom of peasants by tying them to their land and increasing their work load. They restricted the privileges of the clergy, limiting all the senior Church appointments to candidates of noble birth. They reduced the rights of the burghers by preventing them from purchasing land and by imposing high taxes on trade, while granting for themselves a duty free status. In 1504 the Sejm passed resolutions directed against the magnates, and in 1505 against the king. The decree of
("nothing new") stipulated that the king would not levy taxes or pass new laws without the consent of the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies. Later, when the Sejm began to exercise a rule according to which any new law could be vetoed by a single deputy on behalf of the opposition (the
), the royal authority became further restricted.
The challenge to the Polish monarchs ruling over the largest territory in Europe, which by 1634 extended over 386,719 square miles (ca. 1,000,000 square kilometers) and was inhabited by eleven million people, came not only from within but also from without. In 1497, King Jan Olbracht (1492-1501) sent a military expedition to stop the growing threat posed by Turkey. The defeat of the expeditionary forces in Bukowina exposed Poland's ineffectiveness and encouraged the Turks to launch devastating raids against the south-east territories of the country.
When Aleksander Jagiellon (1501-1506), who ruled Lithuania, was elected King of Poland, the personal union between the two countries was re-established. This alliance, which originated with the 1385 Union of Krewo and became confirmed a year later, when Jogaila, Grand Duke of Lithuania, accepted Christianity, married Jadwiga, and with the name of Władysław Jagiełło was crowned King of Poland, brought both states into a direct conflict with Ivan III, Grand Duke of Muscovy, who wrested Novgorod and Pskov from Lithuanian control. Poland's situation became even more precarious when Maximilian I, the Habsburg Emperor, allied himself with Muscovy and with the Teutonic Knights in order to gain influence in Hungary and Bohemia, ruled by Władysław Jagiellon.
The basic principle of the policy pursued by Zygmunt the Old during his long reign (1506-1548) was to ensure, mostly by diplomatic means, Poland's security and stability. By signing the Treaty of Vienna (1515), Zygmunt approved his brother Władysław's dynastic concessions to the Habsburgs with regard to Hungary and Bohemia. In return Maximilian withdrew his support for Muscovy and the Teutonic Order. When Albrecht von Hohenzollern, Grand Master of the Teutonic Order, challenged the suzerainty of Poland and allied himself with Muscovy, the Polish army attacked Koenigsberg in 1519. Albrecht, threatened with defeat, sued for peace. The Teutonic Order was transformed into the secular Duchy of Prussia, becoming dependent on Poland. In 1525, in an act of submission, Duke Albrecht paid homage to Zygmunt the Old at the Market Square in Cracow.
Supported by his influential second wife, Bona Sforza of Italy, King Zygmunt attempted to strengthen Poland's defenses of the south-eastern territories. He was hampered in his efforts by the gentry, who were unwilling to provide adequate financial means for permanent armed forces. His son, Zygmunt II August (1548-1572), succeeded in establishing a royal treasury, from which one quarter of the revenues was set aside to maintain the standing army.
The need for a strong army and navy was apparent. In 1558, Ivan the Terrible, seeking the access to the Baltic Sea for Muscovy, attacked Livonia, ruled by the Order of the Livonian Knights. When in 1561 Gotthard von Kettler, the Grand Master of the Livonian Order, ceded his country to King Zygmunt August, Ivan the Terrible, supported by Sweden, waged war for the domination of the Baltic Sea against Poland, Lithuania, and their ally Denmark.
The military threat posed by Muscovy compelled Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania to seek a closer alliance. Even though Lithuanian magnates, fearful to lose their privileges, opposed the political union, they were unable to resist the combined pressure of the King and the gentry of both countries, strongly in favor of uniting as "the free with the free, the equal with the equal." On July 1 1569, at a meeting of the Sejm in Lublin, the delegates of Poland and Lithuania accepted the Act of Union, creating the Commonwealth of the Two Nations. The new state would have one king, a common Sejm and monetary system, but maintain separate treasuries, administrations, judicial systems, and armed forces. Thus the process of unification, begun by the personal union between Władysław Jagiełło and Jadwiga, the founders of the dynasty, bound Poland and Lithuania into one multinational commonwealth during the reign of Zygmunt August, the last Jagiellon monarch.
The power of the kings and the authority of the Church were challenged by the dynamic movement of the Reformation that swept across many countries of Western Europe. The news of Martin Luther's 1517 declaration in Wittenberg quickly reached Prussia and Silesia, then other parts of Poland. The country became a sanctuary for people persecuted elsewhere. The Anabaptists, mostly from Holland, the Bohemian Brethren, expelled from Prague, the Calvinists, and other groups, found shelter and support among the burghers, gentry, and magnates in various regions of Poland.
The most radical champions of the Reformation were the Polish Brethren (also known as the Arians or the Socinians). They rejected the concepts of the Holy Trinity and of original sin. They applied the teachings of Christ to their lives, advocating the dignity and freedom of man, and common ownership of material goods. They condemned serfdom, participation in war, and holding of office. Within a short period of time, the Arians gained close to 20,000 converts who practiced in up to 100 temples all over the country. They established their own Academy and publishing house in Raków. When they were expelled from Poland for political reasons in 1658, they settled throughout Europe, contributing to the ideas embraced later by Unitarianism and the Age of Reason.
But in spite of the intellectual fervor brought by the Reformation and the strong convictions of its adherents, the movement spent itself in a relatively short period of time without achieving its goals of causing a break with Rome and establishing a Polish national church. The royal court, the magnates, the gentry, and even the Church, liberal in their attitudes, did not feel threatened by the Protestant causes to a degree that would justify a militant reaction. The new ideas did not appeal to the broad masses of the population. Multiethnic and multireligious, Poland was well prepared to accept and absorb new religious denominations and sects. At the Warsaw Confederation of 1573, the deputies pledged that "we who differ in matters of religion, will keep peace among ourselves" and "will not shed blood or punish others by depriving them of property and good name, imprisonment and exile, nor assist at all any authority or office in such a deed." When the act was incorporated into the constitution, no religious issue was allowed to take precedence over a legal one. Consequently, the Poles tolerated various religions, refrained from persecution, and produced no martyrs.
In addition, while the Reformation movement was splintered and ever-changing, the Catholic Church responded with a cohesive program of the reaffirmation of faith. The Counter Reformation, led by Cardinal Hosius, Bishop of Warmia, and author of a popular
Confessio fidei Catholicae Christianae
(1553), was spearheaded by the Jesuits, brought to Poland in 1564. Well educated and disciplined, they organized about fifty schools, gaining increasing influence on education. By the end of the reign of Zygmunt August, the Reformation began to recede.
The results of the first election, held after a long interregnum following Zygmunt August's death, were not auspicious. In order to restrain the autocratic tendencies of the contending Habsburg, French, and Russian candidates and to secure their own privileges, the gentry submitted to Henri de Valois, the future king, numerous conditions, known as the Henrician Articles. The elected king agreed, for example, not to call a general levy or proclaim new taxes without the consent of the Sejm. More importantly, he was required to reaffirm all the privileges won so far by the gentry. In 1574, after four months' residence in Poland, Henri de Valois learned of his brother's death and fled secretly from Cracow to become the King of France.
The election of Stefan Batory (1576-1586), a gifted strategist and an accomplished military leader, proved much more beneficial for Poland. The new ruler was knowledgeable about contemporary political affairs, well read in history, and fluent in many languages, especially Latin. Supported by the Grand Chancellor of the Crown Jan Zamoyski, Batory reformed the judicial system and the royal army. After breaking the resistance of Gdańsk, which supported the Habsburg candidacy to the Polish throne and attempted to secure for itself a semi-independent position, Batory fought for years against the forces of Ivan the Terrible. After defeating him at Duneberg and Połock, Batory regained Livonia and the region of Połock. He was unable, however, to reform during his short reign the political institutions in Poland.
The inherent weakness of the electoral process became apparent again during the interregnum following Batory's death. Supporters of Zygmunt III Vasa of Sweden, led by Jan Zamoyski, clashed on the battlefield with the army of the Habsburg Archduke Maximilian and his Polish adherents. Zamoyski's victory in 1588 paved the way for Zygmunt, son of the Swedish King John III and Catherine Jagiellon, to the throne of Poland (1587-1632). But the deep conflict between the King and a large faction of the gentry led by Mikołaj Zebrzydowski erupted into rebellion in 1606, undermining further the royal authority and the political system of the Commonwealth.
The gentry accused the King not only of striving to increase his powers but also of involving Poland in ill-advised military adventures. Zygmunt's desire to ascend the Swedish throne, particularly fervent after his father's death in 1592, caused a protracted war with Sweden, which lasted with intervals from 1600 to 1629. In spite of the Polish victories at Kirchholm in 1605 and near Oliwa in 1627, Zygmunt failed in his dynastic bid. This resulted in Poland's loss of a large part of Livonia and of several strongholds on the Baltic coast.
Equally unsuccessful were the attempts of some magnates and of the King to influence the struggle for succession in Muscovy. Taking advantage of a civil war, the Polish forces managed in 1605 to elevate their candidate to the throne of the Tsar. The reign of 'the false Demetrius' was brief--he and his Polish followers were killed in 1606. Other costly campaigns ended in failure and the truce in 1629 put an end to this Polish confrontation with Russia.
Thus the golden age enjoyed by Poland during the reign of the last Jagiellons was drawing to a close under the first king of the Vasa dynasty. But even the political abuses, military defeats, and territorial losses suffered by the country in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries did not diminish the luster of the Polish Renaissance, since it had left behind a fertile and diverse heritage, preserved most permanently in its culture and literature.
Polish Literature from the Middle Ages to the End of the Eighteenth Century. A Bilingual Anthology
, by Michael J. Mikoś, Warsaw: Constans, 1999.