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Apr 18, 2024

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Poland’s Early Kings: Part 8
“The Nobles and the Muses”

A series focusing on the Poland of old, when warring tribes were common and kings were really tested by the mettle in their swords, the strength in their words, the philosophy of their politics, and the honor in their hearts…..



At the close of the 16th century there were about 650 towns in Poland. Only the biggest, such as Gdansk, with a population of about 40,000, which enjoyed a special political position and autonomy, Cracow, Lvov (population over 20,000), Poznan and Warsaw (about 20,000 each), and the slightly smaller towns Torun, Bydgoszcz and Lublin, continued to develop despite the anti-urban policy of the gentry-dominated state. They engaged in foreign trade, concentrated imports of luxury goods in their hands, and developed arts and crafts. Owing to the expansion of the serf-labor economy, stagnation had already begun in medium-sized and small towns, which fell victim to the growing lawlessness of the gentry and to violence, looting and burning.

  Sharp class differences arose between different sections of the urban population: the patricians, the common people and the poor. The loudest protests against the exploitation and oppression of the peasants were voices in urban literature, of both patrician and plebeian origin. Despite their severity, these protests were powerless, since they were not directed against the foundation of the feudal serf system. Polish towns were incapable of launching effective protests, lacking as they did a strong bourgeoisie, such as existed in Elizabethan England, in France and in the Netherlands, once that country had freed itself of Spanish domination at the turn of the 16th and 17th centuries.

  Sebastian Fabian Klonowic (c.1545-1602), burgher writer of the Renaissance period and eminent moralist, wrote both in Latin (Victoria Deorum…., published between 1587 and 1600), and in Polish (The Boatman, or Floating Barges Down the Vistula, published in 1595, and Judas’ Sack, or the Evil Acquisition of Property, published in 1600). From the artistic point of view, Judas’s Sack was undoubtedly the best work written by Klonowic, being at the same time an exceptional document of 16th century Polish literature of customs and mores, which exposed the plague of theft and described court proceedings against thieves.

  Adam Wladyslawiusz, guild master and Cracow paper-maker, lived at the turn of the 16th and 17th centuries. He wrote Amusing Farces and Jokes of All Kings published in 1604-6, as well as a volume of short stories Gallant Affairs and Adventures of People from Every Walk of Life, published in 1613.

  Szymon Szymonowic (1558-1629), son of a physician and Lvov city-councillor, was raised to the nobility by the influence of Jan Zamoyski. He wrote “learned songs” in Latin, and works in Polish which occupy an important place in Polish literature – Eclogues published in 1614.

  Szymon Zimorowic, Lvov burgher, is known to have written only one work, shortly before his death: Roxolans, the Ruthenian Maidens, a collection of lyrical verse. This talented young poet, whose “gentle odes” won him a lasting place in Polish literature, died prematurely, while a student at Cracow University.

  Walenty Rozdzienski, who lived at the turn of the 16th and 17th centuries, was the author of a treatise on the iron industry, written in verse. This work, which bore the characteristic heading Officina Ferraria, or Foundry and Workshop with Forges of the Noble Iron-Trade, was published in Cracow in 1612. The most significant thing about this work was the homage the author paid to human labor, to manual work dangerous to health and even life.

  The characteristic feature of the socio-political system which took root in Poland at the turn of the 16th and 17th centuries was the general and constitutionally legalized power of the gentry over their peasants and partly also over the population of privately owned towns, the de facto power of the magnates over the minor and even middle gentry, and, above all, the de facto independence of the magnates from central authority. Many magnates took advantage of this independence to disregard the king’s will, ignore decisions of the Seym and local diets, court verdicts, and decisions of royal officials, and all magnates always subjected the national interests to their own private interests. Even the king had to reckon with a magnate. Only a magnate had the power to oppose another magnate, which repeatedly led to small private wars, and occasionally to civil war ranging over large part of the country.

  The great landed estates were distributed unevenly over Polish territory. The smallest number existed in ethnically Polish territory, where estates of the middle gentry and rich gentry (over ten villages) were predominant. The largest estates were in Lithuania and Ruthenia. For instance at the turn of the 16th and 17th centuries, a powerful magnate, Konstanty Ostrogski, owned about a hundred towns and castles and 1,300 villages, some of them held in lease from the Crown. The hereditary and leasehold estate of Grand Hetman Koniecpolski had a population of almost 120,000 in two voivodships alone. The richer the magnate, the more numerous, the minor gentry, known as clients, whose services were at his disposal. He could always count on their votes in local diets, and if need arose on their swords. The greatest estates were amassed by the Radziwill, Zamoyski, Potocki, Sapieha, Pac and Lubomirski families.

  Jan Zamoyski, Chancellor and Grand Hetman of the Crown, owned over 200 hereditary villages and 11 towns, covering an area of 6,500 sq. km. plus another 12 towns and 612 villages on lease from the Crown, covering an area of 11,000 The fortune of the Chancellor who came from the middle gentry, was amassed mainly thanks to royal favor, mostly that of Stephen Bathory, thanks to the chancellor’s administrative talents, and his rapacious cupidity and ruthlessness. Zamoyski amassed his fortune by legal means, but his was the right of the mighty, which no neighbor cared to dispute. Zamosc, his private capital, which Zamoyski founded in 1580, was a monument to this magnate’s power and dignity. At the close of the 16th century, Zamosc had over 200 houses, and boasted a palace, churches, the Zamosc Academy and the imposing town hall, only half-completed at the time.

  As concerns landed estates, the Catholic Church emerged from the Reformation almost unscathed. Secularization of Church property left the estates of bishops, cathedral chapters and monasteries almost untouched. During the Counter-Reformation, the Church estates expanded. In the Cracow voivodship, for instance, the Church estates increased from nine towns and over 330 villages, in 1581, to 13 towns and almost 500 villages in 1629. The Bishop of Cracow was one of the most powerful spiritual lords in Poland.

      . . . . SEE YOU SOON, GOD BE WILLING . . .