Poland’s Early Kings
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…..
PART 1: “BEFORE MIESZKO”
The present territory of Poland coincides almost exactly with the area which in the middle of the second Millennium B.C. became the cradle of the Slavonic tribes.
The Slavonic tribes settled in this area and attained a high standard of development at the beginning of the Iron Age, in the 7th and 6th centuries B.C., which was the period when what is termed Lusatian culture flourished, and which began to take shape in the 13th century B.C. in the regions of Lusatia, Silesia, and Great Poland and gradually spread in every direction.
The fortified settlement at Biskupin in Great Poland, founded over 2500 years ago, is the best preserved example of Lusatian culture, and the one which has been most carefully investigated. Many settlements dating from that period, both fortified and open, have been found on Polish territory.
The settlement at Biskupin was built on an island, which is now a peninsula. It consisted of over a hundred houses built along eleven streets and was inhabited by over a thousand people. The houses measured roughly ten yards by eight. Settlement defenses consisted of a breakwater of some 35,000 oak and pine stakes driven at an angle into the bottom of the lake in three to nine rows, and an earthen rampart reinforced with timber stakes, six yards thick and 463 yards in circumference. The settlement was accessible by a bridge 120 yards long built of oak, ending in a gate three yards wide surmounted by a watchtower.
At the time of their zenith, the tribes belonging to the Lusatian culture were in advance of other primitive communities in Europe in the art of building fortified settlements and planning their inner lay-out.
Soil cultivation and stock-breeding were the principal occupations of these tribes. They tilled the land with hoes; but the people of Biskupin had already learned the use of wooden ox-drawn ploughs. Slavs grew grain crops and various other edible plants and bred every kind of farm animal. Pottery and cloth-making were their principal domestic occupations. They also knew how to work in bronze and iron. Lusatian tribes had trade relations with various centers of higher civilization.
Further development of Lusatian culture was prevented by incursions of Scythian nomads, temporarily settled at that time in the area. In all probability the Biskupin settlement was destroyed by a Scythian horde about the year 400 B.C. Later, a small open, non-defensive settlement was built on the site.
Frequent mention of the Wends, a Slavonic tribe, was made over two thousand years ago, in the first century A.D. at a time when the Roman Empire was at the height of its power. Pliny the Elder, contemporary to Nero (circa 23-79 A.D.) makes mention of them, as does Tacitus (55-120 A.D.) and (in the 2nd century A.D.) the Greek writer Ptolemy. Some of the earliest information about Slavs was provided by Jordanes, a Goth historian of the 6th century. The earliest information about the names of pre-historic Polish tribes comes from sources roughly contemporary with Charlemagne (died 814 A.D.).
In his “Natural History,” Pliny the Elder describes the expedition of a Roman merchant sent by patrons of Circus Games to the Baltic region in search of amber, highly praised for its ornamental value. This Roman merchant travelled the length of the Baltic coast and brought back to Rome so much amber that a piece of it was inserted in every mesh of the netting which protected the public from wild animals in the arena. The largest piece is said to have weighed four kilograms. Pliny was the first to refer to the tribes living along the Vistula by the name Venedi.
In his “Guide to Geography,” Ptolemy mentioned Calisia (Kalisz). At the time it was probably an important settlement on the Amber Trail that linked the Adriatic with the Baltic Coast. The course followed by this route has been established from finds which contained objects of Roman provenance, such as bronze pitchers, pails, pots and pans, glass cups, silver coins and figurines.
The name Slavs first appears in early manuscripts at the turn of the 5th and 6th centuries. Information provided by Jordanes seems to prove that the Slavs derive directly from the Wends: “Beginning with the sources of the Vistula, the numerous Venedi nation spread over an immense area. Though they bear various names, they are mainly known as Sklaveni or Antae.” First mention concerning the “various names” of these tribes which settled in the Odra and Vistula basins, was given by the Bavarian Geographer in the 9th century. Among them were the Goplanie, Ledzanie, Wolinianie, Wislanie and Slezanie.
In the late 9th century, the Ledzanie probably subjected the Goplanie, whose principal settlement was possibly Kruszwica. According to a tradition still alive and written down in the 12th century, Siemovit was the first ruler of the Ledzanie and Goplanie. His successors, Lestko and Ziemomysl ruled over a territory guarded by the principal grody (grod – a fortified place) of Gniezno, Poznan, Kleck, Giecz, Lad and Leczyca.
The peoples inhabiting territories which were the inheritance of Siemovit’s successors were given the name Polonians before the beginning of the 10th century. The name was derived from the word pole meaning field, in token of their principal occupation, agriculture. This name gradually gained dominance over the ancient ethnic names of tribes living in the Odra and Vistula River basins.
. . . . SEE YOU SOON, GOD BE WILLING . . .
Next Week – Part II