The First Writings
The knowledge of writing which really is related to the beginnings of literature came into existence in Poland after the introduction of Christianity in 966.
Earlier, although Poland was not inferior to other central European countries in the development of material culture, only oral literature existed. There were no written records. The themes of contemporary songs connected with customs and religious beliefs were handed down from generation to generation and were constantly being modified. Despite this, occasional traces of these themes are still found in 19th century folk songs.
The acceptance of Christianity determined the character of early Polish literature. Latin became its main medium of expression. From the end of the 10th until the beginning of the 15th century, literature was written by priests mainly in Latin, at first by foreigners, later by educated Poles. It served equally the aims of the ruler’s court (diplomatic correspondence, legal acts) and the Church (liturgical works, prayers, hymns, sermons). Priests were also the first literary types who recorded chronicles, lives of saints, and legends. Neither the few contemporary schools, whose main objectives was to prepare for the priesthood, nor travels to Western European universities to complete one’s education, could influence the existing state of affairs. Only in the 15th century did Polish literature become richer and more varied in its form and subject matter. A fairly important role in this process was played by the constantly increasing numbers of graduates from the University of Krakow. Although the dominance of Latin had not yet been overcome, in prose as well as in religious and secular poetry the Polish language was gradually becoming more influential.
As in European literature, the oldest Polish historical and literary texts included descriptions of deeds of outstanding people, such as martyrs dying in the defense of their beliefs. The oldest of these texts was written in Latin at the turn of the 10th and 11th centuries, and the authors of most of them were foreigners. Ioannes Canaparius was a Roman who wrote, in the years 998-999, the first of the three biographies of St. Adalbert who had died a year earlier during a missionary expedition to Prussia. Bruno of Querfurt was the author of the two remaining lives of St. Adalbert and of Vita quinque fratrum, the history of two Italians and three Poles invited to Poland by King Boleslaus the Brave in order to found a Benedictine monastery and assassinated for material gains. The first saint’s life written by a Pole, Wincenty of Kielce, between 1218 and 1222, was Vita sancti Stanislai, about a bishop from Szczepanow who was murdered for plotting against the king.
Towards the end of Mieszko I’s reign (late 10th century), the most important events which took place in Poland were recorded in Latin. They were arranged in chronological order and compiled into annals which presented the political, social, and economic situation of the country.
The author of the oldest chronicle, written at the beginning of the 12th century, was Gallus Anonymous (11th-12th centuries). Up to the present day specialists are still disagreeing about his country of origin. According to one of the more plausible hypotheses, he came from Provence, and arrived at Wrymouth through Hungary.
His chronicle, written in Latin, consists of three books. The first one describes the reign of the first Piasts at the very beginning of the Polish state, while the second and the third books constitute Boleslaus Wrymouth’s biography up to the year 1113. As to the authenticity of the events described, Gallus’ chronicle is valuable source of knowledge about the history of Poland in the 11th century and at the beginning of the 12th century.
Another chronicle is the work of a Pole, Wincenty Kadlubek (c.1150-1223). It consists of four books describing Polish history from legendary times until the year 1202. The author made use of Gallus’ chronicle but, at the same time, he conformed to the fashionable tendencies of contemporary French and English historic writings, in which the authors tried to find favorable connections with ancient Greek and Roman history. Hence, legends were written about Popiel, Krakus, or Wanda, as well as descriptions of battles which were apparently fought by Polish forebears against Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar. This may have been the reason for them being more popular than Gallus’ chronicle. Kadlubek’s chronicle served as a university textbook for the teaching of history and eloquence.
The history of the Cistercian abbey in Henrykow (1227-1310) is contained in the so-called Ksiega henrykowska (Henrician Book). It is worth mentioning because in the Latin text, which discusses the life of peasants in the abbey villages, one complete Polish sentence can be found (the oldest known), in which a husband called Boguchwał says to his wife… “Daj ać ja pobruszę, a ty poczywaj” (Give it to me, I will grind and you can rest).
The writer of the next known historical work describing the years 1370-84 is Jan of Czarnkow (c. 1320-87). Since his chronicle contains an unusually large amount of information about the author himself, it is regarded as the first diary of Polish literature. It is remarkable that he was the first chronicler who underlined the sensitive social problems current in Poland at the time.
It is thought that Jan Dlugosz (1415-80), the most outstanding Polish historian before the 18th century, spent twenty-five years (1455-80) on his main work, Annales seu cornice inclyti Regni Poloniae. It consists of twelve books describing Polish history from its earliest beginnings up to the year 1480. Before Dlugosz, no Polish historiographer appreciated fully the enormous value of historical sources.
. . . . SEE YOU SOON, GOD BE WILLING . . .
By Ed Wilczynski