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Poland to 1569


POLAND TO 1569. Before the Polish state was established, many impermanent tribal states existed in the territory of present-day Poland, the most important in the ninth and tenth centuries being those of the Polanie, in Great Poland around Gniezno, and the Wiślanie, in the basin of the upper Vistula. The territorial expansion of the Polanie led to the unification of most of the neighboring tribes in the tenth century and to the foundation of a state under the hereditary rule of the Piast dynasty. The first recorded Piast ruler was Mieszko I (d. 992), who, after assuming power, probably at the beginning of the 960s, adopted the Christian faith from Bohemia in 966 and obtained the right to establish a missionary bishopric in Poznań (968). Poland thus joined the sphere of Western culture, and Catholicism began to play an essential role in her history.

Mieszko took over central Pomerania, reduced western Pomerania to submission, and successfully defended the country against German expansion with his victory at Zehde (Cedynia) in 972 and his repulsion of Otto II's expedition in 979. He also incorporated Silesia and Little Poland, with Cracow, into Poland around 990 and created a relatively centralized state. At the end of his rule he put the state under the protection of the pope in order to secure its political and ecclesiastical independence from Germany. Mieszko's policy of state consolidation and territorial expansion was continued by his son, Bolesław I the Brave (9921025). During Bolesław's meeting with the Emperor Otto III in Gniezno (1000), an ecclesiastical metropolis, independent of Germany, was set up there, with bishoprics in Cracow, Wrocław (Breslau), and Kołobrzeg (Kolberg). Bolesław was crowned king in 1025. His death was followed by successive periods of internal disorganization andfrom the middle of the eleventh centuryof relative stabilization. After Bolesław III's death (1138), the state was fragmented (by the end of the thirteenth century) into numerous provincial duchies. The political situation of the weak and quarreling duchies was aggravated by the expansion of Brandenburg into Polish territories and by the invasions of the Lithuanians and Pruthenians. The German order of Teutonic Knights, installed in the Chełmno region (northwestern Mazovia) by Conrad of Mazovia in 1226, was to defend Poland. At the beginning of the fourteenth century, Władysław I the Short (who ruled as king 13201333) united the state, but a full consolidation was done by his son, Casimir III the Great (13331370), who interrupted the cycle of wars with the Czechs and Teutonic Knights (Peace of Kalisz, 1343). In 13401366 he waged victorious wars against Lithuania for Halicz and Vladimir (Red Ruthenia), incorporating large, ethnically non-Polish territories into Poland. At the same time, thanks to his fiscal and judiciary reforms and his support for the development of towns, the organization of settlement in rural areas, and the expansion of the state's defense system by building castles and town walls, Casimir ensured internal stability and economic development. By treaty with the Hungarian Angevins (in 1339 and 1355), Casimir's nephew, Louis I the Great (ruled 13701382; king of Hungary 13421382) ascended the Polish throne after Casimir's death. In order to gain the consent of the Polish lords and noblemen to his daughter's succession to the Polish throne, Louis made the Pact of Koszyce in 1374, which strengthened the nobility's position and restricted the king's power. In 1384 Louis's daughter, Jadwiga, ascended the throne (13841399); to cement a treaty of union between Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (formalized by the Union of Krewo, 1385), Jadwiga married the Lithuanian grand duke Jogaila, who in 1386 was baptized (becoming Władysław Jagiełło) and crowned king of Poland, initiating the Jagiellon dynasty.

The basic problem facing Władysław II Jagiełło (13861434) was to halt the expansion of the Teutonic Knights; the victory at Grunwald (Tannenberg; 1410) marked the beginning of the decline of the Knights' state. Poland's bonds with the Grand Duchy of Lithuania were strengthened by the Union of Horodło in 1413. Jagiełło secured a guarantee of his sons' succession to the Polish throne by granting privileges to the nobility (1422, 1423, 1430). The reign of his son Władysław III Warneńczyk (14341444), who was also elected king of Hungary (1440), was short; he was killed in the battle against the Turks at Varna in 1444. His successor, Casimir IV Jagiellończyk (14471492), won favor with the noblemen by issuing the Privilege of Nieszawa (1454), which confirmed their old privileges and granted new ones; it also opened the way to the development of parliamentary rule, allowing the sejmiki (provincial diets) to raise new taxes. Casimir eliminated the Teutonic danger by defeating the Order in the Thirteen Years' War (14541466). By the Peace of Toruń (1466) Gdańsk Pomerania, the Chełmno lands, the regions of Malbork (Marienburg) and Elbląg (Elbing), called Royal Prussia, and Warmia (Ermeland) were incorporated into Poland; the Teutonic Knights' state became Poland's fief. The Jagiellon dynasty's position was strengthened when the king's son, Vladislav II, was crowned king of Bohemia (1471) and Hungary (as Ulászló II; 1490). The reigns of the next two Jagiellons, John I Albert (14921501) and Alexander (15011506), reinforced the position of the nobility through the privileges of Piotrków (1496) and the Nihil Novi constitution of 1505, which specified that no new laws were to be made without the consent of the Sejm ('diet').

The sixteenth century was the period of the country's greatest development. The balanced foreign policy pursued by Sigismund I the Old (15061548) resulted in friendly relations with the Habsburgs (Treaty of Vienna, 1515); the secularization of the Teutonic Knights' state (henceforth called the Duchy of Prussia), leading to the homage paid by the Order's grand master, Albrecht von Hohenzollern, in Cracow in 1525 (the so-called Prussian homage); and the conclusion of a lasting peace with Turkey in 1533. On and off Poland and Lithuania fought wars with Muscovy, with varying success; the borderland with Moldavia was the main trouble spot. Mazovia was fully incorporated into Poland in 1529.

The king's reliance on the magnates (the wealthiest nobles, who held the highest senatorial offices and civil posts) pushed the remaining nobility into opposition and induced it to demand a program of far-reaching political and economic reform. This program was endorsed in 15621563 by the king's son, Sigismund II Augustus (ruled 15481572). The most important problem during his reign was the question of Livonia, which was attacked by Ivan IV the Terrible in 1558. When the Order of the Brothers of the Sword, which ruled Livonia, was secularized, Sigismund put Livonia under his protection and rule in 1561. In 1563 a war broke out with Russia; the protracted fighting was brought to a halt by a truce in 1570, but the conflict was not resolved. The most durable achievement of Sigismund Augustus's reign was the permanent constitutional union between Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, sealed by the Sejm in Lublin in 1569. The country also began to construct a navy and set up a standing mercenary army. The reign of the two Sigismunds is regarded as a golden age in Poland's history.

The consolidation of the state under Casimir III the Great and Louis I the Great was conducive to the emergence of an estate-based monarchy. After Casimir's death (1370) the throne became elective. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries royal power was weakened by the fact that public offices were held for life. A bicameral parliament or Sejm came into being in the fifteenth century; it consisted of the king, church and lay dignitaries (members of the Royal Council who later became members of the Senate), provincial officials, noblemen who did not hold any office, and, initially, representatives of towns; the Sejm performed legislative functions and dealt with internal and foreign policy. Legislation relating to the judicial system came into the competency of the Sejm and the provinical sejmiki, which increased in importance.

From the middle of the fifteenth century, privileges, which at first were conferred on the nobility by the king, began to be conferred during Sejm sessions by the noblemen themselves. A period of noblemen's democracy set in, in which power was in the hands of both the king and the nobility. Legislative power was held by the Sejm (the Chamber of Deputies, the Senate, and the king) and by the provincial (or, in Lithuania, district) sejmiki; executive power was in the hands of both central officials (marshals, that is, chairmen of the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate, the chancellor, vice-chancellors, treasurers, hetmans) and local officials (starostas). The nobility kept strengthening its position in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, playing an increasingly important role in the exercise of political power through the sejmiki and the Chamber of Deputies. The influence of Polish noblemen's liberties and institutions spread to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, and all legal differences between the Lithuanian and Polish nobility were abolished by the Union of Lublin, concluded in 1569.

The situation of the peasants deteriorated; they were gradually deprived of the right to leave their villages, and the amount of work they had to do for the landowner (corvée) steadily increased. The religious situation changed; the state, which was overwhelmingly Catholic at the beginning of Casimir the Great's reign, became a Catholic-Orthodox state when it enlarged its territory in the east, in particular after the union with Lithuania. The multi-denominational character of the country became even more striking in the sixteenth century as a result of the success of the Protestant Reformation, which found many adherents among the nobility and magnates and also among townsmen. The peasants remained, on the whole, faithful to the Catholic or Orthodox faiths. Although the Counter-Reformation, which grew in strength after the middle of the sixteenth century, diminished religious toleration, it was officially reconfirmed by the Compact of Warsaw in 1573.

In the economic sphere, the increased demand for grain in Western Europe led to the development of manorial estates, large farms engaged in agriculture or stockbreeding, whose production was based mainly on the labor of serfs. Exports to the West increased, as grain and forest products were sent mainly by sea, and cattle and furs, by land. Gdańsk, Poland's largest and richest city, enjoyed great independence and handled most of the maritime trade with Western Europe. An increasingly important role in the economy was played by Jews, who flowed into Poland in large numbers in the sixteenth century, mainly from Germany. Cracow, Poznań, Lwow (Lviv), Lublin, Przemyśl, and Jarosław all had Jewish communities numbering in the thousands.

Culture flourished under the Jagiellons. The University of Cracow, set up in 1364 and reformed in 13971400, became an important center of science and culture; its influence penetrated to Lithuania, Ruthenia, and Silesia. The medieval historiographical tradition was continued by Jan Długosz in the second half of the fifteenth century, and sociopolitical writings reached a high level in the middle of the sixteenth century, above all in the works of Andrzej Frycz-Modrzewski. The ideas of Italian humanism began to filter into Poland in the middle of the fifteenth century; in the sixteenth century the Reformation influenced the development of literature and reading habits. Literary Polish was formed and developed by Mikołaj Rej and Jan Kochanowski; science was advanced by the work of Mikołaj Kopernik (Nicolaus Copernicus), the theologian and philosopher Mathew of Miechów, the physician Jan Struś, and the historian and geographer Bernard Wapowski.The royal court in Cracow and the courts of lay and church magnates became centers of Renaissance literature, art, and science.

See also Belarus ; Cracow ; Jadwiga (Poland) ; Jagiellon Dynasty (Poland-Lithuania) ; Jews and Judaism ; Lithuania, Grand Duchy of, to 1569 ; Livonian War (15581583) ; Lublin, Union of (1569) ; Polish Literature and Language ; Prussia ; Reformations in Eastern Europe: Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox ; Serfdom ; Sigismund II Augustus (Poland, Lithuania) ; Stephen Báthory ; Władysław II Jagiełło (Poland) .


Beauvois, Daniel. Histoire de la Pologne. Paris, 1995.

Davies, Norman. God's Playground: A History of Poland. 2 vols. New York, 1984.

Gieysztor, Aleksander, et al. History of Poland. Translated by Krystyna Cekalska et al. Warsaw, 1979.

Halecki, Oskar. A History of Poland. 9th ed. New York, 1976.

Manteuffel, Tadeusz, et al. Zarys historii Polski. Edited by Janusz Tazbir. Warsaw, 1980.

Reddaway, W. F., et al., eds. The Cambridge History of Poland. 2 vols. New York, 19501951.

Stone, Daniel. The Polish-Lithuanian State, 13861795. Seattle, 2001.

Topolski, Jerzy. An Outline History of Poland. Translated by Olgierd Wojtasiewicz. Warsaw, 1986.

Marcin Kamler

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