ETHNONYMS: Cassubians, Kaszubs
The people of Kashuby are the westernmost of the Northern Slavs, living today in north central Poland along the left bank of the lower Vistula and along the coast to the west of Gdansk. Their language has two dialects, both heavily Germanized: Kashubian proper, and Slovincian. There are approximately 200,000 Kashubian speakers living in Poland today. Their territory is in relatively high country, with many ponds, lakes, and streams. The soils are poor, principally suited for the growing of wheat. Winters are long and severe, and spring comes late to the region.
Kashubian settlements follow no set plan. The most Commonly encountered pattern is the "street village": a string of homesteads fronting upon a single roadway, with a church located somewhere along the row. However, there are also likely to be a good many outlying homesteads located at some distance from the roadway but nonetheless sharing in the village life. Houses and other buildings are principally of wood. The oldest are log cabins capped with moss or clay. Brick and mortar are relatively new building materials and still somewhat unusual. Houses are rectangular, with thatched and gabled roofs and 1.8- to 2.1-meter, cross-beamed ceilings. The chimney is located in the rough center of the house. The Kashubians do not employ carving or decoration as part of house design, except for simple carved boards ornamenting the gables. There are two house types: the oldest kind has its entrance at one of the gabled ends and also includes a veranda within which some of the family's animals may shelter. The second house type has its entrance on one of the long sides, and within the house, one side is often given over to the animals. Most Kashubians have at least a small farm and garden of their own, but the poorest are landless and must live and work on the farms of others. In return for their labor, they receive a cottage on the farm property, as well as payments in cash and kind.
The Kashubian economy is principally based on peasant farming. Cultivation in the fields generally employs a crop rotation of potatoes, followed by two or more crops of rye, followed by wheat. In addition, the people keep a few horses and cattle, though the scarcity of pasturage limits their numbers. Hogs are universally kept, and geese, chickens, and ducks are very common. Most families also grow a vegetable garden, with peas, carrots, and cabbages. Mushrooms and berries are gathered as well. In villages near ponds or lakes, the Community often specializes in fishing for salmon, flounder, eels, and pilchards, according to the season.
Whether the family is principally involved in farming or fishing, the entire family participates in the economic labor of the household. Even young children are pressed into service, tending the geese and hens. Title to property is vested in the head of household, usually male, and passes from father to eldest son or daughter upon marriage, in return for the provision of a lifetime right to lodging, as well as an allowance in cash and gardening rights for the remainder of his life. Property is transferable, but should the farm be sold, any new buyer must take on the responsibility of paying the living allowance of the elderly, should the old head of household remain alive.
Kashubian crafts reflect the self-sufficiency of the Peasant farm household; traditionally, almost all the necessary tools, implements, and clothing were produced within the home. Today, such things have become the product of specialists or are likely to be of modern manufacture, but wood carving remains a common male pursuit. Carving in horn is also done, particularly of snuffboxes. Each household also once prided itself on making its own snuff, though this practice is now in decline. Women do elaborate embroidery, as well as weaving, and both men and women may weave baskets. These items are produced now for sale rather than for home consumption.
Kinship, Marriage, and Family
Kashubian marriages are arranged through a matchmaker. Long before marriageable age, a young woman begins to make her bridal outfit and to accumulate her trousseau. Once the match is approved by the couple's parents and the dowry has been fixed, arrangements for the wedding begin. Just after the arrangements are set, the father (if the groom-to-be is the eldest son or inheriting daughter) signs over title to the family farm. Weddings occur in winter, when the demands of the farm are less. The celebration includes wedding breakfasts, church service, dinners, and dancing; traditionally it went on for several days. Premarital sexual relations are known to occur and do not constitute a sufficient reason for marriage, even if a child results from the affair. Divorce is greatly frowned upon.
The household, taken as being established upon the marriage of a young couple, consists of the husband and wife, their children, and the dependent parents from whom the right to the farm was derived.
Kashubians undertake a great many precautions during a woman's pregnancy to ensure the well-being of the newborn, involving the observance of a number of food and behavioral taboos. Newborns spend the first part of their lives tightly swaddled. As they get a bit older, their care falls to elder Children for the most part, and young Kashubians are expected to begin helping out around the farm at the time that they attain school age.
Kashubian households are largely independent and self-sufficient. Although subject to the laws of the Polish state, local authority is vested in the individual heads of Households. There is little call for group cooperation beyond that of the family, except in the case of religious observances, and in such matters leadership falls to the priest or minister of the local church. Otherwise, it is the individual's reputation for honesty, hard work, and perhaps wit that will persuade others in the village to accept his or her advice or suggestions regarding community action.
Religion and Expressive Culture
Although Kashubians have long been Christians—and both Catholic and Protestant denominations are found in the region—a tradition of far older beliefs is still strong as well. A now-vanished race of giants was traditionally believed to have created the physical landscape. Dwarfs or goblins, thought usually to be helpful but often moved to malice if slighted or spied upon, are blamed for most misfortune. The Devil, or devils, are treated as active, personalized presences in the world. Death and disease, too, are believed to assume personified forms. Individuals are thought to have a number of Supernatural capabilities, the most benign being the gift of "second sight." Less benign are those, usually women, who possess the "evil eye" and work spells against their neighbors. Mora, or succuba, are usually women who, unintentionally, become the host of a vindictive spirit that slips out of the body while it sleeps, assuming the form of a familiar animal, and sucks the blood of others. To protect against the depredations of the mora, pentagrams are drawn, and windows and doors are kept locked at night. In some villages there is also the belief in werewolves, which can only be men.
Important ceremonial occasions for the Kashubians, other than life-cycle rituals, derive from the liturgical calendar and from the agricultural cycle. Midsummer's Eve is one such occasion, involving processions, bonfires, musicians, and the performance of a village drama. At the end of May, a solemn procession is made to secure blessings for the fields and crops. Christmas is a time for family feasting, but Twelfth Night (Epiphany) is a much larger celebratory event, involving processions, and may have its origins in pre-Christian Carnaval.
Kashubian beliefs in life after death diverge somewhat from the strict teachings of Christianity. After death, the deceased is thought to undergo a formal trial before God and to depart to a heaven or hell that is construed to mean a physical place. Souls are thought to remain in the area known to them in life if there are sins that must be expiated. The relationship between a farmer and his property is considered to be highly personalized; therefore, the eldest son is required to go out and announce the death of the head of household to all the deceased's animals and to the fields. In the house of the deceased, all windows are opened to encourage the soul to escape, and the mirror is covered and the clock is stopped. The funeral ceremony at the church is solemn, as is the burial procession, but these are followed by a lively funeral feast in the village.
Lorentz, Fr., Adam Fischer, and Tadeuxz Lehr-Splawinski (1935). The Cassubian Civilization. London: Faber & Faber.
NANCY E. GRATTON