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Our faith grown feeble is hardly stirred ;

Our hearts bleed inly ! — O ! judge not our seeming

Rash murmurs — ^judge not each frenzied word I

We know not one day from another,

O God ! for its hourly tale of pain :

Son slays sire, and brother brother.

We have around us the brood of Cain.

Lord ! they are guiltless ; their eyes are blinded.

Though through them we shall live abhorr'd ;

There are unseen doers, like devils minded,

O punish the hand, and not the sword.

See in our lonely anguish lying,

We haste to Thy stars and seek Thy breast ;

Like weary birds with our prayers we're flying,

And long to find some peaceful nest.

Give us Thy grace in our toils to arm us :

Safe in Thy folds Thy children keep ;

The fragrance of griefs crush'd flowers shall charm us :

The halo of chastening light our sleep :


With Thy archangel before us tow'ring,
On we'll march to the great strife — on !
And o'er the body of Satan cow'ring,
We'll plant Thy banner for victory won !
We'll open our hearts to our brother's prayers,
The cross of freedom shall cleanse his stains ;
And this our answer to foul gainsayers,
As He was ever, so God remains.

The best known contemporary poet is Adam Asnyk,
whose compositions are chiefly lyrical : he lives at
Cracow. The most popular poetess is Maria Konop-

In spite of the difficulties under which the dis-
membered country labours, there are four fairly
active centres of Polish literature : Warsaw, Cracow,
Lemberg, and Posen, the last much less than the
other three, because the province has been more
completely Germanised. The University of Warsaw
has been Russified since the late insurrection, but
Cracow and Lemberg, which are thoroughly Polish,
boast some eminent professors. The work of the
Academy of Cracow has already been spoken of; it
was founded in 1872. Of considerable value are the
editions of rare Polish authors of the sixteenth cen-
tury, which are now appearing under its superintend-
ence. Many learned reviews appear in Polish, quite
up to the level of the best English, French, and



The occurrence of such a phenomenon in European
history as the disappearance from the commonwealth
of nations of a country which had existed for eight
hundred years, seems to call for some attempt at
explanation. The question has often been asked,
What were the causes of the fall of Poland ? We
propose in the present chapter to attempt to answer
this inquiry, but before doing so, we shall describe the
political and social condition of the Kingdom, or
rather Republic {Rzeczpospolitd) in the days of its

We have seen how the Crown, which in earlier times
was more or less hereditary in the families of the
Piasts and Jagiellos, became purely elective in the
persons of Henri de Valois and Stephen Batory ; but
even afterwards in the three following kings went into
a side branch of the Jagiellos. Michael Korybut and
Sobieski were not connected directly with any royal
line, but we shall obsei-ve that after the reign of
Augustus of Saxony the throne was obtained by his

We have already spoken of the pacta conventa.


These conditions, to which every sovereign after the
time of Henri de Valois was obliged to swear obedi-
ence, were founded upon the body of privileges which
the nobles had extorted from the king since the time
of Louis (Pol., Ludwik), 1 370 - 1 382. Several additions
were subsequently made. The following summary
contains the chief of these /<^<:/rt:.

1. The king was not to attempt to influence the
senate in the choice of a successor.

2. He must observe the agreements which had been
made with the Dissidents.

3. No war was to be declared, or military expedi-
tions undertaken, without the consent of the diet.

4. No taxes were to be imposed without the consent
of the diet.

5. The king could not appoint ambassadors to
foreign courts.

6. In case of different opinions prevailing among
the senators, he should adopt only such as were in
accordance with the laws and clearly advantageous to
the nation.

7. He should be furnished with a permanent
council, the members of which (sixteen in number, viz.,
four bishops, four palatines, and eight castellans)
should be changed every half year, and should be
chosen by the ordinary diets.

8. A general diet should be convened every two
years at least.

9. The duration of each diet was not to exceed six

10. None but a native could hold any dignity or


II. The king must neither marry nor divorce a wife
without the consent of the diet

So much for the power of the king.

The inhabitants of Poland might be divided as
follows : a. the Nobles ; b. the Clergy ; c. the Burghers ;
d. the Peasants ; e. the Jews.

a. According to the Polish laws, a noble was a person
possessing a freehold estate, or one who could prove
his descent from ancestors possessing a freehold, who
followed no trade, and could choose their place of
habitation. Under this category came all besides
burghers and peasants All these nobles were equal
by birth, and it was expressly stated in the Polish
laws that titles gave no precedence. By means of
their representatives in the diet, the nobles had a
share in the legislation. As a man lost his nobility
if he engaged in any commercial transactions, the
country was full of poor gentry who swelled the
retinues of the richer nobles. This was expressed in
the Polish proverb : SzlacJicic na zagrodzie rowny
Wojewodzie (the nobleman on his plot of ground
{zagrodd) is equal to a Wojewode or Palatine). A
nobleman alone might wear a sword, and thus, as Mr.
Naganowski tells us, it was not unusual to see the
zasciankowicze, or inhabitants of the zascianki, a sort
of peasant nobles, following the plough barefooted
wearing an old rusty sword at their side tied by a
piece of string.

In the pages of Hauteville we get a glimpse of
the mode of life of the nobles at the close of the
seventeenth century — before, let us remember, that the
country had sunk into insignificance and Poland had



ceased to be a great power : " When the Polanders
make a feast, all the guests who are invited must
bring a knife, fork, and spoon along with them,
because it is not a custom to lay any of these utensils
upon the table ; they sew a piece of linen round the
table-cloth which serves for napkins. After all the
guests are come, the gates are shut and are not
opened till all the company are risen from the table
and all the plate is found ; for if they did not use this
precaution, the footmeyi would steal part of it ; and
this is also the reason why they lay neither knives
spoons, forks, nor napkins upon the table. Every
person of quality has a hall in his house, which they
call the banqueting hall, in which there is a place for
a side-table, surrounded with balusters. This side-
table, from which the cloth is never taken off till it is
very dirty, is covered with abundance of plate, and
over it is a place for the music, which is usually com-
posed of violins and organs. Those who are invited
to the feast bring their footmen with them, and as soon
as they are seated at the table, every one of them cuts
off one-half of his bread which he gives with a plate
full of meat to his servant who, after he has shared it
with his comrade, stands behind his master and eats
it. If the master calls twice for a glass of wine or
other liquor, the servant brings as much more, and
drinks in the same glass with his master without
rinsing it. Though there is a great deal of meat
brought to the table, there is nothing carried back to
the kitchen, not even of the last course ; for the
servants seize upon all the meat, and their ladies
make each of them carry a napkin to bring away the

Publislird according to Act of Parliament, Jan. i, 1784, by T. Cadell, in the Strand.



^0r(Hi?mof (/^^

PiiMishe.l according to Act of rarlianient, Jan. i, 1784, by T. Cadell, in the Strand.


dry sweetmeats or fruits that are brought to the
table. After they have done eating, they usually go
to dance."

In the latter days of the Polish Republic the
number of the nobility seems to have been steadily
on the decrease. It was doubted whether a general
levy would bring together as many as I50,0(X).
Most of the estates w^ere heavily mortgaged : the
nobles preferred life at court or in the towns,
frequently travelled, and were conspicuous for their
luxury and imitation of French manners.

d. The Clergy. From the time of the introduction of
Christianity, the Polish clergy possessed large estates
which were increased by frequent donations. It was
feared at last that most of the landed property of the
kingdom would fall into their hands, and accord-
ingly a law was passed in 1669 forbidding alienation
of lands to the Church under penalty of forfeiture.
The bishops had a seat in the senate : they were
usually appointed by the king and confirmed by the
Pope. The of Gnesen was primate : he
was in rank the first senator and viceroy during an
interregnum. In civil affairs the clergy were amen-
able to the ordinary courts of justice. In criminal
cases the ecclesiastic was first arrested by the civil
powers, then tried in the consistorial court, which
was held under the jurisdiction of each bishop in his
diocese, and if convicted he was remitted to the civil
power to undergo the penalty attached to the crime
of which he had been found guilty. We thus see that
the Poles, although the influence of the clergy among
them was very great, had not allowed them to grow


up as a kind of hnperiiim in imperio. But till the time
of the dismemberment of the country, if the Pope
sent a bull into Poland, the clergy could carry out its
details without obtaining the consent of the civil
power. Till 1538, ecclesiastics were allowed to hold
civil appointments ; this, however, was afterwards
forbidden and later laws rendered the clergy liable to
taxation from which they had previously been

c. The Burghers. The tradesmen and artisans in
the Polish towns were in a peculiar position. They
were for the most part Germans or Jews ; the abso-
lute bondage in which the peasantry were held by the
nobles forbade them from advancing themselves, and
thus the trade of the country fell into foreign hands.
This absence of a national middle class may justly be
considered one of the main causes of the fall of the
Republic ; there was no condition of society to interpose
between the noble and peasant. The burghers were
not governed by Polish law, but by the Jus Magde-
btirgimm in the southern Polish towns ; in the north-
ern, in Masovia and Cujavia, we meet for the most
part with the Kulm law. A magistrate under these
laws was called a soltys or voigt (Pol. wojt). The
condition of Cracow, the capital, will give us a good
idea of what prevailed in the other cities. In the
fourth volume of the Montimenta Medii CEvi historica,
res gestas Polonice ilhistrantia, extracts are given from
some of the early municipal books of Cracow.
German names greatly preponderate among the
citizens, and the majority of the extracts are in
German. The oldest document of the city is that in


which the /us Magdeburgicum is conceded to it by
Boleslas Wstydliwy (i 227-1 279). The city of Casi-
mir received the Jus Magdeburgicum from Casimir
the Great in 1335 ; it has now sunk to such a small
town that the Russian Government has ordered it to
be styled simply a posad. It was customary for the
kings, when they gave a charter of incorporation, to
add the following sentence : Transfero hanc villain
ex jure Polonico in jus Teutonicum. Many of the
burghers became very rich, and we are told by
Dlugosz and Kromer that a certain citizen named
Wierzynek gave a splendid banquet to Casimir on
the occasion of the marriage of the king's grand-
daughter to Charles IV. of Germany, the beloved
sovereign of the Chekhs. At this entertainment the
kings of Denmark and Hungary were present and
also his Majesty of Cyprus. Between the nobles and
the burghers the sharpest possible line of demarca-
tion existed : a nobleman lost his rank by engaging
in any trade. A professional class cannot be said to
have existed. All education was in the hands of the
ecclesiastics who dominated the universities, and
medicine was also practised by them. But in the
East of Europe at that time medicine had hardly
passed out of the domain of the quack and conjuror.
As a rule trade had made but little progress in
Poland, because for a long time no tribunal existed
in the country which received the complaints of a
burgher against a nobleman. Most of the smaller
towns were in reality the property of the nobles, and
were in the same condition as some of our own in
early mediaeval history. The law of 1768, which


deprived the nobles of their criminal jurisdiction,
because it was so much abused, granted them as a
compensation the right of increasing the services and
dues of the burghers. It was not till the year 1747
that in our own country the criminal jurisdiction of
the Highland chieftains was abolished. By way of
compensation for the loss of power ;^i 32,000 was
granted by parliament.

d. The Peasants. These had originally been
divided into two classes, the first of which included
those who were personally free, but bound to perform
certain services. These are more properly called in
Polish documents kmetons, or cme tones in mediaeval
Latin ; in Polish kmieci. There is often, however, a
confusion in the use of the word. The second class
contained the peasants strictly so called, who were
the property of their masters, and had no rights. In
course of time, by the continual encroachment of
the nobles upon the free peasants, they, like the
others, were completely bound to the soil.

Many of the taxes which the nobles escaped were
paid by the peasants, and their condition continually
grew worse. Originally the land held by the free
kmetons was of two sorts : (i) the wloka, or Ian (about
thirty acres). This was an inheritable property, of
which the lord could not dispossess him ; and (2), the
wolUy which was a piece of land rented by him for a
certain number of years, so called because it came
by the will {ivola) of the lord, and he received it
again when the period had come to an end. It
appears that Christmas time was the usual period at
which the tenant quitted his holding. But the early



Polish laws bear continual testimony to the encroach-
ment and unjust conduct of the nobles, who had a
thousand ways of despoiling the kmetons of their
property. It is to the credit of Casimir the Great
that he always opposed these encroachments, and
thus got his nickname previously mentioned.

The final blow to the independence of the kmetons
was given in 1496 by the law which forbade a
plebeian to possess property in land : no distinction
was to be made between the wloka and the zvola;
and thus, since a burgher also could not possess
landed property, the nobles became the sole proprie-
tors. This attack on the power of acquiring land
was, as Lelewel says, followed by outrages and
violence against personal liberty. By a clause in the
same statute, the peasant, who wished to go from
one place to another, must have a missio from his
lord, as if he was his serf. The starostas of the dis-
trict were forbidden to give them a salvus conducttcs,
or passport ; they were even obliged to see that the
kmetons had proper papers from the authorities of
the estate to which they belonged ; a passport, in
fact from their lord, which was the only one of any
value. Those without such passports were consi-
dered fugitives or vagabonds (Terrigenarum nostrorum
subditis kmetonibus, civibiis, oppidanis ant servis, capi-
tanei locorum salvos conductus dare nan debeant^
stat. 1504, 1505, 1543). In all law matters it was
the lord who acted for his kmeton : the latter could
not commence any proceedings against his lord, nor
against any other noble unless he found a noble
protector who would act for him. Then it became a


matter between the nobles ; the knieton was only the
object or occasion of the suit. We can easily ima-
gine how little chance there was of obtaining justice
under such circumstances.

All these oppressions were deviations from the
enactments of Casimir the Great about the kmetons ;
he recognised their freedom and laboured to make it
secure. The wlokas, or inheritable property of the
kmetons, were declared by him to be in no way liable
for the debts of their lords. Thus in the statute of
Wislica we read : " Ex jure divino teneatur quod
iniquitas unius alteri non debeat obesse. Statuto
hoc debet teneri, quod pro poena militis ant fidejussoria
cautione cine to non debet impi^norari, sed si tenetur
miles aut quivis alter solvat de propriis bonis.'' Ac-
cording to the same statute the kmetons had the right
of quitting their masters. In Poland, as in Russia,
all history points to the gradual enslavement of the
lower orders. For the murder of a peasant a fine
was enacted as a penalty in 1347. Kromer tells us
distinctly that the lord had power of life and death
over his serfs. This continued in force till 1768,
when it was first declared by law that the murder of
a peasant was a capital crime, but the infliction of
this punishment was surrounded with so many diffi-
ties that in reality it could rarely be enforced. Thus
the murderer must be taken red-handed, and this
fact must be proved by two noblemen or four
peasants ; if he was not taken in the act, and the
requisite number of witnesses was not found,
he was only to pay a fine. The old law valued
each of these serfs at ten marks, or according to


the value of money at the time, about twelve

Many instances occurred of the shameful abuse
of their power by the nobles. Hauteville says : " A
stranger is surprised at such a heathenish custom
(of the lord having the power of life and death), and
takes the liberty to ask them how Christians can
assume a privilege so contrary to the spirit of their
religion. They usually reply : " that though they
have such a power they never make use of it, no
more than we and other Christians use the power we
have to kill our horses, adding that the peasants
serve them instead of beasts ! " In the old volume of
travels of Peter Mundy, previously quoted, we get
the same description of the miserable condition of
the Polish serf, " For the common sort of people," he
adds, " they are . . . like slaves or beasts, allowed no
more than will serve to keep them alive, and in such
case as they may be able to labour again." He also
tells us that their master, if he killed one of them,
only had to pay a fine. All travellers concur in
representing the condition of the peasantry as most
wretched. Poland has suffered so much that it
seems cruel to heap reproaches upon her in her
agonies, but the justice of history must be main-
tained, and in order to realise to ourselves their
condition, we must turn to the pages of Coxe.

He thus writes : " Without having actually tra-
versed it, I could hardly have conceived so comfort-
less a region ; a forlorn stillness and solitude prevailed
almost through the whole extent, with few symptoms
of an inhabited, and still less of a civilised, country.


Though we were travelling in the high road which
unites Cracow and Warsaw, in the course of about
two hundred and fifty-eight English miles, we met
in our progress only two carriages and about a dozen
carts. The country was equally thin of human
habitations ; a few straggling villages all built of wood,
succeeded one another at long intervals, whose miser-
able appearance corresponded to the wretchedness of
the country round them. In these assemblages of
huts the only places of reception for travellers were
hovels belonging to Jews, totally destitute of furni-
ture and every species of accommodation. We could
seldom procure any other room but that in which the
family lived ; in the article of provision, eggs and
milk were our greatest luxuries, and could not always
be obtained ; our only bed was straw thrown upon
the ground, and we thought ourselves happy when
we could procure it clean. . . . The natives were
poorer, humbler, and more miserable than any people
we had yet observed in the course of our travels ;
wherever we stopped they flocked around us in
crowds, and, asking for charity, used the most abject
gestures. The road bore as few marks of industry as
the country which it intersects ; in other places it
was scarcely passable; and in the marshy ground,
where some labour was absolutely necessary to make
it support the carriages, it was raised with sticks and
boughs of trees thrown promiscuously upon the sur-
face, or formed by trunks of trees laid crossways.
After a tedious journey we at length approached
Warsaw ; but the roads being neither more passable,
nor the country better cultivated, and the suburbs,


chiefly consisting of wooden hovels, which compose
the villages, we had no suspicion of being near the
capital of Poland till we arrived at its gates."

Nearly a century before, Hauteville, whose work
was translated into English in 1689, thus describes
the Polish cottages : " The furniture of their houses
consists of some earthen or wooden dishes, and a bed,
which they make of chaff and feathers, with a sort of
coverlet over it. Their stoves have no chimney to let
out the smoke, so that their huts are always full of a
thick smoke, which has no other passage but a small
window about four foot from the ground. When they
go into their cottages they are forced to stoop that
they may not be stifled with the smoke, which is so
thick above the little window that one cannot see
the roof, and yet 'tis impossible to go to bed in the
winter without stoves." We know from Harrison's
" England " that the cottage of the English peasant first
had a chimney in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, and
the wiseacres of the time prophesied that their intro-
duction would soon be followed by rural degeneration.
Hauteville gives pretty much the same description of
the inns as Coxe : " There are no inns in Poland
where one may lodge conveniently and be accommo-
dated with a bed. The only houses of entertainment
are places built of wood, which they call Karczma,
where travellers are obliged to lodge with the horses,
cows, and hogs, in a long stable made of boards, ill-
joined, and thatched with straw. 'Tis true that there
is a chamber at the end of it with a stove, but 'tis
impossible for one to lodge in it in the summer, for
they never open the windows even in the hottest


weather ; so that strangers choose rather to lie in
the stables in the summer than in the chamber.
And, besides, the gospodarz, or innkeeper, lodges in
that room with his children and whole family. Those
who have occasion to trav^el in the summer may avoid
part of these inconveniences by lying in a barn on
fresh straw ; for the gospodarz gathers and locks up
every morning the straw which was given at night to
those who lodged in the stable or chamber, in order to
reserve it for those who shall come to lodge after
them." We have given these sketches from early
travellers in all their freshness, to illustrate the
miserable condition of the Polish peasant. In
justice, however, to the Poles we must remember
that the condition of the peasantry in many other
parts of Europe was no better. Thus in the interest-
ing Httle work, " An Account of Livonia, with a rela-
tion of the Rise, Progress, and Decay of the Marian
Teutonic Order," 8z:c. (London, 1701), we get the
following description of the condition of the
peasantry in those parts : " The nobility here have
great privileges and immunities, being invested
with full jurisdiction, civil and criminal, over their
boors." Concerning the nobility of Courland, the
author says : " They have absoliitum imperium, with
the power of life and death over their subjects or
peasants, yet they always in criminal cases keep
a judiciary court, inviting judges or assessores
judicii, and, besides, there is a sort of jury of their

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Online LibraryWilliam Richard MorfillPoland → online text (page 20 of 23)