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equals. These poor wretches pay so much respect
to their lord and masters that it comes near adoration,
which makes the gentry not a little haughty, looking


Upon themselves to be born with a kind of sovereignty,
like the noblemen of Venice ; and, therefore, very
seldom a nobleman of Curonia [Comlmd] can settle
or abide anywhere, or if he does, 'tis with much un-
easiness, for here they are all upon a level, therefore a
count or a baron that is settled among them has no
precedency or more esteem than another gentleman
(that is to say, those who are allowed to be gentle-
men), by reason the gentry here have the same
liberties and privileges as in other places, and are of
ancient noble extraction, without spot or blemish ;
besides, everything is so cheap here that they live on
vast plenty, being furnished with all necessaries from
their vassals and peasants almost for nothing, there-
fore they can at an easy rate maintain a great
equipage and numerous attendance."

We must remember that the nobles in these (the
Baltic provinces) were chiefly of German origin.
Again, speaking of the peasants of Livonia, the
same writer says : " All those inhabitants of Livonia
that have been subdued by the Germans are men-
tioned under the name of boors, and continue slaves,
both they and their children. ... I find their con-
dition in many things better than that of the peasants
in Germany, who are every day afresh persecuted with
troops that quarter upon them, constant taxes, and
hard labour.

"They readily submit to the old custom of being
whipped with rods for any fault committed. ... It
may be said of these countries, as 'twas formerly said
of Poland : Es^ CobIhui Nob ilium, Paradisus Clericoniin^
Aurifodina Advenarum, et Infernus Rusticoruin"


e. The Jews. These always formed a large element
of the Polish population. They entered Poland in
early times, and Casimi the Great gave them many
important privileges. Lengnich, the author of Jits
Publicum Regni Poloni, who lived in the earlier
part of the eighteenth century, speaks of them as
monopolising the commerce of the country. They were
ordinarily stewards to the nobles as well as proprietors
of the miserable inns to be found in Poland. Sobieski
especially favoured them. They are still to be found
everywhere in the dismembered country ; in Galicia
they are conspicuous by the long curls which they
wear in front of their ears. These curls are not to
be discovered in Russian Poland, as they were for-
bidden by an ukase of Nicholas.

The Government of Poland. The general Polish
diet {Sejm) was supreme : it declared war and peace,
levied soldiers, imposed taxes, and enacted laws ;
originally, like the English parlliment, it was held
in various places ; in early times Piotrkow was
especially favoured. But when in 1569, at the diet
of Lublin, the closer union of Poland and Lithuania
took place, Warsaw was the city where it was gene-
rally arranged that the deputies should meet. In
1673 it was enacted that of three successive diets,
two should be at Warsaw, and the third at Grodno.

The gradual growth of the diet has been described
in our earlier pages. Although we hear of the election
of the peasant Piast from the ranks of the people, we
do not find in early Polish history anything corres-
ponding to the Russian veche. The organisation of
society was purely military, and nothing more ; the


lands were divided into opo/ja, and in the fortresses
the generals, appointed by the king or prince, com-
manded, and were called castellans.

The ordinary diet was convened every two years,
the extraordinary wlien occasion demanded. The
nuntii {posly) were the members returned by the
assemblies of each palatinate, called sejmiki. The
highest ecclesiastical dignities were those of the two
archbishops of the land, and the thirteen bishops :
the highest civil dignities were those of the thirty-
five palatines, the thirty greater castellans of the
kingdom (majores castellani), and forty-nine lesser
castellans (minores), who likewise with ten other
officers of state, formed the senate.

The Palatines and Castellans were governors of the
palatinates or provinces, and held the office for life :
the palatine having the direction of the whole province,
like our lords-lieutenant ; the castellan of a district.
According to Bernard Connor, immediately after the
palatines and the other four privileged persons came the
several castellans, who were all senators and lieutenants
to the palatines in time of war, leading the gentry of
their jurisdiction into the field under the command of
the palatines. Of the castellans there were several
in every palatinate, who were distinguished by the
title of greater or lesser ; the greater were so called
because, with the exception of a few, they took the
names of their castellanries from palatinates ; whereas
the lesser took theirs only from districts, which made
them sometimes called castellani districtuum. More-
over, the lesser castellans sat only on benches behind
the other senators. All sat in one large room : the


king under a canopy on a raised throne ; the bishops,
palatines, and castellans, in three rows of arm-chairs,
extending from the throne on each side in the
body of the hall, and the nuntii {posly) behind
them. A good picture of the assembled diet is
given by Bernard Connor (see page 189).

The Administration of Justice. The Statute of
Wislica defines carefully the limits possessed by the
tribunals of the palatines, castellans, and others, as
well as of the cases in which appeals could be carried
either to the king or senate. Criminal affairs lay within
the cognisance of the starosty, who were nobles hold-
ing an estate of the Crown, and the castellans ; the
questions of disputed boundaries, with some other
matters, belonged to the succamerarii or provincial
chamberlains ; more important disputes about pro-
perty, and inheritance, and crimes of high treason,
were carried either before the palatinal, or the royal,
courts. This statute continued to form the basis of
Polish legislation to the close of last century. In a
previous chapter the great importance of the statute
of Nieszawa has been alluded to. Hube, the writer on
Polish jurisprudence, who died in 1890, has shown,
that in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries only
the Polish panowie enjoyed any political importance,
and they tried to make this influence hereditary.
Under the title pan (Lat., bard), the panozvie were
distinguished not only from the szlachta, but from
the members of their families, who were called
proceres. The ssiachta, that is to say, the nobility
who discharged the duties of no office, had not
the slightest political importance. This condition



of things was changed with the termination of the
dynasty of the Piasts. The members of this family
governed the country according to the ancient cus-
toms, with which they were well acquainted, and
followed the traditions of the leading families. The
kings of the newly-elected line, unacquainted with
the ancient rules, and strong in their position, like
the monarchs of the neighbouring kingdoms already
formed, e.g., Hungary and Lithuania, proposed to pre-
vent ihcpanozvie from exclusive holding of government
appointments. But the paitoivie devised a new
scheme, and endeavoured to get a legal definition
of their status, which they hoped to secure, and to
guarantee to themselves a long list of privileges.
Their real strength, however, lay in the military
order. And thus, to preserve their former condition,
the panowie began to procure for the szlachta the
right of dealing with state affairs, so that they might
have a united body in case of any collision with the

The kings also, from the year 1404, began to turn
their attention to the szlachta, remarking its growing
importance. It is thus that in the year 1454, the
date of the Statute of Nieszawa, we get a confirma-
tion of all the rights and privileges which the szlachta
had actually become possessed of at the end of the
fourteenth century.

Speaking generally, the fifteenth century was of
great importance in the history of Polish political
life, for it determines beforehand all the further
development of the constitution. The relations
between the ranks of society were accurately marked


out, the dietines or sejmiki came into existence,
and the chief diet {sejni) was developed.

Hube has characterised Poh'sh legislation by mark-
ing it out into five distinct periods :

1. Thisincludes the time till the introduction of Chris-
tianity. The history of Poland during this period is
united with the general history of the Western Slavs,
only towards the conclusion the Polish nation begins
to form a separate political whole. The prevalence
of democratic elements characterises this period, as
previously described in Chapter II. We find the
early Poles living in their communes, and titles were
unknown among them.

2. The second part embraces the period during
which the Piasts ruled (962-1386). At this time the
authority of the monarch is supreme ; at first he
is merely a duke, and afterwards a king.

3. The period of the rule of the Jagiellos (1386-
1572) ; by the side of the regal power the nobility
rises into importance. Poland, which has become
politically strengthened in the second period, in
the third assumes considerable importance among
European powers.

4. The fourth period (i 572-1793) comprehends
the time from the election of their kings to the
last division of Poland. In this period tJie nobility
has become the nation^ and has appropriated the
supreme power, and the king has become only one
of the political factors.

5. This period represents the renewal, at least in
part, of the political life of Poland by the establish-
ment of the grand duchy of Warsaw, and after-


wards of the kingdom of Poland. In this period
the nation loses its independence, and is subject to
external influences. To these divisions, Poland up
to the introduction of Christianity, and Poland after
the dismemberment of the country, seem, as it were,
the prologue and the epilogue.

During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries the
number of the nobility increased greatly, because
so many provinces were united to the Crown, and
the Lithuanians and Red-Russians were admitted
to the privileges of the equestrian order. The
nobles forming no alliance out of their own class
became a special caste, which could not endure that
any other members of the state should enter it.
It was an aristocracy intoxicated with itself, and
unconscious of the new forces which were gradually
arising round it, an anachronism in the history of the
nations ; for nations must grow like the human body.

The Jews were of course the merest pariahs,
compelled to wear a yellow cape, like the pieces of
yellow felt sewn on the breasts of their brethren in
the Middle Ages in England.

The boiu'geoisie was completely ignored, having
no power, political or legislative. The legislation
only acknowledged two classes of people in Poland^
the nobles, ordo equestris, and the ignoble, populus,
plebs ; all the burghers, in the eyes of the nobles,
were on the same footing as the kmetons, civitatenses,
oppidani, et cmetones. Each noble was master in his
own territories. By an ancient fiction the king was
considered proprietor of all the lands which did not
belong to the nobles, but he was only master to the


extent that he could not ah'cne or encumber them.
It was a different possession from that of the nobihty,
but a comparison was deduced from it. As the king
possessed in his domains cities, boroughs, and
villages, so the nobility counted among its domains
cities, boroughs, and villages ; as the civitatenses,
oppidani, and cmetones were subjects of the king, so
those belonging to the domains of the nobles are
subjects to the nobles. Thus Kromer says in his
description of Poland : " Plebes urbancE, oppidance,
vicance et agrestes, partim principi parent, partim
proceribus et equitibus^ partim certis sacerdotiis attri-
butcB simtr He also says of the burghers and
kmetons : " Utriqiie Chlopi appellantur, quam appella-
tionem velut probrosam non fert nobilitas." Connor,
in his work on Poland, gives us the same miserable
account of the serfs. He tells us that they have no
sense of law or justice, and scarce any religion
among them. They were forced to work on Sundays,
and had no courts to which they could appeal for
redress. These serfs could never have anything of
their own, nor ever become free, unless they could
get into a convent or be ordained priests. " But,"
he adds, " most commonly their lords have a watch-
ful eye upon them and obviate all their plans."
According to this writer, when a lord sold his lands
the serfs commonly went along with it, although he
could dispose of either separately if he pleased.

And now, to conclude this somewhat rambling
chapter, let us have a glance at the dress of the
Poles in the time of Sobieski, from the pages of


" Their present fashion is a vest that reaches down
to the middle of their legs, with a long robe, not
unlike our morning gowns, lined with fur and tied
about their waists with a sash ; little boots with
iron heels on their legs and furred caps upon their
heads, with a sabre or cutlass girt about their loins.
When they appear on horseback, which is one of
their chief delights, they wear, besides all that has
been mentioned, a short cloak that liangs over their
shoulders, much like an Irish mantle, which is most
commonly furred within and without.

" The better, that is the richer sort, make use of the
furs of sable, which are brought from Muscovy, when
the others content themselves with the skins of
tigers, leopards, panthers, and a kind of grey furs.
Some of the finest of these furs cost above a
thousand crowns, but they are worn only at diets,
and descend from father to son." He adds after-
wards : " Some few of the Poles imitate the French
fashion, and wear linen, lace point, perukes, and
swords. The ordinary sort of gentry, and even
some of the great men, put sifted chaff into their
boots, which serves them instead of socks. The
women formerly had only garlands on their heads,
composed of gold, gems, flowers, silk, and the like ;
but now they wear silk caps lined with fur, like the
men. They also formerly imitated the women of
foreign countries, and in the late reign all the women
of quality, particularly those that resided at Court,
followed the French mode. King John III.'s queen
being of that nation. Both women and men are
extravagant to an infinite degree, in so much that


some among them will have fifty suits of clothes at
once, all as rich as possible ; but what shows their
prodigality yet more is, that they will almost have
their servants go as well dressed as themselves, whereby
they generally soon spend their estates, and are
reduced in a short time to the extremest want.

" Both men and women are always attended with a
great number of servants of both sexes, the women
to wait on the women, and the men on the men.
The principal senators always ride or walk in the
middle of their retinue, putting the best clothed of
their servants before them. When the gentry of
either sex go abroad a-nights, they have twenty-four
or more white wax flambeaux carried before their
coach. Women of quality generally have their
trains borne up by he or she-dwarfs. These ladies
have also with them an old woman which they call
their governante (sic), and an old gentleman for their
gentleman usher, whose office is to follow their coach
on foot and to help them out of it when they alight.
It may be remarked that their coaches go always
very slow and gravely."

As regards the dress of the peasants, Connor tells
us that in winter time they wore a sheep-skin
with the wool on, like the Russian tuh/Jf, and in
summer a close-fitting coat of coarse stuff. They
wore caps on their heads, and sometimes had boots,
but most commonly the bark of trees wrapped round
them, with the thicker part to guard the soles of their
feet against the stones. These would correspond to
the Russian /apti Connor tells us that the Lithua-
nians wore the same kind of shoes which they called



chodakys [things to walk in]. Stockings also they
made of very tender bark, which they wound about
the calves of their legs. Before they came into any
town they always took care to put on fresh chodakys.
These were made by the villagers, so that it was a
common jest in Poland that there were more shoe-
makers in Lithuania than in all Europe besides.
" The same people likewise wear a sort of habit with
sleeves woven all of a piece. This they call samo-
dzialka. It is commonly grey and very thick, and
worn equally by men and women among the rustics.'*

Of the appearance of the Poles generally our author
remarks that their complexion was fair and their hair
of a " pale yellowish colour." They were commonly
of middle stature, but tending somewhat to be tall.
Their constitutions were for the most part good and
their bodies gross. Yet the women of quality made
it their chief study to become lean and slim ; but
painting and washes, adds Connor, to meliorate [sic]
their complexions they abhor ; neither have they any
occasion for them.

Of their dwellings he tells us that the Poles never
lived above stairs, and their houses were not united.
The kitchen was on one side, the stable on another, the
dwelling on another, and the gate in front, all which
make a court either square or round. Their houses
were for the most part of wood, though occasionally
some were to be seen of brick and stone. Any one
familiar with the East of Europe will know how these
characteristics have been maintained till the present

Turning from our discussion of the political and


social condition of Poland, let us now endeavour to
trace the causes of the fall of this once powerful
state, dominant, let us remember, at one time
throughout Eastern Europe. We believe the follow-
ing will be found among the chief causes : —

I. The want of patriotism among the nobility.
Most of them preferred their own family and local
interests to that of the nation at large. Power was
given them to gratify their private likes and
dislikes by the pernicious custom of allowing each
noble to keep an army of retainers. Poland seemed
continually in a state resembling that of England
during the time of the Wars of the Roses, or Scot-
land in the period of the clans. There was no
statute of maintenance in Poland, as in England, to
do away with this anomalous state of things. We
have seen frequently throughout this work in what a
turbulent style the nobles made their appearance
with bodies of horsemen at the diets or the elections
of the kings, so that bloodshed was frequent. Hence
the continual occurrence of the rebellion called rokosz,
which has been already alluded to in our pages. By
these outbreaks the military expeditions of the kings
were often paralysed. Some writers have expressed
their approval of this institution on the ground that
it enabled minorities in the kingdom to express their
disagreement with public undertakings ; but such
want of cohesion on national questions tended greatly
to weaken Poland. The nobility too often showed
the feeling of selfish oligarchs.

2. A second cause was the intolerance of the
clergy. The persecution of the members of the


Orthodox Church and of the Dissidents played into
the hands of the enemies of the country. The
Prussians were ready to assist the Protestants, the
Russians the members of the Greek Church. It was
a reHgious persecution in the main which led the
Cossacks of the Dnieper to sever their connection
with Poland. The mischievous influence of the
Jesuits made itself felt throughout the realm. We
must remember, however, in justice to the Poles, how
late among other peoples, and even ourselves, ideas
of religious toleration have grown up. The present
century first saw in England the removal of the
disabilities of the Roman Catholics ; it was not till
the year i86o that Jews were admitted into Parlia-

3. The absence of any middle class in the true
sense of the word, and the impossibility of one being
formed owing to the constitution of the country.
There was no class to mediate between the noble
and the serf The burghers in the Polish towns had
alien interests, and the fact that no middle class had
been formed in Poland, as was the case with other
nations, in which it had gradually developed itself
upon the decay of feudalism, caused that unhappy
country to be in reality an anomaly among nations : —

** Mancus et extinct ce corpus non utile dextra^

4. It was impossible that any real feelings of
patriotism or love of country could be developed
among a class in such a wretched condition as the
Polish serfs. They were too ignorant to understand
politics, and sentiments of patriotism could not be in-


stilled in them. They had absolutely no rights against
their masters : no one cared to work more than he
was actually obliged, because no one could acquire
anything. The only pleasure of the peasants was
drinking in the karczma on Sundays, where they
forgot their miseries in dancing and intoxication.
The forced labour, or barszczyna, due from them to
their lords, weighed upon them nearly all the week.
Many of the nobility, as at the present day in Poland,
enjoyed the monopoly of the sale of spirits, and were
therefore interested in as much being consumed as
possible. We have seen in our own days, in Galicia,
a complaint brought against a philanthropic eccle-
siastic who, pained at the intoxication of his parish-
ioners, had induced many to sign the pledge. He
was accused of diminishing the revenues of the local

5. Professor Bobrzynski enumerates, among the
other misfortunes of Poland, the want of men of
talent and energy among her sovereigns. She had
some vigorous rulers, such as Boleslas the Brave and
Casimir the Great. " Yet," he continues, " whereas
France had Francis I., Henry IV., and Louis XIV. ;
England, Henry VIII. and Elizabeth ; Spain, Charles
V. and Philip II. ; Austria, the Ferdinands ; Sweden,
Gustavus Vasa, Charles of Sudermania, and Gustavus
Adolphus ; Russia, Ivan and Peter — we have only
a weak honest man in Sigismund I. ; Sigismund
Augustus who proved a coward in all matters where
action and honest conviction were required, and
Sigismund Vasa (III.) conspiring for our destruction.
The genius oi Batory shone, but only for a while ; he


created capable men, but had not time to improve
our institutions. Of our later kings, Ladislaus IV.
merely deceived the country, bringing it into a worse
condition, although with good intentions. Of Wis-
niowiecki and the Saxon kings it is idle to make
mention. The genius of Sobieski seemed only
created for war, and contrasts in a glaring manner
with the mistakes of his policy. We may stop
awhile to contemplate John Casimir and Stanislaus
Poniatowski ; but while we grant them merits, we
find them wanting in capacity and energy. The
history of no other country shows such a cruel fate as

It seems, then, that if we add to these elements of
weakness in the country the fact that it had no
natural frontiers — for indeed it was a vast plain open
to incursions on all sides — and powerful enemies on
those artificial frontiers which were the only ones it
had, we cannot wonder that it was ready to fall to pieces.
But it is impossible to read the record of its death
struggles without pain and sympathy. Nor does it
become the native of a prosperous country, which has
perhaps earned a greater reputation for material
progress than for quixotic sentimentality, to coldly
dissect the half-living frame of suffering Poland,
stretched upon the table of the anatomist. The
blotting out of her name from the register of exist-
ing nationalities has a thousand times more than
atoned for the errors she may have committed
while independent.

*' Men are we, and must grieve when even the shade
Of that which once was great is passed away."

XV. c


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Online LibraryWilliam Richard MorfillPoland → online text (page 21 of 23)