That big blot on the map of 15th-18th Century Central Europe that you've never heard of.
- Poland has been a source of trouble for over five hundred years.
A good moment to begin this story is in the second half of XIVth Century. Within a century after The Teutonic Knights installed themselves in the Baltic Sea basin, it turned out their ambitions went much beyond fighting for Christianity. As Poland raised herself from political fragmentation, they grew to become the reborn kingdom's most dangerous threat. Meanwhile to the east, the pagan Lithuanians found themselves on the receiving side of the Knights' ambitions as well, and the two realms gravitated towards each other, despite being on less than amicable terms for most of their history. Ironically, it was the pagan Baltic peoples that the Knights were invited to protect from and conquer.
So, when the throne of Poland was inherited by young Jadwiga, a suitable candidate for her husband was found in the Lithuanian duke Jogaila. The catch? He would be baptized as a Roman Catholic, and so would his realm. And so, in 1385, did Jogaila become Władysław Jagiełło (as the Poles twisted his name), king of Poland alongside Jadwiga, bringing the two countries into a personal union. Although she soon died in childbirth, he remained on the throne and proved quite a capable ruler. (For her troubles, Jadwiga would later become a Catholic saint. Probably counts as a fair trade, eh?) The decision was further vindicated in 1410, on fifteenth of July, when the Knights were defeated in Battle of Grunwald.
There was a catch, however. Jagiełło had to earn the support of Polish nobles — done easiest by granting them privileges. Although not the first (for one, Jadwiga's father had to make some concessions to get her crowned), they further elevated the nobility compared to the other social classes. This way he ensured that his dynasty will be accepted as the rulers of Poland. On the other hand, in Lithuania the biggest threat to him were his own family members. In Poland, the nobility — which came out of the fragmentation period with the notion that it's the people (ie. them), and not the ruler, that make Poland a country — had a say in politics, but the ruler of Lithuania had much stronger grasp on his country. These problems were sorted out in time, and by the time of his sons, both the royal and the grand ducal title stayed in the immediate family.
Some more wars (namely the Thirteen Years', 1454-1466) with the Order returned Gdańsk (German name: Danzig) to Poland and further reduced the Knights to a small vassal state, which nonetheless would turn out a bit too important in the future.
The union entered an era of prosperity. The Renaissance caught on and the land developed materially and culturally. Trade grew, but with a twist on the typical expectations, the nobles got in the business, running business ventures growing grain and selling it to the western Europe. Lithuanian nobility, once a mix of pagan Lithuanians, Orthodox Christian Lithuanians, Orthodox Christian Ruthenians and perhaps some more, followed the example of their Polish counterparts while retaining their own identity. The documents were written in Polish for the Crown (as Poland came to be known) and in the Ruthenian language for the Grand Duchy. But a common spirit began to develop among the nobility of both states, the "noble nation".
In the east, the two realms' interests were secured in the defeat of the Muscovy at Orsha (1514). As the Reformation struck, it ran along the humanist and Renaissance trends among the nobles, leading to further cultural developments as well as turning monastic states into secular duchies vassal to the kingdom. The nobles, happy with their top dog position, made it clear they didn't want any pesky Churchman running around threatening some among them, making it explicit when they gathered at the Confederation of Warsaw in 1573.
All along the while, the political influence of the nobles crystallised in the Sejm (the Assembly), gathering regularly to set laws. A series of privileges granted them the right to due process (neminem captivabimus), to have a say in matters involving them (nihil novi), and finally, as all nobles were equal (as a Grandfather Clause several Lithuanian families retained a right to style themselves dukes), that they would all have to agree on a law before it could be passed (liberum veto). That last idea proved less than stellar in the long run.
In 1569, Poland and Lithuania signed an article known as the Union of Lublin, turning what technically was two separate states with a single ruler into a federative state — the Commonwealth of Both Nations. The king wasn't above some tough arguments, reminding the Lithuanian magnates of the differences between the capacities of the king of Poland, and the much more autocratic Grand Duke of Lithuania, in case they needed some encouragement. (You may note that "Commonwealth" is a direct translation of Latin "res publica" — ie. The Republic.)
The death of the last Jagiellon king in 1572 posed a problem of what to do next with the empty throne. But the solution was already present: the nobles said who the king was, he just happened to be the next-in-line guy from the same dynasty. Now they would just pick the one from the candidates presenting themselves at the election field. This system came to be known as the free election. Every new king had to swear he would uphold the noble privileges and the political system of the Commonwealth (and deal with the fact he didn't really matter). In essence, one could argue this was as much an elective monarchy, as a republic with a lifelong presidential term.
But by now, the problems were already looming on the horizon. The Golden Age of prosperity gave way to the Silver Age of martial spirit and warfare.
After a short reign of Henry de Valois (he ran back to his native France just in time to get shanked), the next election chose a king of the Transylvanian dynasty of Bathory, and he was as metal as it sounds like. In a series of successful wars, he beat back the Muscovite westward expansion. However, Muscovy was there, and it was waiting.
Next in line were elected three kings of the Swedish dynasty of Vasa, or technically, a branch of the Vasas who were staunch Catholics and for this reason left the Protestant Sweden, the kings of which they styled themselves the entire time. In the early XVIIth Century, internal troubles and the Succession Crisis in Moscow led to what began as a Polish magnate's private war, and ended with a couple of years of Polish rule — but, alas, what might have been the brightest moment in the history of the Commonwealth was wasted as king Sigismund didn't let his son become the Russian tsar. When the French agreed that "Paris is worth a Mass", he did not agree that Moscow is worth a superficial conversion to the Orthodox faith. Eventually, the Muscovians kicked out the Polish garrison, and stuff went only downhill for the Commonwealth.
In the south, the entire border with the Ottomans and their Crimean vassals was a hot zone. Wars with the Turks happened with no small frequency, and the Tatars stayed mostly true to their warlike nomadic traditions. Wars were fought a number of times, and several well-known heroes made their name in them. Beset by enemies of different faiths, the Commonwealth came to see itself as antemurale Christianitatis, the outermost defences of Christianity.
This had a peculiar effect on Ukraine — the name of which is quite akin to the Slavic word for "borderland". While intensively settled and developed by the business-minded magnates, it was also vast, and hardly easy to control for any side. People of all ways of life settled down in communities which came to be known as the Cossacks. They proved as much an asset to the Commonwealth, providing some real tough troops capable of pulling a viking reenactment on Constantinople, as they were a trouble. Tensions between the staunchly Orthodox, mostly Ruthenian Cossacks and the nobility of the Commonwealth finally led to an eruption: when a minor noble, Bohdan Khmelnitsky, found his home razed and wife killed by a neighbour (and you thought borrowing tools and not returning them was bad?), he went to courts, where he was told, "you have your sabre". He figured that, yes, he did.
Come 1648, the Khmelnitsky uprising set the steppe ablaze. The Jews, since their financial skills were held in high esteem by the nobility, got the worst of it regardless of whether they worked as someone's financiers or just made their living in towns and villages. Several battles and a couple of years later, things mostly settled down, and the nobility backed off issuing an offer to turn the Commonwealth of Both Nations into one of Three Nations, but by now, it was too late — Ukraine had already gone to Russia for help. The tsars sure were fine with it.
Like we said, the Vasa kings styled themselves rulers of Sweden; the catch was, Swedes preferred to side with those of the Vasas whom they actually chose. The fact that Poland was an economic competitor of Sweden in the Baltic region didn't exactly endear them to it, either. So, the time around 1655 looked like a good idea to make a trip (later to be known as the Deluge). Several betrayals and mutinies on the Polish side later, the Swedes found themselves in control of a large part of Poland, with Lithuania none too willing to show up (historians debate whether the Lithuanian magnates were choosing the lesser evil, or just out for their own — oh, and by the way, the Russians showed up too). After some rampagin' and pillagin', they found themselves at the gates of Częstochowa, the location of a really revered depiction of the Virgin Mary. Some time later, and some religious-nationalist fervor whipped up in the meantime, the Poles found enough guts to kick out the Swedes.
As you can guess, that wasn't a best time to run a business in. The traditional tolerance began to dissipate, as various Protestant faiths came to be seen as supportive of the Swedes. And finally, the impoverished nobles — retaining all the rights of a nobleman even if they were poorer than a peasant — clung to the magnates' courts, with a predictable effect on the quality of law. In 1657, a certain nobleman figured that since liberum veto was in place, he could just show up at the Sejm, shout "veto!", and get away before anybody could "convince" him to recall it. And he did exactly that. And with minor exceptions, the next, like, 150 years went with barely a law passed.
The last bright period of that century was the reign of Jan Sobieski, a hero of one of the Turkish wars. The calls for help from Austria led him to defeat the Turks at the gates of Vienna, which brought him everlasting fame and us the coffeehouses, but he could not capitalise on this victory in any meaningful way.
The XVIIIth Century was a time of decay — although not to the nobles, who could be described as all too many cases of Rich Idiot with No Day Job, except nobody was running around wearing bat ears on his cap. Political infighting caused several civil wars, while the Saxon kings (popular due to their hedonistic ruling style) led the country into the Great Northern War, with no gain at all and destruction compared to that of the Deluge. Meanwhile, the tsars had their fun bribing nobles to veto the laws, and in some cases not even pretending they aren't enforcing their passing by force of arms. Prussia — once a vassal of Poland, since the last grand master turned protestant and swore fealty to Polish king — negotiated its way out of its vassal state during the 1650s, and by the time of the Fredericks too had joined the party with counterfeiting the Polish money and an occasional kidnapping of a tall man for Frederick's regiment of giants. At least, by that time Turkey was already beaten down to not cause too many problems.
This miserable time began to turn for the better after the election of Stanisław Poniatowski, Catherine the Great's former boy toy (no kidding), in 1764. While not the best of monarchs objectively, he was a man of the Enlightenment, and he supported the movement which was already getting underway. Again, the state was developing culturally and economically, importing know-how from abroad and establishing schools and cultural institutions, despite the fact that in 1772, Prussia, Austria and Russia figured they might as well take some juicier plots of land for themselves. Finally, the cultural unrest achieved its peak at the Great Sejm, and with the passing of the Constitution of the 3rd May in 1791. Interestingly enough, the Constitution can be argued to mark the end of the Commonwealth — it discarded the old system in favour of a unified state under a constitutional, non-elective monarchy. In any case, it was moot anyway, as in a couple of years the "three black eagles" decided they would carve up the country wholesale rather than see it get better, and in 1795 the country ceased to be.
- Lithuania, my fatherland!
The Commonwealth is one of those complicated cases of historical countries that stubbornly refuse to fit into modern views of state and nationality. Until the Constitution of 3rd May, it was legally a union of two countries, Kingdom of Poland and Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The nobility of the Grand Duchy became for the most part polonized, but the lower classes were too busy surviving to bother with that fashion, and later nation-builders had to start from the common folk to create anything not Polish; the nobles themselves preferred to identify as "the noble nation". Thus, Poles see Poland as the successor to all of the Commonwealth, in spite of differences between the two parts, not to mention Ukraine; in Polish culture, the Commonwealth is a popular literary setting with more than a dash of Glory Days sentiment. Lithuanians picture Lithuania as the successor to Grand Duchy, even though ethnic Lithuanians were actually a minority in a country mostly made of modern-day Belarus, and (due to assimilation) their upper classes were culturally Polish anyway. Ukrainians consider themselves descendants of the Ruthenian population of the region, the Rurikid principalities and those who formed the Cossack Host, even though the Cossacks themselves were at least as much an occupation as an ethnic group. Although Belarussians have a claim to Grand Duchy not worse than the Lithuanians, they had all of their upper classes assimilated, or killed off by Hitler and Stalin, so for the most part nobody was left to argue it's not just a swampy small part of Russia. All of the latter three, somewhat expectedly, also tend to see Poland as a sort of Big Brother Bully. The opinions on the Commonwealth can thus vary pretty widely between the historians of these four countries.
In the western world, the influence of the Commonwealth was rather low; Shakespeare's mention of "Polack War" in Hamlet seems to be there just to present Fortinbras as a bit of a Glory Hound fighting wars in faraway places of no importance. It played a bigger role in French politics of the era, as the French constantly schemed for an anti-Habsburg alliance, but their success was ever limited. But on the other hand, the Commonwealth's political system served as an example or inspiration in several well-known treatises on politics (De Optimo Senatore/The Accomplished Senator was a widely discussed early such one actually written by a Pole), and by offering a safe haven for dissidents, its religious tolerance indirectly helped the development of non-mainstream Protestantism. Perhaps the most curious case is that of the slogan "Nothing About Us Without Us" — after several rounds of pass-the-message, these words of 1505 nihil novi constitution surfaced in the Anglophonic world as a motto in civil rights circles.
- Rex regnat sed non gubernat. (The king reigns but does not rule.)— Jan Zamoyski
The political system of the free-election era Commonwealth was sometimes known as "the Golden Liberty". The noble class (some 15% of the population according to The Other Wiki) were the citizens in the full meaning of the word, furthered by the perception that the state is their "common wealth" — in a word, a republic. With a king. This system was made of several elements:
- the election of the king;
- the Sejm, the delegates to which were chosen by local assemblies called "sejmik" ("little sejm");
- the Senate, made of state and Church officials and a secondary and advisory upper body of the Parliament.
Like any good republic, a number of checks and balances were build into this system to ensure it did not stray from set path:
- pacta conventa (Latin for "agreed-to agreements") — a set of conditions which were negotiated with the king-elect and included a bill of rights binding on the king;
- rokosz ("insurrection") — you know how American gun ownership lobby occasionally uses the argument that an armed populace constitutes a check on the government by an implied threat of an insurrection if it went totalitarian? Well, it's exactly a guaranteed right to do that;
- liberum veto (Latin for "free 'I don't allow'") — the right of an individual MP to oppose a decision by the majority in a Sejm session. The legislation generally supposed working at a proclamation until all agreed to its text, but, see above for how it worked in practice;
- konfederacja ("confederation") — the right to form an organization to force through a common political aim, essentially a buffed-up freedom of assembly. A bit too buffed a bit too many times.
Other privileges obtained earlier included the right to due process and to be handled with respect before the verdict was passed, and similar developments now hailed as the basic rights of a citizen of a modern state. Of course, the catch was that only citizens counted. But if Antebellum America or The Apartheid Era RSA could be roughly described as democracies, then, why would the Commonwealth be that much worse?
The nobility were quite aware of their political rights. While in later years of the Commonwealth this decayed into a sense of entitlement, for the first century or two it meant a living tradition of civic activity. This citizen spirit is perhaps most strongly shown in this exchange from one of the Sejm gatherings, that occurred between king Stephen Bathory, and an unruly noble whom he wanted to silence:
- The King: Shut up, you fool!The nobleman: I'm not a fool, but a citizen, who elects kings and dethrones tyrants!
Culture and society
By necessity, any description of the culture and society of the Commonwealth is going to be a description of the culture and society of the noble class. The peasants didn't have any say in ruling the country and barely registered in any meaningful way, while the townsfolk was there mostly to provide the nobility with luxuries and other wares while, you guessed it, not having any say in ruling the country. Even the clergy was viewed with suspicion, as a potential threat on the noble superiority.
In time, the nobility developed a rather curious worldview, called "Sarmatism". Essentially it traced the nobles' descent from the ancient Sarmatians, known from Roman writings as a nomadic steppe people causing occasional troubles on their northeastern borders. According to those "Sarmatians", the ancient Sarmatians arrived in the lands of the Commonwealth in the antiquity and conquered the local peoples, becoming a ruling class from which the nobility descended. (This occasionally led to interesting developments, such as the nobles feeling more in common with Born in the Saddle Muslim Tatars than their own peasants, because the Tatars were "more Sarmatian".) If this sounds ridiculous — it's most likely because it is ridiculous, but interestingly enough, there's just enough eerie details that once you think of it, look as if the nobles might, just might, have been onto something. But, let's now consider what it meant in practice:
Heavy cavalry? Have them wear leopard skins and giant metal wings. Armour? A golden-plated scale armour, ridiculous and heavy, but looking just so Sarmatian. Male fashion? Badass Mustache or GTFO, gratuitous Turkish garments, and a crimson cape if you can afford it. A speech? Infuse it with so much Gratuitous Latin there's hardly any Polish left, and don't forget to cry (the latter also works for any religious services). Political protest? Fall to the ground, block the door with your body, rip your shirt and shout you'll let no one pass. Funeral? Doesn't count if there's no fully-armed Hussar riding into the church in full gallop and breaking his lance against the coffin stand, and ritual demolition of the dead man's insignia of office. Dining? Alternating harsh fasting and lavish feasts. A party? Blow up your castle and organize a sleigh ride in the middle of summer... with sugar in place of snow.
On the other hand, many a noble sent his sons to a Jesuit school, which granted a passable education and a good grasp of Latin. "Who only knows Latin can go across the whole Poland from one side to the other one just like he was at his own home", noted Daniel Defoe in 1728. Nobles were also shrewd businessmen, even if some had been less than brilliant. As commemorated by a saying: "like Zabłocki on soap" — Zabłocki was a nobleman who wanted to smuggle some soap by raft to Gdańsk... except it didn't occur to him soap really shouldn't be hidden under the raft. You know. In water. But apart from him, that grain trade did not spring up — and wasn't run — by itself.
If one wanted to concisely describe this kind of society, it would probably look this way: one part Christian knight, one part American plantation-owning Founding Father, one part rowdy fratboy. Stir, season, serve hot.
Towns were generally cosmopolitan; a Papal envoy was reportedly shocked no end when he arrived in town with a Catholic church, an Orthodox one, and a synagogue side-by-side and discovered the lord of the town saw nothing wrong with it. Business continued, but lack of interest (on part of the nobles) and political power (on part of the cities) stifled their development. A successful burgher might end up ennobled or beaten down, but there wasn't much in the way of Anglo-style gentry. A notable exception was the city of Gdansk/Gedania/Danzig/Dantzig/Dantzick, highly independent due to its role as the node of grain trade, and even known to field its own army.
Apart from the Jews (in multiple flavours ranging from standard Orthodox through Hasidic — who got their start here — to Karaite), the Armenians were an influential community, dealing in Eastern and Persian trade and blademaking. Many Germans lived in towns, and Scotsmen were far from unknown. Religious minorities made of Dutchmen and others set up farming communities, notably in northern Poland. Tatars were allowed to settle (and remain Muslim) in exchange for loyalty in the Podlasie region, where they live to this day.
As for the countryside, it's a matter of debate. On one hand, being a walking tool unable to leave your village, having to work on your master's field, and being mediated in conflicts with your master by, wait for it, your master sure was a shitty position. On the other, the historical data generally seems to imply that when it comes to disenfranchisement, it was a relatively passable kind of it. As in, you could make a decent living even with the noble bumping in at the least convenient moments, and though you could not leave by law, your lord's neighbour would by no means rat you out if you left for his lands unlawfully. A worker is a worker, after all, who cares if some other guy whines he belongs to him, eh? (Kiss my sabre! What's he gonna do, call the police?!) That is not to say there weren't peasant uprisings (Khmelnitsky uprising notwithstanding, as its reasons included ethnic and religious and even political divisions) — they just were rather rare, and on a smaller scale than in the west of Europe. Several notable cases occurred in places where the peasants were allowed a bit more freedom to begin with — and as such, less tolerant of noble hijinks.
- Sienkiewicz Trilogy was filmed, so it counts here as well as under literature.
- Sienkiewicz Trilogy, duh.
- 1632: The Eastern Front addresses the Commonwealth and its politics.
- The main antagonists of Nikolai Gogol's Taras Bulba, set in the 17th century Ukraine/Malorossiya.
- The second edition of 7th Sea introduces a new nation based on the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Sarmatian Commonwealth.
- There is a Polish RPG Dzikie Pola set in the historical Commonwealth (with rules on magic provided for those who don't mind a share of Historical Fantasy).
- The Commonwealth tends to be a major power in Europa Universalis. Poland forming a union over Lithuania tends to be a bad omen for its neighbors; Poland inheriting Lithuania after said union and forming the Commonwealth tends to be a waking nightmare for anyone nearby who's not on its good side.
- The Commonwealth features as a faction in the With Fire and Sword expansion for Mount & Blade, which starts in 1655 during the Deluge.