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Encyclopedia > Early history of Poland (until 1385)
History of Poland series
Piast Poland
Andegawen Poland
The Jagiellon Era
Nobles’ Democracy
Partitions (1795–1914)
Poland (1914–1939)
Poland (1939–1945)
Poland (1945–1989)
Poland (1989–present)
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In the first centuries of its existence, the Polish nation was led by a series of strong rulers who converted the Poles to Christendom, created a strong Central European state, and integrated Poland into European culture. Formidable foreign enemies and internal fragmentation eroded this initial structure in the thirteenth century, but consolidation in the 1300s laid the base for the dominant Polish Kingdom that was to follow.

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The Origins of Poland

According to a Polish myth, the Slavic nations trace their ancestry to three brothers who parted in the forests of Eastern Europe, each moving in a different direction to found a family of distinct but related peoples. Fanciful elements aside, this tale accurately describes the westward migration and gradual differentiation of the early West Slavic tribes following the collapse of the Roman Empire. Little is known about the actual origins of these tribes. It is inferred that West Slav tribes came into lands between the Oder and Vistula River from areas of the upper and middle regions of the Dnepr River. The Slav tribes lived from cultivation of crops and were generally farmers. They contested with the similar Germanic tribes for land. The causes for their migration were probably seeking of more fertile soils and the constant attacks on Eastern Europe by waves of people and armies from far East, such as Huns, Avars, Magyars and later Mongols, Tatars, Turks. About twenty such tribes formed small states between AD 800 and 960. There were several tribes : Vistulans, Obodrites, Lendians, Goplans and others but the most prominent turned out to be Polanes (Polans or Polanie, lit. "people of the plain"). The Polanes settled in the flatlands that eventually formed the heart of Poland, lending their name to the country. Over time the modern Poles emerged as the largest of the West Slavic groupings, establishing themselves to the east of the Germanic regions of Europe with their ethnic cousins, the Czechs and Slovaks, to the south.


The Middle Ages

The Polanes, first mentioned in the 10th century, were up until then a part of the Czechs (Czech and Lech). The Polanes tribes came into Silesia at the Odra river, where the German kings and emperors had affirmed the rule of the Moravian and Bohemian dukes. In 966 the German emperor Otto I the Great affirmed the ducal title held by the Polanes leader Mieszko I. Mieszko, born circa 930, and later his son Boleslaw I Chrobry, pledged allegiance to the emperors from part of their lands.

The provinical rulers of the Holy Roman Emperors, especially the Saxons, pursued policies of expansion to the East which were known as Drang nach Osten. The Slavic neighbours of Poland Sorbs and Polabians were the first target. In order to defeat Slavs, they sought allies further to the East. Therefore Poland with an alliance to the Holy Roman Empire had time to prepare for the upcoming struggle against Germanic invaders.


This was the case with Mieszko and his son Boleslaw. Once Boleslaw I was converted to Christianity, he then believed he was given the right to go out and conquer land of all his neighbors in the name of his new faith. One attempt was foiled, when Boleslaw's soldiers came north in AD 997 to the Baltic Sea in order to take over Prussia. During the massive expansion attempts of the Polanians into the neighbouring territories they consequently pushed away Popielid dynasty.


Lands under Duke Mieszko's rule including lands kept as vassal of the emperor and as margrave encompassed Greater Poland, Lesser Poland,Masovia, Silesia and Pomerania. The lands totalled about 250,000 km˛ in area, with a population of about 1 million.


Mieszko I married Dubrawka, daughter of the Czech duke Boleslav I and was baptised into the Roman branch of Christianity in 966. This event started widespread conversion to Christianity within Mieszko I realms and was also a fact of political significance. It marked the beginning of Poland as part of the Christian western world. Moreover he also allied with the Czechs to try to keep the German land conquered or received as lien for themselves. He was christened by a Czech clergy.


In 967 the Polish ruler defeated German Count Wichman and his allies. In 972 at the Battle of Cedynia, Mieszko defeated Hodo of the Eastern March, which enabled him to take over West Pomerania, as margrave of the emperor. Mieszko I died in 972 and left his son and successor Boleslaw I Chrobry a strong and thriving dukedom.

Enlarge
"Coronation of the first King of Poland in 1001", oil on canvas by Jan Matejko, 1889, Royal Castle in Warsaw.

Boleslaw continued the work of his father. He was able to preserve the unity of the country by expelling Ode (Mieszko I's second wife) and her sons. At the Congress of Gniezno (1000) he was able to persuade Emperor Otto III to give his permission to create the first Polish archbishopric.


After the untimely death of Otto III in 1002 at the age of 22, Boleslaw I conquered the imperial March of Meissen and also Lausitz (Latin Lusatia, Polish Łużyce), thereby trying to wrest imperial territory for himself during the disputes over the throne -- he and his father had both earlier backed Duke Henry II ("the Quarrelsome") of Bavaria against Otto, and he accepted the accession of the earlier Henry's son as the Emperor Henry I. Boleslaw conquered and made himself duke of Bohemia in 1003, but lost the territory the following year. He defeated the Rus' and stormed Kyiv in 1018.


He was forced to give the pledge of allegiance by the next emperor Henry I again, for the lands he held in fief. Henry died in 1024. A year later in 1025, shortly before his death, Boleslaw was crowned king. This event initiated the full political and territorial independence of the Polish State.


Early Kingdom of Poland, (1025-1146)

Mieszko is considered the first ruler of the Piast Dynasty (named for the legendary peasant founder of the family), which endured for four centuries. Between 967 and 990, Mieszko conquered substantial territory along the Baltic Sea and in the region known as Little Poland to the south. By the time he officially submitted to the authority of the Holy See in Rome in 990, Mieszko had transformed his country into one of the strongest powers in Eastern Europe.


Mieszko's son and successor Boleslaw I (992-1025), known as the Brave, built on his father's achievements and became the most successful Polish monarch of the early medieval era. Boleslaw continued the policy of appeasing the Germans while taking advantage of their political situation to gain territory wherever possible. Frustrated in his efforts to form an equal partnership with the Holy Roman Empire, Boleslaw gained some non-Polish territory in a series of wars against his imperial overlord in 1003 and 1004. The Polish conqueror then turned eastward, extending the boundaries of his realm into present-day Ukraine. Shortly before his death in 1025, Boleslaw won international recognition as the first king of a fully sovereign Poland.


Mieszko II was crowned in 1025 after his father's death. The many landlords, however, feared the single rule of the monarch. This situation led to conflicts in the country, in which Mieszko's brothers turned against him and the Emperor Conrad II forces attacked the country, seizing Lusatia. Years of chaos and conflict followed, during which Mieszko died (1034) in suspicious circumstances after his forced abdication and a brief restoration.


The reign of Casimir I of Poland (1037-1058) was a short period of stability. Casimir unified the country, and was succeded by Boleslaus II, who took advantage of the conflict between emperor Henry III and Pope Gregory VI and made himself king in 1076. The landlords rebelled yet again and Boleslaus II had to abdicate in 1079. His brother Ladislas took over the throne and also had to abdicate in 1102, giving the power to his sons Zbigniew and Boleslaw who reigned simultaneosly.


It was Boleslaw who united the country in 1106 and defended it against the Holy Roman Empire later on. He became known as Boleslaus III Krzywousty. He managed to again conquer all the previously conquered territories, held for a short time, including Pomerania. Before his death in 1138 he split up the power in country between his sons. Following his theory of seniorate, Boleslaus III of Poland divided the country into five principalities Silesia, Greater Poland, Mazovia, Sandomir and Cracow. The first four provinces were divided among his four sons who became independent rulers. The fifth province, that of Cracow, was to be added to the senior among the Princes who, as the Grand Duke of Cracow, was the representative of the whole of Poland.


Fragmentation and Invasion, (1146-1295)

No sooner did Boleslav die than his oldest son, Wladyslav, conceived the idea of restoring Poland's unity by depriving his brothers of their shares. He met with the determined opposition of the Church and the magnates, who clearly recognized, that a centralized power was detrimental to their interests and influence. The Archbishop of Gniezno hurled an anathema at Wladyslav and two powerful potentates organized an army against him. A civil war ensued which, despite the help received from outside and the interference of Friedrick Barbarossa, ended in the defeat of the Grand Duke of Cracow 1146. This marks the beginning of the era of disintegration of the young Polish state and the decline of monarchical power in Poland. The principalities of Silesia, Greater Poland and Mazovia had become divided into smaller units, with further sub-divisions and occasional fusions. Separatist interests and jealousies led to almost incessant warfare.


The ruler of Cracow retained the title of Dux Poloniae, the Duke of Poland, but the security of his office depended upon his relations with the aristocracy and clergy. Casimir II of Poland (1177-1194) had been obliged to summon a council of nobles and clergy and to surrender certain of his rights and privileges. He was also compelled to promise to call such councils when important matters of state were to be decided upon. At the Council or Synod of Leczyca (1180) the Church, under the threat of an interdict, enjoined the Duke from the exercise of his right to the personal property of deceased bishops (Ius Spolii) and to certain levies for his officials and representatives. In return for these concessions or immunities the Council abolished the seniorate and vested in the line of Casimir the Just the perpetual right to the principality of Cracow. Thus the right of seniority in the Piast Dynasty gave way to the law of primogeniture in the line of Casimir the Just.


This right was frequently contested by armed interference. The authority of the Duke of Cracow was not adequately defined by law and was ignored in actual practice. The heads of the smaller principalities were in fact independent rulers, free to establish alliances for defensive and offensive warfare, to make treaties and to maintain independent customs barriers. In other words, Poland of the 13th century was no longer one solid political entity. The sovereignty of the former state became diffused among a number of smaller independent political units, with only the common bonds of language, race, religion and tradition.


The princely power was theoretically unlimited. By the "grace of God" the princes were absolute lords of their dominions. Actually, the exercise of their power depended on the strength or weakness of the barons and clergy and on their own skill in playing off the interests of the one against those of the other. The barons and the clergy became very powerful in the 13th century. Both classes acquired large land holdings with jurisdiction over their subjects. The Church grew constantly stronger on account of its splendid organization, its accumulation of wealth and the moral control it exercised over the people. Then, too, it had become more independent since the adoption of the Gregorian reforms, which deprived the king of the power to appoint bishops. By their presence at the Councils of the Prince, called Colloquia they, in conjunction with the barons, exercised direct control over the affairs of the principality. The Colloquium was called at such times as state business demanded. In addition to the relatives of the prince, the barons and prelates were invited to attend it, and at these gatherings matters of foreign policies, as well as of internal administration, were determined. The granting of franchises, the fixing of taxes and matters of like nature were decided at these meetings, and at times the Colloquium also served as the Prince's Court. The Colloquium was the nucleus of what later developed into the Senate.


Synchronous with the metamorphosis in the structure of the Polish State and sovereignty was an economic and social impoverishment of the country. Harassed by civil strifes and foreign invasions, like that of the Mongols in 1241 the small principalities became enfeebled and depopulated. The incomes of the Princes began to decrease materially. This led them to take steps toward encouraging immigration from foreign countries. A great number of German peasants, who, during the interregnum following the death of Frederick II, suffered great oppression at the hands of their lords, were induced to settle in Poland under certain very favorable conditions. German immigration into Poland had started spontaneously at an earlier period, about the end of the 11th century, and was the result of overpopulation in the central provinces of the Empire. Advantage of the existing tendency had already been taken by the Polish Princes in the 12th century for the development of cities and crafts. Now the movement became intensified.


Some of studies of the development of the German settlements in Poland indicate that they sprang up along the wide belt which was laid waste by the Mongols in 1241. It was a stretch of land comprising present Galicia and Southern Silesia. Prior to the Mongol invasion these two provinces were thickly settled and highly developed. Through them ran the commercial highways from the East and the Levant to the Baltic and the west of Europe. Cracow and Wroclaw were large and prosperous towns. Some historians, mostly those stressing the scale of German settlements, claim that after the Mongol barbarians retired the country was in ruins and the population either scattered or exterminated. Others, minimizing the effect of German colonisation, actually minimize the effect of the Mongol invasion, stressing that the destruction was limited mainly to Lesser Poland and mainly the third Mongol invasion. Large numbers were taken prisoners. The refugees went north and helped to colonize the sparsely inhabited areas and to clear the forests to the east of the Vistula in Mazovia. On the heels of the receding Mongols came the Germans. Theirs was a movement along the line of least resistance. The new settlers were spared the hard labor of the pioneers as the soil they occupied had been used for arable purposes centuries before. There was no need of clearing primeval forest or colonizing an utter wilderness. On the other hands, Germans were also invited to settle territories which were unhabited before.


There is also a tendency to count all "locations on German law" as new German settlement. In fact German charter was considered more advanced than traditional Polish customs and therefore soon existing settlements received new rights based on German charter (were relocated), also many new Polish settlements were located with using German charter. It would be a mistake to think that all the newcomers were Teutons. Slavic tribes, at that time, separated Poland from Germany, and the Germans who came to Poland went through this Slavic screen and brought with them numerous autochthons of the border Slavic lands. Upon arriving in Poland the settlers from the west restored agriculture, rebuilt the cities and came into the possession of all the advantages the fertile soil and the favorable geographic position gave them.


The entrepreneur (known by the Latin name of villicator), who brought over a number of settlers, received, in addition to the compensation for his services, a piece of land for the colony of which he became came the chief (woyt), with hereditary right to certain taxes. These rights he could concede or sell. He was also the judge of the colony. He was free from all duties except those of a knight and a tax collector, and responsible to nobody except to the Prince. The settlers, after dividing among themselves the land granted to them by the Prince, proceeded to build the city with its town hall, market-place and church in the center. The streets ran radius-like from the center. The town was surrounded by a mound and ditch, beyond which lay the arable fields, pastures and woods. The settlers were given every privilege of building the towns in the way to which they were accustomed, and to govern themselves according to the practice of their native country. For a number of years, varying in each case, the settlers were free from all taxes or duties. After the expiration of the term of years they had to pay a stipulated annual tax into the Prince's treasury. The tax was to be paid in money, not like that of the Polish grody, in kind and services. In addition they were, in some instances, required to maintain defensive walls, towers and gates, and to supply impedimenta for war and armed servants. In their internal affairs they were given full home rule and were free from all interference by representatives of the Prince. They governed themselves according to German law, the woyt and a chosen jury constituting the court. Appeals from the decisions of this court could be taken to the Court of the Prince or to the higher courts in the German cities. The administration was in the hands of a City Council, consisting of the burgomaster and advisors, either elected by the people or appointed by the Prince, this depending on the terms of the charter. The artisans established guilds which regulated the quality and price of products. The Prince had the sole authority to grant town charters. Sometimes he gave this power to the feudal and ecclesiastical lords of the principality.


In this way beside the Polish "grody" sprang into existence a large number of towns, with German laws, customs and institutions. The ancient towns of Cracow, Lwow, Poznan, Plock and others received a large mixture of German population, and became regarded by the metropolitan towns in Germany as their branches and as outposts of German trade and civilization in Poland. The common law of the country was supplanted by the Magdeburg and Halle law, German silver coins became the money of the country, and all municipal records began to be kept in the German language. Had it not been for the Mongol invasion, Polish towns would have developed normally and created a city population mainly Polish.


Similar to the growth of German towns was the development by colonization of villages based on German law. To induce settlers in the unoccupied areas the Prince granted tracts of land exempt from taxes for a number of years. All the settlers on these lands were absolutely free. The only obligation was the payment of an annual rent to the Prince, collected for him by the organizer of the settlement, who, in compensation for his work, received in hereditary right a large grant of land, a flour mill or tavern. In addition to the duties of a tax collector the organizer, called soltys, was to render military service and act as the police officer of the village. He was also the presiding officer of the jury chosen by the villagers. In all administrative matters the village, like the city, had complete home rule. Except for the town hall and the town council the villages did not differ much from the towns. With the consent of the Prince, barons and prelates could either establish new free settlements or change the legal basis of the already existing native villages in their domains from the Polish to the German law.


On account of the advantages that the German method of settling gave to land owners, it became very popular with them and exercised a great influence upon the administrative, economic and particularly, political life of the country. The influx of great masses of the German element, that had all the support of their native country as well as of the military Teutonic Orders, which settled on the Baltic seacoast in the beginning of the 13th century and from its earliest days engaged in a ruthless war of extermination on the autochthonous population under the guise of missionary work, destroying political cohesion.


An additional foreign element began to settle in Poland in great numbers at the same time. The Jews, persecuted all over Europe during the Crusades, fled to Poland where they were received in a most hospitable manner. They settled in the towns and began to carry on commerce and banking. As illustrative of the friendliness of the Poles toward these newcomers may be cited the statue of Kalisz, promulgated by Prince Boleslav in the year 1246 by which the Jews received every protection, of the law and which imposed heavy penalties for any insults to their cemeteries, synagogues and, other sanctuaries. About the same time Prince Henry IV of Wroclaw (Breslau) imposed heavy penalties upon those who accused Jews of ritual murder. Anyone who made such an accusation had to prove it by six witnesses, three Gentiles and three Jews, and in case of his inability to prove the charge in a satisfactory manner he was himself found guilty and subject to severe punishment.


While the Jews adapted themselves to their new environment and coalesced, to a degree, with the native population, the German element, backed by their government, became aggressive and sought to dominate the country. The rich German town people were supported in their endeavors by the clergy, who arrived from Germany in great numbers and occupied prominent church positions. It was with the aid of the Germans that the dauntless but Germanized Leszek the Dark (1278-1288), and after him Henry Probus (1289-1290), ascended the throne of Cracow. The German influence grew disquietingly. A strong antagonistic movement arose and the clash of the two forces constitutes the pith of Polish history during the next century. The conflict resulted in complete Polonization of the German element and among the descendants of these settlers there have been many of the most ardent Polish patriots. This is eloquent testimony of the great assimilative powers of the people and of the state building capabilities of the Poles.


The Kingdom of Later Piasts (1295-1370)

It was not until the late 13th century when the tendency to unify the country arose once again. By 1278, Przemysl II regained control over vast areas of the former kingdom. He was finally crowned in 1295 only to be assassinated a year later. After his death, Władyslaw I Łokietek became the leader of the unification movement. Despite many defeats, he managed to establish his power by 1314 with the help of Hungarian forces. By 1320, Władyslaw had manipulated internal and foreign alignments and reunited enough territory to win acceptance abroad as king of an independent Poland. He was crowned king on January 20, 1320.


Władyslaw I was succeeded by his son Casimir in 1333, who continued the work of his father. During his reign the country expanded its power over neighbouring areas. Many new castles were built and existing townships fortified. Thus, he became known as Casimir the Great. In foreign policy, Kazimierz the Great strengthened his country's position by combining judicious concessions to Bohemia and the Teutonic Knights with eastward expansion.


While using diplomacy to win Poland a respite from external threat, the king focused on domestic consolidation. He earned his singular reputation through his acumen as a builder and administrator as well as through foreign relations. Two of the most important events of Kazimierz's rule were the founding of Poland's first university, the Academia Cracoviensis in Kraków in 1364, making that city an important European cultural center, and his mediation between the kings of Bohemia and Hungary at the Congress of Kraków (also in 1364), signaling Poland's return to the status of a European power. Lacking a male heir, Kazimierz was the last ruler in the Piast line. The extinction of the dynasty in 1370 led to several years of renewed political uncertainty. Nevertheless, the accomplishments of the fourteenth century began the ascent of the Polish state toward its historical zenith.


Integration into European Civilization

Without question the most significant development of the formative era of Poland's history was the gradual absorption of the country into the culture of medieval Europe. After their relatively late arrival as pagan outsiders on the fringes of the Christian world, the Western Slavs were fully and speedily assimilated into the civilization of the European Middle Ages. Latin Christianity came to determine the identity of that civilization and permeate its intellect and creativity. Over time the Central Europeans increasingly patterned their thought and institutions on Western models in areas of thought ranging from philosophy, artistic style, literature, and architecture to government, law, and social structure. The Poles borrowed especially heavily from German sources, and successive Polish rulers encouraged a substantial immigration of Germans and Jews to invigorate urban life and commerce. From its beginning, Poland drew its primary inspiration from Western Europe and developed a closer affinity with the French and Italians, for example, than with nearer Slavic neighbors of Eastern Orthodox and Byzantine heritage. This westward orientation, which in some ways has made Poland the easternmost outpost of Latinate and Catholic tradition, helps to explain the Poles' tenacious sense of belonging to the "West" and their deeply rooted antagonism toward Russia as the representative of an essentially alien way of life.


Reference


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