Szlachta (pronounced: ['ʃlaxta]) was the noble class in Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania from the late Middle Ages through the 18th century and even into the 19th century. Traditionally, szlachta were owners of landed property. These "Polish" (Polish and Polonized Lithuanian) nobility enjoyed substantial privileges until the partitions of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the late 18th century brought the multiethnic Polish-Lithuanian-Ruthenian state to an end. (In some periods of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth's history, the largest part of the population were neither Polish nor Lithuanian, but Eastern-Slavic-speaking "Rusins"--sometimes Latinized as "Ruthenians." The Commonwealth also had appreciable German, Jewish and other minorities.) Nobility was abolished under the Second Polish Republic by the March 1921 Constitution.
The Polish nobility probably derived from a Slavic warrior class. This is uncertain, however, as there is little documentation on the early history of Poland.
A kindred term that might be applied to an early Polish nobleman was "rycerz," or "knight" (derived from the German "Ritter").
The Polish word "szlachta" ("noble class": a specific nobleman was a "szlachcic," a noblewoman was a "szlachcianka") likely derived from the German "Geschlecht" ("family"") or from the ancient Low German verb "slahta" ("to hack").
Szlachta history and culture
The Polish nobility differed in many respects from the nobility of other countries. The most important difference was that, while in most European countries the nobility lost power while the ruler strove for absolute monarchy, in Poland the reverse process obtained: the nobility actually gained power at the expense of the king, and the political system evolved toward a partial democracy (and eventually, anarchy).
Polish noblewomen, early 17th century.
Poland's nobility were also more numerous than those of most other European countries: some 10% of the population, and in some regions (e.g. Mazowsze, the area centered on Warsaw) approaching 30%. By contrast, the nobilities of other European countries, except for Spain, amounted to a mere 1-3%.
There were a number of ways to upward social mobility and the achievement of nobility. Poland's nobility, unlike France's aristocracy, was not a rigidly exclusive, closed class. Many base-born individuals, including peasants and Jews, could and did rise in Polish society. Thus Poland's noble class was more stable than those of other countries, and so was spared the societal disintegration that characterized the French revolution.
All children of Polish nobility inherited such status from a noble mother and father. Any individual could attain ennoblement (Polish: "nobilitacja") for special services to the state. A foreign noble might obtain recognition as a Polish noble (Polish: "indygenat") from the Polish king (from 1641, only from a general sejm).
All members of the nobility were social equals. Even the poorest of them enjoyed the same rights as the wealthiest magnate. The few exceptions involved the privileged status of several families such as the Radziwiłłs, Lubomirskis and Czartoryskis, who sported aristocratic titles received from foreign courts.
Polish noblemen, early 17th century.
Between 1652 and 1791, when the institution was in effect, any nobleman could nullify all the proceedings of a given sejmik or sejm by exercising his individual right of liberum veto (except in the case of a confederated sejm or confederated sejmik).
By their financial standing, nobility could be divided into:
- magnates: the wealthiest;
- middle nobility;
- lesser nobility (often referred to by a variety of colorful Polish terms such as zaściankowa, zagrodowa, szaraczkowa, zagonowa, okoliczna, drążkowa, gołota, panki, brukowa).
Szlachta political privileges
are discussed in a separate article on the Organization and politics of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.
Polish nobility enjoyed many rights that no foreign noble class had, and typically each new monarch granted further privileges. Those privileges became the basis of the nobles' democracy in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Despite having a king, Poland was called a "Republic" (Rzeczpospolita) because the king was elected by all interested members of the nobility and Poland was considered to be the property of this class, not of the king or the ruling dynasty.
Poland's successive kings granted privileges to the nobility at the time of their election to the throne (the privileges being specified in the king-elect's pacta conventa) and at other times in exchange for ad hoc permission to raise an extraordinary tax or a levy in mass.
Poland's nobility thus accumulated a growing array of privileges and immunities:
In 1355 King Kazimierz III (the Great) decreed that the nobility would no longer be required to pay taxes, or pay with their own funds for military expeditions outside Poland.
In 1374 King Louis the Hungarian approved the Privilege of Koszyce (Polish: "przywilej koszycki" or "ugoda koszycka"), broadening the definition of who was a member of the nobility and exempting the entire class from all but one (reduced) tax. Henceforth, also, district offices (Polish: "urzędy ziemskie") were reserved exclusively for local nobility. In addition, the King's right to raise taxes was abolished; no new taxes could be raised without the agreement of the nobility.
In 1422 King Władysław II Jagiełło by the Privilege of Czerwińsk (Polish: "przywilej czerwiński") established the inviolability of nobles' property (their estates could not be confiscated except upon a court verdict) and ceded some jurisdiction over fiscal policy to the Royal Council (later, the Senat), including the right to mint coinage.
In 1430 with the Privileges of Jedlnia, confirmed at Kraków in 1433 (Polish: "przywileje jedlneńsko-krakowskie"), King Władysław Jagiełło granted the nobility a guarantee against arbitrary arrest, similar to the English Magna Carta's Habeas corpus, known from its own Latin name as "neminem captivabimus (nisi jure victum)." Henceforth no member of the nobility could be imprisoned without a warrant from a competent court of justice: the king could neither punish nor imprison any noble at his whim. King Władysław's quid pro quo for this boon was the nobles' guarantee that his throne would be inherited by one of his sons (who would be bound to honor the privileges theretofore granted to the nobility).
In 1454 King Kazimierz IV the Jagiellon granted the Nieszawa Statutes (Polish: "statuty cerkwicko-nieszawskie"), clarifying the legal basis of voivodship sejmiks. The king could promulgate new laws, raise taxes, or call for a levy in mass only with the consent of the sejmiks, and the nobility were protected from judicial abuses. The Nieszawa Statutes also curbed the power of the magnates, as the Sejm received the right to elect many officials, including judges, voivods and castellans.
The first "free election" (Polish: "wolna elekcja") of a king took place in 1492. (To be sure, some earlier Polish kings had been elected with help from bodies such as that which put Kazimierz II the Just on the throne, thereby setting a precedent for free elections.) Only senators voted in the 1492 free election, which was won by Jan I Olbracht. For the duration of the Jagiellon Dynasty, only members of that royal family were considered for election; later, there would be no restrictions on the choice of candidates.
In 1493 the national parliament, the Sejm, began meeting every two years at Piotrków. It comprised two chambers:
The numbers of senators and deputies later increased.
In 1496 King Jan Olbracht granted the Privilege of Piotrków (Polish: "przywilej piotrkowski" or "konstytucja piotrkowska"), increasing the nobility's feudal power over serfs. It bound the peasant to the land, as only one son (not the eldest) was permitted to leave the village; townsfolk (Polish: "mieszczaństwo") were prohibited from owning land; and positions in the Church hierarchy could be given only to nobles.
In 1501, at Mielnik, the tradition of the coronation sejm (Polish: "sejm koronacyjny") was founded. Once again the nobility attemped to reduce the power of the magnates with a law that made them impeachable before the Senate for malfeasance. The nobles were conceded the right to refuse to obey the King or his representatives--in the Latin, "non praestanda oboedientia"--and to form confederations in armed rebellion against the king or state officers if the nobles thought that the law or their legitimate privileges were being infringed.
In 1505 King Alexander the Jagiellon granted the Act of Nihil novi (Latin: "nothing new"). This forbade the king to pass any new law without the consent of the representatives of the nobility, in Sejm and Senat assembled, and thus greatly strengthened the nobility's political position.
In 1520 the Act of Bydgoszcz granted the Sejm the right to convene every four years, with or without the king's permission.
About that time the "executionist movement" (Polish: "egzekucja praw"--"execution of the laws") began to take form. Its members would seek to curb the power of the magnates at the Sejm and to strengthen the power of king and country. In 1562 at the Sejm in Piotrków they would force the magnates to return many leased royal lands to the king, and the king to create a standing army (wojsko kwarciane). One of the most famous members of this movement was Jan Zamoyski. After his death in 1605, the movement lost its political force.
"The Republic at the Zenith of Its Power. Golden Liberty. The Election of 1573
": painting by Jan Matejko
The szlachta's prevalent mentality and ideology were manifested in "Sarmatism," a name derived from the supposed ancestors of the szlachta, the Sarmatians. This belief system became an important part of szlachta culture and worked its way into all aspects of their lives. It enshrined traditional village life, peace and pacifism; popularized oriental-style apparel (the żupan, kontusz, sukmana, pas kontuszowy, delia); and made the scimitar-like szabla, too, a near-obligatory item of everyday szlachta apparel. Sarmatism served to integrate the multiethnic nobility as it created an almost nationalistic sense of unity and of pride in the szlachta's Golden Freedoms.
In its early, idealistic form, Sarmatism seemed like a salutary cultural movement: it fostered religious faith, honesty, national pride, courage, equality and freedom. However, as with any doctrine that puts one social class above others, it eventually became perverted. Late Sarmatism turned belief into bigotry, honesty into political naivete, pride into arrogance, courage into stubborness, equality and freedom within the szlachta class into dissension and anarchy.
Prior to the Reformation, the Polish nobility were mostly Catholic or Orthodox. Many families, however, soon adopted the reformed faiths. After the Counter-Reformation, when the Roman Catholic Church regained power in Poland, the nobility became almost exclusively Catholic, despite the fact that Roman Catholicism was not the majority religion in Poland (the Catholic and Orthodox churches each accounted for some 40% of the population, with the remaining 20% being Jews or members of Protestant denominations).
In the 17th century, many followers of Jacob Frank joined the ranks of Jewish-descended Polish gentry.