Monday, October 2, 2023

The European exception: the birth of Poland was a phenomenon difficult to understand

Christianization of Poland, AD 965, from the cycle “History of Civilization in Poland” by Jan Matejko (Source: National Museum in Warsaw / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Poland rose ex nihilo – cultural, state, whatever, which is actually a phenomenon difficult to understand – and confirmed itself as a lasting stakeholder in the European family of states.

By Jacek Banaszkiewicz

The portrait of Poland is painted by textbooks, so we forget that what is laid out and remembered by us as native history is only a selection of events put together according to our, however sincere, contemporary, culturally modeled conception. By force of things, what counts in such a lecture are the things customarily understood as great (military victories above all or spectacular intellectual achievements), and they are introduced, very importantly, in relation to the current of history of a more general, European or global scope. Let us add here: not delineated by us. Thus, in assets we have Grunwald, victories over Russia, Swedes, Cossacks, Turks with Vienna as the trademark. We enjoy Vitello, Copernicus, Sklodowska-Curie, etc.

So it is good, dignified, and in the concert of peoples we wind a fairly comfortable nest for ourselves, all the more so because it has been confirmed throughout history (until now) by the original achievements of our creators. Our past is conceived in such a way (because it must be so for reasons of the requirement of compatibility with the rest) to confirm its prowess among the stronger states in Europe and writing the most important chapters of its history. The Brave beats the Emperor Henry II, we bravely constantly oppose the German empire, go out with the state to the East and become a power. Then we invent democracy (admittedly noble, but always), which leads to the fall of the Republic. Already a full nation, after a century, we break out into independence.

I am far from criticizing this scheme – it gives efficient tools for fighting for the country’s place in the wider European community, because our European friends and opponents “operate” in the same categories that bring this scheme to life. But at the same time, I am convinced that there is no country on the continent like Poland, which once arose and has maintained its existence to this day, growing in such a cultural or civilizational void, raised so far by its own efforts.

Still without us

Childeric I – the father of Clovis I, the French Mieszko I – somewhere around the end of the fifth century lived on a Roman site near Tournai (today’s Belgium) and quite comfortably – or rather luxuriously, when we compare him with our Polish counterpart. Twenty-odd horses graced the burial mound of this barbarian, but Roman attributes of power were also found there: golden bees and a ring with his image, after all, reflecting a sign of the barbarian royalty of the object’s owner – lush hair falling to his shoulders.

This figure – who, having sided with Rome, cemented his son’ career as an ally and then lord of the local community – was symbolically placed between Attila and Aetius. Arriving in Tours in 507, Clovis behaves almost like a Roman emperor – in a purple tunic with a diadem on his head and a promotion to consul from the Byzantine ruler – he roams the city and scatters, sitting on his steed, gold and silver to the delighted crowd. Several decades later, this beautiful historiographical snapshot of Clovis’ success was drawn up by the Gallo-Roman Gregory, Bishop of Tours and historian. And that’s how a state is made – cities, waterworks, roads, intellectuals and everything else – we take and we have the kingdom of the Franks. Only garrisons of barbarians, spread around the cities – similar to the Russian one, located in a beautiful villa in Poznan on the corner of Skarbek and Rycerska streets, if I remember correctly.

And you don’t need the Franks, who acquired their polish by taking a long apprenticeship at the Roman limes, or border. Let’s look at the Carantanians, the “state protoplasts” of the Slovenes. Settling near Virunum, the capital of the Roman province of Noricum, as early as the 7th century they established a political community ruled by dukes, enthroned at least in later times at the nearby Krnski grad (Karnburg) on a peculiar object – the upturned base of a Roman column. As early as the eighth century, not much later than the Bavarians, the Christian religion had already been settled with them.

When the Avars lost their animus, next door came the state of the Wends, or Slavs, who, led by Samo, a Frankish merchant, fought the “Merovingian” king Dagobert I around 630. The relay, we would say, of Slavic political creations blossoming along the borders of the Frankish-Carolian state was rotating from century to century, moving northward. The authorities in Nitra Pribina, the “Balatonic” Kocela, Great Moravia and finally at the turn of the ninth to tenth centuries Bohemia. Cultural excitement and organizational patterns flowed to this Bohemia from this Slavic side as well, as raised by the prominent medievalist Duszan Třeštik.

Our share in this great process of the emergence of Slavic powers – which so accelerated after the liquidation of the Avar Khaganate by Charlemagne and his son Pippin at the end of the eighth century – would be Krakus; it is only a pity that he is the child of the ingenuity of the great intellectual Wincenty Kadlubek. We hear that Krakus came to the Vistula River from Carinthia, where our own had already settled affairs with the Romans. Then things turned out unfavorably and the hero decided to take a new state-forming initiative elsewhere – the result was Cracow and the Polish kingdom.

Wawel Royal Castle in Cracow (Photo taken between 1925-35) (Source: Narodowe Archiwum Cyfrowe)

However, after the fall of the Avars some significant changes may have occurred in the territories of Lesser Poland, Silesia or Serbia, located between Thuringia and the Oder – perhaps a community with a center in Cracow emerged – but the beginnings of the Gniezno state and not in this historical current. The authority that built Poland did not appear for a long time yet. This is not to say that the region east of the middle Oder was some kind of specially handicapped region in terms of the development of “political communities.” After all, it was a long way from the borders of the eastern half of the post-Carolingian empire. Byzantine civilization, on the other hand, did not reach that far.

However, when the Saxon state of Henry I and Otto I – taking advantage of the crisis of the Carolingian state, sealed by the death of the capable and ambitious King Lotar (986) and the usurpation of the throne a year later by the rather flimsy Hugo Capet – first swallowed Lorraine (925), the pearl in the Carolingian crown, and then conquered the Slavic communities of the Polabia and the Nadodrze (929, 939, 955), then in parallel in the Gniezno Highlands, sparsely populated before, a great and dynamically developing “state-forming action” takes place. The borderland Slavic political and cultural organizations that were already functioning in the 9th century are slowly dying out, with their leaders traveling to Aachen, Ingelheim, or Frankfurt to listen to the will of the Carolingian rulers. Instead, a new player emerges from across the other border.

In 929, Henry conquers Gana, the Glomatians’ capital – eliminating the authority that favored the Hungarians in their forays into the Saxon state – and builds the fortress of Meissen, which is driven like a wedge into the political landscape of the region; it puts a dam on Bohemian aspirations and opens up prospects for further conquests in the East. According to Widukind, ten years later, Gero II, Margrave of Meissen, poisons nearly 30 Serbian dukes, who ruled the territories west of the Oder River, at a feast in one night. In 950, Otto I vassalizes Bohemia, approaching Prague, only to smash the Obotrites at the Battle on the Raxa five years later, just after crushing the Hungarians near Augsburg.

Mieszko on the scene

Very much in this time frame between 920 and 950 is the emergence of the Polanian dominion with the supreme center of Gniezno, externalized by the construction of an extensive and impressive, in terms of the size of the strongholds, grid of fortified points (we can refer to dendrodates from these fortifications). And today we can see the rapid almost explosion of Polanian territorial and political organization! Where did these architects, later called Piasts, come from? How did they know what to do and how to do it? They must have come from somewhere! Maybe from Great Moravia, maybe from Polabia, maybe from the Vikings or from Kalisz – maybe! Archaeologists, in particular, are thinking out loud, because they can’t otherwise culturally and historically cover the artifacts that are excavated from the ground.

Mieszko, meanwhile, first appears on the historical scene around 963 (“Saxon History” from 967-973) and is not a prominent figure in this report by the chronicler Widukind. The author closely follows the complicated fate of the aristocrat, the eternal rebel Wichmann the Younger, fighting against his relative, King Otto I, and uncle Hermann Billung. And when he reports the fact of the subsequent appeasement of this multi-monarch, who is now returning to his barbarian Slavs, he adds that Wichmann also attacked Slavic communities with these allies who had their headquarters further afield. Further – from the point of view of the chronicler. Well, among these farther-dwelling barbarians one finds Mieszko, who surrendered in battle to the mentioned outlaw twice. He and those who were under his rule: the Slavs called Licikaviki.

Thus, Mieszko’s domain was situated in the second line looking from the side of the Saxon state and there the Licikaviki worked intensively to consolidate their power over the Gniezno Highlands and its surroundings. Importantly, these people were distinguished by a name of their own, one so well-known that the collective name was detailed by this very name. Mieszko was supported in his actions by his brother Czcibor, his son Boleslaw smoothly took over from his father, which allows us to conclude that the family not only firmly established its rule over the community, but also “convinced” the community that rulers had to be elected from among their representatives. The family probably already had an adequate ideological argumentation at that time, ensuring it this distinguished position, and a remnant of it may be the triad of names of Mieszko’s predecessors recorded by Gallus Anonymus (Siemowit, Lestek [and from him Licikaviki – Lestkowice?], Siemomysł) and the quasi-mythological threads associated with these characters.

Mieszko and his men were present in the Slavic-German contact zone, saw the approach of the great state machine, and were aware that they would either defend themselves or end up in Otto’s army (this one or the next) or in the feudal estates or in the “market” as slaves. The monk Benedict of the monastery on Monte Soratte near Rome probably saw the Ottonian army himself in 961, noting its multi-ethnic face. Peoples of unknown languages, and among them those called Guinula (Vinul-Slavs) – they carried loads, the apparatus of war, the sight of them was frightening, and in a clash they were as hard as iron, Benedict concludes, echoing Widukind in his assessment of the strength and endurance of the Slavs.

The success of the Ottonian state also had Slavic (colonial) roots of a different kind, as Timothy Reuter pointed out. This exploitation of people and goods, absorbed by the conquerors, left its mark in the bitter regrets of Thietmar, bishop of Merseburg and chronicler, who, in decrying the temporary liquidation of his diocese, said: “It was separated like a Slavic family who was facing charges.” Human trafficking in the Saxon state was the order of the day. It precisely concerned those belonging to the Slavic mass at the border, later absorbed by the borderland Saxon lords. Human trafficking was so prosperous that Henry II, after all, a ruler who respected the higher moral recommendations of the bishops, was committed by his authority to counter this practice. After all, in the name of this first and foremost, so that Christians (lump-sum, or as it were, “all” of our territory) did not end up in the hands of pagans (i.e., Arab or Jewish traders).

The victim of these recommendations in 1009 was Gunzelin, Margrave of Meissen, who, among other things, was accused by the king of selling Christians to Jews. Gunzelin was the brother of Ekkehard, a borderland lord and a major figure in the German kingdom, to whose daughter Boleslaw the Brave was married. In turn, he himself married Gunzelin’s nephew Herman to his daughter Regelinda. If I were a modern and politically correct medievalist, I would write that the early Piasts were representatives of a dynastic enterprise for the slave trade, to which, in addition, the name of the state (Polonia) was invented by Emperor Otto III (like Johannes Fried, who, one might say, in his time dazzled the so-called Polish science). Bohemia, which was better developed than the Gniezno state, was even then famous for its slave trade; recall the accusations made by St. Adalbert to Boleslav IV, Duke of Prague. A good hundred years later, we hear from Gallus Anonymus that Wladyslaw Herman’s wife, Judith, was buying back slave-Christians from the Jews, people who had most likely been taken captive as a result of Polish actions in Pomerania. After all, the trading of captives or otherwise enslaved people is a beautiful and old Carolingian and long-cultivated tradition!

Polish blitzkrieg

We have touched on the problem of the ancestral-dynastic enterprise, and it has the present phenomenon also, as we have seen, class conditions, to stick to the thinking of progressive historians, and across borders. Seriously, however – the Piast dynasty, quite quickly, perhaps just quickly, managed not only to assert its authority in the already direct confrontation with the empire, but also its representatives were able to find a place for themselves on the other side, among the local aristocracy and among the power elite (e.g., the strong support of the regent Theophanes during Otto III’s minority). Thus showing their subjectivity or the position of their power better than through arms.

It was more difficult to speak of Slavic dogs or pagan barbarians. The matter was felt by Thietmar of Merseburg and articulated more than once by this intellectual bishop, thanks to whom we have gained a piece of good history of our country. Let us quote one of these statements for the sake of its anthropological value. Well, declares Thietmar, “All that his father (i.e. Mieszko I) and himself (i.e. Boleslaw the Brave) joined with us through the bonds of intermarriage and great intimacy has brought more bad than good, and will still bring in the future.”

The adoption of Christianity, of course, opens up immense opportunities for the rule of the first Piasts. After all, at the beginning of the 12th century, the cleric of Carolingian civilization, which is how we can call Gallus, is fascinated by forests, forests, and more forests that cover the largest areas of the country. The bright spots of the culture, if one were to put the matter metaphorically, are the figures of the bishops, the clergy – the chronicler’s partners and interlocutors. His Burgundian pen pal Raoul Glaber notes at the beginning of the 11th century that Burgundy covered itself with a white mantle of churches – white Romanesque churches, and there were so many of them! No comparisons are possible, either with the Carolingian interiors or even its outskirts!

The Bohemians first benefited from the mild post-Carolingian – Bavarian form of civilization (Christianization), then, being closer via facti to the Saxon state (its ecclesiastical and military structure), they more easily and intensively assimilated the organizational and cultural solutions of the Latin imperial formation. They also had a very important contact with the literary culture current of the Old Slavic language (e.g., the “Legend of St. Wenceslas” recently dated to the middle of the 10th century). And in Latin, yes, already at the end of the 10th century, the monk Christian of Oliva, after all, an ancestor from the Přemyslid dynasty, writes the life of St. Wenceslas and notes the legend of Přemysl the Ploughman and the oldest rulers of the state.

The Piasts, meanwhile, faced the prospect of Saxon Schwertmission (conversion by the sword) and the need to reaffirm their still-stabilizing rule. Much was done here. Our invaluable Thietmar reports that Boleslaw took a hard line in Christianizing his subjects, for which he even praised the disliked ruler, also pointing out the brutal punishment applied in cases of sexual misconduct, for such were then considered adultery and debauchery. Well, when it came to a man guilty in this regard, the ruler and his men stipulated that the guilty party should be led to the market platform and the scrotum of the unfortunate man should be fastened to it with a nail. He was supposed to stand there like that or free himself by cutting off the nailed part of his genitals with a knife, which was laid next to it.

Contrary to popular belief, it is not the macabre side of the performance that is most interesting. The pons mercati – that is, the market or fair bridge – is of interest as a structure and medium for administering royal justice. Such devices, it appears from the text, were, after all, present in more than one market square. We know from comparative literature that they were often stepped structures or pedestals topped with a pillar/column and marked the places of power at which binding and formal contact between the rulers and the local communities took place. There, the will of the sovereign was proclaimed, legal actions took place, and punishments were administered. And in our case, the community at such an important point in its territory sees the punishing hand of royal justice, sees the culprit exposed to the public, until the culprit is not going to be punished in one way or another. The market also shows, by the way, its forgotten function: it was the most natural space for the cyclical meetings of the community and served not only for the purposes of trading.

The conclusion – Boleslaw the Brave integrated the country in this way, spreading his power to local groups, not only through the collection of tribute and people for military service or other work. Likewise, the ruler’s hand protected roads, accessible to all, guaranteed, at least declaratively, domestic immunity, and should be able to ensure good harvests for the people. Boleslaw, and earlier Mieszko, integrated the country, as the tiny state of Gniezno, stretched between Poznan, Gniezno, Giecz, and Kruszwica-Wloclawek, quickly filled the “void” between the Oder and Vistula rivers, in the south absorbing Silesia and the Kraków domain with its main castle, and in the north breaking through to the Baltic. That’s some cultural-state blitzkrieg! Certainly not without force, communities were confronted, especially in the south, although very similar to the one from which the conquerors emerged but fixed in their own political constellations.

Like the Saxons, to Boleslaw the Brave this rapid capture of many community organizations and over such a vast territory resulted in opportunities for dynamic politics. He conquers Prague, Kiev, wages protracted wars with Henry II, reaffirms his presence on the west side of the Oder, in Lusatia and Milsk, and wins the crown. And his father’s old acquaintances and the new ones he himself has forged give the country – with the acquiescence of Emperor Otto III – a prominent position within the empire and the archbishopric of Gniezno, that is, independence from the German Church. In the political mythology of the 11th century, there was even an idea, noted or colored perhaps by the “Frenchman” Ademar of Chabannes, that Otto III, when he opened the tomb of the super-lord Charlemagne, offered the golden throne taken from there to Boleslaw the Brave.

Golden throne, golden dream

Golden dreams are characterized by the fact that even if they are not too far from reality, they certainly do not last long. This great new-born superpower was almost soon blown off the European stage. The year 1031 callously revealed its geopolitical position and the dangers permanently associated with it. Together they struck at Mieszko II’s dangerous neighbor – Emperor Conrad II to the west, and Prince Yaroslav of Kiev to the east, supported by a large band of Norse warriors fleeing to Ruthenia after King Olaf’s defeat at Stiklestad. Later, the decomposition of power (pagan apostasy, as Gerard Labuda called it), the invasion of Duke Bretislav I and the ransacking of Gniezno (1038/1039?). Gallus wrote vividly that wild animals made their home in the local cathedral.

The state, however, survived. Casimir, the son of Mieszko II and Rycheza, got a substantial troop of knights from Emperor Conrad II and, like Aragorn (vide the story of Master Vincent), that is, a dynasty only predestined to resurrect the kingdom, set to work. Somehow Poland suited the emperors, but clearly not to the extent of Boleslaw the Brave.

The state survived, regained its vigor, and under Boleslaw Wrymouth did what it could still do, before Emperor Lotar and subsequently the Margraviate of Brandenburg joined Pomeranian affairs for good. Contrary to popular belief, the state benefited from the so-called “district split.” Smaller political units structured themselves more quickly and easily in terms of civilization, and the Cracow district with its capital, a no-man’s land permanently, focused the activities of the dukes and delineated a permanent state domain. Since the second half of the 12th century, the lands of the Piasts, if they do not refer to the cultural and state standards of Piast Europe, after all, clearly take over and settle the civilizational phenomena occurring there. Cistercian orders are multiplying in various regions of Poland, and it is they who, for good measure, are only “monasticizing” the country, with all the cultural and economic dimensions of this phenomenon. A parish network marked by local sacred buildings is developing.

The Romans did not urbanize the country for us. From the middle of the 13th century, a great movement of the location of cities and villages is set in motion, often founded on the so-called raw root, that is, in this case the project does not refer to the already functioning agglomeration, but stimulates its creation. Equipped, however, appropriately (market, town hall, pillory, plots of land for development, fortifications) in terms of spatial planning as in terms of the system (mayor, village headman, town bench, proprietary law).

The quite rapid appearance of new religious orders in Poland – Franciscans and Dominicans – results in a great revival of various cultural phenomena: the Friars Minor (the former) address groups not yet covered by the influence of higher, Christian culture. They are mobile in contrast to older congregations, and through sermons and an attractive way of conveying content (so-called exempla – short life stories with a moral) they fulfill, as it were, the role of today’s media, mediating the circulation of information about the world, Church history, and the history of the country. They write, they read, and there are more and more such people in the service of the Church.

The hero and embodiment of these changes can easily be Master Wincenty, vel Kadlubek, bishop of Krakow and intellectual of the turn of the 12th and 13th centuries. Most important: the state, or rather kingdom, of the Lechites-Piasts receives a great and first identity-ideological-historical legitimacy. The first, because before that there was no native historiographical attempt (except for a few frail annuals and Gall the foreigner). Every good monastery in the post-Carolingian zone produced much more, including chronicles, and in shorter time frames.

To end on a more optimistic note! In the first half of the 13th century, the community was already able to promote, with its own efforts, its own saint (it’s like “making” a good car or a modern electronic device today). We were given St. Adalbert 200 years earlier as a gift along with the lives of foreign pens, and the same with the Five Martyred Brothers1. As late as 1184, Casimir the Just had to bring the relics of St. Florian to Krakow so that some kind of patron and helper would appear in the capital community and the country. After all, since the 1320s, the cult of Bishop Stanislaus, who was killed by the king, has been sprouting – the Cracow cathedral community knows how to take care of the devotion developing around the hero’s tomb, miraculous incidents multiply, documented for the cult of his

There are already educated people who have led the cause of canonization in Rome, documenting Stanislaus’ life and achievements, as well as producing two of his vitae – biographies – through the efforts of the Dominican Wincenty of Kielcza. There is success in 1253 and Stanislaus begins his great and long cultural march through Polish history (a great iconography of the martyrdom of this saint, reproduced in parish churches, develops over time). Also the old hero, St. Adalbert, undergoes a historiographic revival, his iconographic life, i.e. the Gniezno Doors, is not forgotten.

And the finish itself: Poland rose ex nihilo – cultural, state, whatever, which is actually a phenomenon difficult to understand – and confirmed itself as a lasting stakeholder in the European family of states. In the 14th century, fleeing the Teutonic threat, it turned to the East, seeking an ally and taking advantage of a certain political void that existed in Ruthenia. There were quite different and new opportunities for greatness. But above all, let’s respect our own uniqueness, our unvarnished (i.e., original) beginnings and our dimension of historical time!

Jacek Banaszkiewicz is a medievalist historian and professor at the Polish Academy of Sciences, Marie Curie-Sklodowska University in Lublin, and Warsaw University.

This article was published in 2023 in “Historia Do Rzeczy” magazine.

1 Barnaba, Jan, Mateusz, Izaak, and Krystyn