A Guide to Poland, by a Teenage Agent (Peyton #1)

The author of our first piece is a spy, and a rather good one; he did his job so good we don’t know who he was. He sneaked into the country around 1598, filled 224 pages worth of intelligence, and left, never to be heard of. His relation, written in English, stayed in manuscript for centuries.

Why do we care? Well, I think that I owe people from around the world who might read this blog could use some introduction. It was all long time ago, possibly far away from where you are reading this. People here were all about originality, exceptionalism and having it their way. But don’t worry. He was confused as well. I can hope that how he structures his relation, and what he points out, can hint how Poland was seen by a foreigner (in the last years of 16th century). We will, partly, recreate his experience.

By the way, we’re be assuming it was Peyton. John Peyton. It seems to be the current stance of science. Still, not that much is known about him, as far as I can easily check, anyway–besides the short career in the English intelligence led by Elizabeth I’s spymasters, like Cecil and Walsingham.

Trivia (of course)

Peyton begins his Relation of the State of Polonia (1r-v) by a little portrait of the nation, of a kind that old authors and travelers often included. It even starts out relatively nice. Poles are said to be of good posture; the gentry, ie. noblemen are, predictably, full of ceremonies. Poland is traditionally a land of titling and styling people, and calling them ‘madam’ and ‘sir’, in third person.

Polish nobility–I compiled some portraits that were placed next to the coffin during funeral.

They’re greate gourmandes and quaffers, Peyton continues, speaking of Poles’ love of food and drink. Although they are not sleepy, nor heavy in theire dronkennesse, as the Dutche, and so dead serious as Germans about their prides and quarrels.

Then we’re given a lovely picture of a typical rich Pole in Italy, goofing around, throwing money at people, being cheated and not noticing or caring. Many Italians are thus drawn to Poland, where they’re easily stripping their hosts of wealth. But now as Poles have been more to the foreign countries for knowledge of state and languages, they’re starting to looke better to theyre purses.

The source of this fragment are indeed voyages of young Polish nobles to Italy, made routinely to improve their education and see how things are done in the West. It is worth noting that these boys traveled with a servant, were supposed to live decently and not spend too much abroad. Maybe what happened in Venice, stayed in Venice.

Also, did you know that Polish men and women (Peyton emphasizes prowess of both sexes) could break a metal coin with their fingers? Sadly, this very useful art is now lost, as of 21st century.

The questions of viewpoint

So these are usual traveller’s curiosities, rather to be treated lightheartedly, though they do say something about inclinations of the Polish and the biases of Peyton. He’s a Protestant, and quite serious about it, at least in his political beliefs. In Poland, mostly the Catholics were holding the steer of government in 1598 (it was less so earlier). More importantly, the Republic didn’t try to impose one ideology, language or faith on her citizenry, which to a loyal English subject at the time didn’t sound right. You didn’t question Queen Elizabeth, as it could get you jailed or killed; criminal offenses included various forms of dissent, but most prominently being a Catholic. (To be fair, the pope didn’t help much by openly encouraging Englishmen to rebel.)

What is important to understand, is that many intellectuals and learned people thought that autocracy–hopefully benevolent, but not all restrained–is a good thing. It’s evident that the author of the Relation had read a lot of Jean Bodin, and he references him often. Bodin, a French author, is a name well known to political theory, as his book The Six Books of the Republic (1576, that’s what I meant when I mentioned the looser meaning of ‘republic’ in “The Why”) contains the famous definition of sovereignty: the absolute and perpetual power of a Republic, belonging of course to a king. We could just say: an absolute power, or absolutum dominium–a Latin phrase functioning as the main political insult/accusation in Warsaw. But this was what French kings were moving towards. Bodin applauded this process, seeing it as the way to end bloody religious massacres, sometimes with a death toll of thousands. (Keep in mind that Europe was less populous back then, and so there was less people to kill if you were into it.)

As you know, a king would subdue everyone equally, and there will be no private party strong enough to organize a persecution. Of course the king would be well strong enough, but there is always hope that he’d be a good man. It’s curious how this mirrors modern reasoning behind limiting personal rights, such as privacy, as we still seem to need this kind of protection from those bad people out there.

Warsaw Confederation, signed by the noblemen, swearing that they “will mantain peace between each other, will not spill blood for different faiths and churches, and there will be no penalties of confiscation of goods, prison or exile, and they will provide aid to no authority or office in introducing such” etc. Here, a 20th century retro impression of this event.

Peyton, or whoever, put forth his description and critique of Poland much in the spirit of Bodin. (Who did have few gruff things to say about the Republic of Both Nations, and about the views of Polish writer Andrzej Frycz Modrzewski.) They’re not in a bad company. Interestingly, around the same moment (1599-1602) William Shakespeare himself wrote The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Its character Polonius, according to some scholars, parodies views expressed in Wawrzyniec Goślicki’s De optimo senatore. An English translation of it was published in 1598, and we will be definitely reading this book sometime.

The main point of criticism is that Polish citizens, the nobility, are rebellious and have too much freedom, at the expense of the rest of the nation, which suffers violent oppression. But there is more than that, and the Relation deserves that I would do justice to it. All the collected data, and much effort put into understanding it make an impression of Peyton as a quite educated man–and in 1598 he was nineteen! According to Sebastian Sobecki’s research, between 1596 and 1601 he produced similar detailed accounts of situation in Bohemia and Germany, and in 1601 he would become an English M.P.

I have to admit that it’s convenient for me that someone like Peyton showed up during the heyday of the Republic, before things went downhill. My next scheduled author, Karwicki, writes in much darker times. This helps us put the matter into perspective. When people later talked about the golden age of the Commonwealth, they meant the 16th century. Historians tend to agree that the most visible turning point was in 1648, when a series of devastating rebellions and wars started, leading to over 30% population loss and an economic collapse.

I’m dividing the contents of Relation of the State of Polonia into three categories: 1) general description of the Republic, its geography, demographics and political system, which I’ll work with for two blog posts (although taking liberties); 2) more in-depth analyses of Polish politics and economy, which I will cover sometime in the future (just so we won’t be stuck with one author for too long); 3) lots and lots of details of diplomacy, military, administration etc., which might have been useful if you planned on invading Poland four centuries ago, but are beyond the scope of my site now. If you’re studying history or doing research in academia, I can definitely recommend it as a dense and interesting source.

Regions, people, attitudes

The most important political distinction is between the “proper” Kingdom (or Crown) of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. These two had each their own law, army, budget and central administration. Shared was the Sejm (read saym, just so you know), formed by the three estates: the king, the Senate (consisting of the highest officials) and the House of Envoys, the envoys being elected directly by local assemblies of citizens (so-called sejmiks).

The core Poland consisted–in its 14th century borders, relatively crammed, when compared to other periods or today–of Lesser and Greater Poland (pol. Małopolska, Wielkopolska), with this important caveat that the Lesser Poland is in fact no smaller and had the royal seat until 1596, in the city of Cracow. Cracow also had had a university since 1364. The Greater Poland, on the other hand, owes its name to it being the political center of the nation in deep Middle Ages. The first capital was Gniezno, today (2016) a middle-sized town. Peyton: Gnesna in thys territory is now the Metropolitane sea of the whole kingdome … the seate of princes in the infancy of the state, builte anno 674 by Lechus, and so called of the nomber of eagles nestes which he founde there, Gnizdo in Polish signifying a nest (2r). The legend of Lech as Poland’s founder is popular even today, but actually invented in the 13th century; the date 674 is made up by some Peyton’s source, as known history of Poland starts in late 10th century. This story also tries to explain why the White Eagle is the Polish national symbol.

Then slightly to the North-East there is Mazovia (pol. Mazowsze), which used to be a collection of secluded duchies, fully incorporated in 1526. Here the citizens were known for being numerous, poorly educated and badly prejudiced (which I can safely say, as I descend exactly from these folks). As of 1598, Mazovia was the only place in the Republic which prohibited non-Catholics from holding offices. (…the Layemen … capable of all publike offices though Massovia suffers no religion but Popery–42v.) By a geographic irony, this isolated place became the capital area of Poland–which it remains to this day, being now among the most developed regions of the nation. It just so happened that Warsaw in late 16th century was near the center of the freshly created Republic (or at least in the middle of the road from Cracow to Vilna), and so here the king resided and the Sejms, and royal elections were held. (In fact later, to appease the Lithuanians more, each third Sejm took place on their side of the border, in Grodno.)

The major regions of the Republic; the Crown of Poland in yellow, and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania–in light red, fief duchies–striped. I labeled cities with their English, or modern names if possible. Worth noting that the Polish king Sigismund III ruled also in Sweden (where he came from) until 1599, when they, erm, kicked him out.

Peyton lengthily elaborates on Prussia, which was located even more to the North, alongside the Baltic Sea. This was indeed the area relatively most interesting to England. Here the city of Gdańsk (called Danzig by Germans), the biggest Polish port, served most of the foreign trade.

It was a rather complex history that led Prussia to becoming autonomous, relatively egalitarian (= without an unambiguous dominance of nobility), Protestant and to a big extent German-speaking province of Poland.

The region used to be inhabited by a Pagan people, closely related to Lithuanians and Latvians. Their brutal incursions into Mazovia led in the 1220s the local duke Conrad to call for help Teutonic Knights, an order of German crusaders, from the Palestine. They were given land on the condition that territorial spoils in Prussia will be shared equally. As Peyton puts it, they afterwards subdued the whole [Prussian] contrey to themselves, and florished untill they fell to open hostilitie with the Poles (5r). And so began a long, epic conflict, fought both on the field of battle and on the legal and ideological level (in the 15th century a lawyer Paweł Włodkowic developed this concept that maybe you shouldn’t convert Pagan people without their consent, and especially doing so by fire is not so noble an idea).

The Order ended up being militarily demolished, not without help of the internal opposition–the famous Prussian Confederation of cities–standing up against brutality and fiscal exploitation. Finally the Knights were wiped out by the rise of Lutheranism. Since 1468, the province was divided in two: the West (the Royal Prussia) became a Polish territory with its own local Sejm and privileges, and the East stayed with the Order, now swearing allegiance to the Polish king. In 1525, this Monastic Prussia would turn into fief Ducal Prussia. Which, be the Republic’s negligence, would much later become Kingdom of Prussia.

“Gdańsk in the 17th century”, by Wojciech Gerson.

But let us return to the South, to the South-East, to be specific. Here we have the vast space of Ruthenia.

It’s hard to summarize here the history how the Medieval Kievian Rus’ turned into present day Belarus, Russia and Ukraine; suffice to say that in the early modern period, these distinctions were neither evident nor established. What Peyton exclusively calls Russia as in Latin, is now Belarus and Ukraine, and what we now know as Russia, he referred to as Muscovy, as it was customary back then.

You could say that Ruthenia, or Rus’, was then split very much like the Korea today, with one part being the world’s old-school electric-shock mental institution (now seriously), and the other, well, not inventing k-pop. As to the alleged “liberatory” mission of Moscow, it has to be said that locals (meaning the nobility) dominated the Belarus and Ukraine both politically and economically. We can see magnates like Ostrogski, Sapieha, Ogiński, St. Sophia Olelkowicz-Radziwiłł being at least born into Orthodox religion, and many of them descended from the Ruthenian ruler family of Rurikids. But truth be told, the same exact elites will insulate themselves in the next generation, assuming the ethnic Polish culture. Which by the way would support the hypothesis that people are bound by their social class easier than by ethnicity. Anyway, I would concede that probably more bad than good came from this shift.

The Inhabitantes of Volhinia are the most valiant and warlike of all the Russians as continually exercised with the incursions of the Tatars, which makes that bothe the Princes and Nobles are more feirce, rude and unlearned then the Polonians, as bordering as so participating of the nature of those barbarous nations. Their language, customes and rightes are Russish. (20r)

The stereotype of Volhynians being silly was alive even in 19th century. I will call South-Eastern regions like Red Ruthenia, Volhynia, Podolia and Ukraine just Ukraine, which is not particularly accurate for the period, but at least reflects the modern borders and spares us some subtleties. It is true that many ethnic Poles moved there, and later (around 19th century especially) the Red Ruthenia was regarded as part of Lesser Poland in the cultural sense. In general, the present day ethnic uniformity of most Central-Eastern Europe countries (Poland: 97% Poles, Ukraine: 0.3% Poles) was “accomplished” in 1930-1940s, as nazis, underground organizations like Ukraine’s UPA and communists conducted massive ethnic cleansings and deportations. So as of today, the complexity that I describe is gone.

Cossack troops on march, author unknown.

Ukraine used to be a part of Lithuania, but was ceded to the Kingdom of Poland by the king Sigismund Augustus in 1569. The region was known in the continent for its exceptional soil, yielding huge harvests of crops, exported to Western Europe and Spain. (Peyton calls the whole Republic the common granary and Arsenall of all Europe, for tackling, and other apparaile of shipping–84v; the granary part was in fact a commonplace in (self)describing Poland.) Thus many people from the ethnic Poland and Lithuania came here for the land, which was available and plentiful–although quickly grabbed by the magnates. The main problem was the vicinity of Tatars from Crimea and Turkey, who since the Middle Ages raided Ruthenia almost every year. The standing army, deployed for fighting them, couldn’t do miracles.

Of some help could be the Cossacks, living near the far Eastern border, around the Dnieper river–in so-called Zaporizhia region (Zaporoże in Polish). Peyton seems to really despise them; he calls them men voyde of religion, and feare of god, or man, and therfore desperate without respecte of danger (77r). In fact they were rogue soldiers and runaway peasants of various nationalities–Peyton mentions Poles, Dutche, Turkes, Italians etc., supposedly classifying Ruthenians as “Poles”. Cossacks formed an important part of Polish army, but already started their strifes with the nobility (Kosiński uprisings of 1591-1593). Later on they would change course of the Republic’s history, and today are crucial to the national identity of independent Ukraine, so here I’ve mentioned them in their own paragraph.

So much for the Crown of Poland, now to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which encompassed more or less current Lithuania and Belarus. It was a rather quirky country–at least from the Polish perspective–heavily dominated by great magnate families, most prominently the Radziwiłłs (Radvili in modern Lithuanian). The estates of aristocrats were ran not unlike big companies or independent states, where poorer noblemen worked as clerks and supervisors. Although things could be done in Lithuania when the magnates were fine with them. For example, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania managed to codify its civil law, whereas in Poland every attempt to end fragmentation failed politically.

Here’s how our Relation describes Lithuania:

The contrey is very woddy [woody] (the Hircinia Silva passing through it into Moschovia), full of wilde beastes of all sortes, where some are not otherwhere to be founde. It hath greate store of furres, the richer for the coldnes of climate, hony, waxe, hempe, corne … fysh by reason of the lakes, and waters caused by great snowe, cattle and horsse innumerable … not being well peopled, nor the Inhabitantes industrious, as yet is not eyther comparable to Polonia or Prussia, as being farther of civilitie and commerce with civile nations, and theire plebeians, whose industry bringes in muche wealthe more oppressed. (22r)

Tatars crossing a river as avant-garde of Ottoman army, Turkish artwork from 1579.

Close bonds between Poland and Lithuania existed since 1386, when grand duke Jogaila converted from Paganism to Christianity, married the Polish queen Jadwiga, or Hedwig (students here are taught she was in fact a king, for legal reasons) and assumed the Polish throne as Władysław (known today in Polish as Jagiełło). Since then both countries were for most time ruled by the same person. In the late Middle Ages Poland was more of a feudal monarchy, and Lithuania more of a private property of the duke. The nobilities started early to get acquainted with each other. In 1413 many Lithuanians were admitted into the Polish coats of arms. This in Poland was a big deal, and of a slightly different kind than in the West. Many barely related families bore the same emblem, out of ca. 160 coats of arms that were common. If you met some chap in an inn on the other side of the Republic, and both of you happened to have (for example) Jastrzębiec, or Grabie coat of arms, you would be friends instantly. You also served in army together (provided you lived in the same province).

But when the Union of Lublin was being negotiated in 1569, there was still much of resistance and hesitation among Lithuanians. King Sigismund Augustus had to finally decide, and frankly the geopolitics forced Lithuanians to share the burden of their defense, fynding themselves not stronge enough without the Poles to resist the Moschovite, whoe had wonne a greate parte of theire lande (23r). Aside from loath to alter theire government, they also feared that they would be overswayed by the Poles, whose number both in the common Diets , and elections of the kinges, should farr exceede theires, whereby theire suffrages should be deluded (23v). I would risk saying that having a more populous partner in a democratic federation is a kind of problem you wish you could have if you fell under the rule of Muscovy.

For the sake of completeness, I should mention Curland and Livonia as well. These were territories left after the fall of another knightly order killed by the Reformation (the Livonian Order). Kurland was a fief duchy, and Livonia was annexed by Poland and Lithuania as a condominium in 1561, but lost for the most part in 1621. Today they are parts of independent Latvia and Estonia.

“Wild sleigh ride”, by Władysław Chmieliński.

One last thing. Peyton didn’t write a word on this, but I think this is kind of important when describing a country: legendary creatures and cryptozoology. In this department, it’s a pity that Poles only ever had a very dumb dragon. In Lithuania, grand duke Gedyminas (Giedymin in Polish) allegedly was instructed in his sleep by an iron wolf where to found his capital, Trakai (pol. Troki). Some nasty nationalists later (1930s) took this poor oneiric creature as a symbol; but the same charming story was popularized in Poland, and today you can say a fable of an iron wolf (bajka o żelaznym wilku) about something truly ludicrous. Also many stories of children raised by bears circulated, and maybe we will be talking more about this when discussing Bernard Connor’s history of Poland.

Finally, Kraszewski in the 19th century (but taking his info from a book from 1721) wrote about the Ruthenian cousin of chupacabra, the hadyna (this in Belarussian or Ukrainian, more like gadzina in Polish). He describes it:

It is of a size of a goose; has a greenish beak, black legs and tongue, akin to a bat in most of its appearance; with a snake-like tail, ended like an arrow. (…) Hadyna flies and runs through the fields…

Personally I think that hadyna is marvelous and doesn’t get nearly enough recognition nowadays, as I couldn’t even find a picture of it.

Next time, we’ll be talking contentious stuff: religion, social structure, politics. Brace yourselves.

A relation of the State of Polonia and the United Provinces of that Crowne: Anno 1598. In Elementa ad fontium editiones XIII. Res polonicae ex archivo Musei Britannici, ed. C. H. Talbot, Romae 1965. I use pagination of the manuscript, as provided in this edition. In case you’re curious, ‘r’ and ‘v’ refer to the recto (front)/verso (back) sides of the paper sheet. —

/-/ Popiel.

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