Polish Society and Government

Poland-Lithuania c.1600


Poland-Lithuania was the largest country in Europe at the beginning of the seventeenth century. (Much of Russia was in Asia). Yet its population was about half that of France.
Polish landowners wanted to sell grain to Western Europe (where prices were much higher) and, because labor was so scarce, the landlords enserfed peasants in order to force them to work the land. The process has been described as "Export-led Serfdom". Serfdom was not wholly bad for Polish peasants - it did guarantee secure possession of land that might otherwise have had to be sold when the harvest failed.
[Wheat was the luxury grain exported especially to the wealthy Dutch and French - the Polish peasant himself ate bread made from rye and drank beer brewed from barley].


The ten per cent of the population with noble status (szlachta) were all free and theoretically equal in political status. In fact, there were great variations in wealth from vastly rich noblemen to minor gentry who had to work their own estates.
The nobles jealously guarded their status, and from 1601 the Sejm (representative assembly) insisted on its right to control any grant of noble status made by the King. Unusually for this period, noblewomen also had the right to inherit property and titles.
During the seventeenth century, Western European demand for Polish grain decreased as its population stopped increasing and domestic agricultural yields grew. In the early seventeenth century, exports averaged 200,000 metric tonnes p.a., but by mid century this figure had fallen to about 100,000, and by the end of the century only 60,000.

Since land was so plentiful, landlords had little incentive to improve crop yields, nor did the serfs who saw no profit from their own labor. As Dutch and English agriculture grew more efficient, Polish productivity remained stagnant or even fell.


Gdansk (Danzig) was Poland's largest city (population: c. 70,000) and in the early seventeenth century about 3/4 of Poland's foreign trade passed through it, as did significant exports of timber. Much of the profits of the grain trade settled in the pockets of Gdansk merchants and financiers, and many magnates owed them large sums of money.

Gdansk - Upland Gate (Brama Wyżynna)


Apart from Gdansk, Poland had few large towns and a backward economy. This problem only worsened under the impact of invasion and occupation. Warsaw, for example, had a population of 18,000 before the Swedish occupation of 1655/6; but by 1659, it was only 6,000.


Nierzadem Polska Stoi
(It is by unrule that Poland stands)


Poland-Lithuania was an odd union, a hyphenated country. Most Poles thought that the Union of Lublin (1569) merged Poland and Lithuania into one state; many Lithuanians thought the Grand Duchy of Lithuania remained a sovereign state, although federated with Poland.
Both central and local government were firmly under the control of the nobility.
Each palatinate (województwa) had its own local assembly (sejmik), and below these sejmiki, districts also had their own councils (ziemie). These local assemblies not only decided on the allocation of the tax burden, but recruited their own district troops.
The Diet (Sejm) consisted of two houses:  the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies. The King was legally obliged to call it at least once every two years for six weeks.
The Senate's 140 members included 2 Archbishops and 17 Bishops, the remainder were high-ranking lay officials drawn from the magnate class.
The Chamber of Deputies was largely a szlachta body, although there were also a few deputies from towns. 95 Deputies represented Poland, and the remaining 48 Lithuania.
Poland's king was elected. In theory, every nobleman could take part in the election, and roughly 10,000 to 15,000 usually did. They all assembled on horseback at a field near Warsaw, and it was common for men to die in violent disputes before a decision was reached. In 1697, a war erupted between two rivals both claiming to have won the election.
After the election, before the king-elect was crowned he had to meet with the Sejm and swear to accept the Pacta Conventa (agreed points). The King agreed that taxation, the conduct of foreign policy, and even his own marriage required the nobility's consent.
The King could appoint senior officials of local and central government, but he could not dismiss them without the Sejm's consent. Moreover during the seventeenth century, the hetman (commander of the armed forces) was appointed for life. This gave hetmans a considerable degree of independence and - whilst in the field against Turks, Tatars etc. - even the ability in practice to conduct their own foreign policy.
The Kings did control about one sixth of Poland's land and received some tax revenue from a variety of outdated poll and land taxes and custom duties that failed to tap into the main areas of economic activity. Royal income from taxation was only about one tenth that of France.


Wincenty Gosiewski
 [Note the "Sarmatian" style. The armor and shield are both based on Turkish models].

Wincenty Gosiewski

The Polish nobility had a proud military tradition. They saw themselves as Europe's defenders against the Turks, and many clung fondly to the myth that Polish nobles (not the peasants) were descended from "Sarmatian" warriors - invaders from the Black Sea. This ethnic myth served to unify a nobility that in fact was a mixture of Poles, Lithuanians, Cossacks (Ruthenes) and Germans. Sarmatism also justified the eastern styles of dress and conduct that were in fact copied from the Turks and Tatars they fought.

Polish nobles also took great pride in their Golden Freedom - the liberty to act as they pleased, say what they wanted, and adopt the religion of their choice. Indeed, Polish nobles had a constitutional right to armed resistance if the King exceeded his authority. Nobles formed an armed league (konfederacja) and swore to struggle until justice was achieved. In 1606 and 1665, the Rokosz - a confederation of all the nobility joined to resist royal policy.

Another expression of the individual rights of each nobleman was the liberum veto - i.e. that any member of the Sejm could prevent a measure passing the Sejm simply by dissenting. This requirement for unanimity meant that any magnate could bring central government grinding to a halt. From 1652 onwards, the liberum veto was used increasingly often to disrupt proceedings in the Sejm.

The rights of the Polish nobility protected them against the tyranny of central government - they also made it extraordinarily difficult for that government to protect Poland from foreign enemies.


Sigismund III Vasa (kneeling with sceptre) before the Virgin Mary


At the beginning of the seventeenth century, Poland was unusually tolerant in religious matters. Although the majority of the population was Catholic, about ten per cent were Jews, and twenty per cent Protestants. The Orthodox Church was strong in the Ukrainian areas and (after 1596) about one quarter joined the Uniate Church. (The Uniate Church had Slavonic liturgy and Orthodox rituals, but accepted the Pope's supremacy.)


During the 16th and 17th centuries, Jesuit and other Catholic schools, universities and seminaries were established throughout Poland, especially in the west of the country


The fortunes of Protestantism had been declining in Poland since the 1560s, as the Catholic hierarchy assiduously cultivated the nobility. Jesuit education and royal pressure persuaded many influential noblemen and their families to abandon Protestant beliefs. After 1666 no Protestant sat in the Senate. In 1673 the Sejm decreed that only Catholics could be ennobled.
The Polish peasantry had always been largely Catholic, and soon Protestantism survived only amongst Poland's small German-speaking minority.
From 1580, Faustus Socinus lived in Poland (Krakow) in one of many Socinian congregations; at their peak, there were about 40,000 Socinians in Poland. The Socinians had established an academy at Rakow and there drew up the Rakovian catechism - an outline of their Arian (i.e. anti-Trinitarian) rationalist religion. In 1638, the Academy was closed down, and in 1658 Socinians were banished from Poland after many had supported the invasion of Charles X of Sweden.
The Treaty of Andrusovo strengthened the Uniate Church because Kiev and its area's Orthodox population joined Russia; the Orthodox remaining in Poland increasingly moved into the Uniate Church.

By the end of the seventeenth century, Catholicism had become a part of Polish nationalism.


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