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Early Polish History

by His Lordship Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno)
Orignally published in the November 2004, A.S. XXXIX issue of the Dragonflyre, a publication of the Barony of Vatavia.

Like that of most of Eastern Europe, the roots of the Polish history are shrouded in myth and mystery. Only when the Germans began their push east in the last half of the tenth century did the mists begin to part. The next three centuries is all about the changing dynamic between the two groups until the Mongol invasion changed everything. This essay will explore this period.

The Polish are a part of the Slavic ethic group, a group who originated in the area of steppes of western Ukraine, and were the last of the barbarian invasions that marked the end of the Roman Empire. Poland comes from the word “polanie” meaning people of the field. An apt description as they farm the valleys of the Warthe and Oder rivers which are in now southern Poland.

During the ninth century a number of Slavic tribes founded a number of proto-city-states throughout the region that would become Poland. (The leaders of these tribes are referred to as dukes, consistent with the word’s original meaning of war leader.) By 875 the duke of the tribe along the upper Vistula river was predominate, though soon absorbed by the Kingdom of Great Moravia. Though this connection Christianity came into the region from Byzantium. This did not last long as Great Moravia was, in turn, destroyed by the Magyars by 907.

The region next came under the control of the Bohemian dukes. The German conquest of Bohemia in 950 created an opportunity for another tribal dukedom, the Piast dynasty, to rise to power. The first great leader of this dynasty was Mieszko I, who came to power around 963. He first acknowledged the rule of the German Emperor Otto I, but as a counter, married the Bohemian duke’s sister. In 966 he became a Christian and had the rest of the population convert as well. This marks the traditional founding of Poland. Up till 990 he continued to expand his hold on local Slavic tribes. In 990 he formally gave suzerainty to Rome to counter German control.

His son, Boleslav I, continued his efforts. He organized the military, civil administration, and the church. This included the creation of the archbishopric of Gnesen in 1000, which controlled the Polish bishoprics of Krakow, Wroclaw, and Kolonbrzeg. And he continued conquering neighboring territory. When the early death of Otto III threw Germany into confusion, he even went so far as to conquer Bohemia, Moravia, and other German borderlands, though the next Emperor, Henry II, forced him to relinquish most of those gains. And just before he died in 1025, had himself declared king.

Boleslav’s son, Mieszko II, lost all of it. It was precipitated by an ill-advised attack on the German Emperor Conrad II, and his death in 1034 added to the chaos, as various neighboring rulers sliced off pieces of Polish territory.

In 1039 Meiszko’s son, Casimir, who had been a monk, began the process of putting things back together with the help of the German Emperor Henry III. The price was giving up the title of king for grand duke, and various concessions to the nobility and clergy. Casimir’s son, Boleslav II, continued the effort. In 1069 he put an in-law on the throne of Kiev. He sided with the Pope in the Investiture Struggle, allowing him to regained the title of king in 1076. But the 1079 execution of a bishop lead to a revolt that sent him into exile.

The last great Polish ruler of this period was Boleslav III, who came to power in 1102. His father gave up the title of king, so used the title of grand duke. There would not be another Polish king until the 14th century. While his reign was marked by the struggles with his brothers, he still managed to recover the lands held by Boleslav I. He attempted to solve the succession problem by dividing Poland into lesser duchies, each for sons, with the senior son as the overall ruler. But the system failed immediately, and for the next two centuries, Poland was an abstraction then a reality.

In 1228, Duke Conrad of Mazovia called in the Teutonic Knights to secure his lands against various heathen tribes along the Baltic coast. Bolstered by rights granted by the German Emperor and the Pope, the Order created an independent state that would bedevil Poland for the next two centuries.

The low point, however, came on April 9, 1241, when a combined German-Polish force was destroyed at Liegnitz by the Mongol invasion. While the death of the Khan spared Poland from direct occupation, raids devastated the land for the next decade. It would not recover until after 1300.

The major effect of the Mongol invasion was to speed up the colonization of Polish lands by the Germans. Throughout this period there had always been an influx of German settlers. A large portion of the clergy and knights had German origins. And while the relationship between the German and Polish aristocracies blew hot and cold, among the lower levels the relations were amiable, with the German settlers generally assimilating into the Polish culture. After the invasion, to repopulate their lands, the Polish rulers began introducing ever more favorable incentives to the settlers. As a result large swaths of territory were govern by German law. It was the church that kept the Polish culture alive.

Though not an auspicious beginning, Poland did have its day in the sun, principally during the Reformation and Baroque periods. The tragedy of Poland is that it is situated at the crossroads of major forces, and thus buffeted from all sides, and no victory was ever secure. Just how prominent a role Poland played in European history is often overlooked by those who are more attracted by cultures further west. Which is Poland’s second tragedy.

 

Bibliography

Durant, Will and Ariel . The Story of Civilization: The Age of Faith, A History of Medieval Civilization. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1950.

Dvornik, Francis. The Slavs in European History and Civilization. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1962.

Graus, Frantisek. Eastern and Western Europe in the Middles Ages. Ed. Geoffrey Barraclough. London: London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Inc., 1970.

Medieval Frontier Societies Ed. Robert Bartlett and Angus Mackay. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989.

"Poland." Encyclopedia Britannica. Vol. 25. 1986.

 

Copyright © 2004 - present His Lordship Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno). All rights reserved.

 

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