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A Polish nobleman. Rembrandt, 1637

Szlachta [ˈʂlaxta] ( listen) was the noble class in the Kingdom of Poland, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (which were united in 1569 and then became the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth) and the increasingly polonized territories under their control (such as Ducal Prussia or the Ruthenian lands). The nobility arose in the late Middle Ages. Traditionally, its members were owners of landed property, often in the form of folwarks. The nobility enjoyed substantial and almost unrivaled political privileges until the late 18th century.

Their sovereignty was ended in 1795 by the Partitions of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

Then, until 1918 their legal status was dependent on policies of the Russian Empire, the Kingdom of Prussia or the Habsburg Monarchy.

In the Second Polish Republic the privileges of the nobility were lawfully abolished by the March Constitution in 1921 and have not been re-granted by any later Polish law.

Contents

History

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Etymology

The Polish term "szlachta" designates the formalized, hereditary noble class. In official Latin documents the old Commonwealth hereditary szlachta is referred to as "nobilitas" and is equivalent to the English nobility. There used to be a widespread misconception to translate "szlachta" as "gentry", because some nobles were poor. Some were even poorer than the non-noble gentry that declined with the 'second serfdom' and re-emerged after the Partitions. Some would even become tenants to the gentry but still kept their constitutional superiority. But it's not wealth or lifestyle (as with the gentry) but a hereditary legal status of a nobleman that makes you one. A specific nobleman was called a "szlachcic", and a noblewoman, a "szlachcianka."

"Szlachta" derives from the Old German word "slahta" (now "(Adels) Geschlecht", "(noble) family"), much as many other Polish words pertaining to the nobility derive from German words — e.g., the Polish "rycerz" ("knight", cognate of the German "Ritter") and the Polish "herb" ("coat of arms", from the German "Erbe", "heritage"). Poles of the 17th century assumed that "szlachta" was from the German "schlachten" ("to slaughter" or "to butcher"); also suggestive is the German "Schlacht" ("battle"). Early Polish historians thought the term may have derived from the name of the legendary proto-Polish chief, Lech, mentioned in Polish and Czech writings.

"Šlėkta" is a derivative from a Polish term used in the Lithuanian language having more or less the same meaning usually with a negative nuance.[citation needed]

Kindred terms that might be applied to an early Polish nobleman were "rycerz" (from German Ritter, "knight"), the Latin "nobilis" ("noble"; plural: "nobiles") and "możny" ("magnate", "oligarch"; plural: "możni"). Some powerful Polish nobles were referred to as "magnates" (Polish singular: "magnat", plural: "magnaci"). It has to be remembered however, that not all knights were nobles.

Today the word szlachta in the Polish language denotes any noble class in the world. In broadest meaning, it can also denote some non-hereditary honorary knighthoods granted today by some European monarchs. Even some 19th century non-noble land owners would be called szlachta by courtesy or error as they owned manorial estates but were not noble by birth. In the narrow sense it denotes the old-Commonwealth nobility.

Origins

See also: History of Poland (966-1385)

"Union of Lublin" (1569). Painting by Jan Matejko, 1869, Castle Museum, Lublin.

Polish

The Polish nobility probably derived from a Slavic warrior class, forming a distinct element within the ancient Polonic tribal groupings. This is uncertain, however, as there is little surviving documentation on the early history of Poland, or of the movements of the Slavonic people into what became the territory so designated. The szlachta themselves claimed descent from the Sarmatians (see paragraph 2.2 below) who came to Europe in the 5th century C.E. Around the 14th century, there was little difference between knights and the szlachta in Poland, apart from legal and economic. Members of the szlachta had the personal obligation to defend the country (pospolite ruszenie), thereby becoming the kingdom's privileged social class.

Concerning the early Polish tribes, geography contributed to long-standing traditions. The Polish tribes were internalized and organized around a unifying religious cult, governed by the wiec, an assembly of free tribesmen. Later, when safety required power to be consolidated, an elected prince was chosen to govern.

The tribes were ruled by clans (ród) consisting of people related by blood and descending from a common ancestor, giving the ród/clan a highly developed sense of solidarity. (See gens.) The starosta (or starszyna) had judicial and military power over the ród/clan, although this power was often exercised with an assembly of elders. Strongholds called grόd were built where the religious cult was powerful, where trials were conducted, and where clans gathered in the face of danger. The opole was the territory occupied by a single tribe. (Manteuffel 1982, p. 44).

Before going deeper into the history of Polish nobility, it is important to note use of the English word "knight", which can be misleading as it leads to inevitable comparisons with the British gentry. In comparison, the Polish nobility was a "power elite" caste, not a social class. The paramount principle of Polish nobility was that it was hereditary.[1]

Mieszko I of Poland (c. 935 – 25 May 992) utilized an elite knightly retinue from his army, which he depended upon for success in uniting the Lekhitic tribes and preserving the unity of his state. Documented proof exists of Mieszko I's successors utilizing such a retinue, too.

Another class of knights were granted land by the prince, allowing them to serve the prince militarily. A Polish nobleman living at this time before the 15th century was referred to as a "rycerz", very roughly equivalent to the English "knight", the critical difference being the status of "rycerz" was strictly hereditary; the class of all such individuals was known as the "rycerstwo". Representing the wealthier families of Poland and itinerant knights from abroad seeking their fortunes, this other class of rycerstwo, which became the szlachta/nobility ("szlachta" becomes the proper term for Polish nobility beginning about the 15th century), gradually formed apart from Mieszko I's and his successors' elite retinues. This rycerstwo/nobility obtained more privileges granting them favored status. They were absolved from particular burdens and obligations under ducal law, resulting in the belief only rycerstwo (those combining military prowess with high/noble birth) could serve as officials in state administration.

Select rycerstwo were distinguished above the other rycerstwo, because they descended from past tribal dynasties, or because early Piasts' endowments made them select beneficiaries. These rycerstwo of great wealth were called możni (Magnates). Socially they were not a distinct class from the rycerstwo they originated from and to which they would return were their wealth lost. (Manteuffel 1982, pp. 148-149).

The Period of Division, A.D., 1138 - A.D., 1314, nearly 200 years of feudal fragmentation, when Bolesław III divided Poland among his sons, began the social structure allegedly separating great landowning feudal nobles (możni/Magnates, both ecclesiastical and lay) from the rycerstwo they originated from. The prior social structure was one of Polish tribes united into the historic Polish nation under a state ruled by the Piast dynasty, this dynasty appearing circa 850 A.D.

Some możni (Magnates) descending from past tribal dynasties regarded themselves as co-proprietors of Piast realms, even though the Piasts attempted to deprive them of their independence.[2] These możni (Magnates) constantly sought to undermine princely authority. In Gall Anonym's chronicle, there is noted the nobility's alarm when the Palatine Sieciech "elevated those of a lower class over those who were noble born" entrusting them with state offices.[3]

Lithuanian

In Lithuania Propria, Samogitia and Prussia,[citation needed] prior to the creation of the Kingdom of Lithuania by Mindaugas, nobles were called 'bajorai' and the higher nobility 'kunigai' or 'kunigaikščiai' (dukes). They were the established local leaders and warlords. During the development of the state they gradually became subordinated to higher dukes, and later to the King of Lithuania.

After the Union of Horodło the Lithuanian nobility acquired equal status with the Polish szlachta, and over time began to become more and more polonized, although they did preserve their national consciousness, and in most cases recognition of their Lithuanian family roots. In the 16th century some of the Lithuanian nobility erroneously claimed that they were of Roman extraction, and the Lithuanian language was just a morphed Latin language.

The process of polonization took place over a lengthy period of time. At first only the highest members of the nobility were involved, although gradually a wider group of the population was affected. The major effects on the lesser Lithuanian nobility took place after various sanctions were imposed by the Russian Empire such as removing Lithuania from the names of the Gubernyas[4] few years after the November Uprising. After the January Uprising the sanctions went further, and Russian officials announced that "Lithuanians are Russians seduced by Poles and Catholicism" and began to intensify russification, and to ban the printing of books in the Lithuanian language.

Ruthenian

In Ruthenia (Ukraine) the nobility gradually gravitated its loyalty towards the multicultural and multilingual Grand Duchy of Lithuania after the principalities of Halych and Volhynia became a part of it. Many noble Ruthenian families intermarried with Lithuanian ones.

The Orthodox nobles' rights were nominally equal to those enjoyed by Polish and Lithuanian nobility, but there was a cultural pressure to convert to Catholicism, that was greatly eased in 1596 by the Union of Brest. See for example careers of Senator Adam Kisiel and Jerzy Franciszek Kulczycki.

Szlachta's rise to power

See also Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth#State organisation and politics

Nobles were born into a noble family, adopted by a noble family (this was abolished in 1633) or ennobled by a king or Sejm for various reasons (bravery in combat, service to the state, etc. - yet this was the rarest means of gaining noble status). Many nobles were, in actuality, really usurpers, being commoners, who moved into another part of the country and falsely pretended to noble status. Hundreds of such false nobles were denounced by Hieronim Nekanda Trepka in his Liber generationis plebeanorium (or Liber chamorum) in the first half of 16th century. The law forbade non-nobles from owning nobility-estates and promised the estate to the denouncer. Trepka was an impoverished nobleman who lived a townsman life and collected hundreds of such stories hoping to take over any of such estates. It doesn't seem he ever succeeded in proving one at the court. Many sejms issued decrees over the centuries in an attempt to resolve this issue, but with little success. It is unknown what percentage of the Polish nobility came from the 'lower' orders of society, but most historians agree that nobles of such base origins formed a 'significant' element of the szlachta.

The Polish nobility enjoyed many rights that were not available to the noble classes of other countries and, typically, each new monarch conceded them further privileges. Those privileges became the basis of the Golden Liberty in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Despite having a king, Poland was called the nobility's Commonwealth because the king was elected by all interested members of hereditary nobility and Poland was considered to be the property of this class, not of the king or the ruling dynasty. This state of affairs grew up in part because of the extinction of the male-line descendants of the old royal dynasty (first the Piasts, then the Jagiellons), and the selection by the nobility of the Polish king from among the dynasty's female-line descendants.

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 pospolite ruszenie.

Poland's nobility thus accumulated a growing array of privileges and immunities:

In 1355 in Buda King Casimir III the Great (Kazimierz Wielki) issued the first country-wide privilege for the nobility, in exchange for their agreement that in the lack of Kazimierz male heirs, the throne would pass to his nephew, Louis I of Hungary. He decreed that the nobility would no longer be required to pay 'extraordinary' taxes, or pay with their own funds for military expeditions outside Poland. He also promised that during travels of the royal court, the king and the court would pay for all expenses, instead of using facilities of local nobility.

In 1374 King Louis of Hungary approved the Privilege of Koszyce (Polish: "przywilej koszycki" or "ugoda koszycka") in Košice in order to guarantee the Polish throne for his daughter Jadwiga. He broadened the definition of who was a member of the nobility and exempted the entire class from all but one tax (łanowy, which was limited to 2 grosze from łan (an old measure of land size)). In addition, the King's right to raise taxes was abolished; no new taxes could be raised without the agreement of the nobility. Henceforth, also, district offices (Polish: "urzędy ziemskie") were reserved exclusively for local nobility, as the Privilege of Koszyce forbade the king to grant official posts and major Polish castles to foreign knights. Finally, this privilege obliged the King to pay indemnities to nobles injured or taken captive during a war outside Polish borders.

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"), based partially on his earlier Brześć Kujawski privilege (April 25, 1425), King Władysław II 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 honour the privileges theretofore granted to the nobility). On May 2, 1447 the same king issued the Wilno Privilege which gave the Lithuanian boyars the same rights as those possessed by the Polish szlachta.

Polish szlachta (nobles) in Gdańsk. Painting by Wilhelm August Stryowski.

In 1454 King Kazimierz IV Jagiellon granted the Nieszawa Statutes (Polish: "statuty cerkwicko-nieszawskie"), clarifying the legal basis of voivodship sejmiks (local parliaments). The king could promulgate new laws, raise taxes, or call for a levée en masse (pospolite ruszenie) 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 (national parliament) received the right to elect many officials, including judges, voivods and castellans. These privileges were demanded by the szlachta as a compensation for their participation in the Thirteen Years' War.

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 Casimir II 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 Jagiellonian 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:

  • a Senate of 81 bishops and other dignitaries; and
  • a Chamber of Envoys of 54 envoys (in Polish, "envoy" is "poseł") representing their respective Lands.

The numbers of senators and envoys later increased.

On April 26, 1496 King Jan I Olbracht granted the Privilege of Piotrków (Polish: "Przywilej piotrkowski", "konstytucja piotrkowska" or "statuty piotrkowskie"), 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.

On 23 October 1501, at Mielnik Polish-Lithuanian Union was reformed at the Union of Mielnik (Polish: unia mielnicka, unia piotrkowsko-mielnicka). It was there that the tradition of the coronation Sejm (Polish: "Sejm koronacyjny") was founded. Once again the middle nobility (middle in wealth, not in rank) attempted to reduce the power of the magnates with a law that made them impeachable before the Senate for malfeasance. However the Act of Mielno (Polish: Przywilej mielnicki) of 25 October did more to strengthen the magnate dominated Senate of Poland then the lesser nobility. 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, an armed rebellion against the king or state officers if the nobles thought that the law or their legitimate privileges were being infringed.

"The Commonwealth's Power at Its Zenith. Golden Liberty. The Election of 1573." Painting by Jan Matejko.

On 3 May 1505 King Aleksander I Jagiellon granted the Act of "Nihil novi nisi commune consensu" (Latin: "I accept nothing new except by common consent"). 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. Basically, this act transferred legislative power from the king to the Sejm. This date commonly marks the beginning of the First Rzeczpospolita, the period of a szlachta-run "Commonwealth".

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 crown 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.

Until the death of Zygmunt II August, the last king of the Jagiellonian dynasty, monarchs could only be elected from within the royal family. However, starting from 1573, practically any Polish noble or foreigner of royal blood could become a Polish-Lithuanian monarch. Every newly elected king was supposed to sign two documents - the Pacta conventa ("agreed pacts") - a confirmation of the king's pre-election promises, and Henrican articles (artykuły henrykowskie, named after the first freely elected king, Henry of Valois). The latter document served as a virtual Polish constitution and contained the basic laws of the Commonwealth:

  • Free election of kings;
  • Religious tolerance;
  • The Diet to be gathered every two years;
  • Foreign policy controlled by the Diet;
  • A royal advisory council chosen by the Diet;
  • Official posts restricted to Polish and Lithuanian nobles;
  • Taxes and monopolies set up by the Diet only;
  • Nobles' right to disobey the king should he break any of these laws.

In 1578 king Stefan Batory created the Crown Tribunal in order to reduce the enormous pressure on the Royal Court. This placed much of the monarch's juridical power in the hands of the elected szlachta deputies, further strengthening the nobility class. In 1581 the Crown Tribunal was joined by a counterpart in Lithuania, the Lithuanian Tribunal.

Possessions of major Polish magnate families XVI-XVII century

Transformation into aristocracy

For many centuries, wealthy and powerful members of the szlachta sought to gain legal privileges over their peers. Few szlachta were wealthy enough to be known as magnates (karmazyni — the "Crimsons", from the crimson colour of their boots). A proper magnate should be able to trace noble ancestors back for many generations and own at least 20 villages or estates. He should also hold a major office in the Commonwealth.

Polish magnates 1576-1586

Some historians estimate the number of magnates as 1% of the number of szlachta. Out of approx. one million szlachta, tens of thousands of families, only 200-300 persons could be classed as great magnates with country-wide possessions and influence, and 30-40 of them could be viewed as those with significant impact on Poland's politics.

Magnates often received gifts from monarchs, which significantly increased their wealth. Often, those gifts were only temporary leases, which the magnates never returned (in 16th century, the anti-magnate opposition among szlachta was known as the ruch egzekucji praw - movement for execution of the laws - which demanded that all such possessions are returned to their proper owner, the king).

The Peasant Uprising of 1846 (polish "Rzeź galicyjska"), the largest peasant uprising against szlachta rules, on Polish lands in XIX century (II-III 1846), compare: Chmielnicki uprising also supported by peasants. Painter: Jan Lewicki

One of the most important victories of the magnates was the late 16th century right to create ordynacja's (similar to majorats), which ensured that a family which gained wealth and power could more easily preserve this. Ordynacje's of families of Radziwiłłs, Zamoyskis, Potockis or Lubomirskis often rivalled the estates of the king and were important power bases for the magnates.

Loss of influence by szlachta

The sovereignty of szlachta was ended in 1795 by the Partitions of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

Then, until 1918 their legal status dependent on policies of:
Russian Empire, Kingdom of Prussia or Habsburg Monarchy.

In Second Polish Republic the privileges of the nobility were lawfully abolished by the March Constitution in 1921 and as such not granted by any future Polish law.

Szlachta 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 as the ruler strove for absolute monarchy, in Poland the reverse process occurred: the nobility actually gained power at the expense of the king, and the political system evolved into an oligarchy.

Polish noblewomen, early 17th century.

Poland's nobility were also more numerous than those of all other European countries, constituting some 10% - 12%[5] of the total population of historic Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth also some 10% - 12% among ethnic Poles on ethnic Polish lands (part of Commonwealth), but up to 25% of all Poles worldwide (szlachta could dispose more of resources to travels and/or conquering), while in some poorer regions (e.g. Mazowsze, the area centred on Warsaw) nearly 30%[citation needed]. However, according to [1] szlachta comprised around 8% of the total population in 1791 (up from 6.6% in the 16th century), and no more than 16% of the Roman Catholic (mostly ethnically Polish) population. It should be noted, though, that Polish szlachta usually incorporated most local nobility from the areas that were absorbed by Poland-Lithuania (Ruthenian boyars, Livonian nobles, etc.) By contrast, the nobilities of other European countries, except for Spain, amounted to a mere 1-3%, however the era of sovereign rules of Polish nobility ended earlier then in other countries (excluding France) yet in 1795 (see: Partitions of Poland), since then their legitimation and future fate depended on legislature and procedures of Russian Empire, Kingdom of Prussia or Habsburg Monarchy. Gradually their privileges were under further limitations to be completely dissolved by March Constitution of Poland in 1921.

There were a number of avenues to upward social mobility and the achievement of nobility. Poland's nobility was not a rigidly exclusive, closed class. Many low-born individuals, including townsfolk, peasants and Jews, could and did rise in Polish society up to official ennoblement. Thus Poland's noble class was more stable than those of other countries, and so was spared the societal tensions and eventual disintegration that characterised the French Revolution. Each szlachcic had enormous influence over the country's politics, in some ways even greater than what is enjoyed by the citizens of modern democratic countries. Between 1652 and 1791, any nobleman could nullify all the proceedings of a given sejm (Commonwealth parliament) or sejmik (Commonwealth local parliament) by exercising his individual right of liberum veto (Latin for "I do not allow"), except in the case of a confederated sejm or confederated sejmik.

All children of the Polish nobility inherited their noble status from a noble mother and father. Any individual could attain ennoblement (nobilitacja) for special services to the state. A foreign noble might be naturalised as a Polish noble (Polish: "indygenat") by the Polish king (later, from 1641, only by a general sejm).

Polish noblemen, early 17th century.

In theory at least, all Polish noblemen were social equals. Also in theory they were legal peers. Those who held 'real power' dignities were more privileged but these dignities were not hereditary. Those who held honorary dignities were higher in 'ritual' hierarchy but these dignities were also granted for a lifetime. Some tenancies became hereditary and went with both privilege and titles. Nobles who were not direct barons of the Crown but held land from other lords were only peers "de iure". The poorest enjoyed the same rights as the wealthiest magnate. The exceptions were a few symbolically privileged families such as the Radziwiłł, Lubomirski and Czartoryski, who sported honorary aristocratic titles recognized in Poland or received from foreign courts, such as "Prince" or "Count." (see also The Princely Houses of Poland). All other szlachta simply addressed each other by their given name or as "Sir Brother" (Panie bracie) or the feminine equivalent. The other forms of address would be "Illustrious and Magnificent Lord", "Magnificent Lord", "Generous Lord" or "Noble Lord" (in decreasing order) or simply "His/Her Grace Lord/Lady XYZ".

Hetman Stefan Czarniecki in crimson bekiesza. Holds buława in right hand. Note crimson boots (buty karmazynowe), a sign of wealth and high status. The crimson color worn by wealthy szlachta prompted the magnates' nickname, "karmazyni" — "the crimson ones."

According to their financial standing, the nobility were in common speech divided into:

  • magnates: the wealthiest class; owners of vast lands, towns, many villages, thousands of peasants
  • middle nobility (średnia szlachta): owners of one of more villages, often having some official titles or Envoys from the local Land Assemblies to the General Assembly,
  • petty nobility (drobna szlachta), owners of a part of a village or owning no land at all, often referred to by a variety of colourful Polish terms such as:
    • szaraczkowa - grey nobility, from their grey, woollen, uncoloured zupans
    • okoliczna - local nobility, similar to zaściankowa
    • zagrodowa - from zagroda, a farm, often little different from a peasant's dwelling
    • zagonowa - from zagon, a small unit of land measure, hide nobility
    • cząstkowa - partial, owners of only part of a single village
    • panek - little pan (i.e. lordling), term used in Kaszuby, the Kashubian region, also one of the legal terms for legally separated lower nobility in late medieval and early modern Poland
    • hreczkosiej - buckwheat sowers - those who had to work their fields themselves.
    • zaściankowa - from zaścianek, a name for plural nobility settlement, neighbourhood nobility. Just like hreczkosiej, zaściankowa nobility would have no peasants.
    • brukowa - cobble nobility, for those living in towns like townsfolk
    • gołota - naked nobility, i.e. the landless. Gołota szlachta would be considered the 'lowest of the high'.

Note that Polish landed gentry (ziemianie or ziemiaństwo) was composed of any nobility that owned lands: thus of course the magnates, the middle nobility and that lesser nobility that had at least part of the village. As manorial lordships were also opened to burgesses of certain privileged royal cities, not all landed gentry had a hereditary title of nobility.

Heraldry

Coats of arms were very important to the Polish nobility. It is notable, that the Polish heraldic system evolved separately from its western counterparts and differed in many ways from the heraldry of other European countries.

The most notable difference is that, contrary to other European heraldic systems, most families sharing origin would also share a coat-of-arms. They would also share arms with families adopted into the clan (these would often have their arms officially altered upon ennoblement). Sometimes unrelated families would be falsely attributed to the clan on the basis of similarity of arms. Also often noble families claimed inaccurate clan membership. Logically, the number of coats of arms in this system was rather low and did not exceed 200 in late Middle Ages (40.000 in late XVIII century).

Also, the tradition of differentiating between the coat of arms proper and a lozenge granted to women did not develop in Poland. Usually men inherited the coat of arms from their fathers. Also, the brisure was rarely used.

Sarmatism

The szlachta's prevalent mentality and ideology were manifested in "Sarmatism", a name derived from scientifically unproved myth about szlachta origin from powerful ancient nation of Sarmatians. This belief system became an important part of szlachta culture and affected all aspects of their lives. It popularised by poets enshrined traditional village life, peace and pacifism; also 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 multi-ethnic nobility as it created an almost nationalistic sense of unity and pride in the szlachta's "Golden Liberty" (złota wolność). Knowledge of Latin was widespread, and most szlachta freely mixed Polish and Latin vocabulary (the latter, "macaronisms" — from "macaroni") in everyday conversation.

Jan Zamoyski, in crimson delia and blue silk żupan.

In its early, idealistic form, Sarmatism seemed like a salutary cultural movement: it fostered religious faith, honesty, national pride, courage, equality and freedom. Late Sarmatism turned belief into bigotry, honesty into political naiveté, pride into arrogance, courage into stubbornness, equality and freedom within the szlachta class into dissension and anarchy.

[citation needed]

Religious beliefs

Prior to the Reformation, the Polish nobility were mostly either Roman Catholic or Orthodox with a small group of Muslims. 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 Commonwealth (the Catholic and Orthodox churches each accounted for some 40% of all citizens population, with the remaining 20% being Jews or members of Protestant denominations). In the 18th century, many followers of Jacob Frank joined the ranks of Jewish-descended Polish gentry.

Although Jewish ethnicity wasn't usually a pretext to block or deprive of noble status, however some laws required religious convert from Judaism to Christianity (see: Neophyte) to be ennobled.[6]

Ennoblement

In Kingdom of Poland

The increase of number of Polish nobility by trustworthy ennoblements is proportionally minimal (since XIV century).

In the Kingdom of Poland and later in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, ennoblement (nobilitacja) meant an individual's joining the szlachta (Polish nobility). At first it was granted by monarch, since late XVI century by the sejm that gave the ennobled person a coat of arms. Often that person could join an existing noble szlachta family with their own coat of arms.

According to heraldic sources total number of trustworthy ennoblements issued since XIV century until late XVIII century, is estimated[7][8] as about 800 (which gives probably average of about two ennoblements per year, trivia: some above 0.000 000 14 - 0.000 001 of historical population, compare: historical demography of Poland).

Late XVIII century is time of short loosening[7][8] of ennoblements policy, which can be explained in terms of sudden collapse of Commonwealth and sudden need of soldiers (see: Partitions of Poland, King Stanisław August Poniatowski).

Total number of ennoblements estimation:

according to heraldic[7][8] sources 1 600 (half o which constitute, performed in final years of the state collapse "sudden ennoblements" of late XVIII century) is a total estimated number of all trustworthy ennoblements in history of Kingdom of Poland and Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth since XIV century.

Types of ennoblement:

  • Skartabelat - introduced by pacta conventa of XVII century, ennoblement into a sort of lower nobility. Skartabels could not hold public offices or be members of the Sejm. After three generations in noble ranks these families would "mature" to peerage.
  • Adopcja herbowa - old way of ennoblement, popular in XV century, connected with adoption into an existing noble clan by a powerful lord, abolished in XVII century

Similar terms:

  • Indygenat - recognition of foreign noble status. A foreign noble, after indygenat, received all privileges of a Polish szlachcic. In Polish history, 413 foreign noble families were recognized. From XVI century this was done by the King and Sejm (Polish parliament), since XVII century it was done by Sejm only.
  • "secret ennoblement" of questionable legal status, opposed/not recognized by szlachta; by monarch without required by law approval of the sejm.

In Grand Duchy of Lithuania

In the late 14th century, in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Vytautas the Great reformed the Grand Duchy's army: instead of calling all men to arms, he created forces comprising professional warriors—bajorai ("nobles"; see the cognate "boyar"). As there were not enough nobles, Vytautas trained suitable men, relieving them of labor on the land and of other duties; for their military service to the Grand Duke, they were granted land that was worked by hired men (veldams). The newly-formed noble families generally took up, as their family names, the Lithuanian pagan given names of their ennobled ancestors; this was the case with the Goštautai, Radvilos, Astikai, Kęsgailos and others. These families were granted their coats of arms under the Union of Horodlo (1413).

In 1506, King Sigismund I the Old confirmed the position of the Lithuanian Council of Lords in state politics and limited entry into the nobility.

See also

References

Bibliography

Notes

  1. ^ Theodore: Topór-Jakubowski, "15th-century Polish Nobility in the 21st century" (White eagle: Journal of the Polish Nobility Association Foundation: Villa Anneslie, 529 Dunkirk Road, Anneslie, Maryland, The United States of America: The Polish Nobility Association Foundation, 1998), Spring/Summer 1998, page 9.
  2. ^ Norman Davies, "God's Playground: A History of Poland; Volume I: The Origins to 1795" (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), page 224.
  3. ^ Tadeusz Manteuffel, "The Formation of the Polish State: The Period of Ducal Rule, 963-1194" (Detroit, Michigan, USA: Wayne State University Press, 1982), page 149.
  4. ^ Ochmański, Jerzy (1986). The National Idea in Lithuania from the 16th to the First Half of the 19th Century: The Problem of Cultural-Linguistic Differentiation. Poznań: Mickiewicz University. 
  5. ^ "From Da to Yes: understanding the East Europeans", p. 51, Yale Richmond, 1995
  6. ^ (Polish) "Ennoblements of Neophytes during the rule of Stanislaw August", Rzeczpospolita daily, Tomasz Lenczewski, 2008
  7. ^ a b c (Polish) "Niektóre dane z historii szlachty i herbu" - Leszek Jan Czajkowski (leader of Polish pro Monarchism party: pl:Polska Liga Monarchistyczna)
  8. ^ a b c Mówią wieki, number 5, Leszek Pudłowski, 1988

External links


Wiktionary

Up to date as of January 15, 2010

Definition from Wiktionary, a free dictionary

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Wikipedia

English

Pronunciation

  • IPA: /'ʃlaxta/

Proper noun

Singular
Szlachta

Plural
-

Szlachta

  1. Nobility of Poland, Slovakia and Lithuania.

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