Szlachta – Polish Gentry Robert S. Sherins, MD

The Slavic nation of Poland (Polonia/Polska) was established during the 10th century (966 CE) by Miesko I. The elders of the numerous regional Slavic tribes selected him as their first monarch. Prior Lusatian-speaking clans settled as early as the 7th century BCE. However, the Slavic peoples did not arrive from Central Asia until about the latter half of the 5th century CE, about 1000 years later. They were a pagan population initially. When Miesko married Moravian princess, Dobrawa, they took Christianity as both their personal religion and promoted it for the new nation state. His reign was the known as the Piast dynasty, which survived until the conclusion of the reign of Casimir III in 1370.

Miesko organized Poland, initiated reforms and extended the borders. He was a good diplomat and settled many prior disagreements with former enemies, such as Bohemia, Sweden and the Holy Roman Empire. During those early times until the latter 13th century, he established Catholic diocese in Kraków, Kolobrzg and Wrocław. There were chronic conflicts with the Teutonic knights that were not settled until the final Polish conquest at the battle of in the 15th century.

Mongol invasion devastated Poland beginning in the 13th century. However, King Władisław I reunited the Polish dukedoms after the departure of the Mongols. It was king Casimir II, who expanded Poland in the mid-14th century inviting Western European settlers to bring commerce, teachers and professionals to Poland. Jews settlers were also welcomed. Casimir encouraged settlement of the Eastern regions and in the south to for a bulwark against resettlement by Tatars and Ottomans. During their greatly weakened condition after the departure of the Mongols, united to form a strong union of the Commonwealth of Poland and Lithuania, under the new Jagiellon Dynasty that lasted from 1386 to 1572. Lithuanian Grand Duke, Jogaila (aka Wladyslaw II Jagiello), was credited with uniting both nations that extended from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea. It was the largest of the European nation-states and possessed enormous resources. After the defeat of the Prussians at the Battle of Grunwald in 1410, the Commonwealth expanded control over Bohemia and Hungary.

By the 16th century, the Commonwealth established a huge geopolitical feudal state based mostly upon an agricultural society. It was an exceptional era for the monarchies, which had produced many generations of descendants thereby dividing their estates into smaller geographic parcels. The Polish nobility or gentry attained special privileges of their high social class, who became known as the Szlachta. Many of them obtained the legal rights to own towns, establish private armies. They encouraged new settlers who brought skills, businesses, and labor to their towns. The town’s Lords were known as the magnates. They paid taxes to the monarchy for the special privileges, which in-turn they taxes their population of serfs. There was no middle-class educated or skilled citizenry, as we know today in the America. Uniquely, the Polish monarch became an elected official of the Commonwealth. A Parliament or Sejm was first established in 1505, which held legislative powers over the king. Members of Parliament were selected from local Assemblies. Because of the local input from the Assemblies, the Szlachta/nobility largely governed the Commonwealth. Szlachta were wealthy and formidable opponents, who lobbied successfully to retain their special privileges. In 1659, the Treaty of Lublin was signed by Lithuania and Poland that strengthened their union economically and militarily. However, corruption and in-fighting began to take its toll on the nation. In 1648, suffering from many grievances of their high taxes and governance imposed by outsider nobility and the magnates from the Commonwealth, Cossacks augmented by the serfs from Eastern Ukraine rose up under the leadership of Hetman, Bodgan Khmelnytsky. The Cossacks devastated the Poles, clergy and the Jewish Arendars, who collected the rents and taxes of the Polish Szlachta.

During the 18th century, the Commonwealth achieved many improvements in their economy and society by encouraging better education, arts, music and commerce. At the same time, the Szlachta were steadily losing their special privileges. By 1768, a rebellious confederation of Szlachta century formed to resist increasing Russian influence and authority over the Commonwealth. Their attempt to retain the independence and privileges of the Szlachta was not successful. This was a severe defeat for the Szlachta made worse by continuous wars with the Cossacks, Sweden and Russia (1648 – 1768).

The Commonwealth became so weakened that by 1772, Russia, Austria and Prussia seized territories agreed by the triad of neighbors. They wanted to end the reign of the Commonwealth. There were two additional Partitions of the Commonwealth in 1792 and 1795, which totally dismembered Poland-Lithuania by occupational forces and governments. The entity of Poland ceased to be printed on European maps.

In summary, Szlachta were the highest class of Polish gentry. They were the elite of the 16th century and wore costumes of red and scarlet, which was the source of them being called the “scarlet ones.” Magnates or town Lords achieved their high privileges by owning huge estates, some as large as provinces. For security, magnates often retained private armies. Their very large estates were known as the “Ladi Fundia.” By the end of the 18th century, the Szlalchta had been stripped of their powers by the newly imposed rule of the occupying neighboring states of Russia, Prussia and Austria.

The region of the former Commonwealth of Poland-Lithuania, was further repressed by the intervention of Napoleon In Warsaw that ended in 1815 by the Congress of Vienna and the crushing defeat by Russian in 1830 (Czar Nicholas I), who ended the Polish insurrection.

    Szlachta Bibliography:
  • Blum, Jerome, “Lord and Peasant in Russia,” Princeton University Press, 1961.
  • Dubnow, Simon M., History of the Jews in Poland and Russia,: Jewish Publication Society of America, Philadelphia, 1918; Avotanynu, In, Bergenfield, New Jersey, 2000.
  • Greenbaum, Masha, “The Jews of Lithuania,” Gefen Publishing, Jerusalem, 1995.
  • Halechi, O. “A History of Poland,” Barnes and Noble, Inc., 1993.
  • Polansky, Antony, “The Jews in Poland and Russia Vol. I”, Oxford – Portland, Oregon, The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2010.
  • Zamoyski, Adam, “The Polish Way,” Hippocrene Books, New Yor,1987.