Introduction to Medieval Poland

by Jadwiga Zajaczkowa  for the East Kingdom University (Society for Creative Anachronism)

History-- A few important dates

966-992 Mieszko I, Duke of Poland. He converted himself and Poland to Christianity in 965. Founder of the Piast line of rulers.
992-1025 Boleslaw the Brave. Crowned King of Poland in 1025 -- expanded and solidified Polish borders.
999 Gniezno (city) made an Archbishopric
1025-34 Reign of Mieszko II
1034-58 Reigh of Kazimierz I
1058-79 Reign of Boleslaw the Bold,  within his reign  captured and held Kiev for a few years
1080-1102 Reign of Wladyslaw I Herman (styled himself Prince of Poland)
1102-38 Reigh of Boleslaw Wrymouth, who had lots of trouble with his halfbrother Zbigniew
1138-1295 Dueling Dukes. During this time there was no king of Poland or even over-prince. The regional dukes fought it out for control of the most parts of Poland.
1226 Konrad of Mazovia invited the Teutonic Order to Chelmno to repel the attacks of the Prus
1241 Mongols reach Europe; at the Battle of Legnica, Polish forces under Henryk the Pious are decimated
1259 Mongols invade Poland (Lublin, Sandomierz, Bytom and Krakow)
1264 A 'royal' charter (from the reigning Duke) first granted to the Jewish community in Poland.
1283 Prussia completely conquered by the Teutonic Knights. They go looking for more heathens to loot.
1295-1296 Przemysl, King of Poland
1288 Henryk Probus elected Duke of Krakow
1300-1306 Poland under Bohemian rule
1305-1333 Wladyslaw the Short, became king of Poland 1320 (reunited Poland under one ruler)
1333-1370 Kazimierz III the Great (restored Poland; set judicial code; called 'the Peasants King')
1364 Congress of Krakow (After Casimir and the Pope had got the Holy Roman Emperor to apologize for what he had said about Louis of Hungary's mother Elizabeth, who was also Casimir's sister, thus averting regional war, they all got together and had a wedding, a big festival, and a diplomatic gathering.)
1370-1382 Louis of Anjou, King of Hungary & Poland (Represented in Poland by his mother Elizabeth)
1384 Jadwiga of Anjou (aka Jadwiga of Wawel) crowned King of Poland
1386 Jadwiga weds Wladyslaw Jagiello, Grand Duke of Lithuania. Jagiello is crowned king of Poland, unites Poland and Lithuania, christianizes Lithuania, founds the Jagiellon Dynasty, and irritates the Teutonic Knights a lot. Joining of Poland and Lithuania begins at this time but is not complete.
1386-1434 Reign of Wladyslaw Jagiello, King of Poland and Lithuania
1399 Jadwiga of Wawel dies, along with her only daughter. (597 years later the Catholic Church makes her a saint.)
1400 Refounding of the Jagellonian Unviersity at Cracow, by gift of Queen Jadwiga. First college was Collegium Maius.
1410 Battle of Grunwald (Tannenberg) -- Teutonic Knights defeated in battle
1413 Union of Horodlo (Polish szlachta adopt Lithuanian nobles so that Polish and Lithanian nobility is now equal)
1415 Council of Constance (the Church debates whether infidels are human beings)
1434-44 Wladyslaw III of Varna (also king of Hungary 1440-44). Major accomplishment is to die nobly and stupidly, charging against the Turks onthe field of Varna.
1446-92 Kazimierz IV the Jagiellon (Also Grand Duke of Lithuania, 1440-92)
1492-1501 Jan Olbracht
1496: The Statute of Piotrkow--called the "Magna carta of Poland"--gives extensive privledges to the nobility
1501-1506 Aleksander (also Grand Duke of Lithuania, 1492-1506)
1505: The Constitution of Radom--makes the national Seym (Diet) the supreme legislative body
1506-1548 Zygmunt I the Old (Also Grand Duke of Lithuania 1506-1522)
1548-1572 Zygmunt II Augustus (Also Grand Duke of Lithuania 1522-1572). Married Bona Sforza, who brought many Italian fashions, including Italian gardening, to Poland.
1569: The Union of Lublin--merged Poland and Lithuania
1575-1576 Anna, Queen of Poland
1576-1586 Stephen Bathory (Also Prince of Transylvania) elected King of Poland


Poland is one of the 'Slavic' countries, smack dab in the middle of East Central Europe. In the Middle Ages, she would have been bordered by the Holy Roman Empire, Prussia (the territories of the Teutonic Knights), Lithuania,
White Russia, Red Ruthenia (the Ukraine?), Hungary.  Settlement patterns tended toward fortified castles with agricultural holdings nearby; the Poles were generally agricultural, 'the people of the fields'.

Regions: Malopolska, Wielkopolska, Mazovia;  Pomerania in the north, and Silesia in the Southwest, tended to shift in and out of Polish control. Principal cities included Krakow, Lublin, Sandomierz. later Warzawa.


Polish first naes were constructs early in period; later on they used saint's names. Surnaming practices in Poland were primarily locational (Jan from Sandomierz), descriptive-epithets (Boleslaw Wrymouth), occupational (Jan the Castellan), and sometimes  patronymic and rarely matronymics were used as well (Jan, Jan's boy). Surnames were constructed with endings that told you the sex and the marriage status of the user.

Szlachta & Peasantry

The szlachta has been described as the 'gentry' or 'nobility' of Poland, but it didn't work exactly the same as gentry or nobility in other countries.  The szlachta class, which amounted to about 10% of the population, was the class from which all knights and most court functionaries came, and they served the same purpose as nobility (warrior caste) in other countries, but it was not tied to owning land or feudal obligations. Szlachta families could be rich or poor-- the important, powerful families were referred to as the magnates. In theory, all the szlachta were equal; in reality, of course, the most wealth and land often equaled the most power. They referred to each other as Pan (lord) or Pani (lady); most titles were actually job descriptions: starosta (king's sheriff), castellan (keeper of a castle), palatine (administrator of a province), voivode. They were organized into rods, clan-like groups, whose troops fought as regiments and shared the same herby (heraldry) and battle cry. Males of the szlachta families all had one possession in common: the vote-- though only one male member of that family could exercise it, and of course allegiances and debts often controlled the voting!. They voted in local seymtlas, and elected representatives to the national Seym, or diet, whose original function was to confirm the king, but went on to be a national parliament.

Peasants could be divided into several groups: those that owned their own land, those that were tenants under 'German law' (money rents), and those that owed tithe or labor rents. During the 13th and 14th centuries, many nobles sold off or parcelled out their land, either by direct sale or by German law development-like settlements, where they got rents; in the 15th and 16th centuries, because the demand for Polish grain was increasing, they re-instituted labor rents wherever possible and bound peasants to the land.


Polish heraldry is different from Anglo-Norman. Herbs, or devices, were generally held in common by all the members of a rod (clan), and were referred to not by blazon but by their names, usually the battlecray. The devices were usually simple, of the tamga (i.e. cattle-brand) sort; many appear to be simple line drawings later modified by description and reproduction from Anglo-Norman blazons. At the end of the medieval period, there were between 300 and 350 known coats. (Cities, Guilds, etc. who took coats of arms seem to have followed the general pattern of civic arms construction throughout Europe, though).


Like most of the other West and South Slavs, the Poles spent a goodly amount of time fighting with their neighbors, both inside and outside the nation. In the 1100s and 1200s, in fact, Poland was divided into separate duchies, all warring against one another. They also fought with the Hungarians, the Ruthenians (Bylorussians, Ukranians, etc.), the Bohemians, the Lithuanians (as external foes before 1386, and against internal rebellions after the union), the Mongol invasions of the 1200's and sometimes the Germans. After the Teutonic Knights subdued most of the Prus, they were known to encroach on certain Polish territories, ostensibly by way of getting to further pagan territories on the other side. Squabbles with them built up to the battle of Grunwald in 1410 and the treaty of Thorn in 1411, followed by more armed disputes lasting until the order was dissolved in 1525.

The preferred combat form of the nobility was, of course, horse cavalry, though infantry units certainly existed. The ultimate flowering of the cavalry were the 'winged hussars', hussars being a light cavalry form adopted from the Magyars. The 'winged hussar' outfits included an elaborate set of feathered wings which were supposed to alarm enemy horses with the whistling noise they made.  More information about the Winged Hussars can be found on the web page: and in the exhibit catalog: Land of the Winged Horsemen.


The Polish language remained an unwritten one until about 1500. All Polish documents were written in Latin, and it was widely  known and spoken. It was said that  a tourist could travel the length and breadth of medieval Poland, knowing only Latin, and make himself perfectly understood everywhere. Polish is an inflected language, so words have endings to show their place in the sentence and sentences can be arranged somewhat erratically.
Witam (ve-tam) means Welcome
Psiakrew (Sha krev) is a mild swear word
Dzien dobry ( djen dough bree) is 'Hello' or good day


Clothing generally followed German and later Italian fashions, though there was some Turkish influence in late period. Hanging and 'pocket' sleeves were considered typical of late-period Polish garb; this may be an outgrowth of the huge coats with arrangements to let over-long sleeves trail.


We now know a little bit more than we used to about what medieval Poles ate and drank. Food and Drink in Medieval Poland by
Dembinska and Weaver, gives a nice overview though the recipes includes are only re-creations rather than authentic period
recipes or redactions. The two main meals were the prandium (eaten between 9 and 10 a.m) and coena (eaten between 5 and 7 p.m.), and they were
generally similar. Wednesdays and Fridays, and Lent, were meatless days, but special feast days were, well feasts.

The most common drink, Dembinska says, would have been wheat beer and small beer, followed by wine and mead. Spiced beer trojniak, and beer or mead flavored with fruit juice or honey were also drunk. Aqua vitae, probably distilled from beer to resemble whisky or vodka, appeared in the early 1500s.

Curiously enough, beet soup was not documented, but a borsht-like soup made from cow parsnips was eaten.Sauerkraut is common, but pickled cucumbers can only be documented to the 16th century. Neither modern bigos (game stew) or pirogi (dumplings) can be documented to the period either.


The majority of the Polish population was 'Roman' Catholic. Lithuanians tended more toward the Eastern or Russian rites. Priests continually complained that pagans and Jews were tolerated in Poland, and that Lithuania was not fully Christianized. However, we simply don't know enough about pre-Christian Slavic traditions to speculate on pagan Polish religion; Lithuanian paganism (which survived until 1386) is better documented. Some folk beliefs, like the reverence for Mother Earth and the ancestral Rodnitzhe (clan spirits?) may point to pagan survivals-- or perhaps not. The large population of Jews in Poland probably has to do with the edicts protecting them and allowing them to hold land and farm (forbidden in most medieval European countries). Traditionally, Poles were ardent Catholics but prided themselves on 'toleration' of different religions, including Protestantism when it came along. Feasts and holydays were apparently strictly kept, and veneration of the saints (including St. Adalbert, patron of Poland) and the Virgin Mary was heartily practiced. (Poles celebrated their saint's day instead of their birthday.)

Some dates in the Polish year

Other customs:


The Polish Knowledge page at


The Polish Way, Adam Zamoyski (NY:Hippocrene, 1987)
God's Playground, a history of Poland. (vol. 1) Norman Davies (NY: Columbia University Press, 1982)
A History of Poland. Oskar Halecki. (NY: Barnes &Noble, 1992)
History of Poland. Aleksander Gieysztor, Stefan Kieniewicz, Emanuel Rostorowski, Janusz Tazbir, Henryk Wereszycki. (Warsaw: Polish Scientific Publishers, 1968)
East Central Europe in the Middle Ages: 1000-1500. Jean W. Sedlar (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1994)
The Slavs in European History and Civilization. Francis Dvornik. (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers, 1962)
The Polish Nobility in the Middle Ages: Anthologies. ed. Antoni Gasiorowski. (Wroclaw: Polish Academy of Sciences, 1984)
Jadwiga of Anjou and the Rise of East Central Europe. Oskar Halecki. (Highland Lakes, NJ: Polish Institute of Arts and Sciences of America, 1991)
Louis the Great, King of Hungary and Poland. S.B. Vardy, Geza Grosschmid, Leslie S. Domonkos. (NY: East European Monographs-- Columbia University Press, 1986) "Louis the Great and Casimir of Poland",  "Louis the Great as King of Poland as seen in the Chronicle of Janko of Czarnkow" "Les chevaliers polonais".

Customs, food, etc.

Food and Drink in Medieval Poland: Rediscovering a cuisine of the past. Maria Dembinska, rev. & adapted by William Woys Weaver. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999).
Polish Customs, Traditions and Folklore. Sophie Knab. (NY: Hippocrene, 1996)
Old Polish Traditions in the Kitchen and at the Table. Maria Lemnis, Henryk Vitry, and Davidovic Mladen (NY: Hippocrene, 1996)
Polish Herbs, Flowers, and Folk Medicine. Sophie Knab (NY: Hippocrene, 1995)
Economy, Society and Lordship in Medieval Poland: 1100-1250. Pyotr Gorecki. (NY: Holmes & Meier, 1992
Land, Liberties and Lordship in a Late Medieval Countryside: Agrarian Structures and Change in the Duchy of Wroclaw. Richard C. Hoffman. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1989)
The Polish Nobility in the Middle Ages. ed. by Antoni Gasiorowski. (Warsaw, Polska Akademia Nauk, 1984)
"Archaeobotanical Evidence for Food Plants in the Poland of the Piasts (10th-13th Centuries AD)", M. Polycn. in Botanical Journal of Scotland. V. 46, no. 4, p. 533-537.


Polish Surnames: Origins and Meanings. William Hoffman. 2nd ed. (Chicago: Polish Genealogical Society of America, 1997)
First Names of the Polish Commonwealth. William Hoffman. (Chicago: Polish Genealogical Society, 1999).
Academy of St. Gabriel page on Polish names.


The Glass Mountain: 28 Ancient Polish Folktales and Fables. W.S. Kuniczak. (NY: Hippocrene, 1992)
Old Polish Legends, retold by F.C. Anstruther (NY: Hippocrene, 1991)

Geography, etc.

Poland, a historical atlas. Iwo Cyprian Pogonowski. (NY: Hippocrene, 1988)
New Penguin Atlas of Medieval History. Colin McEvedy (NY: Penguin, 1992)
A concie historical atlas of Eastern Europe. Dennis Hupchick and Harold Cox. (NY: St. Martin's Press, 1996)

Clothing, Art, Other

Entries from Encyclopedia of Costume, by Doreen Yarwood, which someone put on the web:
Entries from Braun & Schneider's History of Costume:
History of Dress in Central and Eastern Europe from the Sixteenth to the Eighteenth Century. Irena Turnau. Trans. by Izofabela Szymanska. (Warsaw: Inst. for the History of Material Cultures, Polish Academy of Sciences, 1991)  ISBN: 8385463038; LCCN: 93-151689
Ubiór narodowy w dawnej Rzeczypospolitej, Irena Turnau. (Warszawa : Semper, 1991) ISBN: 8390021358
Ubior dworski w Polsce w dobie pierwszych Jagiellonow. Krystyna Turska. (Wroclaw: Polskiej Akademii Nauk, 1987)  ISBN: 8304026236 :; LCCN: 88-142687 (in polish, but very useful illustrations) "The Textile Trade of Poland in the Middle Ages," Jerzy Wyrozumski. In Cloth and Clothing in Medieval Europe, edited by N.B. Harte and K.G. Ponting. (London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1983).
Polish and Bohemian Garb. By Baroness Kathryn Goodwyn. (a collection of images from various sources, no longer in print)
Polish Taylor's handbook : Polish Tailor's Cutting Guide; Germany, Breslau 1567 AC 1992.243.1 Manuscript housed in the LA County Museum of Art. Personal Sketches
Gothic Women's Fashion, Olga Sronkova (Prague: Artia, 1954 ) -- mostly Czech/German but with some useful stuff
Art Treasures of Eastern Europe. Anthony Rhodes. (NY: Putnam's Sons, 1972).
Land of the Winged Horsemen: Art in Poland, 1572-1764. (Alexandria VA: Art Services Intl., 1999) The Collegium Maius of the Jagiellonian University in Cracow: History, Customs, Collections. Karol Estreicher. (Warsaw: Interpress, 1973)
Sketches from pages from a Polish Taylor's handbook, circa 1567, available from
Polish Armies 1569-1696 parts 1&2. Richard Brzezinski. (Oxford, Osprey Press, 1987) (Men at Arms series, 184 & 188)
Boleslav Orlicki’s Horse Artillery (17th c) re-creation group:
Pages on Costume:
Scanned pages from Praxis reczna dziala. by Andrea dell' Aqua, a Polish Artillery manual published between 1584 and 1656:
The Hilandar Research Library - Resource center for medieval Slavic Studies:


Collection of Articles on Polish Heraldry. Edward A. Peckwas. (Chicago: Polish Genealogical Society, 1978)
Polish Nobility and Its Heraldry: An introduction. Piotr Pawel Bajer.
Polskie Herby Szlacheckie.

Some Polish Manuscripts:


Archiwum Państwowe w Krakowie