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
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
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
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,
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 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
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: http://www.jurekputter.freeserve.co.uk/polish/hussars.htm 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
- Bread, usally from a combination of white and rye flours (the more
white flour, the more exalted the position of the eater).
- Food was served into heavy trenchers made of bread, and white wheat
bread rolls were served to the important folk at feasts. (Wheaten rolls --
manchet rolls-- could be bought from vendors on the streets, along with round
twisted 'pretzel' type rolls and other bread and pastry treats.)
- Porridge or Gruel made either from flour or groats, usually millet.
Oats were considered lower class, buckwheat and barley were introduced in
late period. Depending on the thickness, these porridges could resemble other
period cereal side dishes, such as frumenty. Rice sometimes graced the tables
of the rich, but the poor made do with the seeds of grain-like manna. Hemp
and flax seeds were also sometimes made into porridge.
- Beef was the favored meat, in many incarnations, roasted, boiled,
etc. Auroch meat (wild beef) was considered a game dish.
- Game, including venison and other wild game, was consumed sporadically,
but often harvested and used as diplomatic gifts.
- Pork was also popular, and in the form of fatt y bacon(salted, smoked
or fresh) it appears to have been the most-consumedmeat of the majority of
- Poultry made a regular appearance but was not so popular as Beef
- Fish appeared on the table on all meatless days (Wednesday, Friday,
Saturday and other specified fasts). In the guise of salt herring, it wore
thin its welcome in Lent. Eels, cod, sturgeon and many other fish were also
eaten. However, fish were not eaten on meat days (perhaps because of
the strictness with which the meatless fasts were kept!)
- Vegetables were common also: "the daily menu in Poland included at
least one vegetable, either as a side dish or
as an ingredient in a one-pot recipe." Dembinska lists onions, lentils, field
peas, cabbage, fava beans and bean greens (among peasants), kale, white carrots,
beets, parsnips, alexanders, skirrets, turnips, radishes, cucumbers and melons,
as well as mushrooms. Vegetable Pottages and Composites were fashioned out
a wide variety of green leafy vegetables, though some are only recorded as
greens for pottage with no identifying names!
- Root vegetables such
as turnips, white carrots, skirrets, cow parsnips etc/ were served on a regular
basis. The prototype of borscht actually used cow parsnips intead of beets.
- Most fruit was eaten cooked -- apples, pears, plums and cherries
were the most common, with wild strawberries and blueberries showing up in
the records also.
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
- Advent (late November through Christmas) a time of fasting, enlivened
by caroling and mumming from time to time
- December 4, Feast of St. Barbara
- December 6, Feast of St. Nicholas, commemorated with gifts and mumming
- December 21, Feast of St. Thomas, commemorated by well-wishing friends
- Christmas: Wigilia, Christmas eve, celebrated with ceremonial
feast between church services
- December 26, St. Stephen's day (oats and peas thrown at Mass)
- January 6, Feast of the Three Kings (12th night)
- February 2, Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Mother (Matka
Boska Gromniczna, Mother of God of the Blessed Thunder Candle), blessing
of the candles and end of the Christmas season
- Pre-lenten festivities, especially the 3 days before Ash wednesday
- March 12, St. Gregory's day-- schoolboys' festival
- March 25th, Feast of the Annunciation
- 4th Sunday of Lent, drowning of Marzanna, the symbolic death figure
- Palm Sunday-- pussywillows were distributed in Church
- Holy Thursday-- coloring of eggs (colored eggs can be dated to the
beginning of the 13th century)
- Good Friday/Holy Saturday/Easter -- solemn days of reverence, followed
- Easter Monday: dyngus (waterfights) and Emmaus Pilgrimages
- Easter Tuesday: feeding the dead
- Pentecost/Green Holidays (in May)-- bonfires
- First Sunday in June: Corpus Christi-- processions (late period)
- June 23rd, St. John's Eve-- wreaths cast on the water, bonfires and
- July 2: Blessed Virgin of the Berries
- July-- gathering of honey
- July 13th: St. Margaret's Day
- Sunday after July 16th-- first cut of grain
- July 25 Feast of St. Jacob, new bread baked from new grain; harvest
- July 26 Feast of St. Anne
- July 29 Feast of St. Martha
- August 15, Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin, also called
Matka Boska Zielna (Blessed Mother of the Herbs) medicinal herbs, etc. brought
to the church and blessed.
- September 29 Feast of St. Michael
- October 18 Feast of St. Luke, end of field work
- October 25, Feast of St. Hedwig-- end of the garden harvest
- November 1-2 All Saints and All Souls days-- feeding the Dead
- November 11: Feast of St. Martin... roast goose if possible
- November 25, feast of St. Katherine -- fortunetelling
- November 30, Feast of St. Andrew (more fortunetelling)
- Strict lenten fasting with lots of salt herring and zur, a
fermented grain soup
- Men and women generally ate separately
- Unmarried women did not generally cover all their hair; 'capping',
or putting on the matron's cap, was part of the wedding ceremony
- 'Feeding the dead' -- picnics (eggs, bread, cooked grain dishes,
etc) left for the dead in cemeteries at Easter and in the fall.
- Pisanki-- colored eggs-- can be dated to medieval period: plain colored
eggs to around 1300.
- Public baths, at least for men, were known; they may also have had
saunas (like the Russians)
The Polish Knowledge page at http://www.mv.com/ipusers/heart/POLISHPAGE.HTM
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
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
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,
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,
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)
Poland, a historical atlas. Iwo Cyprian Pogonowski. (NY: Hippocrene,
New Penguin Atlas of Medieval History. Colin McEvedy (NY: Penguin,
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: http://indra.com/~eliz/SCA/encyclo.html
Entries from Braun & Schneider's History of Costume: http://www.siue.edu/COSTUMES/COSTUME8_INDEX.HTML#Plate45
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
Polish and Bohemian Garb. By Baroness Kathryn Goodwyn. (a collection
of images from various sources, no longer in print)
Polish Taylor's handbook : http://www.vertetsable.com/polisharticle.htmA
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,
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
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: http://www.kismeta.com/diGrasse/PolishHorseArtillery.htm.
Pages on Costume: http://www.kismeta.com/diGrasse/PolArtCostumeWeapons.htm
Scanned pages from Praxis reczna dziala. by Andrea dell' Aqua,
a Polish Artillery manual published between 1584 and 1656: http://www.kismeta.com/diGrasse/dellAqua.htm
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. http://friko4.onet.pl/gd/akromer/herby_szlach3.html
Some Polish Manuscripts: http://www.bj.uj.edu.pl/bjmanus/manus_e.html
REVELATIONES SANCTAE BIRGITTAE
Archiwum Państwowe w Krakowie http://jazon.hist.uj.edu.pl/ap/glowna.htm