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Polish Nobility

From the XVth century the Poles developed their political and civic liberties with remarkable rapidity. By the "Czerwinsk privilege" (1422) the nobility acquired the inviolability of property. From that time the King could not confiscate private property without legal proceedings. In 1430 came the memorable law of the inviolability of the individual: "neminem captivabimus, nisi jure victum." This law guaranteed that no nobleman could be arrested without a legal warrant, except he be taken in the very act. This Polish "habeas corpus act" preceded by several centuries the judicial conceptions of the European continent. Under the "Statute" of King Casimir Jagellon (statute of Nieszawa, 1454), according to which, the King agreed never to declare war, without the consent of the nobles united in provincial Diets (dietines). From that time on the nobles obtained access to legislative power. The principle, that the people must be consulted on the obligations that they were expected to fulfill, grew more and more apparent.

Polish Kings could not declare war for personal or dynastic reasons. This supreme right belonged only to the people, and the people reserved the right to decide whether war or peace responded to their interests. The meetings of the Dietes were always public. When the deliberations were finished the deputies were obliged to render accounts of the proceedings to their constituents, at special assemblies called "statement dietines." Under such conditions political life developed with extraordinary intensity. The townspeople (middle class) however, soon left active politics using their franchise only to declare their nominal rights, while the landowners (nobility) took an ever increasing part in the political life of the country. This political culture, that continued to develop without interruption for a considerable lapse of time, left its stamp on the Polish nobility. They were completely absorbed by the conduct of public affairs, that formed, as in the ancient Hellenic Republics, a favorite and honorable occupation and as in ancient Greece, had the power to impassion the minds of men.

This political development reached its maximum at the end of the XVIth century and remained as it was through the two following centuries, while almost the whole of continental Europe was under the yoke of despotism. Since all of the nobility, composed of very numerous and very different elements, took part in the intensive political life, and since the throne had long ceased to be hereditary, Poland finally took on the characteristics of an aristocratic organization - aristocratic from the condition of her subjects actively interested in politics-but democratic and republican in practice.

The King was not imposed on Poland by the blind chance of birth; he was freely chosen by an assembly in which every citizen, enjoying full right, could participate. Besides the Senators and Deputies all the nobility of Poland, from the greatest magnate to the least important country squire, had the right to go to the "Diets of Convocation" and there, vote in person for the King. the Polish people, during the long period of elective kings, chose seven successively from the Jagellon dynasty and later on three were chosen from the Wasa family and two from the Wettins.

To appreciate the historic past of Poland at its just value, one must remember that the nobility of this country was not formed of a very small proportion of the population as in other countries but, on the contrary, was made up of a very considerable part of it, more than in any other of the European countries. This high proportion of nobles was the specific characteristic of the organization of the Polish State. While France, at the end of the eighteenth century, had only 140,000 nobles in a population of twenty million inhabitants (not even 1.5%), the Polish Republic at the same time could count one million (some historians say a million and a half) for every ten million inhabitants, that is to say 13% of the entire population.

Greatly differentiated, the categories of this nobility correspond, in a way, to a complete social organization. This "body", uniform in appearance, included three groups that were entirely different one from the other. At the top were the great lordly families, the magnates, powerful proprietors, whose vast estates were larger than many of the small principalities of western Europe. The rich landowners followed, a kind of English gentry, that was divided into two categories: one was composed of noblemen of old families called the "Crimsons" (Karmazyni) or "Purple Bearers", the other of families with smaller fortunes and of more recent nobility.

Toward the bottom of the ladder were the "small nobility", poor and very thickly settled, called "provincials" or "greys" (szara- czkowi). They owned, at most, a few acres of land and, not owning serfs, they were obliged to cultivate the land themselves. Economically these nobles differed little from the peasants and were even inferior to some of them-the peasants on the Royal domains, for example, who were not subject to forced labor.

At a still lower round of the ladder there were a multitude of gentlemen without any property whatever, who were simply called "Komornicy". These "Komornicy" worked in different capacities for the great landlords, attached themselves to the rich magnates or sometimes slipped into the cities, there to follow a trade or enter commerce.

The majority of the Polish nobility was made up of these working nobles, either with or without land. The creation of this nobility was due to different causes. Sometimes it happened that the entire dependent population of a village was ennobled, but more often they were the descendants of old and rich families who had become impoverished by the successive divisions of the land, through the right of descendants. There were also in this class, nobles who had been ruined by war or other calamities. As early as the XVI century there were to be found in different parts of the Republic, in Masovia, in Lithuania, in Pomerania and in Podlasie, etc. etc., a numerous class officially called nobiles pauperes, the poor nobility, who little by little became assimilated with the peasants and who in the end, lost even their civil rights; villages and even entire districts were occupied by these pauperes nobiles. Even while tilling their bit of soil, these poor devils of noblemen, never left off the sword that was the sign of their high birth and proudly repeated to themselves the proverb, that so well characterized them: "with bare feet but with sword at side".

The fact that the Polish nobility was not a uniform class, but divided into many differnt groups, clearly differentiated it from western nobility. Also, the fact that this nobility formed such an immense part of the population was, as well, a phenomenon without analogy. So it was really not without some reasons, that the nobles, conscious of their privileged position and of their number, considered themselves not only a noble "class" but also a "people" of nobles.

All these different ranks of nobility-where the difference in fortune created such gulfs-were in reality equals. This "equality of all nobles" so proudly acknowledged, was one of the most remarkable traits of public life in Poland. From Radziwill, who could make Lithuania tremble,-down to the poorest wretch of the "grey nobility", all felt themselves to be equal, all being nobles. The most powerful Lord, who considered himseslf the equal of the King, would not think of addressing the most humble nobleman, without calling him "brother". In fact, before the law, save for a few insignificant exceptions, no difference existed between the several ranks of nobility. Their legal status toward the State was identical. The way into public affairs, honors and to the most exalted positions, not even excepting royalty, were open to every noble. The Poniatowski family is a striking example of this. The grandfather was a modest country squire; the son an eminent senator of the Republic; the grandson a King of Poland.

Any attempt to obtain titles of Baron, Count or Prince was absolutely prohibited by the nobility who thus safeguarded their equality. Each generation was reminded of this interdiction by many new laws and edicts enacted by the Diet that were inspired by the principle that there could be no greater honor than to be a citizen of the Republic. The Polish King had no right to bestow titles on the nobility of the country but could only grant them to foreigners. The law of 1673 considered "defamed for life" any Pole who would accept a title from a foreign monarch and thus infringe the principle of equality.

The spirit of this "people of nobles" was republican and democratic in every sense of the word. Proud of their liberties that were not equaled on the continent, although sometimes allowing themselves to be carried away, this people was not exclusive and, except in the XVII. century when society became depraved by the Jesuits, they made no objections to the encroachments of new elements coming from other ranks of the population. It is a well known fact that whole villages were ennobled as the reward for military worth. Even the thirty thousand Tartars settled in Lithuania were given the liberties of nobility and admitted to military service while allowed to keep their Mohammedan religion.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 03:04:29 ZULU