Poland too, in this age, made her peace with the Roman Church, and it is instructive to see how Catholicism so quickly recovered in that kingdom nearly all the ground it had lost in the Reformation. But first let us note, with our usual haste, the political background of the cultural evolution.

1. The State

The period begins with an outstanding achievement of statesmanship. Southeast of Poland lay the grand duchy of Lithuania, ruled by its own dukes, and extending from the Baltic through Kiev and the Ukraine to Odessa and the Black Sea. The growth of Russian power threatened Lithuania with the loss of its autonomy. Though its Greek Orthodox Christianity largely agreed with Russia’s, it reluctantly decided that a merger with Roman Catholic Poland would better preserve its self-rule than an embrace by the Russian bear. Sigismund II signalized his reign by signing the historic Union of Lublin (July 1, 1569). Lithuania acknowledged the King of Poland as its grand duke, sent delegates to the Sejm at Warsaw, and accepted that diet, or parliament, as its government in all external relations; but it kept its own religion, its own laws, its own control of its internal affairs. Poland, so enlarged, had now a population of eleven million from Danzig to Odessa, from sea to sea. It was unquestionably one of the Great Powers.

The death of Sigismund II (1572), leaving no male heir, brought to an end that Jagellon dynasty which had begun in 1386 and had given Poland a line of creative kings and a civilization of religious toleration and humanistic enlightenment. The nobles had always resented hereditary monarchy as a violation of their feudal rights and liberties; now they resolved to keep power in their own hands by making the monarchy elective; they established a republic of nobles and made Poland’s future kings the servants of the Sejm. Since the Sejm included not only the greater nobles, or magnates, but also the gentry (szlachta), or lesser nobility, the plan seemed to realize Aristotle’s ideal of a government mingling monarchical, aristocratic, and democratic elements in mutual checks and balances. In the context of the time, however, the new constitution meant a feudal reaction, a fragmentation of authority and leadership while Poland’s Baltic competitors, Sweden and Russia, were being forged into martial unities by hereditary monarchies privileged to think in terms of generations. Every royal election now became an auction of noble votes to the highest bidder among rival candidates financed, usually, by foreign powers. So French agents, by distributing gifts with both hands, bought the Polish crown for the degenerate Henry of Valois (1573)—only to have him called back a year later to misrule France as Henry III.

The electoral Diet redeemed itself when, after a chaotic interregnum, it chose Stephen Báthory as king (1575). As Prince of Transylvania he had already made a name for himself in politics and war. His agents in Warsaw had promised that if elected he would pay the national debt, put 200,000 florins into the treasury, recover all territory that Poland had lost to Russia, and sacrifice his life on the battlefield, if necessary, for Poland’s honor and glory. Who could resist such an offer? Whereas a few rich nobles supported the candidacy of Maximilian II of Austria, seven thousand members of the electoral Diet cried out for Báthory. He rode up with 2,500 troops, won many hearts by marrying Anna Jagellon, led an army against Danzig (which had refused to acknowledge him), and forced the proud port to pay a fine of 200,000 gulden into the national treasury.

Even so, the nobles were not sure that they liked the new King, with his sharply penetrating eyes, his realistic mind, his frightening mustache and authoritative beard. He despised pomp and ceremony, dressed simply, wore patches, and made beef and cabbage his favorite dish. When he called for funds for a campaign against Russia they granted him inadequate supplies grudgingly. Relying upon subsidies from Transylvania, he advanced with a small army and laid siege to Pskov, then the third in size of Russian cities. Ivan IV, though Terrible to his people, felt too old to meet so vigorous a foe. He sued for peace, yielded Livonia to Poland, and allowed Russia to be cut off from the Baltic (1582). When Ivan died (1584) Báthory proposed to Sixtus V to conquer all Russia, unite it with Poland, drive the Turks from Europe, and bring all Eastern Europe to the papal obedience. The Pope made no objections, but amid laborious preparations for this crusade Báthory died (1586). When he had ceased to trouble her, Poland recognized him as one of her greatest kings.

After a year of bargaining the Diet gave the throne to Sigismund III, who, as heir to the Swedish crown, might unite the two countries to control the Baltic and check the expansion of Russia. Half his reign, as we have seen, was consumed in vain efforts to establish his authority, and the Catholic faith, in Sweden. The sudden death of Boris Godunov (1605), plunging Russia into a defenseless chaos, gave Sigismund another opportunity. Without consulting the Sejm, he announced his candidacy for the Muscovite throne and advanced with an army into Russia. While he spent two years besieging Smolensk, his general Stanislas Zolkiewski defeated the Russians at Klushino, marched to Moscow, and persuaded the Russian nobles to accept Sigismund’s son Ladislas as their king (1610). But Sigismund repudiated this arrangement; he, not his son, should be czar. Having at last taken Smolensk (1611), he marched toward Moscow. He never reached it, for winter caught up with his dilatory advance. His unpaid soldiers rebelled, and in December 1612, two centuries before Napoleon, his army retreated, amid disorder and suffering, from Russia into Poland. All that remained from the costly campaigns was the possession of Smolensk and Severski, and a strong infusion of Polish influence into Russian life.

The rest of Sigismund’s reign was a succession of disastrous wars. His alliance with the Hapsburgs involved him, to the Emperor’s delight, in an expensive struggle with the Turks, in which Poland was saved only by the skill of her generals and the courage of her troops. Gustavus Adolphus took advantage of Poland’s preoccupation in the south to invade Livonia; and the Peace of Altmark (1629) left Sweden master of Livonia and the Baltic Sea. Sigismund died a broken man (1632).

The Diet gave the crown to his son, for Ladislas (Wladyslaw) IV, now thirty-seven, had shown his mettle as a general and had won many friends by his frank and cheerful character. He offended the Pope by tolerating Protestantism in Poland and the Greek Orthodox Church in Lithuania; and at Thorn (Toruń) he allowed a peaceful public debate of Catholic, Lutheran, and Calvinist clergymen (1645). He encouraged art and music, bought Rubens pictures and Gobelin tapestries, established the first permanent Polish theater, and staged Italian operas. He corresponded with the imprisoned Galileo, and invited the Protestant scholar Grotius to his court. He died (1648) just as a great Cossack revolt threatened the life of the Polish state.

2. The Civilization

The Polish economy was still medieval. Internal trade was in the peddler stage; foreign commerce was largely confined to Danzig and Riga; the merchant class was negligible in wealth and rarely found admittance to the Sejm. The nobles controlled the Diet, the king, and the economy. The large estates were tilled by peasants subject to feudal regulations in some ways more severe than on the manors of medieval France. The noble owner made these regulations himself and enforced them with his own soldiery. He forbade his tenants to leave his jurisdiction without his consent; he transferred them from place to place; he increased or diminished their lands at his own will; he exacted several days of unpaid labor from them yearly; he obliged them to buy and sell only from or to him; he compelled them to buy from him a certain annual quantity of badly brewed ale; he could conscript their children to serve him in peace or war. Legally they were free; they could own and bequeath property; but the Jesuit Father Skarga described them as slaves.31

Life was mostly rural. The nobles gathered in Warsaw to vote their collective will, but they lived on their estates, hunting, quarreling, loving, feasting, giving one another openhanded hospitality, and training themselves for war. Marriages were arranged by the parents; the girl was rarely asked, and she rarely resisted; it was assumed that love generated by marriage and parentage would be more enduring than marriage generated by love. Women were modest and industrious. Sexual morality was firmly maintained; we hear of no extramarital love affairs before the eighteenth century.32 Men, rather than women, molded manners, except that Cecilia Renata, who married Ladislas IV in 1637, refreshed the Italian influences imported by artists and clergymen in earlier times; and Louise Marie de Gonzague, whom he married in 1648, brought with her a wave of French manners and speech that lasted till the twentieth century. Polish dances had a grave grace that as early as 1647 led a Frenchman to speak with admiration of the polonaise.

Polish art could not keep the pace that Veit Stoss had set at Cracow in 1477. The splendid tapestries of Sigismund II were woven in Flanders. Architects and sculptors from Italy raised the monuments to Sigismund and Báthory and Anna Jagellon in the Cracow cathedral, the baroque churches of the Jesuits in Cracow and Nieświez, and the famous Sigismund III Column in Warsaw. Painting languished under the Protestant attack upon religious images, but Martin Kober made a revealing portrait of Báthory.

Education, like the graphic arts, suffered from the religious turmoil. The University of Cracow was in passing decay, but Báthory founded the University of Wilno (1578), and at Cracow, Wilno, Poznań, Riga, and elsewhere the Jesuits established colleges of such excellence that many Protestants favored them for the mental and moral training of their sons. Better still was the Unitarian school at Rakow, which attracted a thousand students from all the creeds. Jan Zamojski, the humanist Chancellor of Báthory, organized in Zamość a new university devoted chiefly to the classical curriculum.

There was an abundant literature. Religious controversy was often rude in epithets but polished in form; so Stanislas Orzechowski, who defended Catholicism, laid about him with violent intolerance, but “in wonderful Polish, among the best in our history.”33Equally noted for its style was The Polish Courtier (1566), by Lukasz Gornicki, an adaptation of Castiglione’s Cortegiano. The Jesuit Peter Skargo was eminent in prose and verse, in education and politics. He passed from the presidency of Wilno University to be for twenty-four years the Bossuet of Poland as the leading preacher at the royal court; and he denounced without fear the corruption that surrounded him. He predicted that unless the nation could evolve a more stable and centralized government it would fall a prey to foreign powers; but he called for a responsible monarchy limited and restrained by law. The poetry of Jan Kochanowski remained unrivaled in his own field and tongue till the nineteenth century, and is still popular today. He reached the height of his inspiration in his treny (threnody or lament) for his daughter Ursula, dead in the full charm of childhood.

All Polish culture in this age was disturbed by the conflict of creeds. In the first half of the sixteenth century Protestantism seemed destined to capture Poland as well as Germany and Sweden. Many nobles were won to it as a rebellion against royal authority and ecclesiastical corruption, and as a means of appropriating Church property.34 Sigismund II granted a wide religious toleration. A year after his death a committee of the Diet drew up (January 28, 1573) the “Confederation of Warsaw,” guaranteeing religious liberty to all dissidentes de religione without exception. When put to a vote it was opposed by the episcopal members of the Diet, but it was unanimously approved by the ninety-eight lay members, including forty-one Catholics.35 It represents a landmark in the history of toleration, for no previous official proclamation had gone so far. Under this broad protection a variety of sects flourished: Lutherans, Calvinists, Zwinglians, Anabaptists, Bohemian Brethren, Anti-Trinitarians. In 1579 Faustus Socinus came to Poland and began to organize a church on Unitarian lines; but the Cracow populace dragged him from his house, destroyed his library, and would have killed him had not the Catholic rector of the university come to his aid (1598).36 The Calvinists united with the Lutherans in demanding the expulsion of the “Socinians” from Poland. The Diet in 1638 ordered the closing of the Unitarian schools, and in 1658 banished the sect from the country. They fled to Transylvania, Hungary, Germany, Holland, England, and at last to America, to find their most genial voice in Emerson.

Popular intolerance, Jesuit pedagogy, Catholic discipline, and royal politics joined with Protestant sectarianism to destroy Protestantism in Poland. The new sects fought one another as vigorously as they opposed the ancient creed. The peasants clung to the old faith because it was old; it had the comfort of custom on its side. When the kings—Báthory and Sigismund III—rallied to it, many Protestant converts or their children found it pleasant to make their peace with the Church. The fact that most of the Germans in Poland were Protestants gave Catholicism the help of nationalist sentiment. And the Church actively co-operated with these extraneous aids to reclaim Poland for the papacy. She sent some of her most subtle diplomats and most enterprising Jesuits to win the kings, the women and children, even the Protestant nobles themselves. Ecclesiastical statesmen like Cardinal Stanislas Hosius and Bishop Giovanni Commendone warned the kings that no stable social, moral, or political order could be based upon the fluid and clashing Protestant creeds. The Jesuits proved themselves well able to defend the old incredibilities against the new. Meanwhile the Catholic clergy, submitting to the decrees of the Council of Trent, underwent a rigorous and impressive reform.37

The Catholics too had a problem. The union of Lithuania with Poland brought the Greek Orthodox Church into irritating contact with the Roman. Their creeds differed slightly, but the Orthodox services used the Slavonic ritual, and the Orthodox priests had wives. In 1596 Jan Zamojski, by the Union of Brześć (Brest Litovsk), formed a middle group of clergy and laity into a Uniat Church, which adhered to clerical marriage and the Slavonic rite, but accepted the Roman creed and the papal supremacy. Roman Catholic leaders hoped that the compromise would gradually win the Greek and Russian communions to the papal obedience, but the new church encountered passionate resistance, and its archbishop at Polock was murdered by the Orthodox populace.

The Polish kings continued throughout the sixteenth century a religious toleration more advanced than in any other Christian country, but the Catholic population frequently returned to the old policy of violent hostility. They attacked a Protestant church in Cracow and exhumed and scattered corpses from Protestant graves (1606–7). They destroyed a Protestant church in Wilno and beat—some say killed—the ministers (1611). In Poznań they burned down a Lutheran church and demolished a conventicle of the Bohemian Brethren.38 The Catholic clergy took no part in these popular theological demonstrations, but they profited from them. All circumstances conspired to favor the old Church, and by 1648 her victory was complete.

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