The maintenance of peace is difficult even in regions deriving unity and protection from geographical barriers; consider how much more difficult it is in states exposed on one or more borders to neighbors always avid, sometimes tempting, sometimes powerful. Poland in the fourteenth century was half stifled by Teutonic Knights, Lithuanians, Hungarians, Moravians, Bohemians, and Germans pressing upon her frontiers. When Ladislas the Short became grand prince of Lesser—southern—Poland (1306), he faced a multitude of enemies. The Germans in Greater—western—Poland rejected his authority; the Knights seized Danzig and Pomerania; the margrave of Brandenburg plotted to destroy him; and Wenceslaus III of Bohemia claimed the Polish throne. Ladislas fought his way through this sea of troubles by arms, diplomacy, and marriage, united Lesser and Greater Poland into a coherent kingdom, and had himself crowned at Cracow, his new capital (1320). Dying at seventy-three (1333), he bequeathed his uneasy throne to his only son, Casimir the Great.
Some might begrudge Casimir III this title, since he preferred negotiation and compromise to war. Resigning Silesia to Bohemia, and Pomerania to the Knights, he consoled himself by acquiring Galicia, around Lwów, and Mazovia, around Warsaw. He devoted his reign of thirty-seven years to administration, bringing his varied territories under one law, “that the state might not look like a manyheaded monster.” 18 Under his direction a group of jurists unified the divergent legislation and customs of the provinces into the “Statutes of Casimir”—the first codification of Polish laws, and a model of humanitarian moderation by comparison with contemporary codes. Casimir protected Jewish, Greek Orthodox, and other racial or religious minorities, encouraged education and the arts, established the University of Cracow (1364), and built so extensively that men said he had found a Poland of wood and had rebuilt it in stone. He so wisely promoted all phases of the nation’s economy that farmers hailed him as “the peasants’ king,” merchants throve in the security of peace, and all classes called him Great.
Having no male heir, he left his crown to his nephew Louis the Great of Hungary (1370), hoping to win for his country the protection of a strong monarchy, and a share in the cultural stimulus that the Angevin dynasty had brought from Italy and France. But Louis was absorbed in Hungary, and neglected Poland. To keep the proud nobles loyal to him in his absence he granted them, by the “Privilege of Kassa” (1374), exemption from most taxes, and a monopoly of high offices. A war of succession followed his death (1382). The Seym or Parliament recognized his daughter Jadwiga, eleven years old, as “king”; but disorder ended only when Jagello, Great Prince of Lithuania, married Jadwiga (1386), uniting his spacious realm with Poland, and bringing a masterful personality to the government.
The growth of Lithuania was a major phenomenon of the fourteenth century Gedymin and his son Olgierd brought under their pagan rule nearly all western Russia: Polotsk, Pinsk, Smolensk, Chernigov, Volhynia, Kiev, Podolia, and the Ukraine; some of these were glad to find, under the Great Princes, a refuge from the Tatar Golden Horde that held eastern Russia in fief. When Jagello succeeded Olgierd (1377) the Lithuanian Empire, governed from Wilno, reached from the Baltic to the Black Sea, and almost to Moscow itself. This was the gift that Jagello brought to Jadwiga, or Poland was the dowry that she brought to him. She was only sixteen at their marriage; she had been reared as a Roman Catholic in the finest culture of the Latin Renaissance; he was thirty-six, illiterate and “heathen”; but he accepted baptism, took the Christian name of Ladislas II, and promised to convert all Lithuania.
It was a timely union, for the eastward advance of the Teutonic Knights was endangering both the wedded states. The “Order of the Cross,” originally dedicated to Christianizing the Slavs, had become a band of martial conquerors, taking by the sword whatever terrain they could snatch from pagan or Christian, and establishing a harsh serfdom over lands once tilled by a free peasantry. In 1410 the Grand Master, from his capital at Marienburg, ruled Esthonia, Livonia, Courland, Prussia, and eastern Pomerania, shutting Poland off from the sea. In a ferocious “Northern War” the Grand Master’s army and that of Jagello—each, we are told, 100,000 strong—met in battle near Grünewald or Tannenberg (1410). The Knights were defeated and fled, leaving behind them 14,000 prisoners and 18,000 slain—among these the Grand Master himself. From that day the Order of the Cross rapidly declined, until in the Peace of Thorn (1466) it ceded Pomerania and western Prussia to Poland, with the free port of Danzig as a door to the sea.
During the reign of Casimir IV (1447–92) Poland attained the apex of her spread, her power, and her art. Though himself quite illiterate, Casimir ended the knightly scorn of letters by giving his sons a thorough education. Queen Jadwiga, dying, left her jewels to finance the reopening of Cracow University—which, in the next century, would teach Copernicus. Literature, as well as science and philosophy, used the Latin tongue; in Latin Jan Dlugosz wrote his classic History of Poland (1478). In 1477 Veit Stoss of Nuremberg was invited to Cracow; he stayed there seventeen years, and raised the city to a high place in the art of the time. For the Church of Our Lady he carved 147 choir stalls, and an enormous altarpiece, forty feet by thirty-three, with a central shrine of the Assumption as impressive as Titian’s painting, and with eighteen panels depicting the life of Mary and her Son—panels almost worthy, though in wood, to bear comparison with the bronze doors that Ghiberti had made for the Florentine Baptistery a generation before. For the cathedral of Cracow, Stoss cut in red mottled marble a superb tomb for Casimir IV. With these works Gothic sculpture in Poland reached its crown and end. In the reign of Casimir’s son Sigismund I (1506–48) Polish art accepted the style o the Italian Renaissance. Lutheranism seeped in from Germany, and a new age began.