History of Poland Part 6 Growth of Polish Democracy
- from Kingdom to the Republic by George Wilk

Both the Slavs and the Baltic peoples spoke languages that were derived from the Eastern Indo-European language, while the Germanic people used languages that were derived from Western Europe. The Prussians, Latvians, and Lithuanians, all originated from Baltic tribes. At first, Lithuania occupied a region that was roughly the same size as their present territory by the Baltic Sea. As a result of the invasions of the Kievan Russ by the Tatars in the 13th century, local Kievan rule was severely weakened. Lithuania was thereby able to capitalize on the military weakness of their neighbors and greatly expand Lithuanian territories to the Black Sea. Lithuania then occupied a region three times the area of Poland and reigned over a territory that stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea.

After the death of Polish king “Kasimir the Great” (1370), the crown passed to his sister’s son, Louis - king of Hungary, who assumed the monarchy of Poland. Then after Louis’s death, the crown passed to his daughter, Jadwiga (1384), who most definitely received the crown as the King (Rex) of Poland because there was no official designation or role for a “Queen of Poland.” Jadwiga was persuaded to marry Lithuanian Grand Duke Władisław Jagiello in 1386, which resulted in the reign of both the husband and wife over the dual kingdoms of Poland and Lithuania.

At the time that Jadwiga died in 1399, the combined countries were in conflict with the Teutonic Crusading Order. The “Order” had been involved in converting the Prussians to Christianity and/or killing of those Prussians who resisted. In the battle of Grunewald (1410), the “Teutonic Order” was defeated and all of their officers, but one, were killed. By then, more than half of the Prussian population had been killed, which was one way of Christianizing the population. The Prussian language was no longer spoken.

Poland moved continuously toward a democratic form of governance. During the Congress of Constance (1415), one of the Polish delegates proposed in one of his seventeen theses, that the right to convert to Christianity gave no right to kill or dispossess. The Teutonic Order was modified to a principality, which paid homage to the Polish king.

There is a very interesting historical fact that the “Act of Kraków (1433)” preceded by 246 years the English’ “Act of Habeas Corpus.” By 1493, a Polish constitutional monarchy was created with the establishment of its national legislature (Seym or Sejm) and a Senate. There were also several provincial legislatures (Seymiki), as well as a Supreme Court. In the 15th century under the kings of Poland and their relatives in Bohemia and Hungary, the Jagiellonian kingdoms stretched from the Baltic Sea to the Black and Adriatic Seas. Not all of the people in the country could vote, only the male nobility, who were known as the szlachta or gentry. Szlachta, however, represented only about 10% of the population. By comparison, the earliest American presidential election records of 1824 indicated that only 3.5% of the population voted for all candidates. However, it was not until 1832 in England that for the first time the number of voters exceeded 10%.

Unfortunately, one specific aspect of the original Polish democracy was grossly unsatisfactory. Unanimity was required in order to enact any laws, which resulted in very disruptive legislative sessions. By the 18th century, there were times when the Seym failed to enact any laws, because when one proposed law failed, often the entire assembly could not agree (liberim veto). On the other hand, at times when there was only a minority-dispute, the assembly could ignore the opposition.

During the period of 1386 to 1569, there was significant variance in the adherence to the initial agreements set forth by the Union of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. However, under the reign of the eight Jagiellonian kings, the size of the territories controlled enlarged to about one-third of the size of the entire European mainland. In 1505, the Seym in Radom passed an act known as “Nihil Novi,” which stated that no new law could be enacted without the full agreement of both the Seym and the Senate.

Parliamentary institutions in Poland had advanced well ahead of most European nations by the time that Kazimir the Great died (1370). By 1520, the political process had surpassed even England. Heavy taxes had been exacted previously by the “Teutonic Order” upon Polish export trade, which had to pass through the Baltic Sea ports. The Teutonic knights were defeated by Poland, which was formally recognized by the Treaty of Torun in 1466. Afterwards, Polish trade with England quadrupled and Poland became the “granary of Europe.”

While much of Western Europe was beginning to doubt the value of the system of serfdom in the 15th - 16th centuries, Poland found excellent reasons to adopt it. At that time, a tenant farmer was given a minimum unit sector equivalent to 42 acres of farmland. His annual rent was about 15 groszy, which was about the price of a pig or a calf. As well, the tenant paid the landlord with a few bushels of grains and performed up to about twelve days of labor for the lord in the fields or by building or repairing the manor house, roads, and bridges. In 1520, the tenant’s labor was increased to 52 days per year.

The first university in Poland was founded in Kraków in 1364. It was the second oldest university in Central Europe, after Prague, and was built before those in Vienna and Heidelberg. The universities in England, Germany, and France, originated as religious institutions, but Kraków was a secular organization with chairs in civil law, canon law, medicine, and the liberal arts. There was no department of theology. Later on, other chairs were added, especially in astronomy and mathematics, which were created in 1491. At that time, a young 18-year old man named Kopernik (Copernicus), who was born in Torun, started to doubt that the heavenly bodies rotated around the earth. Later on, he became a priest and despite his religious devotion, he questioned the Church’s statements about astronomy and the shape of the world. His astronomical observations and works were published only in the last year of Copernicus’ life.

Polish tolerance in matters of religion resulted in a large Jewish population. Eventually by the 18th century, 80% of all Jews in the world lived in Poland. Jewish governance was organized through a system of self-administration known as the Kahal, in which all of the social matters and religious customs from birth to death were organized under a system of seniority of rabbis and elders. The elders of the Kahal were represented by a primary official who was elected by the senior rabbis. The Kahal was directly responsible to the Polish monarch.

There were other minority religious groups living in Poland/Lithuania. Those groups included the Muslim Tatars, who had converted to Islam. There were about one hundred mosques constructed in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. There was also a large Eastern Orthodox Christian community and many Protestant groups. In addition, there were Latvians, who continued to practice pagan rituals, which persisted into modern times.

The last of the Jagiellonian kings of Poland was Sigmund II (1548-1572). Despite three marriages, Sigmund II never had children. In order to preserve the Polish royal succession and to strengthen the union of the two nations of Poland and Lithuania, the legislature established in 1569, the “Rzeczpospolita Polska,” which means thing (rzecz) and common or commonwealth (pospolita) of Poland. Under the legislative regulations, the king was the chief executive officer and was elected for life. The voters were all of the male gentry (szlachta) of Poland and Lithuania. All candidates were szlachta or members from a noble lineage. The name, Commonwealth of Poland, is in use today.

The procedure for elections was established in 1572, prior to the death of king Sigmund. The election lasted four days because of the tens of thousands of voters who participated. The tally of votes took place in the town of Wola and required four days to complete. Wola was located somewhat west of Warsaw. However, in modern times, Warsaw’s population expanded so greatly, that Wola is now a suburb of the metropolitan city of Warsaw. In the early years of the nation, the population of Poland was located closer to Germany and Czechoslovakia. In subsequent centuries, however, the population expanded eastward toward the Black Sea. Warsaw became the new capital of Poland, because it was located more centrally than the previous capital city of Kraków.

  • Halecki, Oscar: A History of Poland, Roy Publishers, New York, 1942-1966.
  • Pogonowski, Iwo Cyprian: Poland, A Historical Atlas, Hippocrene Books, Inc., New York, 1987.
  • Zamoyski, Adam: The Polish Way, Franklin Watts, New York, 1988.