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THE ORIGINS OF THE POLISH STATE

Mieszko I and Bolesław Chrobry

In 1966 Poland celebrated its millennium as a state. To become a state, a nation needs to have three things: a people, a government and a territory. In 966 Poland had possessed all three of these attributes for a century or more, yet that period belongs to Poland's prehistory for the nation was illiterate and no written records were made. In that year, however, Mieszko, Poland's ruler, accepted Christianity and with it the literate Latin civilization of which the Church was guardian, protector and advocate. Poland gained acceptance thereby into the European community of the day. Also, unlike their predecessors, Mieszko and his son, Bolesław, had contacts with political, religious and cultural forces outside Poland, and, as a consequence, their deeds were recorded. Hence they are said to be Poland's first rulers in recorded history.

The Piast dynasty

Mieszko I was a member of the ruling Piast family, or dynasty, which had begun the process of organizing the Polish state maybe two hundred years earlier. He was born in 922 and ruled as Duke of Poland from 963 until he died in 992. Gallus Anonimus, one of the early chroniclers names Mieszko as heir to earlier Piasts. Among them were the great patriarch of the Piast dynasty, Piast himself (Piast Chościkowic, as Gallus Anonimus refers to him), an almost mythical figure about whom we know very very little. He was succeeded by his son Ziemowit, then by Ziemowit's son Leszek and Leszek's son Ziemomysł, the father of Mieszko.



That Poland had become a recognizable and considerable force in central Europe well before 966 is attested to by a reference to the Poles living beyond the Vistula that King Alfred the Great (871- 901) of far off Britain made in his Geography. More detailed information about Poland prior to 966 is provided by the writings of Ibrahim-ibn-Jakub, a merchant from Spain or perhaps North Africa who visited Bohemia and Germany in the mid-tenth century. While he did not come to Poland as such, he referred to it in his account of the Slays of central Europe. His narrative of Polish military resources and the extent of Polish territory is among the earliest we have. He described Poland as a land flowing with milk and honey, full of forests and happy people.

The Polanie

The Piasts were of the Polanie tribe which extended its authority over various tribes that inhabited Wielkopolska, or Great-Poland. Among the most powerful of these were the Goplanie who had as many as 400 fortified settlements. Serving as the center of Polanie power were Gniezno and the territory extending eastward along the length of the Warta river. Important settlement included Ląd, Ostrów Lednicki, Giecz, Kalisz, Gniezno, and Poznań. Under circumstances shrouded in myth and legend, the Piasts gained leadership over the Polanie tribe and its territory toward the middle of the ninth century. From the early Polish chronicles we know that Piast rulers, such as Leszek and Ziemomysl, had to travel around Wielkopolska visiting towns and fortresses to make sure their power was sustained.

Mieszko consolidated the work of his predecessors by strengthening Poland with a network of castle towns and fortified settlements. Expanded fortifications of wood and stone dating from the time of Mieszko have been unearthed by archeological excavations at sites such as Gniezno and Poznań. Under Mieszko the Polanie eventually gained control of Mazovia, Kujavia and Eastern (Gdańsk) Pomerania. When Mieszko and his son Bolesław undertook journeys around this enlarged territory, because of the great distances they sometimes stayed overnight in tents. For this reason they were accompanied, the chronicles tell us, by żerdźicy, or polemen, whose task was to erect the tents, to take them down, and to transport them. The term derives from żerdź, or pole (specifically, a sapling from which the branches have been removed).

Mieszko maintained a large, three thousand-strong, well-equipped personal force of professional soldiers, the drużyna, and a large army consisting of mounted and foot soldiers. Extensive trade at Wolin and Szczecin on the Baltic Sea led Mieszko to annex Lubusz-land and Western Pomerania (with Szczecin) in 967. Here he came into conflict with the Germans, the Volinians, Veletians and Raterians. The latter three were Slavs native of the area. To insure his conquest, Mieszko paid tribute to the Germans for this land on the Odra river and the Baltic sea. In return he received the appellation, Amicus Imperatoris.

Statehood

For Europe this was a time known as the Middle Ages, a period that stretched from 500 to 1500 AD. All the countries in Europe, as we know them today, came into being during the Middle Ages which is why it is such an important period to Europeans. Some, such as Germany, England, and France whose origins are associated with Germanic tribes (Angles and Saxons in the case of England, Franks in the case of France) claimed statehood, after overcoming struggles and difficulties of various kinds, long before Poland. Fledgling states such as Poland, Bohemia (now called the Czech Republic), Hungary, Norway, and Sweden, had to accept Christianity and the literate Latin civilization before having the honor of statehood bestowed upon them.

Accepting Christianity, was a tough thing to do for a pagan people. Pagan gods and cults were a very important part of Poland's life. Also, Christianity had some moral and ethical demands upon society which pagans were not quite used to. Fasts, Holy days, religious obligations, etc. Latin culture, or more broadly the Western Civilization based on Greco Roman values came along with Christianity because in the Middle Ages the vast majority of people who were educated, who could read and write, were members of religious orders. There were lots of reasons for that, too complicated to get into. The Church was not trying to hide learning, but the circumstances of the times made it that way.

We attribute to Mieszko and to his son, Bolesław, the decision to bring Christianity and Western Civilization to Poland and to bring Poland into the family of European states. His decision was made possible by prior development, by the hard work of his Piast predecessors. They did not make this decision, perhaps for some reason or other Poland was not quite ready, or felt it did not have to accept Christianity, but by 966 Mieszko felt the time was ripe, that it was necessary. In arriving at the decision to baptize Poland he was therefore motivated by desire and necessity. "Desire" because Mieszko wanted to bring a higher level of culture to Poland. Poland was an illiterate state: it did not have a written language. Nothing was recorded, neither history, poetry, or literature. This was not unusual, every state in Europe was illiterate at one time, that is until it too accepted Christianity or Latin culture. "Necessity" because Mieszko was afraid, he perceived danger. Poland's neighbors, Germany to the west and Bohemia to the south, were Christian states and in those times, if you were a pagan state, that was reason enough to be invaded and conquered. Germany was not above doing that, nor was Bohemia and Mieszko knew it.

Christianity via Bohemia

In 965, Mieszko married Dobrava (pol.. Dąbrówka), a devout Christian and the daughter of Boleslav I, the reigning ruler of Bohemia. A year later, Mieszko himself was baptized, probably by Jordan of Liege, who became Poland's first bishop in 967, taking up residence in Poznań. Jordan, whose see happened to be in Magdeburg, some 400 km to the east in Germany, was a missionary bishop and thus one answering directly to the pope and not to the nearest archbishop. Of Poland's two Christian neighbors, Germany was the nearer and the more powerful and aggressive one. Accepting Christianity from such a neighbor could prove dangerous to the continued independence of the nation. Mieszko had cleverly managed to have Christianity and Latin culture come to Poland via Bohemia.

The high regard in which the Piast family, and thereby Poland, were held is attested to by the fact that Mieszko's daughter, Świętosława Sygryda, married two kings and produced two kings as sons. In 980, she married King Eric of Sweden. Following Eric's death in circa 995, she married Sven of Denmark, a Viking King who conquered Britain around 990. In the process, she produced two famous kings, one was Canute the Great, King of Denmark and Britain. He brought his mother to Britain where she died and was buried. The other was Olaf, King of Sweden.

After the death of Dąbrówka in 977, Mieszko married Oda, daughter of the German count Theodoric. The good relations with Germany which resulted from this marriage allowed Mieszko to launch successful military excursions into Małopolska, or Lesser-Poland, incorporating Cracow by 990, and Śląsk, or Silesia by 992. By the latter date, Mieszko ruled Wielkopolska, Kujavia, Mazovia, Eastern Pomerania, Lubusz, Western Pomerania, Śląsk and Małopolska.

The Dagome iudex

Just before he died in 992, Mieszko signed an act of donation, commonly referred to as the Dagome iudex, by which he gave much of Poland away. Was this an act of lunacy by a dying man, or an act of piety but also of political foresight, a very clever way to protect Poland from invasion? Mieszko donated the heartland of Poland to the papacy, to Pope John XII, making it part of what was known as the Patrimony of St. Peter. The gesture was unprecedented. While churches, abbeys and properties of various kinds in Italy, Germany and France had been offered to the papacy, Mieszko was the first to offer an entire state as a fief to the popes. Yet, it was a figurative donation, for though the Popes were nominally the owners of the state and entitled to a symbolic annual tribute, the Piast continued to rule it. Some historians, noting that the document mentions Oda and two of her sons, the 12 year old Mieszko and his younger brother, Lambert, but does not mention Bolesław, Mieszko's eariier son by Dąbrówka, suggest that the purpose of the document may have been to assure papal protection for a regency by Oda while her sons were minors. If so, it proved ineffective: when Mieszko died Bolesław seized power over the state for himself and expelled Oda and her sons from Poland.

About the document: It was placed in the Vatican archives in 992 but, unfortunately, it has not survived to this day in its original form. Rather, the oldest existing transcription of it is found in a inventory of Papal property, the Collectio Canonum, which was drawn-up by a canon lawyer, Cardinal Deusdedit, in 1087 in Rome. The initial words of the transcription, Dagome iudex et Ote senatrix ... (Mieszko duke and Oda lady...) give the document its name. Deusdedit's transcription is considered to be a good facsimile of the original. Since the name Polonia was not yet widely used, the document contains a geographical description of Poland's borders, as a more appropriate means of identification although in the process of transcription some of the place names did not escape mutilation, Interestingly, none of the contemporary or subsequent medieval chroniclers mentions the document. Its existence was not known until a Polish historian, conducting research in the Vatican archives, found a reference to it. It caused quite a stir in European history because there came a time when almost every state in Europe gave itself to the Papacy. This was done to maintain peace and harmony among the European state, but what the Dagome iudex proved was that Poland was the first to do this.

Bolesław I Chrobry or Brave, was born in 967 but little is known about his youth. It is evident however, that he was fashioned to be the successor to Mieszko. Gallus Anonimus describes the reign of Bolesław as a golden age characterized by prosperity and stability. He launched a program to safeguard Poland with strategically located fortresses, and extended its frontiers. At first, that is from 992 until 999, he cooperated with Germany in military campaigns against various pagan Slavic tribes on the Elbe river and the Baltic coast. Then, in 999, planning a federation of western Slavs, he annexed Slovakia and Moravia.

Saint Adalbert

An important and dramatic event occurred during Bolesław's reign which brought special recognition to Poland and strengthened its political prestige as well: the martyrdom of St. Wojciech (St. Adalbert). A member of the princely Slavik family from Libice in Bohemia, Vojtech, to use his Czech name, was trained in theology at Magdeburg. There, at Wojciech's confirmation, Adalbert, the first archbishop of Magdeburg, gave him his own name. Made bishop of Prague, Wojciech, now Adalbert, found that trying to get the Czechs to practice their faith, to abide by the rules and laws of the church was very difficult. So he left Prague and, with his brother Radini (pl. Radzim; lat. Gaudentius) entered Saint Alexius and Boniface Benedictine monastery on Rome's Aventine Hill. There he lived quietly but the ecclesiastical authorities could not abide an absentee bishop and pressured him to return to his see. He did so, but not for long; unable to deal with the political demands of his office, he soon returned to Rome. There he met Otto III, the German King who was in Rome to be crowned Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire and the two became friends. Meantime, a compromise was worked out with the ecclesiastical authorities: instead of returning once more to Prague, Adalbert would become a missionary bishop, converting pagans at the borders of Christendom to Christianity. With this in mind, he journeyed to Gniezno arriving there in 997. Upon Bolesław's advice he proceeded to the land of the Prussians, a tribe of pagan Balts, now extinct. The reception offered him by the latter was not friendly and a few days later, he was brutally murdered by them, while he was celebrating mass in a grove which, unbeknownst to him, the Prussians considered sacred (and which, in their eyes, he was desecrating). He was martyred. His brother, Gaudentius, who had accompanied Adalbert, brought the sad news to Bolesław. The latter ransomed the body for a "sack of gold" and buried the remains before the altar in Gniezno's basilica.


Otto III approaches Gniezno

Rome was profoundly shocked by the news brought there by Gaudentius and, as befitted a martyr, Adalbert was promptly canonized. A Vita, or biography, written by a fellow monk at the monastery of Saint Alexius and Boniface in Rome, Johannes Canaparius, was published in 999. A second Vita was published in 1004. It, the work of St. Bruno of Querfurt, was based on information drawn from individuals close to the saint. By 1009 an independently written Passio Sancti Alberti Martiris also appeared. The Passio, which had considerable influence on later legends and beliefs about the Saint, contains strong religious overtones, and provides important details about Adalbert's life and stay in Poland.

Emperor Otto III at Gniezno

St. Adalbert' s burial in Gniezno, his martyrdom, the fact that he was from a princely family, brought renown to Poland and Gniezno and the two Vitae and the Passio further publicized the life and miracles of this man. No less important was the fact that Otto III, the King of Germany and by then, the crowned Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, came to Gniezno in 1000 both as a pilgrim to the tomb of his friend, St. Adalbert, and as a participant to a great Council called there by Bolesław and Pope Sylvester. He was met and welcomed at the border by Bolesław and his army. His further progress towards Gniezno is described by bishop Thietmar in the following terms:
"Then, as Otto saw the stronghold from afar, he [dismounted and] approached it barefoot with words of prayer on his lips. The bishop of Gniezno welcomed him with reverence and ushered him into the church where the Emperor, bathed in tears, asked the saintly martyr to intercede on his behalf so that could gain admittance to Christ's grace."
Bolesław received Otto in Gniezno with great pomp and circumstance. It made an impression on the Emperor. In the words of Anonymus Gallus:
And, having taken a measure all the wealth, power and glory on display, the Holy Roman Emperor exclaimed in admiration, "By my imperial crown, what I see exceeds what reports foretold." And, upon the advice of his nobles, added in presence of everyone, "It is not appropriate for this man and one so great, as one among the assembled dignitaries, to be addressed as duke or count, but rather to elevate him on a royal throne and garland him with a crown." And having removed his imperial crown from his head, he placed it on Bolesław's head as an expression of friendship and alliance.
In another gesture of friendship, Otto also presented Bolesław with a nail from the true cross and with of the spear of St. Maurice. According to legend and tradition it was this spear that the centurion Maurice had used to pierce Christ's side at the crucifixion. The spear, which has been preserved, can be viewed in the Treasury of Cracow's cathedral. However, there is another spear exactly like it in Vienna and both are probably copies of a Roman original.

In exchange, Bolesław gave Otto what to-day may seem a strange gift, but would have been hugely valued at a time when the belief in the miraculous power of sacred relics was at its height: the relic of St. Adalbert's arm. This proved to be a happy circumstance, because later, in 1038, the Czechs invaded Gniezno and removed most of St. Adalbert's remains, taking them back to Prague (where one can see his tomb in Prague's cathedral). The Saint's cult, however, was quickly renewed in Gniezno and the arm, which in the interim had been given to the papacy, was brought back, thus insuring that there is a genuine relic of the Saint in Gniezno cathedral.

The Council at Gniezno

At the Council, Otto, acting as the agent for the papacy, set in place an organization and hierarchy for the Church in Poland, making it independent of foreign archbishops. To this end, he established an archbishopric at Gniezno, a matter of some future import since only archbishops, according to the ecclesiastical rubric, could crown kings. Gaudentius, Adalbert's brother was named the first archbishop. At the same time, three suffragan sees subject to Gniezno were established: at Wrocław, Kołobrzeg and Cracow, respectively.


Otto III places his crown on Bolesław's head

No doubt, the Council was the high point of Bolesław's rule. Efforts to receive papal assent for the crowning of Bolesław as King of Poland were derailed, however, by the untimely death of Otto III in 1002. Pope Sylvester II died the following year and Henry II, who ascended the Imperial throne, opposed Bolesław's coronation.

In 1003, Bolesław annexed Bohemia as he had annexed Slovakia and Moravia some four years earlier. These territories were not held for long. In the period 1002-1018, he fought a series of wars with Germany over control of Lusatia and Milsko Land. From time to time, hostilities ceased (Peace of Poznań in 1005; Peace of Merseburg in 1013) to resume again later until the final Peace of Bautzen in 1018 when Germany recognized Polish control over both Lusatia and Milsko Land. In that same year, Bolesław intervened to support the claim of his son-in-law, Sviatopolk to the Kievan throne. Though Sviatopolk was driven from the Kievan throne by his brother, Jaroslav, Bolesław's intervention enabled him to annex the castle towns of Czerwień and Przemyśl.

Bolesław crowned King of Poland

Henry II died in 1024 as did Pope Benedict VIII. Finally in the following year, papal assent for the crowning was obtained. Bolesław was crowned as the first king of Poland in Gniezno on Easter Day 1025 (April 18), two months before his death. The city was the capital of Poland, and its cathedral with its shrine of the Saint became the coronation site of Polish monarchs for years to come. In 1097, Bolesław III rebuilt the cathedral where Adalbert was buried a century earlier. At the entrance to the cathedral were placed great bronze doors with scenes from the life of the Saint. The doors are preserved at the cathedral to this day. (Patron for the doors was Jakób of Żnin, the archbishop of Gniezno and a descendent of the family of Adalbert.)

Because Adalbert the bishop, monk and martyr was buried at Gniezno, attention and interest was draw to Poland and its capital from all over Christendom. The legacy of Adalbert and his spirit had much to do with shaping the character of the Polish Church. The cult of the Saint was held in such regard that the authorship of the oldest and most esteemed of Polish hymns, the Bogunodzica was attributed to him. For Poland, Adalbert became a national patron, but one with international renown.

Decline and restoration

After the passing of Mieszko and Bolesław, the years associated with the beginnings of the Polish state had passed. Also gone were the days of glory, conquest and expansion. Gallus uses the word, golden, to describe the time of Mieszko and his son. Bolesław would be succeeded by Mieszko II. Due to various historical circumstances beyond his control, the Polish state not only declined under the latter Mieszko, but was partitioned and lost its independence. In the process, it was invaded by Germans, Russians, ant Bohemians. Its national treasures were carried-off, its cities pillaged, its monuments of architecture leveled and burned. The restoration of Poland was left to the son of Mieszko II, Kazimierz. The descriptive title Odnowiciel, or Restorer, which he bears is most appropriate. It seems fitting here to offer the words of Gallus, who so well describes the unhappy period of transition.
"Then as King Bolesław left this world, Poland, earlier a queen resplendent in a crown shiny with gold and precious stones, now, dressed in widow's weeds, sat among dust and ashes; the sound of the zither was replaced by that of weeping, joy by sadness, and the voices of the instruments by sighs. Upon the departure of King Bolesław from among the living, it seemed as if peace, happiness, and abundance had all taken their leave of Poland with him."

Based on a presentation by Professor Henry Lang to the Polish Arts Club of Buffalo in September 1995

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