If they gained new lands, it was as a result of the union, if they converted, it was with the cross, not with the sword

“The 16th century was a time of bloody religious wars and persecutions in Europe. The peaceful coexistence of people in the Commonwealth came as a surprise to people in the West. Although there were more religions and ethnic groups in our country, many who were persecuted elsewhere found their place here. The Commonwealth prided itself on its pacifism or anti-imperialism, i.e. its renunciation of subjugating others through violence," says Prof. Krzysztof Koehler, author of historical programmes at TVP Kultura.

The ninth edition of the Kromer Festival Biecz, Culture of the First Republic, will be held from July 27to 30, 2023, under the motto 'covenant', which refers to the 200-year Polish-Lithuanian alliance, i.e. the golden period of the development of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and a unique cultural period. This year, Polish Television is a co-organiser of the Kromer Biecz 2023 Festival. Interviews with the event's guests and broadcasts of the concerts will be available on TVP Kultura on all days of the festival, and the broadcast of the concert from Biecz market square will also be available on TVP2 - on Sunday, July 30 at 21:55.

TYGODNIK TVP: Will our Sarmatism soon meet the modes of the all-grinding cancel culture machine?

Unfortunately, I have to agree, even if it is a sad statement. We have lately an excess of articles and books in which everything negative in our history is lovingly described, so much so that even the culture of the Sarmatian period is targeted. But this is nothing new, the current of criticism of the culture of the nobility appeared already during the Polish Enlightenment, if only in the comedy by Franciszek Zablocki "Sarmatism", written in 1784. Superstition, drunkenness, narrow-mindedness, xenophobia, a certain primitivism - these are the characteristics of the Sarmatian characters. They are contrasted in the comedy with people who are regulars in Warsaw, who are more worldly, have broader horizons and better taste. Later, of course, the phenomenon of Sarmatism became the object of interest of the so-called "Kraków School of History", which tried to analyze the causes of the fall of the Commonwealth during the partitions, seeking them in internal factors. The last chord of criticism of Sarmatian culture fell in the period of the Polish People's Republic, when even the definitions in specialized encyclopedias devoted to old Polish culture adopted terms from the Enlightenment. I have the impression that today's criticism of Sarmatism returns to Enlightenment and Marxist discourse, but with the addition of new themes: the exploitation of peasants (reference is readily made to slavery), the colonization of the eastern borders of the state, and other negative social phenomena. In this way, a new version of the old black legend of Sarmatia is created.

One might perversely ask if there was any country in Europe in the 17th or 18th century where subjects were not exploited and treated unjustly by the ruling class.

No. Unfortunately, no. Exploitation is inscribed in human history, and the one we are experiencing today will probably be judged as harshly in the future as those of the past. While hiking near the Great St. Bernard Pass during my vacation in the Alps, I read about how much human, slavish suffering was involved in the construction of a trail through the pass. All so that an army could pass through for further conquest. We talked about it then and wondered how the Soviet construction of the White sea-Baltic Canal differed from such large-scale projects. The difference, perhaps, is whether a culture, a civilization creates something, builds something, or whether it only pursues its subjects and is reproductive, robs. For why, on the one hand, do we admire the human ingenuity that builds transportation routes so high in the mountains, while we are so horrified by the senseless, ultimately savage cruelty that results from the whim of a Soviet satrap? Well, I believe that the culture of the nobility, the Sarmatian culture, although it too was based on exploitation, created something besides everything else - formed a certain civilization, left lasting achievements, and therefore I do not agree with its being totally discredited, as woke culture does. Although, I repeat, of course I see and hear the human tears and the immensity of suffering.

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When did the term appear?

Sarmatism? It's hard to say. It was certainly used in the Enlightenment (the aforementioned title of the comedy), and then it worked after 1945. And it was consistently filled with negative content that deserves criticism. Precisely for this reason, I think, when we speak of the culture of the nobility, the cultural formation of the nobility of the Commonwealth of many nations, we should not use this term. Because by definition, so to speak, it leaves out all the positive elements, namely the republican vision of civil liberty and the accompanying political system built on republican values. The cult of civic virtue or the citizen's sense of responsibility for the political community that fascinates us. Sarmatia was a community created from the bottom up. "A community of common benefit"," as Stanislaw Orzechowski (a Catholic priest who lived in the 15th century, historian, author of Renaissance political and religious writings, ideologue of the so-called "golden freedom of the nobility" - editor's note) so beautifully describes. And I must add that I have the impression that many representatives of the nobility in the 16th or 17th century did not use the term "Sarmatian" in reference to themselves. Moreover, I am convinced that for the nobility the ideas of neo-Roman political theory and practice were much more important than "Sarmatian" issues.

However, someone coined the term.

The geographic-historical terms "Asiatic Sarmatia" or "European Sarmatia" do not come from mythology, but from the records of Roman historiography and early cartography. When they came into use during the Renaissance, they were automatically adopted by the peoples of the Commonwealth as well. However, I would exercise some restraint in saying that the average nobleman was so interested in his history in antiquity. It was an attractive legend about brave warriors from what is now Iran invading the lands of central Europe and staying here to found the later noble nation. SIGN UP TO OUR PAGE
  On the other hand, Jan Długosz, a very important historian for the intellectual spheres of the 15th century, located the legendary Sarmatians in the Black Sea steppe. But finally, the medieval historians, Gall Anonim or Master Wincenty, called Kadlubek, have little to say about the Sarmatians (Jan Długosz - who lived in the 15th cent. was a chronicler at the court of the Jagiellonians and the author of the work "Roczniki czyli kroniki sławnego Królestwa Polskiego", which today is the most important source of knowledge about the Middle Ages on Polish soil; Gall Anonim - author of the "Polish Chronicle" from the beginning of the 11th century. He is considered to be the first Polish chronicler; Wincenty Kadłubek - lived at the turn of the 12th and 13th centuries, Bishop of Cracow, author of the "Chronicle of the History of Poland", who is considered to be one of the most important figures in the history of Polish literature and historiography and is called the "father of Polish culture"). The latter wrote about Grakchus, whose name seemed familiar to the connoisseurs of ancient culture - the mythical founder of the political community on the Vistula. By the way, the creation of such legendary predecessors was not a Polish specialty. The French have their Gallicanism, the Scandinavians their Gotism, etc. Let us look at the Lithuanians, who, after all, derive their origin from Rome. They were convinced of their ancient roots, and the founder of Lithuania is said to be a relative of Aeneas, who sailed as far as the Baltic Sea on his voyage. This was, one could say, a natural tendency in a certain period of European history.

The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was formed by several linguistic and religious communities. Are we appropriating Sarmatism for ourselves today ?

It is clear Sarmatism is not equal to Polishness. Even when we speak of "Polish nobility" today, we miss a little the correct conceptual framework. Nobility of Greater Poland, Lesser Poland, Ruthenian nobility, nobility of the Crown or nobility of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania - such terms are present in the debate. After two centuries of training in national terms, we cannot quite grasp it, realise that the community of nobility was not national, but extended to Polish, Ruthenian, Lithuanian nobility. It was a participatory community, I would say an ethos community. Modern scholars who cannot escape historical presentism say "corporatism" But such comparisons are anachronistic, they only create more confusion and are therefore not meaningful. For example, I am confused by the remarks about the "Polonization" of the Lithuanian nobility that appear in contemporary anti-nobility rhetoric. Well, what an unusual Polonization this is, since practically until the end of the 17th century in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania the official language was Ruthenian (the First Republic had exceptional religious tolerance throughout its duration, there were no persecutions pogroms, or religious wars. Today, this period in Poland is called, among other things, the "state without stakes" The nobility was composed of adherents of Catholicism, Orthodoxy, Calvinism, Lutheranism, Arianism, and - in the case of the few Tatar nobles - even Islam)
Who were the Sarmatians in Europe? It seems that in the 16th century, as never before, we as Poles had no complexes towards Europe

The Polish-Lithuanian community in its so-called golden or silver age, i.e. from the 15th to the 17th century, was a country of great importance in this part of Europe. Its inhabitants were aware of that, and they were also aware that they lived in a well-functioning state, and they liked to emphasize their originality. When Jerzy Ossolinsky rode into Rome with his colorful suite, he ostentatiously displayed his splendor, for example, when he "accidentally" lost his golden horseshoes. In this way, the message of the Commonwealth's wealth went around the world. (During the reign of the last rulers of the Jagiellonian dynasty in the 16th century, the so-called "Golden Age"," the Commonwealth consisting of the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was among the largest and richest in Europe. This was due to favorable macroeconomic factors related to the export of grain and timber to Western Europe (ed.). Moreover, it was by no means just a facade, for its inhabitants rightly believed in their unique role in Europe. They understood it geopolitically: the Commonwealth had the task of defending Europe against the threat from the East or the North (Moscow's tyranny), against Islam, while stressing that it did not invade anyone - if it gained lands, it was through the union, if it converted, it was with the cross and not with the sword. Once again, when this is said, the accusation is made that one shares the delusions of grandeur of the nobility.But this was not a delusion of grandeur (and even less so now): Yes, the Commonwealth built its international raison d'être quite pragmatically and without the slightest exaltation. In international politics, as is well known, the Sarmatians did well and for centuries pursued a peaceful policy towards the Ottoman Porte. And above all, under the flag of antemurale christianitatis , they tried not to be drawn into the idea of a great anti-Turkish crusade, to which the Holy See or other European states that saw their interest in it kept coming back. I think the Commonwealth has had a very sensible international policy over the centuries.

Even then, the nobility of the Republic was distinguished by an exceptionally good knowledge of the Latin language. And here begins the mystery of Sarmatism. On the one hand Latin, on the other Orientalism, love of antiquity, and at the same time the Turkish salvar?

Attributes of oriental culture were popular in the material culture of nobility and magnates. Such a strong and extremely self-confident culture was not afraid of borrowing. Even if this is only an externality. For Sarmatian political practice or political reflection turned above all to Roman republican traditions. This should be emphasized: not the imperial tradition, but the tradition of the republic. To explain it vividly: not Tacitus, but Cicero or Livy. Not palace intrigues, but the political struggle of the people for freedom. Such writings were studied, they were what shaped the civic ethos. However, in the course of time... Only the rhetoric remained of it, and gradually the "word" separated from the "thing" ... (Since the late 15th century, a political system unique in its form developed in the Polish kingdom, the so-called noble democracy. The nobility, which made up about 10 percent of the population, participated in the governance of the state alongside the rulers of the Jagiellonian dynasty through participation in the so-called "sejmiks" -local parliaments- and were also granted unprecedented civil liberties. Moreover, the monarch did not make any important decisions affecting the state without the consent of the nobility, and when the dynasty expired, the noble state elected kings in so-called free elections - the first took place in 1573 and the last in 1764 (editor's note).

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But Sarmatism had many faces in its successive phases, from the Jagiellonian period to the fall of the Republic.

I repeat again: there was no "Sarmatism". The culture of the Commonwealth (or perhaps a particular formula of civilization) was dynamic. It was different in the 15th century, when it emerged from the negotiations of the subjects with the rulers (privileges) - in this period the "citizenship" appears as a model for the functioning of the community (the caesura of this period is probably the nihil novi constitution. And another one in the time of the last Jagiellonians (the Renaissance with its strong presence of neo-Roman ideas in the public sphere - up to the Executionist movement in the 1660s). The situation was quite different during the period of the first interregnums, which were actually a test of republican citizenship in the Commonwealth - after all, it was the citizens who, through public debate, created the Henrician Articles, considered by some to be the first constitution of the modern world. The turning point of the so-called "golden age" was probably the political crisis associated with Sigismund III Vasa, which led to the Zebrzydowski Rebellion of 1606-1607. Since then, wealthy magnate families have had an increasing influence on state politics (this happened gradually but inexorably) and transformed the republic with the separation of powers, king - nobility - citizens into an oligarchy. To this already difficult situation is added the really great crisis of the second half of the 17th century, namely the wars that devastated the country. These were hard times: the aggression of Moscow, the uprising of Bohdan Khmelnytsky, the Swedish deluge, the Muscovite wars, the Turkish wars... The fact that the state recovered from all these difficulties testifies to the enormous potential of the Commonwealth.

Or perhaps - to quote Karl Marx - existence determined consciousness? The magnates accumulated capital, but the power and the collapse of the state were in fact determined by the prices of grain in Europe.

I agree. There is no point in trying to prove that Marx was wrong. However, I do not believe that everything is due only to economic phenomena. Some more prominent figures saw a threat to the state as early as the end of the 16th century. For example, the writer Piotr Skarga (and perhaps part of the political milieu around Sigismund III Vasa) saw a threat in the violation of the principle of political equilibrium - the growing influence of the magnates, turning into an oligarchy. But the only solution they saw was to strengthen royal power - as they say: that was the trend in Europe at that time. The Commonwealth did not follow that path. Is that good or bad? I do not know. In any case, it led to the rich getting richer and richer and their gradual domination of the state. the "prywat" (self-interest) that Skarga complained about so much, from the position of a moderately rich nobleman, hurts and is a nuisance to the commonwealth, but not as much as in the case of someone who has the means to maintain his own army or conduct his own international policy. And if this magnate then also comes from a historically young family, without generational education in the political school of the republic, this self-interest comes even easier to him. And back to the economy: the Commonwealth's power was based on trade in grain and timber, but in the following centuries this economic model began to fail.

Since 90 percent of Poles are descended from the peasantry, why should we actually refer to the nobility who exploited them? How about building our identity on the heritage of peasants from North Mazovia and not on some Sarmatians!

But go ahead and build (laugh). Fortunately, we have all the freedom here. I am definitely a historian of ideas or literature rather than an ideologue of Sarmatism. I am just pointing out that at a certain point in history, something unique was created in this part of Europe, something that existed practically nowhere else. Something that forms the basis not only for Polishness but also for Europeanness. Take the national liberation struggle during the partitions, the incessant struggle for freedom, and even the Solidarity movement (the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth disappeared from the map of Europe in 1795 as a result of the Third Partition of Poland by Russia, Prussia, and Austria, losing its independence for a period of 123 years until the end of the First World War. During this period Poland made attempts to regain it by participating in the Napoleonic wars alongside France and the bloodily suppressed national uprisings of 1831 and 1863 against Russia). Everything I mention, after all, grew precisely out of the Sarmatian ideal of freedom, out of an organic rejection of any restriction of freedom. This later distinguished us from the Russians, who were oppressed by tsarist tyranny, and from the Prussians and Austrians, who had grown up with a military drill and were scared to death of anyone wearing a uniform. Our Sarmatism was unique, the only non-borrowed cultural form that emerged here - an asset that has an impact on Poland's social future.
Zmartwychwstanie sarmackie
Since you are a "total neo-Sarmatian", I would like to ask: How should this way of thinking be managed in times of postmodernity, galloping cultural change or living together with immigrants?

I don't consider myself a neo-Sarmatian, and certainly not a total neo-Sarmatian. We must understand that 16th century Europe was a time of bloody religious wars and persecutions. The peaceful coexistence of the inhabitants of the Commonwealth was a surprise for people from the West, whether Catholics or Protestants. In our country, both religions and ethnicities were even more numerous, and many who were persecuted elsewhere found their place here. Jews, Protestants, Catholics, Orthodox, Armenians, and Muslim Tartars lived side by side. The basis of this libertarian organism was peace between those who differed in faith. In addition, there were other dimensions of community building that are relevant in today's world. For example, the idea of union, that is, the ability of states to work together in a single political organism. After all what is today's European Union? It is about the ability of nations and religions to communicate, the awareness that we must come to an understanding in the name of bonum publicum. The Commonwealth prided itself on its pacifism or anti-imperialism, it did not want to subjugate others by force.

Moreover, the noble republic had astonishingly much in common with the... American republicanism, that is, the construction of a state based on the pillars of equality, centered on the citizen and his freedom, while respecting the law. These were the values lived five centuries ago on the banks of the Vistula and the Neman, and they are still very relevant today. The important thing is that it was a community devoid of complexes. But once again for the record: We are talking about a community that cannot be compared with the one of today. The adventure of civic subjectivity did not include peasants, and to a limited extent, it included the bourgeoisie. On the other hand, the political organization of the Jews living in the Republic was very interesting. But that is another story altogether. We talk all the time about the political organization of the nobility. It is worth remembering this, but it is important not to forget the historical context in which we should speak about these phenomena.

– conversation and translation by Cezary Korycki

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Prof. Krzysztof Koehler is a poet, essayist, literary critic, prose writer, lecturer of Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski University in Warsaw. Deputy director of the Book Institute and in the past director of TVP Kultura. in 2014, his novel "Raguel's Granddaughter" was published. In 2016, he published „Rzeczpospolita. Obywatelskość. Wolność” ("Commonwealth. Citizenship. Freedom") and a collection of essays "Palus Sarmatica," for which he received the Identitas Prize. In 2020, he received the Four Pillars Literary Award for his life's work over the past thirty years (1989-2019). He is scientifically engaged in old Polish cultural heritage.

Main photo: "Sarmatia" based on a text by Pawel Huelle, directed by Krzysztof Babicki. Juliusz Osterwa Theater in Lublin, April 2008. Photo: PAP /Mirosław Trembecki
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