“The Golden Age of Poland”

 “The Golden Age of Poland” during the Renaissance occurred when Poland-Lithuania, the largest state within western Christianity was most tolerant in Europe, and had the most advanced citizen’s rights. Poland’s population of 11,000,000 included 10% or over one million free citizens within an area of over one million sq. km.  In the world history of the development of representative government the Polish Commonwealth of 1600 AD had a record number of free citizens not only in comparison with ancient republics of Athens and of Rome; but, also in comparison with the United States at the time of the American Revolution in XVIII century.


The indigenous democratic process of Poland was rooted in the Old Slavic tribal meetings called “wiec” (vyets) in Polish. It was a popular assembly in ancient and medieval Slavic tribal areas, comparable and contemporary with the “eccelesia” of classical Athens. The semantic derivation yields a meaning parallel to parliament which is related to the idea of sharing information and knowledge as apparent in the Polish words “wiec” and “wiedza,” or “popular assembly” and “knowledge,” respectively.


Recent DNA dated studies reaching back 5500 years ago in the area of the steppes of Russia, Ukraine, and historical Poland are described by David W. Anthony, professor of anthropology at Hartwick College in England. He has conducted extensive archaeological and DNA fieldwork in the Ukraine, Russia, and Kazakhstan the cultural and linguistic origin of the heartland of Eurasia which shaped the modern world according to Anthony’s book “THE HORSE, THE WHEEL, AND LANGUAGE: How Bronze-Age Riders From the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World.” (Illustrated. 553 pp. Princeton University Press. 2008).


The tradition of elective system in tribal democracies was strengthened in Poland by Europe’s unique Polish national defense system, based on an alliance of the king with the landowners. In the rest of Europe national defense was based on the king’s alliance with fortified towns as was the case within all of western Christianity. In Poland there was a unique alliance between the king and the masses of landowners. This happened because foreign immigrants flooded Polish towns after the devastation caused by the Mongol invasions starting in 1241 and it took generations for the immigrants to acquire Polish national identity.


The Act of Koszyce (1374) provided for no taxation without representation 400 years before the  American Revolution.  The Act of Koszyce (1374) started Poland on her way to becoming the main scene for development of civil liberties in Europe – especially, when England drifted in the direction of absolutism, and the Magna Carta Libertatum (1215) became ineffectual for several centuries. In Poland due process under the law was established 250 years earlier than in Gr. Britain. The first European civil rights were enacted and enforced in Poland and in Modern Europe in the acts of 1422-1433.

Due process was the basis of the legal system in Poland when absolutism reigned in the rest of Europe.  This happened because the middle nobility, allied with the royal court, won the power struggle against land-magnates.  The democracy of nobility (which in Poland represented about 10 percent of the population) was led by the middle nobility, which was acting as “the middle class” of the political nation of free citizens in the Polish Commonwealth.


The beginning of the process of formation of the republic of Polish nobility started in 1454 with the Act of Nieszawa, which some call the Magna Carta of the masses of Polish nobility of citizen-soldiers. It marked the beginning of the transformation of unicameral regional legislature with an open attendance into an orderly system of representation in a bicameral national parliament by 1493.  Thus, the maturity of the representative form of government was achieved in Poland. Polish State Records in 1463, known as Metryka Koronna, included the full text of a remarkable proposal for an international charter for peace, similar to the United Nations.


Regional Seymiks become platforms for political emancipation and a source of information about the affairs of state for the ordinary citizen.  Seymiks created the means for mutual consultations through duly elected representatives equipped with a real and clear mandate.  It was the beginning of reshaping the Polish monarchy into a republic of the nobility, which represented about 10 percent of the population (in some regions up to 20 percent).  Eventually by 1634, Polish nobility numbered over one million citizens.  


Poland created a unique civilization, which was in many respects more advanced than medieval and early modern Europe.  It became a major center for the development of civil liberties and a pioneer of the representative form of government.  The Polish Republic was by far more republican both in structure and in spirit than the constitutional monarchies of England and Sweden.  She was the very opposite of the absolutist systems of Russia, France, Austria, and Spain.


Democracy was also practiced in Poland. The Representatives returning from a session of the National Seym were obligated to attend „report-back” meetings in their regional legislation in order to give their formal report on the achievements of the national parliament.  The same sessions observed by the public and students of academies, also served to shape opinions on current affairs in every constituency. In fact it was an important element in shaping the culture of Poland and as unique in Europe as the “mass culture of nobility” which included one million citizens by 1600AD.


The Act of Seym of 1523 formulated the  Formula Processus, a code of courts of law standardizing legal procedures throughout the Polish Commonwealth.  It was the earliest standardization of legal procedures in Europe (in France for example, such a code was first instituted some 270 years later during the French Revolution). Because of this Roman letters would replace Gothic, thus, making printing more readable.


In 1532 a committee of the Seym was formed for the codification of all Pol­ish com­mon and written laws. It was the earliest such legislative project in Europe; the codification procedure was based on a pub­lic debate.  Printed proposals were made by the National Seym and sent to every one of the regional legislatures for examination and evaluation.  Written report from each Seymik was to be sent back to the National Seym to be proces­sed by the Law Codification Committee.


           The founding of the formal Polish Nobles’ Republic took place in 1569 during the conclusion of the Union of Lublin.  It was viewed as a necessary development in view of the approaching end of the Jagiellonian Dynasty as its last member had no male offspring.  The new republic was called Rzeczpospolita (zhech-pos-po-lee-tah), in Latin Respublica and now it is often referred to as the First Polish Republic (1569-1795).


       The  transformation of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth into a formal republic by the Union of Lublin was characterized as bringing “The Republic of Good Will … Free Men with Free.  Equals with Equal …”  There was a pride in Polish citizenship throughout the new Republic among its political nation of free citizens, which soon numbered one million people.


     During the Reformation Poland was a “haven for the heretics.” The principle that no one could be persecuted for his religious belief had always been recognized in Poland.  It became a law when the Toleration Act of Warsaw was passed in 1573 by the Seym.  The law now guaranteed religious freedom.  Civil rights of the free citizens lay at the root of the religious toleration in Poland; the health of democracy of the masses of Polish nobility was strong.  The 16th century was the Golden Age of Poland governed by the middle and lower nobility.  Polish diplomacy secured the  Postulata Polonica, or concessions in favor of Protestants persecuted in France.

           Greek Philosopher Aristotle (384BC-322BC) predicted that democracy is always threatened by oligarchy. That threat materialized in Poland when the political machines of land magnates succeeded in passing Law of Entails or the seniority succession law in 1589.  The Seym passed it under the excuse that it was needed to prevent disintegration of large estates which were to be protected by their legal status as maioratus or ordination inherited in full as an “ordinates” or the senior male; the Law of Entail was to preserve economic strength and military potential of the holdings of huge landowners, who unfortunately had the potential and in the XVII century did turn the republic into an oligarchy.  The fortress repair, the upkeep of garrisons, the winter quartering of troops, and maintaining a fixed quota of regiments in time of war were among the legal obligation of an “ordinatus.” 

           The dynamic growth of new land potentates was accompanied by transformation of former knights who owned land into gentlemen-farmers prospering on the grain trade.  The new law weakened the stabilizing effects of Polish law of succession according to which the family property was divided by all sons and daughters alike.  The new law did not provide safeguards against an eventual damage to the democratic process by the political machines of huge landowners who at times accumulated more land than all of Great Britain, Belgium, Holland or Ireland.  Political threat to the Polish democratic process by the political machines of huge estates, later known as latifundia, seriously increased with the passage of the Law of Entail.  The new law helped to make the 17th century the “Golden Age” of land magnates.


           Meantime democracy was practiced. The Representatives returning from a session of the National Seym were obligated to attend „report-back” meetings in their regional legislation in order to give their formal report on the achievements of the national parliament.  The same sessions observed by the public and students of academies, also served to shape opinions on current affairs in every constituency. In fact the legislative process was an important element in shaping the culture of Poland as unique in Europe, where national cultures were shaped by the royal court and towns.


Early interest in establishing an international rule of law in Poland was caused by a forgery committed by the German Armed Brethren, who obtained a temporary fief of Chełmno from Konrad I of Mazovia (1187-1247) in 1228 in the Act of Kruszwica. The temporary fief of Chełmno was obtained by the Teutonic Knights for the time needed to convert the Balto-Slavic Prussians to Christianity.


The forgery by the Teutonic Knights consisted of changing the text of the Act of Kruszwica into a permanent grant of the fief of Chełmno. This forgery caused the successive kings of Poland to look for an international legal procedure to amend the forgery and avoid an armed conflict over Prussia in which the Teutonic Knights committed genocide of the Balto-Slavic Prussians and violated the Christian principle that the license to convert is not a license to kill.


Eventually, the military triumphs of the union of Poland and Lithuania over the Teutonic Knight were soon paralleled by successes in diplomacy.  After their defeat by the Polish king, the armed monks of the Teutonic Order accused Poland of killing German missionaries and allying itself with pagans.  Theses accusations were to be investigated at the  Council of Constance, (1414-1418), one of the great diplomatic conferences of the Middle Ages. 


Paweł Włodkowicz, (Paulus Vladi­miri) of Brudzewo, Polish ambassador at the Council of Constance, served also as President of the University of Kraków.   He was a Profes­sor of Law.  In 1415 at the Council, Włodkowic proposed the first seven­teen ba­sic theses of international law founded on justice and toleration.  His proposal was based on the natural law and the premise that the license to convert is not a license to kill or expro­priate and that only voluntary conversion is valid.  He defined the principle of national self-determination, the international society, its functions, organs, and laws.  He began to formulate these laws for use by an international tribunal, which he proposed.  He justified only purely defensive wars. W³odkowicz advocated international mediation and arbitration and an international tribunal for the peaceful solution of conflicts among nations.  He argued that the Teutonic Order of armed monks lost its missionary character by committing mass murders and pillage.  Therefore, in reality, the German Order constituted a “Prussian heresy.”  On the other hand the Christianization of Lithuania by Poland represented the greatest medieval missionary deed. 


The Council of Constance accepted the arguments of the Polish Ambassador. The Establishing of due process under the law followed in Poland some 250 years earlier than in England. The ­­due legal process guaranteed the invio­lability of citizen’s person (who was not caught in the act of commit­ting a crime).  It was formulated in Poland for the first time in Europe, in the acts of 1422-1433.  This due process was the basis of the legal sys­tem in Poland when absolutism reigned in the rest of Europe­.