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Amidst the incessant influx of the Asiatic nations into Europe, during the slow decline of the Roman empire, and the migrations occasioned by their arrival, we should vainly attempt to trace the descent of the Poles. Whether they are derived from the Sarmatians, who, though likewise of Asiatic origin, were located on both sides of the Vistula long before the irruptions of the kindred barbarians, or from some horde of the latter, or, a still more probable hypothesis, from an amalgamation of the natives and new comers, must for ever remain doubtful. All that we can know with certainty is, that they formed part of the great Slavonic family which stretched from the Baltic to the Adriatic, and from the Elbe to the mouth of the Borysthenes. As vainly should we endeavour, from historic testimony alone, to ascertain the origin of this generic term slave, and the universality of its application. Conjecture may tell us, that as some of the more powerful tribes adopted it to denote their success in arms (its signification is glorious), other tribes, conceiving that their bravery entitled them to the same enviable appellation, assumed it likewise. It might thus become the common denomination of the old and new inhabitants, of the victors and the vanquished; the more readily, as most of the tribes comprehended under it well knew that the same cradle had once contained them. Other people, indeed, as the Huns or the Avars, subsequently arrived from more remote regions of Asia, and in the places where they forcibly settled, introduced a considerable modification of customs and of language: hence the diversity in both among the Slavonic nations—a diversity which has induced some writers to deny the identity of their common origin. But as, in the silence of history, affinity of language will best explain the kindred of nations, and will best assist us to trace their migrations, no fact can be more indisputable than that most of the tribes included in the generic term slavi were derived from the same common source, however various the respective periods of their arrival, and whatever changes were in consequence produced by struggles with the nations, by intestine wars, and by the irruption of other hordes dissimilar in manners and in speech. Between the Pole and the Russian is this kindred relation striking; and though it is fainter among the Hungarians from their incorporation with the followers of Attila, and among the Bohemians, from their long intercourse with the Teutonic nations, it is yet easily discernible. Of these Slavonic tribes, those which occupied the country bounded by Prussia and the Carpathian mountains, by the Bug and the Oder those especially who were located on both banks of the Vistula were the progenitors of the present Poles. The word Pole is not older than the tenth century, and seems to have been originally applied, not so much to the people as to the region they inhabited; polska in the Slavonic tongue signifying a level field or plain...
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Copyright © 2015 by S.A. Dunham
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BOOK I. THE CROWN HEREDITARY.
MONARCHS OF THE HOUSE OF PIAST, 962-1139.
HOUSE OF PIAST CONTINUED. ARISTOCRATIC RULERS.
HOUSE OF PIAST CONCLUDED. MONARCHY RESTORED.
DYNASTY OF THE JAGELLOS.
BOOK II. THE CROWN ELECTIVE.
FROM THE EXTINCTION OF THE JAGELLOS TO THE DEATH OF JOHN SOBIESKI.
FROM THE DEATH OF SOBIESKI TO THE ANNIHILATION OF THE REPUBLIC.
POLAND PARTIALLY RESTORED.
SOCIETY, CONSTITUTION, MANNERS, ETC. OF THE ANCIENT POLES.
APPENDIX A. DESTRUCTION OF POPIEL.
APPENDIX B. ESCAPE OF STANISLAS LECSZINSKI.
APPENDIX C. STATISTICAL VIEW OF POLAND.
AMIDST THE INCESSANT INFLUX OF the Asiatic nations into Europe, during the slow decline of the Roman empire, and the migrations occasioned by their arrival, we should vainly attempt to trace the descent of the Poles. Whether they are derived from the Sarmatians, who, though likewise of Asiatic origin, were located on both sides of the Vistula long before the irruptions of the kindred barbarians, or from some horde of the latter, or, a still more probable hypothesis, from an amalgamation of the natives and new comers, must for ever remain doubtful. All that we can know with certainty is, that they formed part of the great Slavonic family which stretched from the Baltic to the Adriatic, and from the Elbe to the mouth of the Borysthenes. As vainly should we endeavour, from historic testimony alone, to ascertain the origin of this generic term slave, and the universality of its application. Conjecture may tell us, that as some of the more powerful tribes adopted it to denote their success in arms (its signification is glorious), other tribes, conceiving that their bravery entitled them to the same enviable appellation, assumed it likewise. It might thus become the common denomination of the old and new inhabitants, of the victors and the vanquished; the more readily, as most of the tribes comprehended under it well knew that the same cradle had once contained them. Other people, indeed, as the Huns or the Avars, subsequently arrived from more remote regions of Asia, and in the places where they forcibly settled, introduced a considerable modification of customs and of language: hence the diversity in both among the Slavonic nations—a diversity which has induced some writers to deny the identity of their common origin. But as, in the silence of history, affinity of language will best explain the kindred of nations, and will best assist us to trace their migrations, no fact can be more indisputable than that most of the tribes included in the generic term slavi were derived from the same common source, however various the respective periods of their arrival, and whatever changes were in consequence produced by struggles with the nations, by intestine wars, and by the irruption of other hordes dissimilar in manners and in speech. Between the Pole and the Russian is this kindred relation striking; and though it is fainter among the Hungarians from their incorporation with the followers of Attila, and among the Bohemians, from their long intercourse with the Teutonic nations, it is yet easily discernible.
Of these Slavonic tribes, those which occupied the country bounded by Prussia and the Carpathian mountains, by the Bug and the Oder those especially who were located on both banks of the Vistula were the progenitors of the present Poles. The word Pole is not older than the tenth century, and seems to have been originally applied, not so much to the people as to the region they inhabited; polska in the Slavonic tongue signifying a level field or plain.
The Poles as a nation are not of ancient date. Prior to the ninth century they were split into a multitude of a rendered him worthy of the choice. CRACUS repressed the licentious, encouraged the peaceable, established tribunals for the administration of justice, and triumphed over all his enemies, domestic and foreign. He founded Cracow, whither he transferred the seat of his government.
LECH II.—His son, Lech II., ascended the ducal throne by a fratricide: he assassinated his elder brother in a wood; but he had the address to conceal for a time his share in that dark deed. But divine justice slumbered not his crime was discovered, and he was deposed and banished by his indignant subjects. The tender affection, however, which they bore to the memory of Cracus induced them to elevate his daughter Wenda to the throne.
WENDA. [750.]—This princess was of surprising beauty, of great talents, and of still greater ambition. Power she deemed too sweet to be divided with another, and she therefore resolutely refused all offers of marriage. Incensed at her haughtiness, or in the hope of accomplishing by force what persuasion had attempted in vain, Rudiger, one of her lovers, who was a German prince, adopted a novel mode of courtship. At the head of an army he invaded her dominions. She marched against him. When the two armies met, Rudiger again besought her to listen to his suit, and thereby spare the effusion of blood. The maiden was inexorable: she declared that no man should ever share her throne; that she would never become the slave of a husband, since, whoever he might be, he would assuredly love her person much less than her power. Her answer being spread among the officers of Rudiger, produced an effect which he little foresaw. Filled with admiration at the courage of the princess, whom they perceived hurrying from rank to rank in the act of stimulating her followers to the combat, and convinced that all opposition to her will would be worse than useless, they surrounded their chief, and asked him what advantage he hoped to gain from such an expedition. “If thou shouldst defeat the princess, will she pardon thee the loss of her troops? If thou art subdued, will she be more disposed to love thee?” The passion of Rudiger blinded him to the rational remonstrances of his followers: he persisted in his resolution of fighting; they refused to advance: in utter despair he laid hands on himself, and turned his dying looks towards the camp of the Poles. Wenda, we are told, showed no sign of sympathy at the tragical news, but returned triumphant to Cracow. Her own end was not less violent. Whether, as is asserted, to escape similar persecution, or, as is equally probable, from remorse at her own cruelty, having one day sacrificed to the gods, she threw herself into the waters of the Vistula and there perished.
With this princess expired the race of Cracus. Again, it is said, the fickle multitude divided the sovereign power, and subjected themselves to the yoke of twelve palatins. The two periods have evidently been confounded; either the power never existed, or an hypothesis, however, not very probable as this form of government was common to the Slavonic tribes, it may have been the only one admitted in Poland prior to the domination of the Piasts. Anarchy, we are told, was the immediate effect of this partition of power. The new chiefs were weak, indolent, and wicked; the tyrants of their subjects, and enemies of each other. In vain did the people groan; their groans were disregarded, and their efforts to shake, off the bondage they had imposed on themselves were rendered abortive by the power of their rulers, who always exhibited considerable energy when their privileges were threatened. The general wretchedness was increased by an invasion of the Hungarians, who had sprung from the same origin as the Poles, and who were inclined to profit by the dissensions between the chiefs and people. The palatins, whose duty it was to defend the country which they oppressed, were too conscious of their own weakness, and still more of their unpopularity, to risk an action with the enemy. Nothing but subjugation and ruin appeared to the dismayed natives, when both were averted by the genius of one man.
Fable.—Though but a simple soldier, Prezemislas aspired to the glory of liberating his country. One dark night he adopted an expedient which had the merit of novelty at least to recommend it, and which has never since been imitated by any other general. With the branches and barks of trees he formed images of men with lances, swords, and bucklers: these he smeared with certain substances proper to reflect the rays of the sun, and render the illusion more striking. He placed these on a hill on the border of a forest directly opposite to the Hungarian camp. The stratagem succeeded: the following morning some troops of the enemy were despatched to dislodge the audacious few who appeared to confide in the excellence of their position. As the assailants approached the plain, the reflection ceased, and they were surprised to find nothing but fantastic forms of trees. The same appearance, however, of armed soldiers was discovered at a distance; and it was universally believed that the Poles had fallen back to occupy a more tenable post. The Hungarians pursued until, artfully drawn into an ambuscade, they were enveloped and massacred. How to ensure the destruction of the rest was now the object of Prezemislas: it was attained by another stratagem scarcely less extraordinary. He clothed some of his followers in the garb and armour of the slain Hungarians, and marched them boldly towards the enemy’s camp, while another body of Poles, by circuitous paths, hastened towards the same destination. Having thus reached the outposts, the former suddenly fell on the astonished Pannonians; while the latter, rushing forwards from another direction, added to the bloody horrors of the scene. In vain did the invaders attempt a combined defence: before they could be formed into any thing like systematic order they were cut off almost to a man, notwithstanding individual acts of bravery which called forth the admiration of the assail ants.
The victor was rewarded with a sceptre; the twelve palatins were deposed: and he was thus confirmed in an authority undivided and absolute. Under the name of Lesko I., which he assumed from reverence to the celebrated founder of Gnesna, he reigned with equal glory and happiness. Unfortunately, however, for the natives, he left no children; the palatins armed, some to enforce the restitution of their alleged rights, others to seize on the supreme power. But the voice of the country, to which experience had at length taught a good lesson, declared so loudly against a partition of sovereignty, that the chiefs ceased to pursue a common interest; each laboured for himself. According to ancient usage, the people were assembled to fill the vacant throne by their suffrages. But to choose where the pretensions of the candidates were, to outward appearance, nearly balanced, and yet where the consequences of an improper choice might be for ever fatal to liberty, was difficult. Where the risk was so great, they piously concluded that it was safer to leave the event to the will of the gods than to human foresight.
A horse-race was decreed, in which the crown was to be the prize of victory. One of the candidates had recourse to artifice: the course, which lay along a vast plain on the banks of the Pradnik, he planted with sharp iron points, and covered them with sand. In the centre, however, he left a space over which he might pass without danger; but lest he should accidentally diverge from it, he caused his horse to be shod with iron plates, against which the points would be harmless. Every thing seemed to promise success to his roguish ingenuity, when the secret was discovered by two young men, as they were one day amusing themselves on the destined course. One of them was silent through fear; the other through cunning. On the appointed day the candidates arrived, the race was opened, and the innumerable spectators waited the result with intense anxiety. The inventor of the stratagem left all the rest far behind him except the youth last mentioned, who kept close to his horse’s heels; and who, just as the victor was about to claim the prize, exposed the unworthy trick to the multitude. The former was immediately sacrificed to their fury; and the latter, as the reward of his courageous conduct, notwithstanding the meanness of his birth, was invested with the ensigns of sovereignty.
LESKO II. [804—810.]—The new duke humble enough to remember, and rational enough to acknowledge, his low extraction. He preserved, with religious care, the garments which he had worn in his lowly fortunes, and on which he often gazed with greater satisfaction than on his regal vestments. His temperance, his love of justice, his zeal for the good of his people, are favourite themes of the old chroniclers.
LESKO III. [810—815.]—Lesko III. inherited the virtues no less than the name of his father; for though of his twenty-one sons one only was legitimate, incontinency would scarcely be considered a blemish in a pagan and a Slave. After a short but brilliant reign, ennobled by success in war and wisdom in peace, he divided his dominions among his sons, subjecting all, however, to the authority of his lawful successor Popiel I.
POPIEL I. [815.]—Of this prince little is known beyond his jealousy of his brothers, and his addiction to debauchery. After a base and ignoble life he was succeeded by his son, Popiel II., while yet a child.
POPIEL II.—The fostering care of the uncles, whose fidelity appears to have been as rare as it was honourable, preserved the throne to the chief of their house. But the prince showed them no gratitude; he was, indeed, incapable of such a sentiment: every day exhibited to his anxious guardians some new feature of depravity, which, with a commendable prudence, they endeavoured to conceal from the nation, in the hope that increasing years would bring reformation. Their pious exhortations were in vain: he proceeded from bad to worse; he associated with none but the dissipated,—"with drunkards, spendthrifts, and fornicators,"—or with mimics and jesters. To correct one of his vices at least, a wife was procured for him: the expedient failed; it had even a mischievous effect, since his consort was avaricious and malignant, and was but too successful in making him the instrument of her designs. On reaching his majority, his passions burst forth with fury: no woman was safe from his lust, no man from his revenge. His extortions, his debaucheries, his cruelty, at length exhausted the patience of his people, who resolved to set bounds to his excesses. The formidable confederacy was headed by his uncles, who sacrificed the ties of blood to their patriotism or their ambition. To dissolve it, and at the same time to gratify his revenge, he was stimulated alike by his own malignity and by the counsels of his wife. He feigned sickness, sent for his uncles, as if to make his peace with them, and poisoned them in the wine which was produced for their entertainment. He even carried his wickedness so far as to refuse the rites of sepulture to his victims.
Fable.—But, say the chroniclers, divine justice prepared a fit punishment for this Sardanapalus and Jezebel. From the unburied corpses sprung a countless multitude of rats, of an enormous size, which immediately filled the palace, and sought out the guilty pair, and their two children. In vain were great numbers destroyed, greater swarms advanced. In vain did the ducal family enclose themselves within a circle of fire; the boundary was soon passed by the ferocious animals, which, with unrelenting constancy, aimed at them and them alone. They fled to another element, which availed them as little. The rats followed them to a neighbouring lake, plunged into the water, and fixed their teeth in the sides of the vessel, in which they would soon have gnawed holes sufficient to let in the water and sink it, had not Popiel commanded the sailors to land him on an island near at hand. In vain; his inveterate enemies were on shore as soon as he. His attendants now recognised the finger of Heaven, and left him to his fate. Accompanied by his wife and children, he now fled to a neighbouring tower; he ascended the highest pinnacle: still they followed; neither doors nor bars could resist them. His two sons were first devoured, then the duchess, then himself, and so completely that not a bone remained of the four.
With Popiel was extinguished the legitimate race of royalty; but the sons of the murdered uncles remained, the eldest of whom, with the aid of his brother, aspired to the throne. Again the palatins stepped forth to vindicate the ancient form of government. The two parties disputed, quarrelled, and, lastly, armed their adherents to decide the question by force; but the more enlightened portion of the nation was not convinced that a problem affecting the happiness or misery of millions ought to be resolved in such a way. Two assemblies were successively consulted at Kruswick, to discuss the respective claims of monarchy and oligarchy: but the forces, if not the arguments, of the two parties were so nearly equal that nothing was decided. Both were preparing to try the efficacy of arms, when Heaven, in pity to the people, again interfered, and miraculously filled the vacant throne.
Fable.—There dwelt in Kruswick a poor but virtuous man, named Piast; so poor indeed that his wants were but scantily supplied by a small piece of ground which he cultivated with his own hands, and so virtuous that the blessings of thousands accompanied his steps. He had a wife and a son, both worthy of him. He lived contented in his poverty, which he had no wish to remove, since he had wisdom enough to perceive that the state most exempt from artificial wants is the most favourable to virtue, and consequently to happiness. When the time arrived that his son should be first shorn of his locks of hair and receive a name,—a custom of great antiquity among the pagan Slavi, he invited, as was usual on such occasions, his neighbours to the ceremony. On the day appointed, two strangers arrived with the rest, and were admitted with the hospitality so honourable to the people. Piast laid before his guests all he could furnish for their entertainment: that all, he observed, was little; but he hoped the spirit with which it was offered would compensate for the lack of good cheer. They fell to the scanty stock of viands and meal, when, lo! a miracle! both were multiplied prodigiously! the more they ate and drank, the more the tables groaned under the weight of the viands! The portent was spread abroad with rapidity. Numbers daily flocked to the peasant’s house to share his hospitality, and to witness the miraculous increase of his provisions. A scarcity of these good things at that time afflicted the place, through the influx of so many thousands who met for the choice of a government. All hastened to Piast, who entertained them with princely liberality during several successive weeks. “Who so fit to rule,” was the universal cry, of as this holy man, this favourite of the gods! “Prince and palatin desisted from their respective pretensions, and joined their suffrages to that of the people. Piast was unanimously elected, in the year 842, to the vacant dignity; but so great was his reluctance to accept the glittering honour, that he would have remained for ever in his then humble condition, had not the two identical strangers, whom he found to be gods, and whom later Christian writers consider two angels, or at least two blessed martyrs, again favoured him with a visit, and prevailed on him to sacrifice his own ease to the good of the nation.
PIAST.—The reign of Piast was the golden age of Poland. No foreign wars, no domestic commotions, but respect from without, abundance and contentment within, signalised his wise, firm, and paternal administration. The horror with which he regarded the scene of Popiel’s guilt and punishment, made him abandon the place of his birth and transfer his court to Gnesna, which thus became a second time the capital of the country.
ZIEMOWIT.—Ziemowit’s was no less glorious. He was the first chief who introduced regular discipline into the armies of Poland. Before his time they had fought without order or system: their onset had been impetuous, and their retreat as sudden. He marshalled them in due array; taught them to surrender their own will to that of their officers; to move as one vast machine obedient to the force which rules it; and whenever fortune was adverse, to consult their safety, not in flight, but in a closer and more determined union, in a vigorous concentrated resistance. The Hungarians, the Moravians, the Russians, who had insulted the country under the feeble sway of Popiel, and who had despised the inexperience of the son of Piast, were soon taught to fear him and to sue for peace: Ziemowit was satisfied with the terror produced by his arms; he thirsted not after conquest; he loved his subjects too well to waste their blood in gratification of a selfish ambition. Their welfare was his only care, their gratitude and affection his only reward. An able captain, an enlightened statesman, an affable patriotic sovereign, his person was adored during life, and his memory long revered after death.
LESKO IV. [892—921.]—His son and successor, LESKO IV., successfully imitated all his virtues but one. This prince refrained from war, making all his glory to consist in promoting the internal happiness of the people. His moderation, his justice, his active zeal, his enlightened care, were qualities, however, not very acceptable to a martial and ferocious people, who longed for war, and who placed all greatness in conquest.
ZEMOMYSL. [921—962.]—Of the same pacific disposition, and of the same estimable virtues, was ZEMOMYSL, the son and successor of Lesko. For the same honourable reason, the reign of this prince furnishes no materials for history. The tranquil unobtrusive virtues must be satisfied with self-approbation, and a consciousness of the divine favour; the more splendid and mischievous qualities only attain immortality. That men’s evil deeds are written in brass, their good ones in water, is more than poetically just.
Zemomysl, however, has one claim to remembrance, which posterity has not failed to recognise: he was the father of Miecislas, the first Christian duke of Poland, with whom opens the authentic history of the country.
This fifth prince of the house of Piast is entitled to the remembrance of posterity; not merely from his being the first Christian ruler of Poland, but from the success with which he abolished paganism, and enforced the observance of the new faith throughout his dominions. He who could effect so important a revolution without bloodshed, must have been no common character.
When the duke assumed the reins of sovereignty, both he and his subjects were strangers to Christianity, even by name. At that time almost all the kingdoms of the North were shrouded in idolatry: a small portion of Saxons, indeed, had just received the light of the Gospel, and so had some of the Hungarians; but its beams were as yet feeble, even in those countries, and were scarcely distinguishable amidst the Egyptian darkness around. Accident, if that term can be applied to an event in which Christian philosophers at least can recognise the hand of Heaven, is said to have occasioned his conversion. By the persuasion of his nobles, he demanded the hand of Dombrowka, daughter of Boleslas, king of Hungary. Both father and daughter refused to favour so near a connection with a pagan; but both declared, that if he would consent to embrace the faith of Christ his proposal would be accepted. After some deliberation he consented: he procured instructors, and was soon made acquainted with the doctrines which he was required to believe, and the duties he was bound to practise. The royal maiden was accordingly conducted to his capital ; and the day which witnessed his regeneration by the waters of baptism, also beheld him receive another sacrament, that of marriage.
The zeal with which Miecislas laboured for the conversion of his subjects, left no doubt of the sincerity of his own. Having dismissed his seven concubines, he issued an order for the destruction of the idols throughout the country. He appears to have been obeyed without much opposition. Some of the nobles, indeed, would have preserved their ancient altars from violation; but they dreaded the power of their duke, who, in his administration, exhibited a promptitude and vigour previously unknown, and who held an almost boundless sway over the bulk of the people. His measures seem at first to have been regarded with disapprobation; but the influence of his personal character secured the submission of the people, especially when they found that their deities were too weak to avenge themselves. The extirpation, however, of an idolatrous worship was not sufficient; the propagation of a pure one was the great task, a task which required the union of moderation with firmness, of patience with zeal. Happily they were found in the royal convert, and still more in his consort. Instructions were obtained from pope John XIII.; seven bishoprics, and two archbishoprics, all well endowed, attested the ardour and liberality of the duke. He even accompanied the harbingers of the Gospel into several parts of his dominions, aiding them by his authority, and inspiriting them by his example. By condescending to the use of persuasion, reasoning, remonstrance, the royal missionary effected more with his barbarous subjects than priest or prelate, though neither showed any lack of zeal, or paused in the good work. The duchess imitated his example; her sweetness of manner, her affability, her patience of contradiction, prevailed where an imperious behaviour would have failed.
The nobles, being the fewest in number, and the most easily swayed, were the first gained over. To prove their sincerity, when present at public worship, and just before the priest commenced reading the Gospel for, the day, at the intonation by the choir of the Gloria tibi, Domine! they half drew their sabres, thereby showing that they were ready to defend their new creed with their blood. Their example, the preaching of the missionaries, and, above all, the entire co-operation of their duke, at length prepared the minds of the people for the universal reception of Christianity; so that when he issued his edict in 980, that every Pole, who had not already submitted to the rite, should immediately repair to the waters of baptism, he was obeyed without murmuring. They were subsequently confirmed in the faith by the preaching of St. Adalbert, whose labours in Bohemia, Hungary, Poland, and Prussia, and whose martyrdom in the last-named country, then covered with the darkest paganism, have procured him a veneration in the north little less than apostolic.
When we consider the difficulties with which the new faith had to contend, among a people so deeply plunged in the vices inherent in their ancient superstitions, we shall not be surprised that fourteen years of assiduous exertions were required for so great a change; we shall rather be at a loss to account, on human grounds at least, for the comparative facility with which it was effected. Drunkenness, sensuality, rapes, plunder, bloodshed even at their entertainments, were things to which they had been addicted from time immemorial; and to be compelled to relinquish such enjoyments as these they naturally considered as a tyrannical interference with their liberties. The severe morality of the Gospel, and the still severer laws which the new prelates, or rather the duke, decreed to enforce it, must have been peculiarly obnoxious to men of strong passions, rendered stronger by long indulgence, and fiercely swayed by that impatience which is so characteristic of the Slavonic nations. If Miecislas was persuaded to dismiss his concubines, and thereby overcome his strongest propensity at the mere call of duty, more powerful motives were necessary with his subjects, if any faith is to be had in the statement of a contemporary writer. And, after all, the reformation in manners was very imperfect. It was probably on account of their vices that pope Benedict refused to erect Poland into a kingdom, though the honour was eagerly sought by the duke, and though it was granted at the same time to the Hungarians. There are not wanting writers to assert that the royal convert himself forfeited the grace of his baptism, and relapsed into his old enormities; but there appears little foundation for the statement.
While Miecislas was thus occupied in forwarding the conversion of the nation, he was not unfrequently called to defend it against the ambition or the jealousy of his neighbours. In 968 he was victorious over the Saxons, but desisted from hostilities at the imperial command of Otho I., whose feudatory he acknowledged himself. Against the son of that emperor, Otho II., he leagued himself with other princes who espoused the interests of Henry of Bavaria; but, like them, he was compelled to submit, and own not only the title but the supremacy of Otho, in 973. He encountered a more formidable competitor in the Russian grand duke, Uladimir the Great, who, after triumphing over the Greeks, invaded Poland in 986, and reduced several towns. The Bug now bounded the western conquests of the descendants of Ruric, whose object henceforth was to push them to the very confines of Germany. But Miecislas arrested, though he could not destroy, the torrent of invasion: if he procured no advantage over the Russian, he opposed a barrier which induced Uladimir to turn aside to enterprises which promised greater facility of success. His last expedition (989—991) was against Boleslas, duke of Bohemia. In this contest he was assisted with auxiliaries furnished by the emperor Otho III., whose favour he had won, and by other princes of the empire. After a short but destructive war, the Bohemian, unable to oppose the genius of Miecislas, sued for peace; but this triumph was fatal to the peace of the two countries. Hence the origin of lasting strife between two nations, whose descent, manners, and language were the same, and between whom, consequently, less animosity might have been expected.
But contiguity of situation is seldom, perhaps never, favourable to the harmony of nations. Silesia, which was the frontier province of Poland, was thenceforth exposed to the incursions of the Bohemians, and doomed to experience the curse of its limitrophic position.
Miecislas died in 999, universally regretted by his subjects.
BOLESLAS I., surnamed Chrobri, or the Lion-hearted, son of Miecislas and Dombrowka, ascended the ducal throne A.D. 999, in his thirty-second year, amidst the acclamations of his people.
From his infancy this prince had exhibited qualities of a high order,—great capacity of mind, undaunted courage, and an ardent zeal for his country’s glory. Humane, affable, generous, he was early the favourite of the Poles, whose affection he still further gained by innumerable acts of kindness to individuals. Unfortunately, however, his most splendid qualities were neutralised by his immoderate ambition, which, in the pursuit of its own gratification, too often disregarded the miseries it occasioned.
The fame of Boleslas having reached the ears of Otho III., that emperor, who was then in Italy, resolved, on his return to Germany, to take a route somewhat circuitous, and pay the prince a visit. He had before vowed a pilgrimage to the shrine of St. Adalbert, whose hallowed remains had just been transported from Prussia to Gnesna. He was received by Boleslas with a magnificence which surprised him, and a respect which won his esteem. No sooner were his devotions performed, than he testified his gratitude, or perhaps consulted his policy, by elevating the duchy into a kingdom, which he doubtless intended should for ever remain a fief of the empire. Boleslas was solemnly anointed by the archbishop of Gnesna; but the royal crown, it is said, was placed on his head by imperial hands. To bind still closer the alliance between the two princes, Rixa, a niece of Otho, was affianced to the son of the new king. The emperor returned home with an arm of St. Adalbert, which he probably considered as cheaply procured in exchange for a woman and a title.
The king was not long allowed to wear his new honours unmolested: he soon proved that they could not have been placed on a worthier brow. His first and most inveterate enemies were the Bohemians, who longed to grasp Silesia. Two easy triumphs disconcerted the duke of that country, who began to look around him for allies. The same disgrace still attended his arms; his fields were laid waste; his towns pillaged; his capital taken, with himself and his eldest son; the loss of sovereignty, of liberty, and soon of his eyes, convinced him, when too late, how terrific an enemy he had provoked. For a time his country remained the prey of the victor; but the generosity or policy of Boleslas at length restored the ducal throne to Ulric, the second son of the fallen chief. All Germany was alarmed at the progress of the Polish arms. Even the emperor, Henry of Bavaria, joined the confederacy now formed to humble the pride of Boleslas. Superior numbers chased him from Bohemia, dethroned Ulric, and elevated the elder brother, the lawful heir, to the vacant dignity. The king returned to espouse the interests of Ulric; but, though he was often successful, he was as often, not indeed defeated, but constrained to elude the combined force of the empire. Ulric did at length obtain the throne, not through Boleslas but through Henry, whose cause he strengthened by his adhesion. Peace was frequently made during these obscure contests, and the king was thereby enabled to repress the incursions of his enemies on other parts of his frontier; but none could be of long continuance, where, on both sides, the love of war was a passion scarcely equalled in intensity even by ambition. In one of his expeditions, Boleslas penetrated as far as Holstein, reducing the towns and fortresses in his way, and filling all Germany with the deepest consternation. His conquests, however, were but transiently held; if he found it easy to make them, to retain them in opposition to the united efforts of the princes of the empire required far more numerous armies than he could raise. He fell back on Silesia to repair the disasters sustained by the arms of his son Miecislas, whose talents were inadequate to the command of a separate force.
To recount the endless alternations of victory and failure during these obscure contests would exhibit a dry record—dry as the most lifeless chronicle of the times. It must be sufficient to observe, that what little advantage was gained fell to the lot of Boleslas, until the peace of Bautzen, in 1018, restored peace to the lacerated empire.
But the most famous of the wars of Boleslas were with the dukes of Russia. After the death of Uladimir the Great, who had imprudently divided his estates among his sons, the eldest, Swiatopelk, prince of Twer, endeavouring to unite the other principalities under his sceptre, was expelled the country by the combined forces of his enraged brothers. He took refuge in Poland, and implored the assistance of the king. Boleslas immediately armed, not so much to avenge the cause of Swiatopelk as to regain possession of the provinces which Uladimir had wrested from Miecislas. He marched against Yaroslaf, who had seized on the dominions of the fugitive brother, and whom he encountered on the banks of the Bug. For some time he hesitated to pass the river in the face of a powerful enemy; but a Russian soldier from the opposite bank one day deriding his corpulency, he plunged into the water with the most intrepid of his followers, and the action commenced. It was obstinately contested, but victory in the end declared for the king. He pursued the fugitives to the walls of Kiow, which he immediately invested and took. Swiatopelk was restored, but he made an unworthy return to his benefactor; he secretly instigated the Kiovians to massacre the Poles, whose superiority he envied, and whose presence annihilated his authority. His treachery was discovered, and his capital nearly destroyed, by his incensed allies, who returned home laden with immense plunder. The Russians pursued in a formidable body, and the Bug was again destined to behold the strife of the two armies: again did victory shine on the banners of Boleslas, who, on this occasion, almost annihilated the assailants. Thus ended this first expedition: the second was not less decisive. Yaroslaf had reduced the Polish garrison left by the king in Kiow, had seized on that important city, and penetrated into the Polish provinces, which submitted at his approach. A third time was the same river to witness the same sanguinary scenes. As usual, after a sharp contest, the Russians yielded the honour of the day to their able and brave antagonist, who hurried forward in the career of conquest: but his name now rendered further victories unnecessary; it struck terror in the hearts of the Russians, who hastened to acknowledge his supremacy. On this occasion he appears to have conducted himself with a moderation which does the highest honour to his heart: he restored the prisoners he had taken, and after leaving garrisons in the more important places, returned to his capital to end his days in peace.
Towards the close of life, Boleslas is said to have looked back on his ambitious undertakings with sorrow: they had added nothing to his prosperity, but had exhausted his people. He now began to regret that he had not devoted his time, and talents, and means, to objects which would have secured for them happiness for himself, a glory far more substantial than his brilliant deeds could bestow. Perhaps, too, he began to be apprehensive of the account which a greater potentate than himself might exact from him. Certain it is, that the last six years of his reign were passed in the most laborious efforts to repair the evils he had occasioned, to improve alike the temporal and moral condition of his people. He administered justice with impartiality. Delinquents he punished with inflexible severity; the meritorious he honoured and enriched. Knowing the infirmity of his own judgments, he associated with him twelve of his wisest nobles. With their aid he redressed the wrongs of his subjects, not only in his capital but in various parts of his kingdom, which he traversed from time to time to enquire into the way justice was administered by the local magistrates. Nothing escaped his activity; it destroyed oppression, and ensured triumph to innocence. Perhaps the severity of his labours, which allowed of no intermission by day, and which were often continued during the silence of night, hastened his end. Having convoked an assembly at Gnesna, in which his son was nominated his successor, he prepared for the approaching change. With his dying breath he exhorted that prince to favour the deserving, by conferring on them the distinction of wealth and honours; to love his God; to reverence the ministers of religion; to cherish virtue; to flee from pleasure; to reign by justice, and to inspire his subjects with love rather than fear. He died shortly afterwards, in 1025, leaving behind him the reputation of the greatest sovereign of his age; and, what is far more estimable, the universal lamentations of his subjects proved that he had nobly deserved their affectionate appellation of Father. Poland had never seen such a king as the last six years of his life exhibited: he was the true founder of his country’s greatness.
Miecislas II. ascended the throne of his father, in 1025, in his thirty-fifth year; an age when the judgment is reasonably expected to be ripened, and the character formed. But this prince had neither; and he soon showed how incapable he was of governing so turbulent a people as the Poles, or of repressing his ambitious neighbours. Absorbed in sloth, or in pleasures still more shameful, he scarcely deigned to waste a glance on the serious duties of royalty; and it was soon discovered that his temperament fitted him rather for the luxurious courts of southern Asia than for the iron region of Sarmatia.
Yaroslaf, the restless duke of Kiow, was the first to prove to the world how Poland had suffered by a change of rulers. He rapidly reduced some fortresses, desolated the eastern provinces, and would doubtless have carried his ferocious arms to the capital, had not the Poles without a signal from their king, who quietly watched the progress of the invasion, flocked to the national standard, and compelled this second Sardanapalus to march against the enemy. The duke, however, had no wish to run the risk of an action: with immense spoil, and a multitude of prisoners, he returned to his dominions in the consciousness of perfect impunity. Miecislas, thinking that by his appearance in the field he had done enough for glory, led back his murmuring troops to his capital; nor did the sacrifice of his father’s conquests draw one sigh, not even one serious thought, from the Confirmed voluptuary, who esteemed every moment abstracted from his sensual enjoyments as a lamentable Joss of time and life; a loss, however, that he was resolved to repair by more than usual devotion to the only deities he worshipped. For the mead of Odin, the purple juice of Bacchus, and the delights of the Cytherean goddess, he deemed no praise too exalted, no incense too precious. From this dream of sensuality he was at length rudely awakened, not by the revolt of the Bohemians, or that of the Moravians, whose countries his father had rendered, for a short time, tributary to Poland; not by the reduction of his strongest fortresses, nor even by the escape of whole provinces from his feeble grasp, but by the menaces of his people, who displayed their martial lines in front of his palace, and insisted on his accompanying them to crush the wide-spread spirit of insurrection. He reluctantly marched, not to subdue, but to make an idle display of force which he knew not how to wield. The Bohemians were too formidable to be assailed; the Moravians easily escaped his unwilling pursuit, and suffered him to wreak his vengeance if, indeed, he was capable of such a sentiment on a few miserable villages, or on such straggling parties of their body as accident threw in his way. As the enemy no longer appeared openly, he naturally wished it to be believed that none existed; and his discontented troops were again led back from the inglorious scene. He now hoped to pass his days in unmolested enjoyment; but vexation on vexation! the Pomeranians revolted. His first impulse was to treat with his rebellious subjects, and grant them a part at least of their demands, as the price of the ease he courted; but this disgraceful expedient was furiously rejected by his nobles, who a third time forced him to the field. In this expedition he was accompanied by three Hungarian princes, who had sought a refuge in his dominions from the violence of an ambitious kinsman. Through their ability, and the valour of the Poles, victory declared for him. With all his faults he was not, it appears, incapable of gratitude, since he conferred both the hand of his daughter and the government of Pomerania on Bela, the most valiant of the three princes. Now, he had surely done enough to satisfy the pugnacious clamours of his people. The Bohemians, the Moravians, and the Saxons, whom Boleslas the Great had subjugated, were, indeed, in open and successful revolt; but he could safely ask the most martial of his nobles what chance did there exist of again reducing those fierce rebels? And though his cowardice might be apparent enough, no wise man would blame the prudence which declined to enter on a contest where success could scarcely be considered possible. But Miecislas was indifferent to popular opinion: to avoid the grim visages of his nobles, which he hated no less than he feared, he retreated wholly from society, and, surrounded by a few companions in debauchery, abandoned himself without restraint to his favourite excesses. The consequences were such as might be expected. He at length experienced the fatal truth, that whatever sullies the heart also saddens it; that, however closely connected vice and pleasure may appear at a distance, the near observer finds “a gulf between them which cannot be passed.” He fell into a languor: the inevitable effect of his incontinency which excluded enjoyment, and which rendered him insensible to every thing but the touch of pain. Already enfeebled in the prime of life, this wretched voluptuary found his body incapable of sustaining the maladies produced by continued intemperance, his exhausted mind still less able to bear the heavy load of remorse which oppressed it. Madness ensued, which soon terminated in death.
Fortunately for humanity, there are few evils without some intermixture of good. If Miecislas the Idle was cowardly, dissipated, and despicable, there were moments when he appeared sensible of the duties obligatory on his station. To him Poland was indebted for the distribution of the country into palatinates, each presided over by a local judge, and consequently for the more speedy and effectual administration of justice. He is also said to have founded a new bishopric.
Poland was now doomed to experience the fatal truth, that any permanent government, no matter how tyrannical, weak, or contemptible, is beyond all measure superior to anarchy. Miecislas the Idle left a son of an age too tender to be intrusted with the reins of the monarchy; and his widow Rixa was accordingly declared regent of the kingdom, and guardian of the prince. But that queen was unable to control the haughtiness of chiefs who despised the sway of a woman, and who detested her as a German; of all Germans, too, the most hated, as belonging to the archducal house of Austria. She added to their discontent by the evident partiality she showed towards her own countrymen, of whom it is said numbers flocked to share in the spoils of Poland. Complaints followed on the one side, without redress on the other; these were succeeded by remonstrances, then by menaces, until a confederacy was formed by the discontented nobles, whose ostensible object was to procure the dismissal of foreigners, but whose real one was to seize on the supreme authority. They succeeded in both: all foreigners were expelled the kingdom, and with them the regent. Whether Casimir, her son, shared her flight, or immediately followed her, is uncertain; but Europe soon beheld both in Saxony, claiming the protection of their kinsman, the emperor Conrad II.
The picture, drawn even by native historians, of the miseries sustained by the country after the expulsion of the queen and prince, is in the highest degree revolting. There was, say they, no authority, no law, and consequently no obedience. Innumerable parties contended for the supreme power; and the strongest naturally triumphed, but not until numbers were exterminated. As there was no tribunal to which the disputants could appeal, no chief, no council, no house of legislature, the sword only could decide their pretensions. The triumph was brief: a combination still more powerful arose to hurl the successful party from its blood-stained pre-eminence; and this latter, in turn, became the victim of a new association, as guilty and as short-lived as itself. Then the palatins or governors of provinces asserted their independence of the self-constituted authority at Gnesna. The whole country, indeed, was cursed by the lawless rule of petty local sovereigns, who made an exterminating war on each other, and ravaged each other’s territories with as much impunity as greater potentates. One Masos, who had been cup-bearer to the late king, seized by force on the country between the Vistula, the Narew, and the Bug, which he governed despotically, and which to this day is named from him, Masovia.
But a still greater evil was the general rising of the peasants, whose first object was to revenge themselves of the petty tyrants that oppressed them, but who, through the very success of the attempt, were, as must in all times and in all places be the case, only the more incited to greater undertakings. However beautiful the gradation of ranks which law and custom have established in society, the lowest class will not admire it, but will assuredly endeavour to rise higher in the scale, whenever opportunity holds out a prospect of success. Hence the necessity of laws backed by competent authority to curb this everlasting tendency of the multitude: let the barrier which separates the mob from the more favoured orders be once weakened, and it will soon be thrown down to make way for the most tremendous of inundations, one that will sweep away the landmarks of society, level all that is noble or valuable, and leave nothing but a vast waste, where the evil passions of men may find a fit theatre for further conflict. Such, we are told, was the state of Poland during the universal reign of anarchy. The peasants, from ministers of righteous justice, became plunderers and murderers, and were infected with all the vices of human nature. Armed bands scoured the country, seizing on all that was valuable, consuming all that could not be carried away, violating the women, massacring old and young; priests and bishops were slain at the altar; nuns ravished in the depths of the cloisters. To add to horrors which had never before, perhaps, been paralleled among Christian nations, came the scourge of foreign invasion, and that too in the most revolting forms. On one side Predislas duke of Bohemia sacked Breslaw, Posnania, and Gnesna, consuming every thing with fire and sword; on another advanced the savage Yaroslaf, who made a desert as he passed along. Had not the former been recalled by preparations of war against his own dominions, and had not the latter thought proper to return home when he had amassed as much plunder as could be carried away, and made as many captives (to be sold as slaves) as his followers could guard, Poland had no longer been a nation. Even now she was little better than a desert. Instead of the cheerful hum of men, her cities exhibited smoking ruins, and her fields nothing but the furrows left by “the plough of desolation.” Countless thousands had been massacred; thousands more had fled from the destroying scene. Those who remained had little hope that the present calm would continue; the evil power was rather exhausted than spent. But the terrific lesson had not been lost on them; they now looked forward to the restoration of the monarchy as the only means of averting foreign invasion, and the heavier curse of anarchy. An assembly was convoked by the archbishop at Gnesna. All, except a few lawless chiefs who hoped to perpetuate a state of things where force only was recognised, voted for a king; and, after some deliberation, an overwhelming majority decreed the recal of prince Casimir.
But where was the prince to be found! No one knew the place of his retreat. A deputation waited on queen Rixa, who was at length persuaded to reveal it. But here, too, an unexpected difficulty intervened: Casimir had actually taken the cowl in the abbey of Clugni. The deputies were not dismayed; they proceeded to his cloister, threw themselves at his feet, and besought him with tears to have pity on his country. “We come unto thee, dearest prince, in the name of all the bishops, barons, and nobles of the Polish kingdom, since thou alone canst restore our country and thy rightful heritage.” They prayed him to return them good for evil, and drew so pathetic a picture of the woes of his native land, that he acceded to their wishes. He allowed an application to be made to Benedict IX. to disengage him from his monastic engagements, who, after exacting some concessions from the Polish nobles and clergy, absolved him from his vows. He accordingly bade adieu to his cell, and set out to gratify the expectations of his subjects, by whom he was received with the most enthusiastic demonstrations of joy, and justly hailed as their saviour.
Casimir, surnamed the Restorer, proved himself worthy of the confidence reposed in him by his people; no higher praise can be given him than that he was equal to the difficulties of his situation. His first care was to repair the evils which had so long afflicted the country. The great he reduced to obedience, some by persuasion, others by firm but mild acts of authority; and, what was more difficult, he reconciled them to each other. The affection borne towards his person, and the need which all had of him, rendered his task not indeed easy, but certainly practicable. The submission of the nobles occasioned that of the people, whose interests were no less involved in the restoration of tranquillity and happiness. Where there was so good a disposition for a basis, the superstructure could not fail to correspond. The towns were rebuilt and repeopled; industry began to flourish; the laws to resume their empire over brute force; and hope to animate those whom despair had driven to recklessness.
Nor was this politic prince less successful in his foreign relations. To conciliate the power of Yaroslaf, the fiercest and most formidable of his enemies, he proposed an alliance to be still more closely cemented by his marriage with a sister of the duke. His offer was accepted, and he was also promised a considerable body of Prussian auxiliaries to assist him in reconquering Silesia, Pomerania, and the province of Masovia, which still recognised the rebel Masos.
This adventurer gave him more trouble than would have been anticipated. Though signally defeated by the king, he had yet address enough to assemble another army, chiefly of pagan Prussians, much more numerous than any he had previously commanded. Casimir was for a moment discouraged; his forces had been weakened even by his successes; and he apprehended that, even should victory again declare for him, he would be left without troops to make head against his other enemies. At this time he is said to have looked back with sincere regret to the peaceful cloister he had abandoned. But this weakness soon gave way to thoughts more worthy of him: he met the enemy on the banks of the Vistula, when a sanguinary contest afforded him an occasion of displaying his valour no less than his ability. He fought like the meanest soldier, was severely wounded, and was saved from destruction by the devotion of a follower. But in the end his arms were victorious; 15,000 of the rebels lay on the field; Masos was glad to take refuge in Prussia, by the fierce inhabitants of which he was publicly executed, as the author of their calamities.
The rest of the reign of Casimir exhibits little to strike the attention. Bohemia was restrained from disquieting him, rather through the interference of his ally the emperor Henry III., than his own valour. Silesia was surrendered to him; Prussia acknowledged his superiority, and paid him tribute; Pomerania was tranquillised, and Hungary sought his alliance. But signal as were these advantages, they were inferior to those which his personal character and influence procured for his country. Convinced that no state can be happy, however wise the laws that govern it, where morality is not still more powerful, he laboured indefatigably to purify the manners of his people, by teaching them their duties, by a more extended religious education, and by his own example, as well as that of his friends and counsellors. For the twelve monks whom he persuaded to leave their retirements at Clugni, to assist him in the moral reformation of his subjects, he founded two monasteries, one near Cracow, the other on the Oder, in Silesia. Both establishments zealously promoted his views; instruction was more widely diffused; and the decent splendour of the public worship made on the minds of the rude inhabitants, not yet fully reclaimed from paganism, an impression which could never have been produced by mere preaching.
Before his death this excellent prince could congratulate himself that he had saved millions, and injured no one individual; that he had laid the foundation of a purer system of manners; that he was the regenerator no less than the restorer of his country. His memory is still dear to the Poles.
Boleslas II., surnamed the Bold, was only sixteen when he assumed the reins of government. But long before that period he had exhibited proofs of extraordinary capacity, and of that generosity of sentiment inseparable from elevation of mind. Unfortunately, however, he wanted the more useful qualities of his deceased father: those which he possessed were splendid indeed, out among them the sparks of an insatiable ambition lay concealed, which required only the breath of opportunity to burst forth in flames.
That opportunity was not long wanting. A few years after his accession, three fugitive princes arrived at his court, to implore his aid in recovering their lost honours. None indeed of the three had any well grounded claim to sympathy, since all had forfeited the privileges of their birth by misconduct of their own; but the protector of unfortunate princes was a title which he most coveted, and all were favourably received.
The first of these, Jaromir, brother of Wratislas duke of Bohemia, had early entered the church, allured by the prospect of the episcopal throne of Prague: but he soon became disgusted with a profession which set a restraint on his worst passions; and ambitious of temporal distinctions he left his cloister, plunged into the dissipations of the world, but was soon compelled by his brother to return to it. He escaped a second time, and endeavoured to gain supporters in his wild attempts to subvert the authority of Wratislas; but finding his freedom, if not his existence, perilled in Bohemia, he threw himself into the arms of Boleslas. The result was a war between the two countries, which was disastrous to the Bohemians, but to which an end was at length brought by the interference of the Germanic princes. Jaromir was persuaded to resume his former vocation, and to bound his ambition within the limits of a mitre; the marriage of Wratislas with the sister of the Polish king secured for a time the blessings of peace to these martial people.
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