Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth


The Polish-Lithuanian Confederation (in Belarusian: Рэч Паспаліта?; in Ukrainian: Річ Посполита?; in Latin: Res Publica Utriusque Nationis), formally known as the Crown of the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and, after 1791, the Confederation of Poland, was a federal state composed of Poland and Lithuania governed by a common monarch in royal union, acting as both ruler of Poland and grand duke of Lithuania. During the time it existed, it managed to become one of the largest and most populous national entities in Europe between the 16th and 17th centuries. At the peak of its territorial extension in the early 17th century, the Confederation covered almost 1 100 000 of km² and in 1772 it recorded a population of about 12 million at the population level. Polish and Latin appeared to be the two official languages, while Lithuanian, Ruthenian, and Yiddish were among the most widely spoken.

The Confederation saw the light of day with the Union of Lublin in July 1569, but the Crown of the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania had already entered into a de facto personal union since 1386 with the marriage of the Polish Queen Hedwig and the Grand Duke of Lithuania Jogaila, who was crowned King jure uxoris Ladislaus II Jagellon of Poland. The first partition in 1772 and the second in 1793 greatly reduced the size of the state, and the Confederation disappeared from the maps of the European continent with the third partition in 1795.

The Union possessed many unique features among contemporary states: the political system was characterized by strict checks on monarchical power, thanks to a legislature (sejm) controlled by the local nobility (szlachta). This idiosyncratic system, although a precursor to some of the modern systems of democracy and from 1791 converted into a constitutional monarchy, proved unprepared to respond to aggressive neighboring powers because it was fragmented by internal political bangs. Although the two component states of the Confederation played a hierarchically equal role, Poland undeniably appeared to be the dominant half in the union.

Among the most distinctive aspects of the Polish-Lithuanian Confederation were high levels of ethnic diversity and relative religious tolerance, guaranteed by the Warsaw Act of 1573; however, the degree of religious freedom varied over time. The Constitution of 1791 recognized Catholicism as the “dominant religion,” unlike the Warsaw Confederation, but with it freedom of religion was still granted.

After several decades of prosperity, it faced a prolonged interlude of political, as well as military and economic decline. Its growing weakness led to its division among its neighbors (Austria, Prussia and Russia) during the late 18th century. Shortly before its dissolution, the Confederacy enacted massive reform through the introduction of the Constitution of May 3, the first to be codified in modern European history and the second in the history of the modern world (after that of the United States).

The official name of the state was “Kingdom of Poland and Grand Duchy of Lithuania” (in Lithuanian: Lenkijos Karalystė ir Lietuvos Didžioji Kunigaikštystė, in Latin: Regnum Poloniae Magnusque Ducatus Lithuaniae) and the use of the Latin formula also appeared in international treaties and in the diplomatic field.

In the 17th century and decades to come it was also known as the “Most Serene Confederation of Poland” (Polish: Najjaśniejsza Rzeczpospolita Polska, Latin: Serenissima Res Publica Poloniae)

Western Europeans often simplified the name to “Poland,” and most past and modern sources use the expression Kingdom of Poland or, more simply, Poland. The terms “Confederation of Poland” and “Confederation of the Two Nations” (Polish: Rzeczpospolita Obojga Narodów, Latin: Res Publica Utriusque Nationis) were used in the Mutual Assurance of the Two Nations, one of the transitional provisions associated with the Constitution of 1791.

Other informal names include “Noble Republic” (Rzeczpospolita szlachecka) and “First Republic” (I Rzeczpospolita), the latter relatively common in historiography to distinguish it from the Second Republic of Poland.

Poland and Lithuania faced an alternating series of wars and alliances during the 14th century and early 15th century: several agreements between the two (specifically, the Union of Kraków and Vilnius, the Union of Krewo, the Union of Vilnius and Radom, the Union of Grodno, and the Union of Horodło) were concluded before the 1569 permanent union of Lublin. This agreement was among the acts desired by Sigismund II Augustus, the last monarch of the Jagellon dynasty: he believed he could preserve his dynasty by adopting the elective monarchy, but his death in 1572 was followed by a three-year interregnum during which adjustments were made to the constitutional system; these adjustments significantly increased the power of the Polish nobility and established a truly elective monarchy.

The Confederacy reached its heyday in the early 17th century. Its powerful parliament was dominated by nobles who were reluctant to become involved in the Thirty Years’ War; this neutrality spared the country from the ravages of a politico-religious conflict that lacerated various parts of the rest of the continent. The Confederation managed to hold its own against Sweden, the Czarate of Russia and vassals of the Ottoman Empire, while also launching successful expansionist offensives against its neighbors. In the course of the troubled turbulent period, Poland-Lithuania succeeded in entering the then fragile Russia and seriously threatened Moscow during the Polish-Moscow War (1605-1618) not only on the battlefield, as it was intended to install a Polish ruler on the throne: this was one of Warsaw’s greatest moments of international political clout.

The power of the Confederation began to wane after a series of events that occurred in the following decades. A major rebellion by Ukrainian Cossacks in the southeastern part of the territory (the Chmel’nyc’kyj revolt in present-day Ukraine) began in 1648. This resulted in a Ukrainian demand, under the terms of the Treaty of Perejaslav, for protection from the Russian tsar. Russian annexation of part of Ukraine gradually supplanted Polish influence. Another grievance for the Confederation involved the Swedish invasion in 1655, which went down in history as the Flood and was supported by the troops of the Duke of Transylvania George II Rákóczi and Frederick William I of Brandenburg. Tatars from the Crimean Khanate and the Nogai Horde carried out raids to take captive slaves almost annually in the eastern territories controlled by Warsaw.

At the end of the 17th century, the ruler of a now-weakened state, John III Sobieski, allied with Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I in an attempt to reverse the trend of crushing defeats suffered against the Ottoman Empire. In 1683, the Battle of Vienna marked the final turning point in the 250-year struggle between the forces of Christian Europe and the Ottomans of the Muslim faith. Because of its centuries-old opposition to Muslim aggressors, the Confederation earned the appellation Antemurale Christianitatis (bastion of Christianity) along with the Croats and Hungarians. During the next sixteen years, the Austro-Turkish war would push the Turks permanently south of the Danube River, and Istanbul was no longer able to threaten Central Europe.

In the 18th century, the destabilization of the political system brought the Confederation to the brink of civil war: the various internal problems made it vulnerable to foreign influences. When a real war broke out between the king and the nobility in 1715, the effective mediation asked of Tsar Peter the Great put him in a position to further weaken the state: the Russian army was in fact present at the so-called Silent Sejm of 1717, in which the size of the armed forces was limited to 24,000 men and public funding reserved for the military sector was rediscussed, the destabilizing practice of liberum veto was reaffirmed, and the king’s Saxon army was banned; the tsar was to act as guarantor of the agreement. Another interesting factor to note is that the increasing exploitation of and interest in resources in the Americas by Western powers such as England, Spain, Portugal, and France made the gap with the technological and economic availabilities possessed instead by Poland-Lithuania or Russia very stark.

In 1764, the nobleman Stanisław August Poniatowski was elected monarch with the connivance and support of his former mistress Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia. In 1768, the Polish-Lithuanian Confederation began to be regarded by the Russians as a protectorate of the Empire (despite the fact that it was still officially an independent state). Majority control over Poland was central to Catherine’s diplomatic and military strategies. Attempts at reform, such as the convening of the four-year sejm that led to the drafting of the May Constitution, proved belated. The country ended up being divided into three stages by the neighboring Russian Empire, the Kingdom of Prussia and the Habsburg monarchy. In 1795, the Confederation disappeared from the maps of Europe altogether, and Poland and Lithuania did not return to existence as independent countries until 1918.

Golden freedom

The political doctrine of the Confederation was summarized in the maxim “our state is a republic under the presidency of the king.” Chancellor Jan Zamoyski summed up this doctrine when he stated, Rex regnat et non-gubernat (“The king reigns but does not rule”). The Confederation boasted a parliament, the sejm, as well as a senate and an elected king. The ruler was obliged to respect the rights of citizens specified in the Enrician Articles and Pacta conventa, negotiated at the time of his election. Over time, the former were merged with the latter.

The monarch’s power was limited in favor of the numerically considerable noble class. Each new king had to commit himself to upholding the Enrician Articles, i.e., the basis of Poland’s political system (which included almost unprecedented guarantees of religious toleration). From then on, the king effectively became a member of the noble class and was constantly supervised by a group of senators. The Sejm could veto the king on important matters, including the adoption of new legislation, foreign affairs, the declaration of war, and taxation (changes in existing taxes or the levying of new taxes).

The foundation of the Confederate political system, the so-called “golden freedom” (in Polish Złota Wolność, a term used from 1573 onward), included:

The two main regions (Poland and Lithuania) of the Confederation enjoyed a fair amount of autonomy: each voivodeship had its own parliament (sejmik), which exercised effective political power, particularly with regard to the choice of deputy (poseł) to the national Sejm and the assignment to the deputy of specific voting instructions. The Grand Duchy of Lithuania had its own separate army, its own treasury and most other official institutions: only from 1791 did the state become effectively unitary.

The nobility gave rise to a political entity unusual for its time, as it experienced the opposite example of French absolutism, with the authority of many heavily influencing the monarch’s choices. At a time in history when the bulk of European countries were in fact converging toward centralization, absolute monarchy and religious and dynastic wars, the Confederation coexisted with decentralization, an almost total absence of a joint administration, democracy and religious tolerance but, at the same time, fragility first and foremost at the military level in the last century of its existence.

Generating such a political system, as mentioned above unusual for its time, was the dizzying rise of the aristocracy, the szlachta, over the other social classes and in the political organization chart of the monarchy. Over time, the nobility accumulated enough privileges (such as those established by the Nihil novi act of 1505) such that no monarch could hope to even break the szlachta’s grip on executive management. While the confederation can hardly be placed in one category of the forms of government that existed in the modern era, one can attempt to describe it as a mixture of:

Structural frailties

The demise of the Jagiellonian dynasty in 1572, after nearly two centuries of rule, interrupted the fragile balance of government in the Confederation: Power gradually slipped further and further from the central government in favor of the nobility.

When periodic opportunities arose to occupy the throne, the szlachta showed preference for foreign candidates who did not appear to be able to establish stable and lasting dynasties: such a choice often led to the appointment of monarchs who were inefficient or in constant debilitating conflict with the nobility. Moreover, apart from notable exceptions such as the able Stephen I Báthory from Transylvania (1576-1586), who tried to remedy the fragility of the national armies by recruiting the fearsome Zaporižžja Cossacks, foreign-born kings were inclined to subordinate the interests of the Confederation to those of their own country and ruling house. This was noticeably seen in the policies and actions of the first two elected rulers of the Swedish House of Vasa, sparking disagreements with Stockholm that culminated in a conflict that went down in history as the Flood, one of the events that marked the end of the Confederation’s golden century and the beginning of its decline.

The Sandomierz Rebellion (1606-1607) marked a substantial increase in the power of Polish magnates and the transformation of szlachta democracy into an oligarchy of magnates, the wealthiest and most prominent nobles. The political system often appeared vulnerable to outside interference, as corrupt Sejm deputies from foreign powers could use their veto power to block attempts at reform: in fact, since even a single vetoing deputy could paralyze the legislative apparatus, the state machinery often found itself unable to take the measures that had been submitted for approval. This situation generated an anarchy that reigned for over a hundred years, from the mid-17th century to the end of the 18th, while its neighbors established their internal affairs and increased their military power.

Late reforms

Eventually, the Confederation made a serious attempt to reform its political system by adopting in 1791 the Constitution of May 3, 1791, which historian Norman Davies calls the first of its kind in Europe. The revolutionary constitutional law restructured the former Polish-Lithuanian Confederation as a federal state with a hereditary monarchy and abolished some of the deleterious features of the old system. Specifically:

However, the reforms proved to be all too late: the king’s support for the reform of the Great Sejm led to the establishment of the Targowica confederation and the second partition of Poland. Indeed, the neighboring powers were not satisfied after 1791 with what they achieved by fragmenting Poland a first time in 1772, for rather than preserving it as a weak buffer state, they chose to react forcefully to the attempts of King Stanislaus II Augustus and the other reformers to strengthen Warsaw’s position. Russia feared the revolutionary implications of the political reforms of the May 3 Constitution and the prospect of the Confederation regaining its position as a European power. Therefore, Catherine the Great was quick to brand the Polish constitution as Jacobin and then promptly intervene when she was no longer engaged in the Russo-Turkish War (1787-1792). It was Grigory Aleksandrovič Potëmkin who drafted the aforementioned statute of the Targowica confederation, referring to the constitution as a “contagion of democratic ideas.” Meanwhile, Prussia and Austria seized the opportunity for further territorial expansion. Prussian minister Ewald Friedrich von Hertzberg called the constitution “a blow to the Prussian monarchy,” fearing that a strengthened Poland could create new trouble for Prussia. In the end, the May 3 constitution was never fully implemented and, after the third partition, there was no republic left to rule over.

The economy of the Confederation was mostly based on agriculture and trade, although there was an abundance of artisan workshops and manufactures, particularly paper mills, leather tanneries, ironworks, glassworks, and furnaces; some large cities housed artisans engaged in various production sectors, jewelers, and watchmakers. Most industries and trade were concentrated in the Kingdom of Poland; the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was more rural, and the primary sector, combined with textile production, continued to be the driving force of the region even after the dissolution of the Confederation. In contrast, mining developed in the southwestern region of Poland, which was rich in natural resources such as lead, coal, copper, and rock salt (think of the famous Wieliczka mines). The currency used in Poland-Lithuania was the złoty (meaning “gold”) and in cents the grosz was used. Foreign currencies in the form of ducats, thalers, and shillings were widely accepted and exchanged. The city of Gdansk had the privilege of minting its own currency, but it was not until 1794 that Tadeusz Kościuszko authorized the issuance of the first Polish banknotes.

The country played a significant role in supplying Western Europe through the export of grain (especially rye), cattle (oxen), furs, timber, flax, hemp, ash, tar, carminic acid, and amber. Grain, cattle, and furs accounted for nearly 90 percent of the country’s exports to European markets through land and sea trade in the 16th century. From Gdansk, ships transported goods to major ports in Flanders and the Netherlands, such as Antwerp and Amsterdam, while overland routes, mostly to the German provinces of the Holy Roman Empire headed by Leipzig and Nuremberg, were used to export live cattle (herds of about 50,000 head), salt, tobacco, hemp, and cotton from Greater Poland. Conversely, the Confederation imported wine, beer, fruit, exotic spices, luxury goods (such as tapestries), furniture, textiles, and industrial products such as steel and tools of various kinds.

The agricultural sector was dominated by a feudalism based on a plantation economy and linked to serfdom. Slavery went banned in Poland in the 15th century, while it was formally abolished in Lithuania in 1588, but the practice proved hard to die. The folwark, a large-scale system of agricultural production based precisely on serfdom, assumed a dominant role in Poland’s economic landscape as early as the late 15th century and for the next three hundred years. This mode of management from agriculture, incontrovertibly controlled by the nobility of East-Central Europe, differed from those adopted in the western section of the continent, where elements of capitalism and industrialization were developing to a much greater extent, resulting in the growth of a bourgeois class and its political influence. The height of agricultural trade reached in the 16th century, combined with peasant labor provided free of charge in exchange for food or lodging or decidedly cheap, made the country’s economy all in all prosperous until a sharp decline occurred from the late 17th century onward. Indeed, trade relations were disrupted by wars, and the Confederacy proved unable to improve its transportation infrastructure or agricultural practices. Moreover, the condition of the serfs had become increasingly untenable, so much so that cases of flight increased as the system entered a crisis.The Confederacy’s main attempts to curb the problem and improve productivity proved counterproductive, as they consisted of increasing the serfs’ workload and further restricting their already few freedoms.

The owner of a folwark usually signed a contract with the merchants of Danzig, who controlled 80 percent of this inland trade, to ship grain north to that seaport on the Baltic Sea. There were countless rivers and functional waterways that organized the shipments, including the Vistula, Pilica, Western Bug, San, Nida, Wieprz, and Nemunas. The waterways boasted relatively developed infrastructure on the banks, with river ports and capacious granaries: the bulk of river shipping transited northward, as transport in the reverse direction proved less profitable, and barges and rafts were often sold to Danzig for timber. Grodno became an important site after the formation of a customs house in Augustów in 1569, which served as a checkpoint for merchants traveling to the Crown Lands from the Grand Duchy.

The urban population of the Confederation was low compared to Western Europe. Exact numbers depend on calculation methods: according to a first source, the figure would be about 20% of the total in the 17th century, compared to about 50% in the Netherlands and Italy. Another reconstruction suggests much lower figures: 4-8% urban population in Poland, 34-39% in the Netherlands and 22-23% in Italy. The Confederation’s preoccupation with agriculture, combined with the privileged position of the nobility over the bourgeoisie, resulted in a rather slow process of urbanization and thus a decidedly flat development of industries. The nobility could also regulate the price of grain to their own advantage, thus gaining even more specific weight. Among the largest fairs held in the history of the Confederation were those that took place in Lublin.

Several ancient trade routes, including the amber route, passed through both Poland and Lithuania, and even before 1569 these attracted foreign merchants or settlers. Countless goods and artifacts of cultural interest continued to circulate from one region to another through the Confederation because the country served, albeit to a lesser extent, as a crossroads between the Middle East, the Ottoman Empire and Western Europe. Consider by way of example the Isfahan carpets, imported from Persia into the Confederation and mistakenly known as “Polish carpets” (in French Polonaise) in Western Europe.

The army in the Polish-Lithuanian Confederation underwent changes due to the merger of the armies of the Kingdom of Poland and the Lithuanian Grand Duchy, although each federate maintained its own division. The united armed forces included the Crown army (armia koronna), recruited in Poland, and the Lithuanian army (armia litewska) in the Grand Duchy: they were headed by the etmano, a rank comparable to that of a modern-day supreme general. Monarchs could not declare war or summon an army without the consent of the Sejm or the Senate. The navy of the Polish-Lithuanian Confederation did not play an important role in the military structure from the mid-17th century onward.

The most distinguished formation of the Polish army turned out to be its 16th- and 17th-century heavy cavalry, represented by the winged hussars (the regiment was in charge of protecting the king and his family. In 1788, the Grand Sejm sketched out reforms aimed at redefining future military structures; the Crown Army was to be divided into four divisions, with seventeen field infantry regiments and eight cavalry brigades excluding special units; the Lithuanian Army was to be divided into two divisions, eight field regiments and two cavalry brigades excluding special units. If implemented, the reform provided for an army of nearly 100,000 men.

The armies of those states differed from the organization common in other areas of the continent; according to Greengrass, mercenary formations (wojsko najemne), common in Western Europe, never enjoyed great popularity in Poland. Snyder, however, points out that foreign mercenaries formed a significant part of the more elite infantry units (particularly Cossacks), at least until the early 17th century. In 16th-century Poland, many other formations formed the core of the army: there was a small permanent group, the obrona potoczna (“continuous defense”) about 1 500-3 000 strong, paid by the king, and mainly stationed at the difficult southern and eastern borders. This was supplemented by two formations mobilized in the event of war: the pospolite ruszenie, a Polish expression for mass enlistment and indicating a recruitment mechanism typical to that of the adoa established in the Kingdom of Sicily, and the wojsko zaciężne, or recruitment by Polish commanders in the imminence of a conflict: at the end of skirmishes, mercenary formations were disbanded, which was not always the case in Western Europe.

Several years before the Union of Lublin, the obrona potoczna had experienced a reform procedure, as the Sejm decreed in 1562-1563 the creation of the wojsko kwarciane (a group of basic units that could always be deployed), named after the kwarta tax levied on fiefs to pay expenses and keep it operational. The main warriors were mostly members of the light cavalry controlled by the szlachta and commanded by etmani. Often, in wartime, the Sejm would legislate a temporary increase in the size of the wojsko kwarciane.

After the Third Partition, the Polish military tradition was carried on by the Napoleonic Polish Legions and the Army of the Duchy of Warsaw.

Science and literature

The Confederation proved to be an important European center for the development of modern social and political ideas: it was famous for its rare quasi-democratic political system, praised by philosophers, and during the Counter-Reformation it was distinguished for its unique religious tolerance, which saw the peaceful coexistence of Catholics, Jews, Orthodox, Protestants and Muslim (Sufi) communities. In the 18th century, French Catholic historian Claude-Carloman de Rulhière wrote of 16th-century Poland, “This country, which in our days we have perceived to be divided under the pretext of religion, is the first state in Europe to enact tolerance. In this state, mosques arose among churches and synagogues.” The Confederacy allowed the development and proliferation of the famous Christian sect Polish Brethren, ancestors of the Unitarians.

The appearance of a number of political scientists and jurists should be noted, including Andrzej Frycz Modrzewski (1503-1572), Wawrzyniec Grzymała Goślicki (1530-1607) and Piotr Skarga (1536-1612). Later, the work of Stanisław Staszic (1755-1826) and Hugo Kołłątaj (1750-1812) helped pave the way for the futuristic Constitution of May 3, 1791.

The Jagiellonian University in Krakow is among the oldest in the world and the second oldest to appear in Central Europe by foundation after Prague (dating back to 1364), together with the Jesuit Academy in Wilno (from 1579) were among the major academic and scientific centers of the Confederation. The Komisja Edukacji Narodowej, a Polish expression that stands for Commission for National Education, formed in 1773, was the world’s first Ministry of National Education. Scientists can then be mentioned: Martin Kromer (Jan Brożek (Latinized as Ioannes Broscius) (Krzysztof Arciszewski (Portuguese for Crestofle d’Artischau Arciszewski) (1592-1656), engineer, ethnographer, general and admiral of the Dutch West India Company’s army in the war with the Spanish Empire for control of Brazil; Kazimierz Siemienowicz (Johannes Hevelius (Michał Boym (Adam Adamandy Kochański (Ba’al Shem Tov (Hebrew: ישראל בן אליעזר? , Yiśrā’ēl ben Ĕlī‛ezer) (Marcin Odlanicki Poczobutt (Jan Krzysztof Kluk (John Jonston (1603-1675) scholar and physician, descended from Scottish nobility. In 1628 Czech teacher, scientist, educator and writer John Comenius fled to the Confederacy when Protestants were persecuted by the Counter-Reformation.

The works of many Confederation authors are considered classics, including those of Jan Kochanowski, Wacław Potocki, Ignacy Krasicki, and Julian Niemcewicz. Many members of the szlachta produced personal writings and diaries, of which the most famous works include the Memoirs of Polish History by Albrycht Radziwiłł (1595-1656) and the Memoirs of Jan Chryzostom Pasek (c. 1636-1701). Jakub Sobieski (1590-1646, father of John III Sobieski) was responsible for writing other noteworthy diaries. During the Chocim campaign, he produced a diary in 1621 called Commentariorum chotinensis belli libri tres (Diary of the Chocim War), published in 1646 in Gdansk. This served as the starting point for Wacław Potocki’s poem entitled Transakcja wojny chocimskiej (The Progress of the Chocim War). Finally, he took care of the instructions for his sons’ trip to Kraków (1640) and France (1645), a circumstance that provides a good example of the liberal education of the time.

Art and music

Confederation art and music followed largely shaped by prevailing European trends, although the country’s minorities, foreigners and indigenous folk cultures also contributed to its versatile nature. A common art form intertwined with Sarmatianism concerns portraits on coffins (Portrety trumienne), used in funerals and other solemn ceremonies. As a rule, such portraits were nailed to sheet metal, six- or eight-sided in shape, attached to the front of a coffin placed on a tall ornate catafalque: this was a unique and peculiar feature of the high culture of the Confederacy, not found elsewhere in Europe (a similar tradition was practiced only in Roman Egypt). Polish monarchs and nobles often invited and encouraged the settlement of foreign painters and craftsmen, particularly from the Netherlands, as well as from Flanders, Germany, and Italy. The interiors of the residences, palaces, and manors of the upper classes were adorned with wall tapestries (the most renowned collection consists of the tapestries of the Jagellons displayed at the Wawel Castle in Kraków.

Economic, cultural and political ties between France and Poland-Lithuania gave rise to the term à la polonaise, meaning “Polish-style.” With the marriage of Maria Leszczyńska to Louis XV of France in 1725, Polish culture also began to show up in the Palace of Versailles; beds à la polonaise (lit à la polonaise) draped with canopies became a central element of Louis XV’s furniture in French chateaux. The already popular floral motifs, as well as Polish fashion, gained further popularity in the polonaise dresses (robe à la polonaise) worn by aristocrats at Versailles.

The religious cultures of Poland-Lithuania coexisted and blended with each other throughout the entire history of the Confederation: despite the fact that some groups preserved their traditions with great jealousy and a sense of belonging (this is the case of the Jews, unlike in Germany where in nothing they differed from the Germans), borrowings and casts became common in the Catholic churches found in regions mostly inhabited by Protestants, whose religious buildings of the latter were more sober in their furnishings. Mutual influence was also reflected in the great popularity of Byzantine icons and tracing the figure of the Virgin Mary in the predominantly Latin territories of Poland (think especially of the Black Virgin of Częstochowa) and present-day Lithuania (Our Lady of the Dawn Gate). On the other hand, Latin influence is also sometimes traced in Ruthenian Orthodox and Protestant art.

Music always assumed a prominent role in local cultures: for this reason, many nobles founded church choirs and schools and employed their own groups of musicians. Some, like Stanisław Lubomirski, built their own opera houses (in Nowy Wiśnicz, southern Poland). Others, such as Janusz Skumin Tyszkiewicz and Krzysztof Radziwiłł, gained a fair amount of fame because they were patrons of the artists performing in their permanently assembled orchestras, specifically at their courts in Vilnius. Musical activities flourished further under the House of Vasa, allowing both foreign and domestic composers to be active in various cities. Sigismund III often brought in Italian composers and conductors such as Luca Marenzio, Annibale Stabile, Asprilio Pacelli, Marco Scacchi, and Diomede Catone for the royal orchestra. Prominent native musicians also played and composed for the ruler’s court, including Bartłomiej Pękiel, Jacek Różycki, Adam Jarzębski, Marcin Mielczewski, Stanisław Sylwester Szarzyński, Damian Stachowicz, Mikołaj Zieleński, and Grzegorz Gorczycki.


The architecture of local towns reflected a combination of Polish, German, and Italian trends. Italian Mannerism or late Renaissance had a profound impact on traditional bourgeois architecture clearly visible even today: castles and estates featured Italianate central courtyards composed of arched loggias, colonnades, erkers, balconies, portals, and ornamental balustrades. Ceiling frescoes, sgraffiti, plafonds, and coffers (in Polish kaseton) were also widespread. Roofs generally featured terracotta tiles, but the most distinguishable feature of Polish Mannerism was related to the decorative attics located above the cornice of the facade. The cities of northern Poland, Lithuania, and Livonia adopted the Hanseatic (or “Dutch”) style as their main form of architectural and sculptural expression, comparable to that of the Netherlands, Belgium, northern Germany, and Scandinavia.

Early examples of Baroque architecture include several Jesuit and Catholic churches, notably the Church of Saints Peter and Paul in Kraków, the Corpus Christi Church in Njasviž, the cathedral in Lublin, and the UNESCO-protected shrine at Kalwaria Zebrzydowska. Additional examples of decorative baroque and rococo include St. Anne’s in Kraków and the Fara Collegiate Church in Poznań. The use of black marble in the interior, another hallmark of the building canons of the time, which became popular after the mid-17th century, also emerged in altars, fountains, portals, balustrades, columns, monuments, tombstones, mausoleums, and entire rooms (this is the case with the marble hall of the Royal Castle in Warsaw, the Chapel of St. Casimir of Vilnius Cathedral, and the Vasa Chapel of Wawel Cathedral).

The tycoons often undertook construction projects in the manner of monuments for self-celebration; churches, cathedrals, monasteries, and palaces such as the present Presidential Palace in Warsaw and the Pidhirci Castle were built on the orders of the great ethman Stanisław Koniecpolski. Major projects involved entire cities, generally named in honor of the patron, although over time some of them failed due to excessive costs or were abandoned. Among the most memorable examples is Zamość, founded by Jan Zamoyski and designed by the Italian architect Bernardo Morando on the scheme of the ideal city. Magnates from all over Poland competed with kings in order to show off: one example is the monumental Krzyżtopór Castle, built following the canons of the palace-in-fortress between 1627 and 1644, had several courtyards surrounded by fortifications, in the same way as the similar fortified complexes of Łańcut and Krasiczyn.

The fascination with the culture and art of the Orient in the late Baroque period is reflected in the Chinese palace of Queen Maria Casimira in Zoločiv (Złoczów). The palaces of 18th-century magnates represent the characteristic type of Baroque suburban residence built with a court of honor and a garden. This style, blending European art with the old building traditions of the Confederation, can be seen in the Wilanów Palace in Warsaw, the Branicki Palace in Białystok, the Potocki Palace in Radzyń Podlaski, the Raczyński Palace in Rogalin, and the Nieborów and Kozłówka Palaces near Lubartów. Minor nobility resided in country manor houses known as dworek. Neoclassicism replaced the Baroque in the second half of the 18th century: the last ruler of Poland-Lithuania, Stanislaus II Augustus, particularly admired the classical architecture of ancient Rome and extolled it as a symbol of the Polish Enlightenment. The palace on the island (located in a park in today’s capital) and the exterior of St. Anne’s Church in Warsaw are part of the neoclassical legacy passed on to us by the Confederation.

The szlachta and sarmatism

The prevailing ideology of the szlachta can be summed up in one term with sarmatism, a noun derived from the name of the Sarmatians, the supposed ancestors of the Poles. This belief system covered an important part of szlachta culture, penetrating all aspects of the aristocrats’ lives. Sarmatism extolled values such as equality among the nobles, the noble art of riding, national traditions, bucolic life to be enjoyed on estates, peace and pacifism; moreover, certain garments that clearly distinguished Polish nobles from those of other nations also spread in fashion. In fact, the zupan, kontusz, sukmana, pas kontuszowy, delia and szabla appeared in that historical phase. The proliferation of Baroque architecture in the homeland was also encouraged and the use of Latin as an idiom to be used in literary circles and among members of the Polish, Lithuanian and foreign elites was promoted: such a climate fostered the integration of nobility from different geographical regions and generated a sense of unity and almost nationalistic pride in the course of Gilded Freedom, as well as carrying forward the process of Polonization of some Baltic aristocrats.

In its early idealistic form, Sarmatianism represented a positive cultural movement in that it did not repress religious faiths other than Catholicism and praised values such as honesty, national pride, courage, equality and freedom. In time, however, this concept suffered a distortion, and in the last decades of the Confederacy’s existence the set of beliefs turned into fanaticism: honesty turned into political naiveté, pride into arrogance, courage into stubbornness, and freedom into anarchy. Sarmatism’s faults were blamed for the country’s demise from the late 18th century onward. The criticism, often one-sided and exaggerated, was used by Polish reformists to push for radical changes. As this flurry of self-criticism spread, German, Russian, and Austrian historians were quick to show that Poland itself was the main cause of its downfall.


The Polish-Lithuanian Confederation was distinguished by its immense multiculturalism throughout its existence, in fact encompassing countless religious identities and ethnic minorities that inhabited the country’s vast territory. However, the precise number of minority groups and their populations can only be guessed at. Statistically, the largest groups consisted of Poles, Lithuanians, Germans, Ruthenians, and Jews, who were joined by a considerable number of minorities consisting of Czechs, Hungarians, Livonians, Roma, Wallachians, Armenians, Italians, Scots, and Dutch (Olędrzy), classified as merchants, settlers, or refugees fleeing religious persecution.

Prior to the final rapprochement with Lithuania, the Kingdom of Poland was much more homogeneous; about 70% of the population was Polish and Catholic. After the Union of Lublin, the number of Poles in relation to the total population dropped to 50%. In 1569, the population amounted to 7 million, of which about 4.5 were Poles, 750,000 Lithuanians, 700,000 Jews, and 2 million Ruthenians. Historian Kazimierz Bem suggests that with the territorial expansion after the Peace of Deulino in 1618 and the all-too-quiet decades lived from there to 1650, the population reached 11 000 000, of which Poles constituted only 40%. At that time the nobility made up 10 percent of the entire population and the bourgeoisie about 15 percent. The average population density per square kilometer was 24 in Masovia, 23 in Lesser Poland, 19 in Greater Poland, 12 in the Lublin Palatinate, 10 in the Lviv area, 7 in Podolia and Volinia, and 3 in Kiev Voivodeship. There was a tendency at some point for people from the more densely populated western territories to migrate eastward.

A sudden change in the country’s demographics occurred in the mid-17th century. The Second Northern War and the Flood, followed by famine in the period from 1648 to 1657, caused at least 4 million deaths, and considering further territorial losses, it is understandable why by 1717 the population had fallen to 9 million. The population recovered slowly throughout the 18th century; just ahead of the first partition of Poland in 1772, the population of the Confederation stood at about 12 million, almost two-thirds of whom lived in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. In 1792, Poland’s population was about 11 million and included 750,000 nobles.

The most multicultural and economically growing city in the country remained Gdansk, a key Hanseatic seaport on the Baltic Sea and forming part of the richest region of Poland, without moreover being even too far from Lithuania. Gdansk saw the presence of a large German majority for several centuries (including after the dissolution of the Confederation) and also hosted a large number of foreign merchants, particularly of Scottish, Dutch, or Scandinavian descent. Historically, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was more diverse than the Kingdom of Poland and was considered a melting pot of various cultures and religions. Among other things, the inhabitants of the Grand Duchy were known collectively as Litvin regardless of their nationality, with the exception of the Jews residing in Lithuania, called litvak.

Despite guaranteed religious tolerance, gradual polyonization and counter-reformation sought to reduce internal diversity; the goal was to eradicate some minorities by imposing the Polish language, Latin, Polish culture, and the Roman Catholic religion wherever possible. By the end of the 18th century, Lithuanian idiom, culture and identity became vulnerable.


The Warsaw Confederation, signed on January 28, 1573, secured the rights of minorities and religions; in fact, it allowed all subjects to worship any deity, although religious tolerance did not follow a steady trend. As Norman Davies points out, “the wording and substance of the Declaration of the Warsaw Confederation assumed an extraordinary role in comparison with the conditions prevailing elsewhere in Europe; moreover, the principles of religious life in the republic rested on it for over two hundred years.”

Given the various persecutions taking place in other nations, many members of the more radical religious sects took refuge in the Polish-Lithuanian Confederation. In 1561 Giovanni Bernardino Bonifacio d’Oria, an exiled religious resident in Poland, wrote of the virtues of his adopted country to a colleague who had returned to Italy: “You could live here according to your ideas and preferences, enjoying in addition the greatest freedoms, including writing and publishing. No one will repress you for this.” Others, particularly Jesuit papal electors, were more skeptical about the religious policy reserved by the Confederation.

In the more marginal regions of the Confederation, while the nobility was generally Catholic, the humbler classes, especially in today’s Ukraine and Belarus adhered to Orthodoxy or Eastern-rite Catholic churches. Again with reference to this geographical area, since aristocrats often boasted only true Polish ancestors, a specific expression by which this category was designated began to spread from the 16th century: “gente Ruthenus, natione Polonus” (Ruthenian by blood, Polish by nationality).

In such a socio-demographic picture, one can sense how the Polish or Polonized aristocracy dominated over a largely rural population that neither embraced Catholicism nor was ethnically Polish. The decades of peace engendered a policy of colonizing the sparsely inhabited western and central Ukraine, which heightened tensions between nobles, Jews, Cossacks (traditionally Orthodox), Polish peasants and Ruthenians. The latter, deprived of their native protectors who constituted the Ruthenian nobility, turned for help to the Cossacks, who were among those responsible for the breakup of the Confederation. Tensions were aggravated both by Warsaw’s lack of interest in finally resolving the situation and by the conflicts between Orthodox and Catholics that arose as a result of the Union of Brest, which ended up discriminating against the former. In the west and north, many cities had sizable German minorities, often linked to Lutheranism or Calvinism. The Confederation was also home to one of the largest Jewish communities in the world: by the mid-16th century, 80 percent of the world’s Jews lived in Poland and Lithuania.

With the advent of the Reformation, the nobles soon joined Lutheranism, eager as they were to curb the powers held by the Catholic clergy. It was after the Counter-Reformation, when the Catholic Church regained power in Poland, that the szlachta almost all returned to embrace the old creed.

Following the dissolution of the Confederation, the link to Catholicism in Poland and Lithuania proved to be precipitous in the 19th century in conforming a national identity, given the contrasts that arose with the Russian Orthodox.


The Duchy of Warsaw, founded in 1807 by Napoleon Bonaparte, certainly originated in part from the Confederation. Other revival movements appeared during the November Uprising (1830-1831), the January Uprising (1863-1864), and in the 1920s, with Józef Piłsudski’s failed attempt to create a Polish-led Intermarium (Międzymorze) federation that, according to the general’s ideas, was to extend from Finland in the north to the Balkans in the south. The contemporary Republic of Poland sees itself as a successor to the Confederation; the Republic of Lithuania, reestablished at the end of World War I, perceived the participation of the Lithuanian state in the old Confederation by virtue of the fact that it faced a process of polyonization and almost denigration of Lithuanians and Poles, although recently there has been a historiographical revisiting of that historical period.

While the term “Poland” was also commonly employed to denote the entire political system, Poland actually constituted only a part of a larger whole, the Confederation precisely, which included first and foremost:

The nation was further divided into smaller administrative units known as voivodeships (województwa), ruled by a voivoda (wojewoda, governor). The voivodeships were still subdivided into starostwa, at whose head a starosta was placed. Towns were governed by castellans, although there were frequent exceptions to these rules, often involving the subunit called ziemia.

Lands that once belonged to the Confederation are now largely distributed among several Central and Eastern European countries-Poland, Ukraine, Moldova (Transnistria), Belarus, Russia, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. Even some small towns in Upper Hungary (today mainly Slovakia), became part of Poland in the Treaty of Lubowla (city of Spiš).

The borders of the Confederacy shifted through wars and treaties, sometimes several times in less than a decade, especially in the eastern and southern parts. The expansion of borders generated the population growth that led the nation to exceed 10 million in the 17th-18th centuries.

Little Poland

The province of Lesser Poland (Polish: Małopolska) included southern Poland and two very populous cities: the historic capital Krakow, which remained after 1596 as the capital, and Lublin, in the northeast:

Great Poland

The province of Greater Poland (Wielkopolska) included west-central Poland around Poznań and the course of the Warta River:

Grand Duchy of Lithuania

Lithuania proper (Lithuanian: Didžioji Lietuva) included the Grand Duchy of the nation of the same name. The northwestern section, the part where more Catholics and more Lithuanians were present, had capital Vilnius:


Royal Prussia (Prusy Królewskie), located on the southern shore of the Baltic Sea, had been an autonomous area since the Second Peace of Toruń (1466), incorporated into the Crown in 1569 with the birth of the Confederation. Lower administrative levels included:

Duchy of Livonia

The Duchy of Livonia (Inflantia), including today’s Latvia, southern Estonia and a small section of Ingria, resulted as a joint domain of the Crown and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Some areas were lost to Sweden in 1620 and 1660:


Silesia (Śląsk) was not part of the Confederation, but small sections belonged throughout the Confederation’s existence to various monarchs; in particular, the Vasa were dukes of Opole (Oppeln) and Racibórz (Ratibor) from 1645 to 1666.

Ecclesiastical subdivisions

In the 16th century, the Polish bishop and cartographer Marcin Kromer, trained in his youth in Bologna, published an atlas in Latin, entitled Polonia sive de situ, populis, moribus, magistratibus et Republica regni Polonici libri duo (Poland: on its location, people, culture, offices and the Polish Confederation), considered among the most comprehensive guides to the country.

The works of Kromer and other contemporary maps, such as those of Gerard Mercator, propose the Confederation as mostly flat. The northeastern and central-eastern part of the nation, for which the term Kresy was coined in the twentieth century with the intention of identifying those territories that, in part, still belonged to Warsaw in the interwar period, but instead today not falling even a kilometer within Polish territory, was famous for its steppes. The Carpathians delineated the southern border, while the Tatra mountain range was higher; the Baltic Sea formed the northern boundary of the Confederation. As in most European countries at the time, the Confederation had extensive forest cover, especially in the east: today, what remains of the Białowieża forest constitutes the last remaining largely intact primeval green patch in Europe and is home to rare species such as the European bison (Bison bonanus).


  1. Confederazione polacco-lituana
  2. Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth
  3. ^ Il motto fu rimpiazzato nel XVIII secolo da “Pro Fide, Lege et Rege”, cioè “Per la Fede, per la Legge e per il Re”: Carlisle, p. 227.
  4. La première constitution française date de septembre 1791.
  5. La Deuxième République est l’État reconstitué en 1918, et de nouveau envahi et partagé par le IIIe Reich et l’Union soviétique en 1939 ; la Troisième République est le régime parlementaire actuel, en place depuis la fin de la République populaire de Pologne en 1989-1990.
  6. Il ne faut pas confondre un voïvodat, soit l’une des principautés danubiennes, avec une voïvodie, soit l’une des provinces polonaises, comme le font certains ouvrages et cartographes – voir [1] et [2].
  7. Como declara, por exemplo no preâmbulo da Constituição da República da Polônia de 1997.
  8. “Em 1651, em face a uma crescente ameaça da Polônia e abandonado por seus aliados tártaros, Bohdan Khmelnytsky pediu ao Tzar para unir-se à Ucrânia como um ducado autônomo sob a proteção russa.””[4]”. Encyclopædia Britannica. (2006).[5]
  9. ^ Norman Davies, Terenul de joacă al lui Dumnezeu: O istorie a Poloniei în două volume (titlu original: “God’s Playground: A History of Poland in Two Volumes”), Oxford University Press, p.153
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