Saturday, April 19, 2008
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The Jagiellon Era 1385-1569, was dominated by the union of Poland with Lithuania under the Jagiellon Dynasty, founded by the Lithuanian grand duke Jogaila. The partnership proved profitable for the Poles and Lithuanians, who played a dominant role in one of the most powerful empires in Europe for the next three centuries.
The Polish-Lithuanian Union
The Jagiellons never recovered their hegemony over Central Europe, and the ascendancy of the Ottomans foreshadowed the eventual subjection of the entire region to foreign rule; but the half century that followed the Battle of Mohács marked an era of stability, affluence, and cultural advancement unmatched in national history and widely regarded by Poles as their country's golden age.
The "Golden Age" of the Sixteenth Century
The Teutonic Knights had been reduced to vassalage, and despite the now persistent threats posed by the Turks and an emerging Russian colossus, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania managed to defend its status as one of the largest and most prominent states of Europe. The wars and diplomacy of the century yielded no dramatic expansion but shielded the country from significant disturbance and permitted significant internal development. An "Eternal Peace" concluded with the Ottoman Turks in 1533 lessened but did not remove the threat of invasion from that quarter.
A lucrative agricultural export market was the foundation for the state wealth. A population boom in the Western Europe prompted an increased demand for foodstuffs; the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth became Europe's foremost supplier of grain, which was shipped abroad from the Baltic seaport of Gdansk. Aside from swelling Polish coffers, the prosperous grain trade supported other notable aspects of national development. It reinforced the preeminence of the landowning nobility that received its profits, and it helped to preserve a traditionally rural society and economy at a time when Western Europe had begun moving toward urbanization and capitalism.
Lithuania and Poland as European powers
In other respects as well, the distinctive features of Jagiellonian Poland ran against the historical trends of early modern Europe. Not the least of those features was its singular governmental structure and practice. In an era that favored the steady accumulation of power within the hands of European monarchs, Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania developed a markedly decentralized system dominated by a landed aristocracy that kept royal authority firmly in check. The Polish nobility, or szlachta, enjoyed the considerable benefits of landownership and control over the labor of the peasantry. Nobles were not the masters of life and death of the peasantry, but peasants could not leave the village without permission of village' s noble owner. The szlachta included 7 to 10 percent of the population, making it a very large noble class by European standards. The nobility manifested an impressive group solidarity in spite of great individual differences in wealth and standing. Over time, the gentry introduced a series of royal concessions and guarantees that vested the noble parliament, or Sejm, with decisive control over most aspects of statecraft, including exclusive rights to the making of laws.
In 1505 Sejm concluded that no new law could be established without the agreement of the nobility (the Nihil Novi act). King Alexander Jagiellon was forced to agree to this settlement. The Sejm operated on the principle of unanimous consent, regarding each noble as irreducibly sovereign. In a further safeguard of minority rights, Polish usage sanctioned the right of a group of gentry to form a confederation, which in effect constituted an uprising aimed at redress of grievances. The nobility also possessed the crucial right to elect the monarch, although the Jagiellons were in practice a hereditary ruling house in all but the formal sense. In fact, Jagiellons had to give privileges to the nobles to encourage them to elect their sons to be the successors. Those privileges reduced king's power. King Sigismund II Augustus was the last of Jagiellon dynasty; he had no sons. The prestige of the Jagiellons and the certainty of their succession supplied an element of cohesion that tempered the disruptive forces built into the state system.
In retrospect historians frequently have derided the idiosyncratic, delicate governmental mechanism of Poland and Lithuania as a recipe for anarchy. Although its eventual breakdown contributed greatly to the loss of independence in the eighteenth century, the system worked reasonably well for 200 years while fostering a spirit of civic liberality unmatched in the Europe of its day. The host of legal protections that the nobility enacted for itself prefigured the rights generally accorded the citizens of modern democracies, and the memory of the "golden freedoms" of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth is an important part of the Poles' present-day sense of their tradition of liberty. On the other hand, the exclusion of the lower nobility from most of those protections caused serious resentment among that largely impoverished class, and the aristocracy passed laws in the early sixteenth century that made the peasants virtual slaves to the flourishing agricultural enterprises.
The Polish Renaissance
The population of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was not overwhelmingly Catholic or Polish. This circumstance resulted from the Poland's confederation with the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, where ethnic Poles were a distinct minority. In those days, to be Polish was much less an indication of ethnicity than of rank; it was a designation largely reserved for the landed noble class, which included members of Polish and non-Polish origin alike. Generally speaking, the ethnically non Polish noble families of Lithuania adopted the Polish language and culture. As a result, in the eastern territories of the kingdom a Polish or Polonized aristocracy dominated a peasantry whose great majority was neither Polish nor Catholic. This bred resentment that later grew into separate Lithuanian, Belarusian, and Ukrainian nationalist movements.
In the mid-sixteenth century, Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth sought ways to maintain control of the diverse state in spite of two threatening circumstances. First, since the late 1400s a series of ambitious tsars of the house of Rurik had led Russia in competing with the Grand Duchy of Lithuania for influence over the Slavic territories located between the two states. Second, Sigismund II Augustus (1548-1572) had no male heir. The Jagiellon Dynasty, the essential link between the states, would end after his reign. Accordingly, the Union of Lublin of 1569 transformed a loose confederation and a personal union of the Jagiellonian epoch into the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, deepening and formalizing the bonds between Poland and Lithuania. See also Muscovite wars.
Posted by gigihong07 at 10:27 AM