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The Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth was formed by the union of the Kingdom of Poland and Grand Duchy of Lithuania in 1569. The new Commonwealth was one of the largest and most populous countries of 16th and 17th-century Europe.

The new union possessed features unique among its contemporary states: the Commonwealth's political system (known alternately as the Noble's democracy or Golden Freedom) was characterized by strict checks upon monarchical power. These checks were enacted by a legislature (Sejm) controlled by the nobility (szlachta). This idiosyncratic system was a precursor of modern concepts of democracy, constitutional monarchy and federation. The two component states of the Commonwealth were formally equal, yet Poland was the dominant partner of the union.

The Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth was marked by high levels of ethnic diversity and unusual religious tolerance, although the degree of it varied with time.

After several decades of unparalleled power and greatness, the Commonwealth entered a period of protracted political, military and economic decline. In 1795 the Commonwealth was extinguished by growing absolutist neighbors: Austriamarker, Prussiamarker and Russiamarker. Shortly before its demise the Commonwealth adopted a massive reform effort and enacted what is traditionally seen as the second oldest codified national constitution of modern history.


The official name of the Commonwealth was Kingdom of Poland and Grand Duchy of Lithuania ( , , ). It was referred to in written sources prior to the XVIII century by its Latin name Regnum Poloniae Magnusque Ducatus Lithuaniae. Since the XVII century it was usually referred as the Most Serene Commonwealth/Republic of Poland ( , ) in the international relations. Its inhabitants referred to it in Polish as "Rzeczpospolita" (Ruthenian: Рѣч Посполита, ). Foreigners often called it simplistically Poland, applying the pars pro toto synecdoche.

The recently widespread Polish term "Rzeczpospolita Obojga Narodów" ("The Commonwealth of Both/Two Nations") was coined only in the 20th century.


Grand Standard Bearer of the Polish Crown (Chorąży Wielki Koronny), Jan III Sobieski, at the wedding procession of King Sigismund III of Poland and Sweden, as painted anonymously on the Stockholm Roll (c.
creation of the Commonwealth by the Union of Lublin in 1569 was one of the signal achievements of Sigismund II Augustus, last monarch of the Jagiellon dynasty. Sigismund believed he could preserve his dynasty by adopting elective monarchy. 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.
Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth during the reign of Władysław IV (ca. 1635)

The Commonwealth reached its Golden Age in the first half of the 17th century. Its powerful parliament was dominated by nobles who were reluctant to get involved in the Thirty Years' War; this neutrality spared the country from the ravages of a political-religious conflict which devastated most of contemporary Europe. The Commonwealth was able to hold its own against Swedenmarker, Russia, and vassals of the Ottoman Empire, and even launched successful expansionist offensives against its neighbors. During several invasions of Russia, Commonwealth troops managed to take Moscowmarker and hold on to it from September 27, 1610 to November 4, 1612, until driven out after a siege.

Commonwealth power waned after a series of blows in the mid-17th century. The first blow was history's greatest Cossack rebellion, which resulted in Cossacks asking for the protection of the Russian Tzar. The increase of Russian influence over the Ukraine gradually supplanted the Polish. The other blow to the Commonwealth was a Swedish invasion in 1655. Supported by troops of Transylvanian duke George II Rakoczy and Friedrich Wilhelm I, Elector of Brandenburgmarker, The Deluge was the Swedish royal response to years of Commonwealth belligerence.

In the late 17th century, the weakened Commonwealth's King John III Sobieski allied himself with Leopold I, Holy Roman Emperor to deal crushing defeats to the Ottoman Empire. In 1683, the Battle of Vienna marked the final turning point in a 250-year struggle between the forces of Christian Europe and the Islamic Ottoman Empire. For its centuries-long stance against the Muslim advances, the Commonwealth would gain the name of Antemurale Christianitatis (bulwark of Christianity). During the next 16 years the Great Turkish War would drive the Turks permanently south of the Danube River, never to threaten central Europe again.

By the 18th century, destabilization of its political system brought Poland to the brink of anarchy. The Commonwealth was facing many internal problems and was vulnerable to foreign influences. In 1768 the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth became a protectorate of the Russian Empiremarker. Control of Poland was central to Catherine the Great's diplomatic and military strategies. Attempts at reform, such as the Four-Year Sejm's May Constitution came too late. The country was partitioned in three stages by the neighboring Russian Empiremarker, Kingdom of Prussiamarker, and the Habsburg Monarchy. By 1795, the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth had been completely erased from the map of Europe. Poland and Lithuania would not be re-established as independent countries until 1918.

State organization and politics

Golden Liberty

The political doctrine of the Commonwealth was: our state is a republic under the presidency of the King. Chancellor Jan Zamoyski summed up this doctrine when he said that Rex regnat et non gubernat ("The King reigns but does not govern"). The Commonwealth had a parliament, the Sejm, as well as a Senat and an elected king. The king was obliged to respect citizens' rights specified in King Henry's Articles as well as in pacta conventa, negotiated at the time of his election.

The monarch's power was limited, in favor of a sizable noble class. Each new king had to subscribe to King Henry's Articles, which were the basis of Poland's political system (and included near-unprecedented guarantees of religious tolerance). Over time, King Henry's Articles were merged with the pacta conventa, specific pledges agreed to by the king-elect. From that point onwards, the king was effectively a partner with the noble class and was constantly supervised by a group of senators. The Sejm could veto the king on important matters, including legislation (the adoption of new laws), foreign affairs, declaration of war, and taxation (changes of existing taxes or the levying of new ones).

The foundation of the Commonwealth's political system, the "Golden Liberty" ( , a term used from 1573 on), included:
  • free election of the king by all nobles wishing to participate;
  • Sejm, the Commonwealth parliament which the king was required to hold every two years;
  • pacta conventa (Latin), "agreed-to agreements" negotiated with the king-elect, including a bill of rights, binding on the king, derived from the earlier King Henry's Articles.
  • rokosz (insurrection), the right of szlachta to form a legal rebellion against a king who violated their guaranteed freedoms;
  • liberum veto (Latin), the right of an individual Sejm deputy to oppose a decision by the majority in a Sejm session; the voicing of such a "free veto" nullified all the legislation that had been passed at that session; during the crisis of the second half of the 17th century, Polish nobles could also use the liberum veto in provincial sejmiks;
  • konfederacja (from the Latin confederatio), the right to form an organization to force through a common political aim.

The three regions (see below) of the Commonwealth enjoyed a degree of autonomy. Each voivodship had its own parliament (sejmik), which exercised serious political power, including choice of poseł (deputy) to the national Sejm and charging of the deputy with specific voting instructions. The Grand Duchy of Lithuania had its own separate army, treasury and most other official institutions.

Golden Liberty created a state that was unusual for its time, although somewhat similar political systems existed in the contemporary city-states like the Republic of Venicemarker. (Interestingly, both states were styled the "Most Serene Republic".) At a time when most European countries were headed toward centralization, absolute monarchy and religious and dynastic warfare, the Commonwealth experimented with decentralization, confederation and federation, democracy, religious tolerance, and even pacifism. The Sejm's usual veto of wars has been described as an example of democratic peace theory.

This political system unusual for its time stemmed from the victories of the szlachta noble class over other social classes and over the political system of monarchy. In time, the szlachta accumulated enough privileges (such as those established by the Nihil novi Act of 1505) that no monarch could hope to break the szlachta's grip on power. The Commonwealth's political system is difficult to fit into a simple category, but it can be tentatively described as a mixture of:
  • confederation and federation, with regard to the broad autonomy of its regions. It is, however, difficult to decisively call the Commonwealth either confederation or federation, as it had some qualities of both of them;
  • oligarchy, as only the szlachta—around 10% of the population—had political rights;
  • democracy, since all the szlachta were equal in rights and privileges, and the Sejm had extensive veto power. Also, the 5–15% of Commonwealth population who enjoyed those political rights (the szlachta) was a substantially larger percentage than in any other European country ; note that in 1789 in France only about 1% of the population had the right to vote, and in 1867 in the United Kingdom, only about 3%;.
  • elective monarchy, since the monarch, elected by the szlachta, was Head of State;
  • constitutional monarchy, since the monarch was bound by pacta conventa and other laws, and the szlachta could disobey any king's decrees they deemed illegal.

The political players

The magnates and the szlachta were far from united, with many factions supporting either the monarch or various of the magnates.

Shortcomings of the Commonwealth

Once the Jagiellons had disappeared from the scene in 1572, the fragile equilibrium of the Commonwealth's government was disrupted. Power increasingly slipped away from the central government to the nobility.

When presented with periodic opportunities to fill the throne, the szlachta exhibited a preference for foreign candidates who would not found another strong dynasty. This policy often produced monarchs who were either totally ineffective or in constant debilitating conflict with the nobility. Furthermore, aside from notable exceptions such as the able Transylvanian Stefan Batory (1576–86), the kings of foreign origin were inclined to subordinate the interests of the Commonwealth to those of their own country and ruling house. This was especially visible in the policies and actions of the first two elected kings from the Swedish House of Vasa, whose politics brought the Commonwealth into conflict with Sweden, culminating in the war known as The Deluge (1655), one of the events that mark the end of the Commonwealth's Golden Age and the beginning of the Commonwealth's decline.

Zebrzydowski's rokosz (1606–07) marked a substantial increase in the power of the magnates, and the transformation of szlachta democracy into magnate oligarchy. The Commonwealth's political system was vulnerable to outside interference, as Sejm deputies bribed by foreign powers might use their liberum veto to block attempted reforms. This sapped the Commonwealth and plunged it into political paralysis and anarchy for over a century, from the mid-17th century to the end of the 18th, while its neighbors stabilized their internal affairs and increased their military might.

Late reforms

The Commonwealth did eventually make a serious effort to reform its political system, adopting in 1791 the May 3rd Constitution, Europe's first codified national constitution in modern history, and the world's second, after the United States Constitution, which had been ratified two years earlier. The revolutionary Constitution recast the erstwhile Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth as a Polish–Lithuanian federal state with a hereditary monarchy and abolished many of the deleterious features of the old system. The new constitution:

These reforms came too late, however, as the Commonwealth was immediately invaded from all sides by its neighbors which were content to leave the Commonwealth alone as a weak buffer state, but reacted strongly to king Stanisław August Poniatowski's and other reformers' attempts to strengthen the country. Russia feared the revolutionary implications of the May 3rd Constitution's political reforms and the prospect of the Commonwealth regaining its position as a European empire. Catherine the Great regarded the May constitution as fatal to her influence and declared the Polish constitution Jacobinical. Grigori Aleksandrovich Potemkin drafted the act for the Confederation of Targowica, referring to the constitution as the "contagion of democratic ideas". Meanwhile, Prussia and Austria, also afraid of a strengthened Poland, used it as a pretext for further territorial expansion. Prussian minister Ewald von Hertzberg called the constitution "a blow to the Prussian monarchy", fearing that strengthened Poland would once again dominate Prussia. In the end, the May 3rd Constitution was never fully implemented, and the Commonwealth entirely ceased to exist only four years after the Constitution's adoption.

Commonwealth military

Commonwealth armies were composed of Polish army and Lithuanian army, each commanded by separate Grand Hetman and separate Field Hetman. They were restricted to their titular territory, and only in times of greatest need were allowed to cross internal Polish-Lithuanian border. Polish army comprised:
  • Wojsko kwarciane: Regular units with wages paid from taxes (these units were later merged with the wojsko komputowe)
  • Wojsko komputowe: Semi-regular units created for times of war (in 1652 these units were merged with the wojsko kwarciane into a new permanent army)
  • Pospolite ruszenie: Szlachta levée en masse
  • Piechota łanowa (piechota dymowa from 1673) and piechota wybraniecka: Units based on peasant recruits
  • Registered Cossacks: Troops made up of Cossacks, used mainly as infantry, less often as cavalry (with tabor) were recruited.
  • Royal guard: A small unit whose primary purpose was to escort the monarch and members of his family
  • Mercenaries: As with most other armies, hired to supplement regular units, such as Germans, Scots, Wallachians, Serbs, Hungarians, Bohemians, Moravians and Silesians.
  • Private armies: In time of peace usually small regiments (few hundred men) were paid for and equipped by magnates or cities. However, in times of war, they were greatly augmented (to even a few thousand men) and paid by the state.

Some units of the Commonwealth included:
  • Husaria: heavy cavalry armed with lances, koncerzes, sabers or axes, bows, maces, later pistols; their charges were extremely effective until advances in firearms in the late 17th century substantially increased infantry firepower. Members were known as towarzysz husarski and were supported by 3–4 pocztowy's.
  • Cossack cavalry general name for all Commonwealth units of light cavalry, even if they did not contain a single ethnic Cossack; fast and maneuverable like oriental cavalry units of Ottoman Empire vassals, but lacking the firepower of European cavalry such as the Swedish pistol-armed reiters.
  • Tabor: military horse-drawn wagons, usually carrying army supplies. Their use for defensive formations was perfected by the Cossacks, and to a smaller extent by other Commonwealth units.

The Commonwealth Navy was small and played a relatively minor role in the history of the Commonwealth, but won the very important naval battle of Oliwa, breaking Swedish sea blockade in 1627. On the Black Seamarker, Cossacks with their small boats (chaika) were known for their plundering raids against the Ottoman Empire and its vassals. They even burned suburbs of the Ottoman capital of Constantinople.


"Grain pays"...
...and "Grain doesn't pay".
The two pictures illustrate that agriculture, once extremely profitable to the nobility (szlachta) in the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, became much less so beginning in the second half of the 17th century.

The economy of the Commonwealth was dominated by feudal agriculture based on exploitation of agricultural workforce (serfs). Slavery in Poland was forbidden in the 15th century; in Lithuania, slavery was formally abolished in 1588. They were replaced by the second enserfment. Typically a nobleman's landholding comprised a folwark, a large farm worked by serfs to produce surpluses for internal and external trade. This economic arrangement worked well for the ruling classes in the early era of the Commonwealth, which was one of the most prosperous eras of the grain trade. However the country's situation worsened from the late 17th century on, when the landed szlachta sought to compensate for falling grain prices by increasing the peasants' workload, thus leading to the creation of second serfdom, a phenomenon common throughout contemporary Eastern Europe.

The Commonwealth's preoccupation with agriculture, coupled with the szlachta's privileged position when compared to the bourgeoisie, resulted in a fairly slow process of urbanization and thus a rather slow development of industries. While similar conflicts among social classes may be found all over Europe, nowhere were the nobility as dominant at the time as in the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. There is, however, much debate among historians as to which processes most affected those developments, since until the wars and crises of the mid-17th century the cities of the Commonwealth had not markedly lagged in size and wealth behind their western counterparts. The Commonwealth did have numerous towns and cities, commonly founded on Magdeburg rights. Some of the largest trade fairs in the Commonwealth were held at Lublinmarker. See the geography section, below, for a list of major cities in the Commonwealth (commonly capitals of voivodships).

Poland-Lithuania played a significant role in the supply of 16th century Western Europe by the export of three sorts of goods, notably grain (rye), cattle (oxen) and fur. These three articles amounted to nearly 90% of the country's exports to western markets by overland- and maritime trade.

Although the Commonwealth was Europe's largest grain producer, the bulk of her grain was consumed domestically. Estimated grain consumption in the Polish Crown (Poland proper) and Prussia in 1560–70 was some 113,000 tons of wheat (or 226,000 łaszt (a łaszt, or "last", being a large bulk measure; in the case of grain, about half a ton). Average yearly production of grain in the Commonwealth in the 16th century was 120,000 tons, 6% of which was exported, while cities consumed some 19% and the remainder was consumed by the villages. The exports probably satisfied about 2% of the demand for grain in Western Europe, feeding 750,000 people there . Commonwealth grain achieved far more importance in poor crop years, as in the early 1590s and the 1620s, when governments throughout southern Europe arranged for large grain imports to cover shortfalls in their jurisdictions.

Still, grain was the largest export commodity of the Commonwealth. The owner of a folwark usually signed a contract with merchants of Gdanskmarker (German Danzig), who controlled 80% of this inland trade, to ship the grain north to that seaport on the Baltic Seamarker. Many rivers in the Commonwealth were used for shipping purposes: the Vistula, Pilica, Western Bug, Sanmarker, Nidamarker, Wieprzmarker, Niemenmarker. The rivers had relatively developed infrastructure, with river ports and granaries. Most of the river shipping moved north, southward transport being less profitable, and barges and rafts were often sold off in Gdańsk for lumber. Hrodnamarker become an important site after formation of a customs post at Augustówmarker in 1569, which became a checkpoint for merchants travelling to the Crown lands from the Grand Duchy.

From Gdańsk, ships, mostly from the Netherlandsmarker and Flanders, carried the grain to ports such as Antwerpmarker and Amsterdammarker. Gdańsk ships accounted for only 2–10% of this maritime trade . Besides grain, other seaborne exports included lumber and wood-related products such as ash and tar. The land routes, mostly to the German lands of the Holy Roman Empire such as the cities of Leipzigmarker and Nurembergmarker, were used for export of live cattle (heads of around 50,000 head) hides, furs, hemp, cotton (mostly from Wielkopolska) and linen.

The Commonwealth imported wine, fruit, spices, luxury goods (e.g. tapestries), clothing, fish, beer and industrial products like steel and tools. A few riverboats carried south imports from Gdańsk like wine, fruit, spices and herring. Somewhere between the 16th and 17th centuries, the Commonwealth's trade balance shifted from positive to negative.

With the advent of the Age of Exploration, many old trading routes such as the Amber Road lost importance as new ones were created. Poland's importance as a caravan route between Asia and Europe diminished, while new local trading routes were created between the Commonwealth and Russia. Many goods and cultural artifacts continued to pass from one region to another via the Commonwealth. For example, Isfahan rugs imported from Persia to the Commonwealth were actually known in the West as "Polish rugs".

Commonwealth currency included the złoty and the grosz. The City of Gdańskmarker had the privilege of minting its own coinage.

File:StefanBatory.jpg|Commonwealth coin minted during the reign of King Stefan BatoryFile:RegiaCivitatisGedanensis.jpg|Royal City of Gdańskmarker coin of 1589 (Sigismund III Vasa period)File:Lublin Kamienica Konopniców.jpg|Konopnica's tenement house in Lublinmarker, rebuilt 1575File:Oboz flisakow nad Wisla.jpg|Rivermen's camp at the Wisła (Vistula), 1858, by Wilhelm August Stryowski


Science and literature

The Commonwealth was 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 such as Erasmus; and, during the Counter-Reformation, was known for near-unparalleled religious tolerance, with peacefully coexisting Catholic, Jewish, Eastern Orthodox, Protestant and Muslim communities. The Commonwealth gave rise to the famous Christian sect of the Polish Brethren, antecedents of Britishmarker and American Unitarianism.

With its political system, the Commonwealth gave birth to political philosophers such as Andrzej Frycz Modrzewski (1503–72), Wawrzyniec Grzymała Goślicki (1530–1607) and Piotr Skarga (1536–1612). Later, works by Stanisław Staszic (1755–1826) and Hugo Kołłątaj (1750–1812) helped pave the way for the Constitution of May 3, 1791, the first modern codified national constitution in Europe, which enacted revolutionary political principles for the first time on that continent.

Krakówmarker's Jagiellonian University is one of the oldest universities in the world. Vilnius Universitymarker and the Jagiellonian University were the major scholarly and scientific centers in the Commonwealth. The Komisja Edukacji Narodowej, (Polish for Commission for National Education), formed in 1773, was the world's first national Ministry of Education. Commonwealth scientists included:Martin Kromer (1512–1589), historian and cartographer; Michał Sędziwój (1566–1636), alchemist and chemist; Jan Brożek (Ioannes Broscius in Latin) (1585–1652), polymath: a mathematician, physician and astronomer; Krzysztof Arciszewski (Crestofle d'Artischau Arciszewski in Portuguese) (1592–1656), engineer, ethnographer, general and admiral of the Dutch West Indies Company army in the war with the Spanish Empire for control of Brazilmarker; Kazimierz Siemienowicz (1600–1651), military engineer, artillery specialist and a founder of rocketry; Johannes Hevelius (1611–1687), astronomer, founder of lunar topography; Michał Boym (卜弥格 in Chinese) (1612–1659), orientalist, cartographer, naturalist and diplomat in Ming Dynasty's service; Adam Adamandy Kochański (1631–1700), mathematician and engineer; Baal Shem Tov (הבעל שם טוב in Hebrew) (1698–1760), considered to be the founder of Hasidic Judaism; Marcin Odlanicki Poczobutt (1728–1810), astronomer and mathematician; Jan Krzysztof Kluk (1739–1796), naturalist, agronomist and entomologist. In 1628 the Czech teacher, scientist, educator, and writer John Amos Comenius took refuge in the Commonwealth, when the Protestants were persecuted under the Counter Reformation.

Art and music

The many classics of Commonwealth literature include:

Many szlachta members wrote memoirs and diaries. Perhaps the most famous are the Memoirs of Polish History by Albrycht Stanisław Radziwiłł (1595–1656) and the Memoirs of Jan Chryzostom Pasek (ca. 1636–ca. 1701). Jakub Sobieski (1590–1646) (father of John III Sobieski) wrote notable diaries. During the Khotyn expedition in 1621 he wrote a diary called Commentariorum chotinensis belli libri tres (Diary of the Chocim War), which was published in 1646 in Gdańskmarker. It was used by Wacław Potocki as a basis for his epic poem, Transakcja wojny chocimskiej (The Progress of the War of Chocim). He also authored instructions written for the journey of his sons to Kraków (1640) and France (1645) which contain the principles of best liberal education of the times.

A common art form of the Sarmatian period were coffin portraits, particular to the culture of the Commonwealth, used in funerals and other important ceremonies. As a rule, such portraits were nailed to sheet metal, six – or eight – sided in shape, fixed to the front of a coffin placed on a high, ornate catafalque.

Another characteristic is common usage of black marble. Altars, fonts, portals, balustrades, columns, monuments, tombstones, headstones and whole rooms (e.g. Marble Room at the Royal Castle in Warsaw, St. Casimir Chapel of the Vilnius Cathedralmarker and Vasa Chapel of the Wawel Cathedralmarker) were decorated with black marble.

Music was a common feature of religious and secular events. To that end many noblemen founded church and school choirs, and employed their own ensembles of musicians. Some, like Stanisław Lubomirski build their own opera houses (in Nowy Wiśniczmarker). Yet others, like Janusz Skumin Tyszkiewicz and Krzysztof Radziwiłł were known for their sponsorship of arts which manifested itself in their permanently retained orchestras, at their courts in Wilnomarker. Musical life further flourished during the reign of the Vasas. Both foreign and domestic composers were active in the Commonwealth. King Sigismund III brought in Italian composers and conductors, such as Luca Marenzio, Annibale Stabile, Asprilio Pacelli, Marco Scacchi and Diomedes Cato for the royal orchestra. Notable home grown musicians, who also composed and played for the King's court, included Bartłomiej Pękiel, Jacek Różycki, Adam Jarzębski, Marcin Mielczewski, and Grzegorz Gorczycki.

Magnates often undertook construction projects as monuments to themselves: churches, cathedrals, and palaces like the present-day Presidential Palace in Warsawmarker and Pidhirtsi Castle built by Grand Hetman Stanisław Koniecpolski herbu Pobóg. The largest projects involved entire towns, although in time many of them would lapse into obscurity or be totally abandoned. Usually they were named after the sponsoring magnate. Among the most famous is the town of Zamośćmarker, founded by Jan Zamoyski and designed by the Italian architect Bernardo Morando.

File:Zamosc pierzeja polnocna.jpg|City Hall and Armenian tenements in Zamośćmarker, 16th centuryFile:Ossolinski Kazanowski Palace.jpg|Kazanowski Palacemarker (right) and Ossoliński Palacemarker (left) in WarsawmarkerFile:Pazaislis.jpg|Pažaislis Monasterymarker, built 1674File:Palac Branickich pn-wsch.jpg|Branicki Palace, Białystokmarker, built 1726

Szlachta and Sarmatism

The prevalent ideology of the szlachta became "Sarmatism", named after the Sarmatians, alleged ancestors of the Poles. This belief system was an important part of the szlachta's culture, penetrating all aspects of its life. Sarmatism enshrined equality among szlachta, horseback riding, tradition, provincial rural life, peace and pacifism; championed oriental-inspired attire (żupan, kontusz, sukmana, pas kontuszowy, delia, szabla); and served to integrate the multi-ethnic nobility by creating an almost nationalistic sense of unity and of pride in the szlachta's Golden Freedoms.

In its early, idealistic form, Sarmatism represented a positive cultural movement: it supported religious belief, honesty, national pride, courage, equality and freedom. In time, however, it became distorted. Late extreme Sarmatism turned belief into bigotry(but compared to countries like Sweden,Germany,Russia,France,Spain,England and others freedom and tolerance were much more common), honesty into political naïveté, pride into arrogance, courage into stubbornness and freedom into anarchy.Andrzej Wasko, Sarmatism or the Enlightenment: The Dilemma of Polish Culture, Sarmatian Review XVII.2, online The faults of Sarmatism were blamed for the demise of the country from the late 18th century onwards. Criticism, often one-sided and exaggerated, was used by the Polish reformists to push for radical changes. This self-deprecation was accompanied by works of Prussian, Russian and Austrian historians, who tried to prove that it was Poland itself that was to blame for its fall.

Demographics and religion

The population of the Commonwealth was never overwhelmingly either Roman Catholic or Polish. This circumstance resulted from Poland's possession of Ukraine and confederation with Lithuania, in both of which countries ethnic Poles were a distinct minority. The Commonwealth comprised primarily four nations: Lithuanians, Poles, Belarusians and Ukrainians; the latter two usually referred to as the Ruthenians. Sometimes inhabitants of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania were called Litvins, a Slavic term for Lithuanians, despite being of different ethnicities. Shortly after the Union of Lublin, the Commonwealth population was around 7 million, with a rough breakdown of 4.5 m Poles, 0.75 m Lithuanians, 0.7 m Jews and 2 m Ruthenians. In 1618, after the Truce of Deulino, the Commonwealth population increased together with its territory, reaching 11.5 million people, which was composed roughly of 4.5 m Poles, 3.5 m Ukrainians, 1.5 m Belarusians, 0.75 m Lithuanians, 0.75 m Prussians, 0.5 m Jews, and 0.5 m Livonians. At that time nobility was 10% of the population, and burghers were 15%. In the period from 1648–57, populations losses are estimated at 4 m. Coupled with further population and territorial losses, in 1717 the Commonwealth population had fallen to 9 m, with roughly 4.5 m Poles, 1.5 m Ukrainians, 1.2 m Belarusians, 0.8 m Lithuanians, 0.5 m Jews, and 0.5 m others.

To be Polish, in the non-Polish lands of the Commonwealth, was then much less an index of ethnicity than of religion and rank; it was a designation largely reserved for the landed noble class (szlachta), which included Poles but also many members of non-Polish origin who converted to Catholicism in increasing numbers with each following generation. For the non-Polish noble such conversion meant a final step of Polonization that followed the adoption of the Polish language and culture. Poland, as the culturally most advanced part of the Commonwealth, with the royal court, the capital, the largest cities, the second-oldest university in Central Europe (after Praguemarker), and the more liberal and democratic social institutions had proven an irresistible magnet for the non-Polish nobility in the Commonwealth. Many referred to themselves as "gente Ruthenus, natione Polonus" (Ruthenian by blood, Polish by nationality) since 16th century onwards.

As a result, in the eastern territories a Polish (or Polonized) aristocracy dominated a peasantry whose great majority was neither Polish nor Roman Catholic. Moreover, the decades of peace brought huge colonization efforts to Ukraine, heightening the tensions among nobles, Jews, Cossacks (traditionally Orthodox), Polish and Ruthenian peasants. The latter, deprived of their native protectors among the Ruthenian nobility, turned for protection to cossacks that facilitated violence that in the end broke the Commonwealth. The tensions were aggravated by conflicts between Eastern Orthodoxy and the Greek Catholic Church following the Union of Brest, overall discrimination of Orthodox religions by dominant Catholicism, and several Cossack uprisings. In the west and north, many cities had sizable German minorities, often belonging to Reformed churches. The Commonwealth had also one of the largest Jewish diasporas in the world – by the mid-16th century 80% of the world's Jews lived in Poland.

Until the Reformation, the szlachta were mostly Catholic or Eastern Orthodox. However, many families quickly adopted the Reformed religion. After the Counter-Reformation, when the Roman Catholic Church regained power in Poland, the szlachta became almost exclusively Roman Catholic, despite the fact that Roman Catholicism was not a majority religion (the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches counted approximately 40% of the population each, while the remaining 20% were Jews and members of various Protestant churches) . It should be noted that the Counter-Reformation in Poland, influenced by the Commonwealth tradition of religious tolerance, was based mostly on Jesuit propaganda and was very peaceful when compared to more violent efforts such as the Thirty Years' War elsewhere in Europe.

The Crown had about double the population of Lithuania and five times the income of the latter's treasury. As with other countries, the borders, area and population of the Commonwealth varied over time. After the Peace of Jam Zapolski (1582), the Commonwealth had approximately 815,000 km² area and a population of 6.5 million. After the Truce of Deulino (1618), the Commonwealth had an area of some 1 million km² (990,000 km²) and a population of 10–11 million (including some 4 million Poles).

Languages of the Commonwealth

  • Polish (officially recognized; dominant language, used by most of Commonwealth nobility and by peasantry in the Crown province; official language in Crown chancellery and since 1697 in Grand Duchy chancellery) Dominant language in the towns.
  • Latin (off. recog.; commonly used in foreign relations and popular as second language among the nobility)
  • Ruthenian (also known as Chancery Slavonic; off. recog.; official language in Grand Duchy chancellery until 1697 (when replaced by Polish); used in some foreign relations its dialects were widely used in Grand Duchy and eastern parts of the Crown as spoken language)
  • Lithuanian (not off. recog. but used in some official documents in Grand Duchy and, mostly, used as a spoken language in the northwest part of the Grand Duchy (in Lithuania Proper) and the northern part of Royal Prussia (see Lithuania Minor).
  • German (off. recog.; used in some foreign relations, in Royal Prussia and by minorities in cities,)
  • Hebrew (off. recog.; used by the Jews; Yiddish was also used but not recognized as official language)
  • Armenian (off. recog. used by Armenian minority)


The Duchy of Warsawmarker, established in 1807, traced its origins to the Commonwealth. Other revival movements appeared during the November Uprising (1830–31), the January Uprising (1863–64) and in the 1920s, with Józef Piłsudski's failed attempt to create a Polish-led Międzymorze ("Between-Seas") federation that would have included Lithuania and Ukrainemarker. Today's Republic of Poland considers itself a successor to the Commonwealth, whereas the Republic of Lithuania, re-established at the end of World War I, saw the participation of the Lithuanian state in the old Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth mostly in a negative light at the early stages of regaining its independence, although this attitude has been changing recently.

Administrative division

While the term "Poland" was also commonly used to denote this whole polity, Poland was in fact only part of a greater whole—the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, which comprised primarily two parts:

The Commonwealth was further divided into smaller administrative units known as voivodships (województwa). Each voivodship was governed by a voivod (wojewoda, governor). Voivodships were further divided into starostwa, each starostwo being governed by a starosta. Cities were governed by castellans. There were frequent exceptions to these rules, often involving the ziemia subunit of administration.

The lands that once belonged to the Commonwealth are now largely distributed among several Central and East European countries:

Poland, Ukraine, Moldovamarker (Transnistriamarker), Belarus, Russia, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. Also some small towns in Slovakiamarker, then within the Kingdom of Hungary, became a part of Poland in the Treaty of Lubowla.

Other notable parts of the Commonwealth often referred to, without respect to region or voivodship divisions, include:

Commonwealth borders shifted with wars and treaties, sometimes several times in a decade, especially in the eastern and southern parts. After the Peace of Jam Zapolski (1582), the Commonwealth had approximately 815,000 km² area and a population of 6.5 million. After the Truce of Deulino (1618), the Commonwealth had an area of some 990,000 km² and a population of 10–11 million (including some 4 million Poles and close to a million Lithuanians).


Topographical map of the Commonwealth in 1764
In the 16th century, the Polish bishop and cartographer Martin Kromer published a Latin atlas, entitled Poland: about Its Location, People, Culture, Offices and the Polish Commonwealth, which was regarded as the most comprehensive guide to the country.

Kromer's works and other contemporary maps, such as those of Gerardus Mercator, show the Commonwealth as mostly plains. The Commonwealth's southeastern part, the Kresy, was famous for its steppes. The Carpathian Mountainsmarker formed part of the southern border, with the Tatra Mountainmarker chain the highest, and the Baltic Seamarker formed the Commonwealth's northern border. As with most European countries at the time, the Commonwealth had extensive forest cover, especially in the east. Today, what remains of the Białowieża Forestmarker constitutes the last largely intact primeval forest in Europe.

See also


  1. "Poland." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2009. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Retrieved 20 Feb. 2009
  2. Heritage: Interactive Atlas: Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Retrieved March 19, 2006: At its apogee, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth comprised some and a multi-ethnic population of 11 million. For population comparisons, see also those maps: [1], [2].
  3. Norman Davies, Europe: A History, Pimlico 1997, p. 554: Poland-Lithuania was another country which experienced its 'Golden Age' during the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. The realm of the last Jagiellons was absolutely the largest state in Europe.
  4. Yale Richmond, From Da to Yes: Understanding the East Europeans, Intercultural Press, 1995, p. 51
  5. Maciej Janowski, Polish Liberal Thought, Central European University Press, 2001, ISBN 963-9241-18-0, Google Print: p3, p12
  6. Paul W. Schroeder, The Transformation of European Politics 1763–1848, Oxford University Press, 1996, ISBN 0-19-820654-2, Google print p84
  7. Rett R. Ludwikowski, Constitution-Making in the Region of Former Soviet Dominance, Duke University Press, 1997, ISBN 0-8223-1802-4, Google Print, p34
  8. George Sanford, Democratic Government in Poland: Constitutional Politics Since 1989, Palgrave, 2002, ISBN 0-333-77475-2, Google print p11—constitutional monarchy, p3—anarchy
  9. Aleksander Gella, Development of Class Structure in Eastern Europe: Poland and Her Southern Neighbors, SUNY Press, 1998, ISBN 0-88706-833-2, Google Print, p13
  10. "Formally, Poland and Lithuania were to be distinct, equal components of the federation… But Poland, which retained possession of the Lithuanian lands it had seized, but Poland had greater representation in the Diet and became the dominant partner." [3]
  11. Halina Stephan, Living in Translation: Polish Writers in America, Rodopi, 2003, ISBN 90-420-1016-9, Google Print p373. Quoting from Sarmatian Review academic journal mission statement: Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was [...] characterized by religious tolerance unusual in premodern Europe
  12. This quality of the Commonwealth was recognized by its contemporaries. Robert Burton, in his The Anatomy of Melancholy, first published in 1621, writes of Poland: "Poland is a receptacle of all religions, where Samosetans, Socinians, Photinians [...], Arians, Anabaptists are to be found"; "In Europe, Poland and Amsterdam are the common sanctuaries [for Jews]".
  13. Feliks Gross, Citizenship and Ethnicity: The Growth and Development of a Democratic Multiethnic Institution, Greenwood Press, 1999, ISBN 0-313-30932-9, Google Print, p122 (notes)
  14. "In the mid-1500s, united Poland was the largest state in Europe and perhaps the continent’s most powerful nation". "Poland". Encyclopædia Britannica. 2009. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Retrieved 26 June 2009
  15. Martin Van Gelderen, Quentin Skinner, Republicanism: A Shared European Heritage, Cambridge University Press, 2002, ISBN 0-521-80756-5 Google Print: p54
  16. The Causes of Slavery or Serfdom: A Hypothesis, discussion and full online text of Evsey Domar (1970) "The Causes of Slavery or Serfdom: A Hypothesis", Economic History Review 30:1 (March), pp18–32
  17. "Poland." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2009. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Retrieved 5 August 2009
  18. Isaac Kramnick, Introduction,
  19. John Markoff describes the advent of modern codified national constitutions as one of the milestones of democracy, and states that "The first European country to follow the U.S. example was Poland in 1791." John Markoff, Waves of Democracy, 1996, ISBN 0-8039-9019-7, p.121.
  20. The Most Serene Republic of Poland - official name of the state in international treaties: [4], [5]
  21. Although the terms Rzeczpospolita (Commonwealth/Republic) and Oba Narody (Two/Both Nations) were widespread in the period, they were used in the combined form for the first time only in 1967 in Paweł Jasienica's book thus entitled.
  22. [6]
  23. . In 1651, in the face of a growing threat from Poland, and forsaken by his Tatar allies, Khmelnytsky asked the Tsar to incorporate Ukraine as an autonomous duchy under Russian protection. [7]
  24. Poland, the knight among nations, Louis Edwin Van Norman, New York: 1907, p. 18
  25. Matylda Urjasz-Raczko, History Of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth Or An Alternative For The Future? The Polish Perspective CENTRAL-EUROPEAN CASE STUDIES VOLUME 2
  26. Andrzej Jezierski, Cecylia Leszczyńska, Historia gospodarcza Polski, 2003, s. 68.
  27. Russia's Rise as a European Power, 1650–1750, Jeremy Black, History Today, Vol. 36 Issue: 8, August 1986
  28. Joanna Olkiewicz, Najaśniejsza Republika Wenecka (Most Serene Republic of Venice), Książka i Wiedza, 1972, Warszawa
  29. Joseph Conrad, Notes on Life and Letters: Notes on Life and Letters, Cambridge University Press, 2004, ISBN 0-521-56163-9, Google Print, p422 (notes)
  30. 2000. Especially pp9–11, 114, 181, 323.
  31. William Bullitt, The Great Globe Itself: A Preface to World Affairs, Transaction Publishers, 2005, ISBN 1-4128-0490-6, Google Print, pp42–43
  32. John Adams, The Political Writings of John Adams, Regnery Gateway, 2001, ISBN 0-89526-292-4, Google Print, p.242
  33. Henry Eldridge Bourne, The Revolutionary Period in Europe 1763 to 1815, Kessinger Publishing, 2005, ISBN 1-4179-3418-2, Google Print p161
  34. Wolfgang Menzel, Germany from the Earliest Period Vol. 4, Kessinger Publishing, 2004, ISBN 1-4191-2171-5, Google Print, p33
  35. ;Isabel de Madariaga, Russia in the Age of Catherine the Great, Sterling Publishing Company, Inc., 2002, ISBN 1-84212-511-7, Google Print p431
  36. Carl L. Bucki, The Constitution of May 3, 1791, Text of a presentation made at the Polish Arts Club of Buffalo on the occasion of the celebrations of Poland's Constitution Day on May 3, 1996. Retrieved March 20, 2006
  37. Piotr Stefan Wandycz, The Price of Freedom: A History of East Central Europe from the Middle Ages to the Present, Routledge (UK), 2001, ISBN 0-415-25491-4, Google Print p131
  38. Evsey D. Domar, "Capitalism, socialism, and serfdom: essays", Cambridge University Press, 1989, pg. 23 [8]
  40. Dziejochciejstwo, dziejokrętactwo, Janusz Tazbir, Polityka 6 (2591) 10-02-2007 (in Polish)
  41. Total and Jewish population based on Frazee; others are estimations from Pogonowski (se following reference). Charles A. Frazee, World History the Easy Way, Barron's Educational Series, ISBN 0812097661, Google Print, 50
  42. Based on 1618 population map (p115), 1618 languages map (p119), 1657–67 losses map (p128) and 1717 map (p141) from Iwo Cyprian Pogonowski, Poland a Historical Atlas, Hippocrene Books, 1987, ISBN 0-880-29394-2
  43. Linda Gordon, Cossack Rebellions: Social Turmoil in the Sixteenth Century Ukraine, SUNY Press, 1983, ISBN 0-87395-654-0, Google Print, p.51
  44. "Poland, history of", Encyclopædia Britannica from Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service. [9]. Retrieved February 10, 2006 and "Ukraine", Encyclopædia Britannica from Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service. [10]. Retrieved February 14, 2006.
  45. Anatol Lieven, The Baltic Revolution: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and the Path to Independence, Yale University Press, 1994, ISBN 0300060785, Google Print, p.48
  46. Stephen Barbour, Cathie Carmichael, Language and Nationalism in Europe, Oxford University Press, 2000, ISBN 0199250855, Google Print p.184
  47. Östen Dahl, Maria Koptjevskaja-Tamm, The Circum-Baltic Languages: Typology and Contact, John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2001, ISBN 9027230579, Google Print, p.45
  48. Glanville Price, Encyclopedia of the Languages of Europe, Blackwell Publishing, 1998, ISBN 0631220399, Google Print, p.30
  49. Mikulas Teich, The National Question in Europe in Historical Context, Cambridge University Press, 1993, ISBN 0521367131, Google Print, p.295
  50. Kevin O'Connor, Culture And Customs of the Baltic States, Greenwood Press, 2006, ISBN 0313331251, Google Print, p.115
  51. Karin Friedrich et al., The Other Prussia: Royal Prussia, Poland and Liberty, 1569–1772, Cambridge University Press, 2000, ISBN 0521583357, Google Print, p.88
  52. Daniel. Z Stone, A History of East Central Europe, p.46
  53. Piotr Eberhardt, Jan Owsinski, Ethnic Groups and Population Changes in Twentieth-century Central-Eastern Europe: History, Data, Analysis, M.E. Sharpe, 2003, ISBN 0765606658, Google Print, p.177
  54. Östen Dahl, Maria Koptjevskaja-Tamm, The Circum-Baltic Languages: Typology and Contact, John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2001, ISBN 9027230579, Google Print, p.41
  55. Daniel. Z Stone, A History of East Central Europe, p.4
  56. Czesław Miłosz, The History of Polish Literature, University of California Press, 1983, ISBN 0520044770, Google Print, p.108
  57. Jan K. Ostrowski, Land of the Winged Horsemen: Art in Poland, 1572–1764, Yale University Press, 1999, ISBN 0300079184, Google Print, p.27
  58. A. stated, for instance by the preamble of the Constitution of the Republic of Poland of 1997.
  59. Alfonsas Eidintas, Vytautas Zalys, Lithuania in European Politics: The Years of the First Republic, 1918–1940, Palgrave, 1999, ISBN 0-312-22458-3. Print, p78

Further reading

  • Norman Davies, God's Playground, ISBN 0-231-05353-3 and ISBN 0-231-05351-7 (two volumes).
  • Jan Chryzostom Pasek, Memoirs of the Polish Baroque: The Writings of Jan Chryzostom Pasek, a Squire of the Commonwealth of Poland and Lithuania, ISBN 0-520-02752-3.
  • Adam Zamoyski, The Polish Way: a Thousand-Year History of the Poles and Their Culture, ISBN 0-7818-0200-8.
  • Pawel Jasienica, Rzeczpospolita Obojga Narodów (Commonwealth of the Two Nations), ISBN 83-06-01093-0.
  • Zdzisław Kowalewski, Rzeczpospolita nie doceniona: Kultura naukowa i polityczna Polski przedrozbiorowej (Commonwealth not valued: Science and political culture of the pre-partition Poland), ISBN 83-211-0312-X.
  • Teresa Chynczewska-Hennel, Rzeczpospolita XVII wieku w oczach cudzoziemców (Commonwealth of the 17th century in the eyes of the foreigners), ISBN 83-04-04107-3.
  • Albrycht Stanisław Radziwiłł, Pamiętnik o dziejach w Polsce (Memoires on the Polish history). ISBN 83-06-00092-7
  • Lukowski, Jerzy Tadeusz, Liberty's Folly: The Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth in the Eighteenth Century, 1697–1795. Routledge, 1991 (ISBN 0-415-03228-8). Google Print
  • Snyder, Timothy. "The Reconstruction of Nations: Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus, 1569–1999", New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2003 (ISBN 0-300-10586-X).
  • Stone, Daniel Z. The Polish-Lithuanian State, 1386–1795 (A History of East Central Europe; 4). Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 2001 (hardcover, ISBN 0-295-98093-1).

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