The Polish Nobility
Written by Margaret nee Knight/Knecht Odrowaz-Sypniewska

The Polish Nobility emerged as a clan (family or tribe) system before 1000 A.D. Each clan had its own mark, a tamga, which eventually evolved into the symbols found on Polish coats of arms. The noble class became landowners. Most noble surnames were taken from the names of estates, called "family nests." For example, Sypniewski was named because they have estates called Sypniewo.

Sometimes the Polish "z" was used at the end of a name to mean "of" or "from." During the fifteenth century the "z" was changed to "ski" or "cki," which also meant "of" or "from." For example: Jan Debinski or Jan Debricki. Originally, people who were not nobles were forbidden to add "ski" or "cki" to their surname.

While it is true that having surnames ending in "ski" or "cki" originally meant the bearer was of noble birth, but eventually many peasants, living on their lord's land, took their employer's surnames. These people were NOT related to him or of noble birth. The closest thing to this is slaves and servants taking the names of their masters.

Most noblemen in Poland and Lithuania claimed only to belong to the szlachta odwieczna or immemorial nobility. This meant that all knowledge of their origins had long since been lost, and was beyond their memory. Szlachta combined "high birth" and "military prowess" together in medieval times. Nobles were originally tribal chiefs.

There was a great difference between the land barons of England and the magnates of Poland. The power of the English or French lord, at this time, was held from the crown and fitted into a whole system of vassalage, with feudal tenants who held land in fief (an estate) from a lord to whom he owned allegiance. Polish society had evolved from clannish structures, and the introduction of Christianity (and all that went with it), did not alter these significantly. The feudal system which regulated society all over Europe was never introduced in Poland, and this fact can not be stressed too heavily.

Poland had a large nobility. About ten percent (10%) of the population was noble, as compared to the one (1%) to two (2%) percent in the rest of Europe. The Polish State was set up to serve the Polish nobleman.

The szlachta (nobility) inherited both status and land. They were, however, obligated to perform military service for the king, and to submit to his tribunals (his court of moral principles or laws), but they were the independent magistrates over their own lands. In the rest of Europe, the nobles did everything possible to avoid military service. The Polish nobles and military dressed very flamboyantly.

In 1550, nobility was allowed to purchase a house in cities, and to enjoy them without paying municipal taxes, notwithstanding all local legislation to the contrary. From 1573, the nobles had exclusive rights to use the timber and minerals on their land.

Polish nobles first divided everything equally to their sons and unmarried daughters alike. This resulted in loss of wealth in later generations, so that the system changed to eldest male (who had to serve in the military). Nobles felt exclusive and they were biologically unique. There was no strong feelings about bastardy, intermarriage, or miscegenation - only that the children of the irregular unions could not claim nobility.

The Polish nobles had a proverb: "Nightingales are not born from owls." Nobles were pure. A nobleman was worth more than a peasant (in their eyes). Therefore, the murder of a noble brought 58 weeks in a closed dungeon and a fine of 240 groats. If a firearm was used, the sentence was extended to 115 weeks in jail and 480 groats. Legs, arms, eyes, and noses of nobles were priced at 120 groats each; blood wounds at 80 groats, fingers at 30 groats, and teeth at 20 groats. No mention was made of peasant victims. Presumably these cases of wrong doing were not taken to court?

Noblemen always carried a sword to defend themselves. In 1448, the death sentence was established for the rape of a noblewoman by a commoner. A commoner, who was raped, was given 60 groats. This meant that a raped noblewoman was worth two dead noblemen, and the hymen of a peasant girl was much more valuable than the life of her father. Nobles were labelled" "proud," "obstinate," "passionate," and "furious."

Ode to a Linden Tree

Dear Guest, sit down beneath my leaves and take your rest.
The sun will not strike you there, I do insist,
Though it beat from its noonday height, and its direct rays
Should pierce such scattered shade as a tree bestows.
There, a cooling breeze is always blowing from the field;
There, nightingales and blackbirds their tuneful tales unfold.
It's from my fragrant blossom that the timeless bees
Take the honey, which later ennobles your lordly feasts;
Whilst I, by my soft murmurs, can easily contrive
That gentle sleep should overtake the unsuspecting fugitive.
It's true, I bear no fruit; but in my master's eyes
My worth exceeds the richest scion of the Hesperides.

Written by "Squire of Czamolas" - a vernacular poet

A Famous Nobleman's Toast: "Let us love one another."

Polish nobles tried to set an example and thus the pretty words. They loved their serfs and flogged them, when they needed it. Apathy reigned in many noble houses. They concerned themselves with their own matters. How could they understand the masses?

The noble's home was an advertisement of his rank and fortune. By the later years, it didn't matter if they lived in a hovel, or a palace - they were still the distinguished nobility. They still proudly displayed their clan's coat of arms. Many noble homes were of wood with intricate carvings as adornment. Stone castles of Polish medieval days, of course, survived as well (all over Poland and Lithuania).

Nobles loved to entertain. Another proverb: "When a guest enters the house, God enters also." Many nobles, even impoverished ones, would dress in their family heirlooms. They would rather starve than lose their ties with their family's past glories.

During the reign of King Augustus III, Father Jedrzej Kitowicz's book, A Description of Customs in the Reign of August III, tells of the life of the noblemen in the middle of the 18th century:

"Under the Saxon king, eat, drink, and loosen your belt," and "Keep up appearances at all costs," were the by-laws of the nobles. During this time period it was common for nobleman's estates (which took many generations to build-up), to be ruined and those working for them to be reduced to abject poverty. Augustus III was the son of Augustus II, "the Strong" (1670-1733) of the Wettin dynasty.

This was a time of witches being burned at the stake. There were many superstitious men. Men of "noble birth" were reduced to not being unable to read or write. Those citizens that did read, in this time period, read the Bible. Religious intolerance reigned. In 1717, new laws forbid construction of new churches. Poles no longer tolerated Protestants and Jews. It was a sad time for the entire Polish population.

Nobles loved to entertain.

Another proverb: "When a guest enters the house, God enters also."

Nobles had their share of rude rhymes to entertain and they loved dancing. The favorite dance of nobility was the polenez (Polonaise). They also loved ceremony, fanfare, and processionals were vehicles to display their wealth and quality. Many times nobles led a life of excess. Noble clothing was expensive! Fabrics such as satins, silks, and velvets were worn, as in Italy and other European courts. King Steven Bathory once remarked on the amount of silver and gold worn in the Polish Army. Laws were passed to stop this ostentatious style of dress. Poland adopted many Hungarian styles, which the Hungarians adopted from the Turks and Persians. Ornate embroidered outfits were beautifully executed by women. Cossack and Tartar hairstyles even featured ostrich feathers, gold cloth, and silks.

After the death of King Sigismund II August (1548-1572), the Jagiellonian Dynasty ended. Polish kings thereafter had no hereditary rights and were elected by the nobility. The first elected Polish king was Henry Valois, a Frenchman, who lasted only 118 days. Stefan Bathory, Prince of Transylvania, succeeded Henry (Zamoyski 24).

Records (1564) showed us that peerage Crown Estates had the castle as their focus. These castles were in the middle of the town or manorial holdings, with wilderness separating them. These records also showed the pattern of settlement. What the crown did, thus did the nobility and the church. For example, the Palatinate of Kracow (1564) shows the district of Podhale being held, in lease, from the Pieniazek family. Jan Pieniazek was the chief magistrate of the Kracow district. Jan held a group of six villages in the upper valley of the Raba. Prokop Pieniazek (brother of Jan) held a tenancy to the south, including ten villages and the town of Nowy Targ.

At the headwaters of the Dunajec River, was the manor of the Szaflary (today the mountain resort of Zakopane). Szarflary was a remote area because of its mountainous terrain. In fact, much of Poland seemed cut off from the mainstream because of their topography.

The estate of Szaflary had eighteen peasants living in the village, and their land was divided by the Dunajec River. Each resident paid the following taxes:

  1. Obiedni (meal tax)
  2. Robotni (labor tax)
  3. Rybny (fish tax)
  4. Sheep tax

The estate had milking cows, common cattle, hogs, capons, and chickens. The domestic staff included the Magierz (peasant foreman) and his wife. They were responsible for the cattle and swine herds. The freeman (wage earners or self-employed) numbered twenty-one (21), and they had begun to settle on the unclaimed wilderness land. These lands were divided as:

  1. Dunaiecz: There were six peasants living by the river on the Polish side of the Tatra Mountains, which flowed into the lands of Nowy Targ.
  2. Bariska: There were ten (10) peasants living on the Polish side of the road, leading to new mines in the Tatras Mountains (built by Mr. Lumbomirski in the beginning, then expanded by Pan Pieniazek and Kaspar Bar).
  3. Marusina: This was the village named after the Marusina Mountains (the village lay in the valley). Three (3) peasants were living there and two officials who lived in the Custom's House.

The Olesnicki family founded a Calvanist Academy in their town of Pinczow, where they could guarantee financial security and legal immunity. This academy soon became the foremost center of Calvinist teaching and publishing in their part of Europe. They were called "The Athens of the North." Similar centers were established on a smaller scale by the Lesczfishi family at Leszo, and the Radziwill family at Niewiez, Birze, and Kiejdany (Zamoyski, Adam, The Polish Way. New York: Hippocrine Books, 1987, 81).

The Golden Duck of Ostrogski Castle

Links Relating to the Nobility:

..... Clans ..... Polish Nobles ..... Confederation of Polish Nobility ..... Olesnica Castle and a Modern Day Renobilization Ceremony

*Note some of the links are in Polish only, however, since the names of the Clans are easily identified, I thought most would not find this a disadvantage. However, you may need to copy and translate.


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This page is updated and designed by Margaret Odrowaz-Sypniewski, B.F.A.
Last updated on December 7, 2016
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