OLD POLISH ON-LINE
E Y E
T H E
Michael J. Mikoś
The first known sentence in the Polish language read: "day ut ia pobrusa, a ti poziwai". It meant "let me, I will grind, and you take a rest," and was a paraphrase of the Latin "Sine, ut ego etiam molam." The circumstances under which this sentence was written closely reflected the cultural and literary conditions in Poland in the first centuries of its national existence. It appeared in the Latin chronicle
, the history of the Cistercian monastery in Henryków in Silesia, written between 1269 and 1273 by Piotr, a German abbot. The man who reportedly uttered the sentence almost one hundred years earlier was Bogwal, a Czech (Bogwalus Boemus), a local settler and subject of Bolesław the Tall, as he felt compassion for his wife, who "very often stood grinding by the quern-stone."
But it was Latin, not Polish, which was the dominant language of the first three centuries of written literature in Poland. A universal language of the medieval Church and of the intellectual elite in West and South Europe, Latin was considered the
in the Middle Ages, proper for recording religious texts as well as learned poetry and literary prose. Brought to Poland by educated clergymen of foreign origin, generally through Bohemia, Latin was used in schools. It was also the language of liturgical books, legal acts, and historical records. Polish bishops and priests found that Latin, rich in vocabulary and ecclesiastical terminology, was particularly suitable for their mission of spreading the word of God.
One of the major goals of the Church of Rome and the Polish dynasty was to convert the local population to Christianity, and this could not be achieved without a common language which was accepted and understood in the spheres of religious education and liturgy by all of society. To convey the fundamental truths of the faith and to educate Polish people in the spirit of the new world view, the Church had to reach them with spoken and written words in their native tongue. A long and rich tradition of missionary work and the organizational experience acquired in neighboring countries helped the Church in spreading its doctrine, a task carried out to a large extent by means of the vernacular.
The Polish language belongs to the West Slavic branch of the Indo-European family of languages. It developed in the period between the sixth and the ninth centuries, mainly from the dialects of Great and Little Poland. It was strengthened by the growth of territorial cohesion that took place in the tenth century. A rise in national awareness spurred by the development of economic and administrative relations between various regions of the country also contributed to linguistic integration.
The written language that emerged was not elaborate enough to compete with Latin. There were no spelling conventions. The Latin alphabet provided only twenty-one letters to convey over forty phonemes of Polish. Its vocabulary was modest, particularly in the field of abstract concepts. The phonological and grammatical systems were not stable, and the syntax was not rich enough to express clearly the varied relationships between individual clauses in the sentence. As a result of these limitations, the artistic possibilities of the
were initially modest.
The tests of functional use to which the linguistic system was put demonstrated, however, that Polish was able to carry the various burdens imposed on it either by native writers or by translators from Latin, Czech and German texts. The Old Polish vocabulary grew steadily, borrowing religious terms from Latin: e.g.,
"devil"; biblical from Czech: e.g.,
"face"; and municipal words from German: e.g.,
"brewery." The borrowed words enriched the stock of synonyms and allowed for stylistic variation, giving writers a choice between, for example, the Old Polish
, and the German loan
, not unlike a choice available in contemporaneous Chaucer's English, where the native "hue" was paired with the French loan "colour." Individual Polish names of people and places, 400 of which were found, for example, in the papal bull of Gniezno from 1136, gradually expanded to Polish glosses written in Latin sermons and legal documents, then to occasional sentences, and finally to whole texts in the vernacular.
Convinced of the important role of the Polish language in the propagation of religion, Church authorities began to insist that teaching, especially of the catechism and gospels, should be conducted in the native language. In 1226, Iwo Odrowąż, the Bishop of Cracow, decided that sermons delivered in the Church of Saint Mary were to be given in Polish. James of Troyes, the papal legate, determined at the synod of Wrocław in 1248 that after the mass, priests should say
in Polish, together with the congregation. When he became pope, he reaffirmed this in the form of his papal letter of 1263. At the synod of Łęczyca in 1285, the Church hierarchy, under the leadership of Jakub Świnka, Archbishop of Gniezno, decided that school rectors in Poland should know the native language, Church offices should be offered only to speakers of Polish, and the
should be said in Polish. Among the oldest Polish texts were probably authorized versions of prayers, the ten commandments, and the
In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the Polish language was frequently used in ecclesiastical, legal, and official texts as well as in sermons and debates. In 1373, Pope Gregory XI issued the edict of
, stipulating that each parish priest should speak the language of his congregation. The graduates of the Cracow Academy, an important center of Polish culture and language, spread the use of Polish throughout the country's school system. The first work that openly referred to the importance of the Polish language and its role in the life of the society originated in the Cracow Academy. In 1440, Jakub Parkosz, professor and rector of the university, wrote his
Treatise on Polish Orthography
. In the introduction, an anonymous author explained that Parkosz, concerned that Poland not be left behind other nations in recording major events, deeds, and achievements in the vernacular, invented and presented a complete system of "writing correctly in Polish so that the strengthened nation could record its history in its own language." Parkosz set for himself the task of reforming Polish medieval orthography and in his rhymed poem wrote that "the one who wants to write in Polish excellently and also properly should learn my alphabet."
By the end of the fifteenth century, Polish had developed into a literary means of communication and was used in a variety of styles and genres. The coexistence of Polish and Latin became a characteristic feature of Polish medieval literature.
The first written works in Latin emanated from the scriptoria, mostly in the form of annals, regular entries on the margins of church books that described local events as well as military campaigns and deaths of rulers. There were also national annals kept at the royal court chancelleries. The annal book of Mieszko II,
, continued by Kazimierz the Restorer from 1039, may have served as a source of the
, written between 1112 and 1116 by a Benedictine monk, most likely from Provence. The author, known to posterity as Gallus Anonymous, was closely connected with the court of Bolesław the Wrymouth, whose ancestors and deeds he glorified in this epic narrative of great historical and literary importance.
Although Gallus Anonymous and his work were not well known to his contemporaries, the chronicle became a popular genre of medieval historiography in Poland. Early chronicles described the deeds (
) of kings and princes, retelling dramatic and mysterious stories of Poland's mythological origins. Later chronicles attempted to depict a full history of the state and to give, at least as a background, general descriptions of neighboring countries.
Gallus's successor, Wincenty Kadłubek, was educated abroad and attained important Church and court offices. In the
, he described the history of Poland from the time of its legendary origins to 1202. Historical facts, however, served Kadłubek merely as a background for his moral teachings, which he penned in elaborate literary style, full of allegories, parables, and anecdotes. To show his erudition, he quoted, for example, from the Bible, Virgil, Ovid, and Boethius, and did not hesitate to link Polish legendary rulers with ancient historical heroes. His
, a collection of historical pictures and allegorical stories, became extremely popular, and some fragments of his mysterious tales survived in Polish literary consciousness until the present.
Chronicle of Great Poland
was written at the end of the thirteenth century, probably by Godzisław Baszko. The author, a curator of Poznań Cathedral, was able to use the capitulary annals of Poznań and Gniezno and relied on his knowledge of the national political situation. Janko of Czarnków, Deputy Chancellor at the court of Kazimierz the Great and author of another
, was deeply involved in the events of the time which he described from his perspective, praising King Kazimierz and sharply criticizing his successor, Louis of Hungary.
The crowning achievement of Polish medieval historiography was the
of Jan Długosz, written between 1455 and 1480. The author studied at the Cracow Academy and served as Secretary at the court of Zbigniew Oleśnicki, Bishop of Cracow and a powerful advisor to King Władysław Jagiełło. A diplomat, tutor of Kazimierz the Jagiellonian's sons, and Archbishop of Lwów, Długosz studied Polish and foreign documents, as well as old chronicles. His monumental history of Poland was based on extensive geographical and economical studies and on research in the archives. In the twelve books of
, Długosz described the history of Poland and adjacent lands from the earliest times until 1480, with the stated goal that "this work may serve kings, princes, and others [...] as an example and mirror, which would fire them to famous deeds."
Texts describing lives of the saints belonged to a popular genre of medieval Latin literature. The earliest examples of hagiographic writings in Poland were
The Life of Saint Adalbert
The Life of Five Brothers
(1006), written by Bruno of Querfurt. The author followed an established literary model for biographic legends, extolling the virtuous deeds of his heroes, describing their martyrdom, and enumerating their miracles. Bishop Stanisław, canonized in 1253, was vividly portrayed in
The Life of Saint Stanisław
by a Dominican monk, Wincenty of Kielcza. Another Polish saint, the Dominican monk Hyacinth (Jacek), became the hero of the tale
About the Life and Miracles of Saint Hyacinth
, written about 1352 by Brother Stanisław.
The blessed Duchess Kinga (1224-1292), who after the death of her husband, Boleslaw the Chaste, founded the Convent for the Nuns of the Order of Saint Clare in Stary Sącz, a religious and cultural center, became the heroine of another popular text, entitled
The Life and Miracles of Saint Kinga
. The name of this enlightened woman was also associated with the first Polish psalter, reportedly translated for her own use. Some fragments of
The Flowers of Saint Francis of Assisi
, a well-liked collection of edifying stories, were recorded by Brother Seweryn during his travels in Italy and then read in Polish monasteries. Aside from their religious importance, these stories of the saints provide interesting historical details and are filled with descriptions of everyday activities and local traditions.
A gradual emancipation of writers from the influence of the Church can be observed in other works of Latin prose written in Poland.
A Story of the Abbot Carried off by the Devil
by Michał of Kleparz belongs to the category of exemplum, a short tale told to illustrate a moral thesis of a sermon or a didactic text, and describes a licentious churchman punished by Death. A warning against the institution of marriage is eloquently sounded in
The Formulary of Jerzy
, a collection of rhetorical compositions written between 1399 and 1415 by a city hall secretary in Cracow. The address of
Jan of Ludzisko
, delivered in 1447 on the occasion of King Kazimierz the Jagiellonian's arrival in Cracow, is a panegyrical speech in classical tradition. The poem
Praise of Cracow
by Stanisław Ciołek, in which the author pays homage to the royal family and acclaims the glory of Cracow, also belongs to this category.
Political and religious problems of the age became the topics of discussion in the writings of Jan Ostroróg (1436-1501), the author of
Treatise on Improving the Republic
. Ostroróg, called Poland's first lay political writer, advocated a strengthening of the royal power and protested against the financial claims of the Church and the influence of the nobility. In his specific proposals, he postulated that the predominance of the Vatican be rejected, the payment of "Peter's Pence" suspended, and the fees paid to clergy for baptisms, marriages, and funerals abolished. The issues raised by Ostroróg presaged the disputes held during the period of Reformation.
In a lighter, and more practical vein, Latin poetry began to address everyday matters concerning rules of social behavior, manners, and health. The poems, written for appropriate occasions, registered important facts and promoted useful advice. Gradually, they took the form of epigrams, short compositions based on classical models that encompassed a variety of themes, e.g. amorous, elegiac, and complimentary. Condensed and pointed, they often concluded with a witty turn of thought. The most popular epigrams were written in the circle of Cracow humanists, gathered around Filip Kallimach and Konrad Celtis, who brought to Poland refined themes of early Renaissance poetry. The Cracow poets glorified their hazardous travels, celebrated amorous conquests, and eulogized deceased friends.
Poetry in the Polish language originated from church hymns and songs. In many religions, church singing or chanting provided a vital source of spiritual experience. The hymn, a solemn and lofty song of praise, became in time a popular genre of Christian medieval poetry.
In Poland, Latin liturgical songs were used initially during the mass. In the thirteenth century, however, the first recitations and chants of
Pater noster, Ave Maria, and Credo
were translated into the vernacular. Other verses which could be recited or sung included the ten commandments, canonical hours, novenas, rosaries, and songs about the Passion of Christ, His resurrection, and laments of Saint Mary at the foot of the cross.
It is one of the enigmas of poetic inspiration that the anonymous author of the religious hymn
Mother of God
), the first known poem in Polish, attained such a high degree of literary composition and linguistic artistry. The first two stanzas of the song were probably the tropes on
("Lord have mercy upon us") in the Litany and were written in the thirteenth century or at the beginning of the fourteenth century. From the same period dates a popular Easter song
Christ Is Risen from the Dead
, a translation of the third stanza of the Latin song beginning with the words
. One of the many hymns addressed to the Holy Ghost, entitled
Holy Ghost, Come to Us
(based on the Latin
Veni Sancte Spiritus
), was sung during Whitsuntide festivities.
Another popular category of hymns, dating back to Roman and native pagan traditions, was carols. Gradually, these lyrical poems became an integral part of religious celebrations and were sung as church offering hymns at Christmas. Christmas carols told the story of the Lord's birth, shepherds' adoration, and people's joy, very often in the form of dramatized dialogues and simple mystery plays, staged inside and later outside the church.
When Augustus Was King
, written in the fifteenth century by
Władysław of Gielniów
, who was one of the first known Polish poets and author of numerous hymns, is an artistically elaborate song about the Lord's birth.
The oldest Polish canonical song
Jesus Christ, God Man
describes the stages of the Savior's passion according to the Gospel. Passion songs, sung regularly in church, were especially intended for illiterate people, who by frequent repetition were able to learn them by heart and participate in religious meditations.
Closely connected with the Passion is a lyrical poem
Listen, Dear Brothers
, or lament of Saint Mary at the foot of the cross. This dramatic monologue of the suffering mother who witnessed the death of her beloved son was probably a fragment of the Passion play. Written in free verse, in the form of a triptych, the poem achieves its artistic effects mainly through the contrast of anguished exclamations and affectionate diminutives.
Lament of a Dying Man
is another variant of this genre, most likely a part of the funeral rites. This complaint about the emptiness of the life on earth, prompted by the fear of approaching death, was characteristic of this aspect of the medieval world-view, which presented an ominous vision of the Last Judgment and pointed to God as the only hope of salvation.
The theme of death, expressed in medieval literature and painting by the popular motif of the death-dance, found its most elaborate and original treatment in the
Conversation of a Master with Death
. In this moralistic-didactic poem of 498 lines, with generally 8 syllables in each verse, the anonymous author presented vivid and realistic scenes, depicting representatives of various professions and estates, for example judges, monks, innkeepers, and their sinful behavior. Death, personified as an ugly apparition of the female sex, brags to the frightened Master about her relentless mission of slaying all creatures with her scythe.
Edifying legends about the lives of the saints, told in verse and sometimes in song, enjoyed great popularity in the Middle Ages.
The Legend of Saint Alexis
extolled the ideal of poverty, cult of suffering, and love of God. Another well known tale,
The Legend of Saint Dorothy
, written in a peculiar mixture of Polish and Czech, glorified the purity and steadfastness of a young woman who spurned the king's advances and suffered a martyr's death, only to be vindicated in the afterlife.
Polish religious prose emerged in the fourteenth century, primarily as prayers, translations from the Bible, and sermons. No text survived from the psalter reportedly used in the thirteenth century by Saint Kinga, but
The Florian Psalter
, written in Polish, Latin, and German at the end of the fourteenth century for Queen Jadwiga, is the oldest preserved psalter in the Polish language. The oldest Bible, known as
Queen Sophia's Bible
, was translated in 1455 from the Czech language by the queen's chaplain, Andrzej from Jaszowice, and his collaborators.
The Prayerbook of Nawojka
from the end of the fifteenth century belongs to the popular category of devotional texts written for important persons.
Third Rule of the Order of Saint Francis
, written in Cracow, is a set of regulations for the Franciscan order.
The oldest text known to us is
The Holy Cross Sermons
, a collection of six homilies for the holy days, written in Polish and Latin.
The Gniezno Sermons
, contain ten long and elaborate sermons with allegorical figures and apocryphal scenes. Some details in those stories were borrowed from Polish folklore; we learn from one sermon, for example, that two midwives were present during the birth of Jesus.
Apocryphal narrative stories, which were connected thematically with the Bible, but did not belong to the Church canonical texts, played an important role in shaping people's beliefs and literary awareness.
Meditation on the Life of Jesus
, a collection of stories about the childhood of Jesus, contained elements of fantasy and of naive realism.
Secular medieval texts in Polish often dealt with topical religious issues. Controversies surrounding a pre-Reformation movement of Hussitism are reflected in the
Song on Wycliffe
by Andrzej Gałka, in which he attacked the policy of Rome and its Popes as well as the teachings and privileges of the clergy. Słota's
Poem on Table Manners
(ca. 1400) refers to the Mother of God as the model of virtue and speaks in praise of women, their dignity, and their role in social life. He also gives instructions on how to behave at table during a court banquet.
A Satire On Lazy Peasants
deals with a purely social issue. The anonymous author of
champions the point of view of the nobility, when he shows peasants' apparent simplicity contrasted with their laziness and cleverness in shirking their obligations.
A Song About Marriage
, a fragment of a folk song, gives practical advice on selecting a bride, and
is a frivolous song about the fair sex.
Among fragments of lay prose which have survived to our day,
are a collection of
, translated from Italian sources. Various land statutes, first collected in the fourteenth century, were close translations from Latin, for example
. But the author of a love letter, dated ca. 1426, wrote in Polish. He attempted to compose his address in a courtly fashion, only to lapse into a more informal style.
The most accurate record of the vernacular, as spoken in various regions of the country, was preserved in court oaths and depositions. These statements, atttributed to common people, show the Polish language in its homespun variety and, together with other samples, as for example the folksy medical prescriptions for assorted ailments, attest to an increased usage of the local idiom.
Polish Literature from the Middle Ages to the End of the Eighteenth Century. A Bilingual Anthology
, by Michael J. Mikoś, Warsaw: Constans, 1999.