Polish Golden Age

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The Republic at Zenith of Power. Golden Liberty. Election in 1573. by Jan Matejko

The Polish Golden Age refers to the period from the late 15th century Jagiellon Poland to the death of the last of the Jagiellons, Sigismund August in 1572. Some historians claim that the Golden Age lasted until the mid-17th century, when in 1648 the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was ravaged by the Khmelnytsky Uprising, and Swedish invasion. During its Golden Age, the Commonwealth became one of the largest kingdoms of Europe, stretching from modern-day Estonia, to Moldavia and Silesia. Its army was able to defend the realm against numerous Teutonic knights, Turkish, Swedish, Russian, and Tatar invasions. The country prospered thanks to its enormous grain, wood and salt exports.

In the 16th century, the area of the Commonwealth reached almost 1 million km2., with a population of 11 million. Poland-Lithuania was a political, military and economic power. Its goods were transported to Western Europe via Baltic Sea ports of Gdańsk, Elblag, Riga, Memel and Königsberg. The Commonwealth had several major cities, such as Warsaw, Kraków, Poznań, Lwów, Vilnius, Torun and Kijow, and its economic development made it possible for the culture to flourish.

During the Golden Age, several renowned writers and thinkers lived in Poland: Andrzej Frycz Modrzewski, Piotr Skarga, Jan Kochanowski, Jan Dantyszek, Mikolaj Rej, Lukasz Gornicki and Stanczyk. Poland-Lithuania was a nation of tolerance, where Protestant Reformation was supported by several members of the nobility (see Polish Brethren, Sandomierz Agreement, Warsaw Confederation). Apart from Jagiellonian University, the Commonwealth had Vilnius University (founded 1579), and other colleges, such as Racovian Academy and Zamojski Academy.

In architecture, Renaissance and Mannerism prevailed (see Renaissance in Poland, Mannerist architecture and sculpture in Poland), with best examples being the Sigismund's Chapel of the Wawel Cathedral, tenement houses, churches and town halls in Poznań, Kraków, Zamosc, Kazimierz Dolny, Lublin, Lwów, Gdańsk and other cities, as well as castles (Pieskowa Skala, Krzyztopor, Krasiczyn, Baranow Sandomierski and others).

Golden Age was the time when the Commonwealth was regarded as one of the most powerful European states. It had a unique system of government, known as the Golden Liberty, in which all nobles (szlachta), regardless of economic status, were considered to have equal legal status and enjoyed extensive legal rights and privileges. One of its features was the Liberum veto, for the first time used in 1653. Nobility, which consisted of both szlachta and magnates, made app. 8% of the population.

The situation of peasants was different. In the early 16th century it was relatively good, but deteriorated in the course of the time. Poverty was widespread, peasants were forced to work for the nobility (see serfdom), which resulted in their mass escaping to the forests, hills and Wild Fields in the Ukraine, where they joined the Cossacks.