The szlachta ([ˈʂlaxta] ( listen), exonym: Nobility) was a legally privileged noble class with origins in the Kingdom of Poland. It gained considerable institutional privileges between 1333 and 1370 during the reign of King Casimir III the Great.:211 In 1413, following a series of tentative personal unions between the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Crown Kingdom of Poland, the existing Lithuanian nobility formally joined this class.:211 As the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (1569–1795) evolved and expanded in territory, its membership grew to include the leaders of Ducal Prussia, Podolian and Ruthenian lands.
The origins of the szlachta are shrouded in obscurity and mystery and have been the subject of a variety of theories.:207 Traditionally, its members were owners of landed property, often in the form of "manor farms" or so-called folwarks. The nobility negotiated substantial and increasing political and legal privileges for itself throughout its entire history until the decline of the Polish Commonwealth in the late 18th century.
During the Partitions of Poland from 1772 to 1795, its members began to lose these legal privileges and social status. From that point until 1918, the legal status of the nobility was essentially dependent upon the policies of the three partitioning powers: the Russian Empire, the Kingdom of Prussia, and the Habsburg Monarchy. The legal privileges of the szlachta were legally abolished in the Second Polish Republic by the March Constitution of 1921.
The notion that all Polish nobles were social equals, regardless of their financial status or offices held, is enshrined in a traditional Polish saying:
Szlachcic na zagrodzie
—which may roughly be rendered:
or "the tenant farmer noble stands equal to the noble army commander."
- 1 History
- 2 Ennoblement
- 3 Privileges
- 4 Culture of Polish Szlachta
- 5 Gallery
- 6 References
- 7 External links
- 8 See also
The term szlachta is derived from the Old High German word slahta (modern German Geschlecht), which means "(noble) family", much as many other Polish words pertaining to the nobility derive from German words—e.g., the Polish "rycerz" ("knight", cognate of the German "Ritter") and the Polish "herb" ("coat of arms", from the German "Erbe", "heritage").
Poles of the 17th century assumed that "szlachta" came from the German "schlachten" ("to slaughter" or "to butcher"); also suggestive is the German "Schlacht" ("battle"). Early Polish historians thought the term may have derived from the name of the legendary proto-Polish chief, Lech, mentioned in Polish and Czech writings.
The Polish term "szlachta" designated the formalized, hereditary noble class of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. In official Latin documents of the old Commonwealth, hereditary szlachta are referred to as "nobilitas" and are indeed the equivalent in legal status of the English nobility.
Today the word szlachta in the Polish language simply translates to "nobility". In its broadest meaning, it can also denote some non-hereditary honorary knighthoods granted today by some European monarchs. Occasionally, 19th-century non-noble landowners were referred to as szlachta by courtesy or error, when they owned manorial estates though they were not noble by birth. In the narrow sense, szlachta denotes the old-Commonwealth nobility.
In the past, a certain misconception sometimes led to the mistranslation of "szlachta" as "gentry" rather than "nobility".:206 :xvi This mistaken practice began due to the economic status of some szlachta members being inferior to that of the nobility in other European countries (see also Estates of the Realm regarding wealth and nobility). The szlachta included those almost rich and powerful enough to be magnates down to rascals with a noble lineage, no land, no castle, no money, no village, and no peasants.:xvi
As some szlachta were poorer than some non-noble gentry, some particularly impoverished szlachta were forced to become tenants of the wealthier gentry. In doing so, however, these szlachta retained all their constitutional prerogatives, as it was not wealth or lifestyle (obtainable by the gentry), but hereditary juridical status, that determined nobility.
An individual nobleman was called a "szlachcic", and a noblewoman a "szlachcianka".
The origins of the szlachta, while ancient, have always been considered obscure.:207 As a result, its members often referred to it as odwieczna (perennial).:207 Two popular historic theories of origin forwarded by its members and earlier historians and chroniclers involved descent from the ancient Iranian tribes known as Sarmatians or from Japheth, one of Noah's sons (by contrast, the peasantry were said to be the offspring of another son of Noah, Ham—and hence subject to bondage under the Curse of Ham—and the Jews as the offspring of Shem). Other fanciful theories included its foundation by Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great:207 or regional leaders who had not mixed their bloodlines with those of 'slaves, prisoners, and aliens'.:208
Another theory describes its derivation from a non-Slavic warrior class,:42, 64–66 forming a distinct element known as the Lechici/Lekhi (Lechitów):430 :482 within the ancient Polonic tribal groupings (Indo-European caste systems). This hypothesis states this upper class was not of Slavonic extraction:482 and was of a different origin than the Slavonic peasants (kmiecie; Latin: cmethones):430 :118 over which they ruled.:482 The Szlachta were differentiated from the rural population. The nobleman's sense of distinction led to practices that in later periods would be characterized as racism.:233 The Szlachta were noble in the Aryan sense -- "noble" in contrast to the people over whom they ruled after coming into contact with them.:482 The szlachta traced their descent from Lech/Lekh, who probably founded the Polish kingdom in about the fifth century.:482 Lechia was the name of Poland in antiquity, and the szlachta's own name for themselves was Lechici/Lekhi.:482 An exact counterpart of Szlachta society was the Meerassee system of tenure of southern India—an aristocracy of equality—settled as conquerors among a separate race.:484 The Polish state paralleled the Roman Empire in that full rights of citizenship were limited to the szlachta. The szlachta were a caste, a military caste, as in Hindu society.
In the year 1244, Bolesław, Duke of Masovia, identified members of the knights' clan as members of a genealogia:
"I received my good servitors [Raciborz and Albert] from the land of [Great] Poland, and from the clan [genealogia] called Jelito, with my well-disposed knowledge [i.e., consent and encouragement] and the cry [vocitatio], [that is], the godło, [by the name of] Nagody, and I established them in the said land of mine, Masovia, [on the military tenure described elsewhere in the charter]."
The documentation regarding Raciborz and Albert's tenure is the earliest surviving of the use of the clan name and cry defining the honorable status of Polish knights. The names of knightly genealogiae only came to be associated with heraldic devices later in the Middle Ages and in the early modern period. The Polish clan name and cry ritualized the ius militare, i.e., the power to command an army; and they had been used some time before 1244 to define knightly status. (Górecki 1992, pp. 183–185).
Around the 14th century, there was little difference between knights and the szlachta in Poland. Members of the szlachta had the personal obligation to defend the country (pospolite ruszenie), thereby becoming the kingdom's most privileged social class. Inclusion in the class was almost exclusively based on inheritance.
Concerning the early Polish tribes, geography contributed to long-standing traditions. The Polish tribes were internalized and organized around a unifying religious cult, governed by the wiec, an assembly of free tribesmen. Later, when safety required power to be consolidated, an elected prince was chosen to govern. The election privilege was usually limited to elites.
The tribes were ruled by clans (ród) consisting of people related by blood or marriage and theoretically descending from a common ancestor, giving the ród/clan a highly developed sense of solidarity. (See gens.) The starosta (or starszyna) had judicial and military power over the ród/clan, although this power was often exercised with an assembly of elders. Strongholds called grόd were built where the religious cult was powerful, where trials were conducted, and where clans gathered in the face of danger. The opole was the territory occupied by a single tribe. (Manteuffel 1982, p. 44)
Mieszko I of Poland (c. 935 – 25 May 992) established an elite knightly retinue from within his army, which he depended upon for success in uniting the Lekhitic tribes and preserving the unity of his state. Documented proof exists of Mieszko I's successors utilizing such a retinue, as well.
Another class of knights were granted land by the prince, allowing them the economic ability to serve the prince militarily. A Polish nobleman living at the time prior to the 15th century was referred to as a "rycerz", very roughly equivalent to the English "knight," the critical difference being the status of "rycerz" was almost strictly hereditary; the class of all such individuals was known as the "rycerstwo". Representing the wealthier families of Poland and itinerant knights from abroad seeking their fortunes, this other class of rycerstwo, which became the szlachta/nobility ("szlachta" becomes the proper term for Polish nobility beginning about the 15th century), gradually formed apart from Mieszko I's and his successors' elite retinues. This rycerstwo/nobility obtained more privileges granting them favored status. They were absolved from particular burdens and obligations under ducal law, resulting in the belief only rycerstwo (those combining military prowess with high/noble birth) could serve as officials in state administration.
Select rycerstwo were distinguished above the other rycerstwo, because they descended from past tribal dynasties, or because early Piasts' endowments made them select beneficiaries. These rycerstwo of great wealth were called możni (Magnates). Socially they were not a distinct class from the rycerstwo from which they all originated and to which they would return were their wealth lost. (Manteuffel 1982, pp. 148–149)
The Period of Division from, A.D., 1138 – A.D., 1314, which included nearly 200 years of feudal fragmentation and which stemmed from Bolesław III's division of Poland among his sons, was the genesis of the social structure which saw the economic elevation of the great landowning feudal nobles (możni/Magnates, both ecclesiastical and lay) from the rycerstwo they originated from. The prior social structure was one of Polish tribes united into the historic Polish nation under a state ruled by the Piast dynasty, this dynasty appearing circa 850 A.D.
Some możni (Magnates) descending from past tribal dynasties regarded themselves as co-proprietors of Piast realms, even though the Piasts attempted to deprive them of their independence. These możni (Magnates) constantly sought to undermine princely authority.:75, 76 In Gall Anonym's chronicle, there is noted the nobility's alarm when the Palatine Sieciech "elevated those of a lower class over those who were noble born" entrusting them with state offices. (Manteuffel 1982, p. 149)
In Lithuania Propria and in Samogitia prior to the creation of the Kingdom of Lithuania by Mindaugas, nobles were named die beste leuten in sources that were written in German language. In the Lithuanian language nobles were named ponai. The higher nobility were named 'kunigai' or 'kunigaikščiai' (dukes)—i.e., loanword from Scandinavic konung. They were the established local leaders and warlords. During the development of the state they gradually became subordinated to higher dukes, and later to the King of Lithuania. Because of expansion of Lithuanian duchy into lands of Ruthenia in the mid of 14th century a new term appeared to denominate nobility bajorai—from Ruthenian (modern Ukrainian and Belarusian languages) бояре. This word to this day is used in Lithuanian language to name nobility, not only for own, but also for nobility of other countries.
After the Union of Horodło the Lithuanian nobility acquired equal status with the Polish szlachta, and over time began to become more and more polonized, although they did preserve their national consciousness, and in most cases recognition of their Lithuanian family roots. In the 16th century some of the Lithuanian nobility claimed that they were of Roman extraction, and the Lithuanian language was just a morphed Latin language. This led to paradox: Polish nobility claimed own ancestry from Sarmatian tribes, but Sarmatians were considered enemies to Romans. Thus new Roman-Sarmatian theory was created. Strong cultural ties with Polish nobility led that in the 16th century the new term to name Lithuanian nobility appeared šlėkta—a direct loanword from Polish szlachta. From the view of historical truth Lithuanians also should use this term, šlėkta (szlachta), to name own nobility, but Lithuanian linguists forbade the usage of this Polish loanword. This refusal to use word szlachta (in Lithuanian text šlėkta) complicates all naming.
The process of polonization took place over a lengthy period of time. At first only the highest members of the nobility were involved, although gradually a wider group of the population was affected. The major effects on the lesser Lithuanian nobility took place after various sanctions were imposed by the Russian Empire such as removing Lithuania from the names of the Gubernyas few years after the November Uprising. After the January Uprising the sanctions went further, and Russian officials announced that "Lithuanians are Russians seduced by Poles and Catholicism" and began to intensify russification, and to ban the printing of books in the Lithuanian language.
In Ruthenia the nobility gradually gravitated its loyalty towards the multicultural and multilingual Grand Duchy of Lithuania after the principalities of Halych and Volhynia became a part of it. Many noble Ruthenian families intermarried with Lithuanian ones.
The Orthodox nobles' rights were nominally equal to those enjoyed by Polish and Lithuanian nobility, but there was a cultural pressure to convert to Catholicism, that was greatly eased in 1596 by the Union of Brest. See for example careers of Senator Adam Kisiel and Jerzy Franciszek Kulczycki.
In the Kingdom of Poland
The number of legally granted ennoblements after the 15th century was minimal.
In the Kingdom of Poland and later in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, ennoblement (nobilitacja) may be equated with an individual given legal status as a szlachta (member of the Polish nobility). Initially, this privilege could be granted by the monarch, but from 1641 onward, this right was reserved for the sejm. Most often the individual being ennobled would join an existing noble szlachta clan and assume the undifferentiated coat of arms of that clan.
According to heraldic sources, the total number of legal ennoblements issued between the 14th century and the mid-18th century is estimated at approximately 800. This is an average of only about two ennoblements per year, or only 0.000,000,14 – 0.000,001 of the historical population. Compare: historical demography of Poland. Charles-Joseph, 7th Prince of Ligne, when trying to obtain Polish noble status, supposedly said in 1784, "It is easier to become a duke in Germany, than to be counted among Polish nobles."
The close of the late 18th century (see below) was a period in which a definite increase in the number of ennoblements can be noted. This can most readily be explained in terms of the ongoing decline and eventual collapse of Commonwealth and the resulting need for soldiers and other military leaders (see: Partitions of Poland, King Stanisław August Poniatowski).
Total number of ennoblements estimation
According to heraldic sources 1,600 is a total estimated number of all legal ennoblements throughout the history of Kingdom of Poland and Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth from the 14th century onward (half of which were performed in the final years of the late 18th century).
Types of ennoblement:
- Adopcja herbowa – The "old way" of ennoblement, popular in the 15th century, connected with adoption into an existing noble clan by a powerful lord, but abolished in the 17th century.
- Skartabelat – Introduced by pacta conventa of the 17th century, this was ennoblement into a sort of "conditional" or "graduated nobility" status. Skartabels could not hold public offices or be members of the Sejm, but after three generations, the descendants of these families would "mature" to full szlachta status.
- Indygenat – Recognition of foreign noble status. A foreign noble, after indygenat, received all privileges of a Polish szlachcic. In Polish history, 413 foreign noble families were recognized. Prior to the 17th century this was done by the King and Sejm (Polish parliament), after the 17th century it was done only by the Sejm.
- "secret ennoblement" – This was of questionable legal status and was often not recognized by many szlachta. It was typically granted by the elected monarch without the required legal approval of the sejm.
In the Grand Duchy of Lithuania
In the late 14th century, in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Vytautas the Great reformed the Grand Duchy's army: instead of calling all men to arms, he created forces comprising professional warriors—bajorai ("nobles"; see the cognate "boyar"). As there were not enough nobles, Vytautas trained suitable men, relieving them of labor on the land and of other duties; for their military service to the Grand Duke, they were granted land that was worked by hired men (veldams). The newly formed noble families generally took up, as their family names, the Lithuanian pagan given names of their ennobled ancestors; this was the case with the Goštautai, Radvilos, Astikai, Kęsgailos and others. These families were granted their coats of arms under the Union of Horodlo (1413).
Specific rights of the szlachta included:
- The right to hold outright ownership of land (Allod) -- not as a fief, conditional upon service to the liege Lord, but absolutely in perpetuity unless sold.
- The right to join in political and military assemblies of the regional nobility.
- The right to form independent administrative councils for their locality.
- The right to cast a vote for Polish Kings.
- The right to travel freely anywhere in the old Commonwealth of the Polish and Lithuanian nobility; or outside it, as foreign policy dictated.
- The right to demand information from Crown offices.
- The right to spiritual semi-independence from the clergy.
- The right to interdict, in suitable ways, the passage of foreigners and townsmen through their territories.
- The right of priority over the courts of the peasantry.
- Special rights in Polish courts—including freedom from arbitrary arrest and freedom from corporal punishment.
- The right to sell their military or administrative services.
- Heraldic rights.
- The right to receive higher pay when entitled in the "Levée en masse" (mobilization of the szlachta for defence of the nation).
- Educational rights
- The right of importing duty-free goods often.
- The exclusive right to enter the clergy until the time of the three partitions of Poland.
- The right to try their peasants for major offences (reduced to minor offences only, after the 1760s).
Significant legislative changes in the status of the szlachta, as defined by Robert Bideleux and Ian Jeffries, consist of its 1374 exemption from the land tax, a 1425 guarantee against the 'arbitrary arrests and/or seizure of property' of its members, a 1454 requirement that military forces and new taxes be approved by provincial Sejms, and statutes issued between 1496 and 1611 that prescribed the rights of commoners.
Nobles were born into a noble family, adopted by a noble family (this was abolished in 1633) or ennobled by a king or Sejm for various reasons (bravery in combat, service to the state, etc.—yet this was the rarest means of gaining noble status). Many nobles were, in actuality, really usurpers, being commoners, who moved into another part of the country and falsely pretended to noble status. Hundreds of such false nobles were denounced by Hieronim Nekanda Trepka in his Liber generationis plebeanorium (or Liber chamorum) in the first half of the 16th century. The law forbade non-nobles from owning nobility-estates and promised the estate to the denouncer. Trepka was an impoverished nobleman who lived a townsman life and collected hundreds of such stories hoping to take over any of such estates. It does not seem he ever succeeded in proving one at the court. Many sejms issued decrees over the centuries in an attempt to resolve this issue, but with little success. It is unknown what percentage of the Polish nobility came from the 'lower' orders of society, but most historians agree that nobles of such base origins formed a 'significant' element of the szlachta.
The Polish nobility enjoyed many rights that were not available to the noble classes of other countries and, typically, each new monarch conceded them further privileges. Those privileges became the basis of the Golden Liberty in the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. Despite having a king, Poland was called the nobility's Commonwealth because the king was elected by all interested members of hereditary nobility and Poland was considered to be the property of this class, not of the king or the ruling dynasty. This state of affairs grew up in part because of the extinction of the male-line descendants of the old royal dynasty (first the Piasts, then the Jagiellons), and the selection by the nobility of the Polish king from among the dynasty's female-line descendants.
Poland's successive kings granted privileges to the nobility at the time of their election to the throne (the privileges being specified in the king-elect's Pacta conventa) and at other times in exchange for ad hoc permission to raise an extraordinary tax or a pospolite ruszenie.
Poland's nobility thus accumulated a growing array of privileges and immunities:
In 1355 in Buda King Casimir III the Great issued the first country-wide privilege for the nobility, in exchange for their agreement that in the lack of Casimir's male heirs, the throne would pass to his nephew, Louis I of Hungary. He decreed that the nobility would no longer be subject to 'extraordinary' taxes, or use their own funds for military expeditions abroad. He also promised that during travels of the royal court, the king and the court would pay for all expenses, instead of using facilities of local nobility.
In 1374 King Louis of Hungary approved the Privilege of Koszyce (Polish: "przywilej koszycki" or "ugoda koszycka") in Košice in order to guarantee the Polish throne for his daughter Jadwiga. He broadened the definition of who was a member of the nobility and exempted the entire class from all but one tax (łanowy, which was limited to 2 grosze from łan (an old measure of land size)). In addition, the King's right to raise taxes was abolished; no new taxes could be raised without the agreement of the nobility. Henceforth, also, district offices (Polish: "urzędy ziemskie") were reserved exclusively for local nobility, as the Privilege of Koszyce forbade the king to grant official posts and major Polish castles to foreign knights. Finally, this privilege obliged the King to pay indemnities to nobles injured or taken captive during a war outside Polish borders.
In 1422 King Władysław II Jagiełło by the Privilege of Czerwińsk (Polish: "przywilej czerwiński") established the inviolability of nobles' property (their estates could not be confiscated except upon a court verdict) and ceded some jurisdiction over fiscal policy to the Royal Council (later, the Senat of Poland), including the right to mint coinage.
In 1430 with the Privileges of Jedlnia, confirmed at Kraków in 1433 (Polish: "przywileje jedlneńsko-krakowskie"), based partially on his earlier Brześć Kujawski privilege (April 25, 1425), King Władysław II Jagiełło granted the nobility a guarantee against arbitrary arrest, similar to the English Magna Carta's Habeas corpus, known from its own Latin name as "neminem captivabimus (nisi jure victum)." Henceforth no member of the nobility could be imprisoned without a warrant from a court of justice: the king could neither punish nor imprison any noble at his whim. King Władysław's quid pro quo for this boon was the nobles' guarantee that his throne would be inherited by one of his sons (who would be bound to honour the privileges theretofore granted to the nobility). On May 2, 1447 the same king issued the Wilno Privilege which gave the Lithuanian boyars the same rights as those possessed by the Polish szlachta.
In 1454 King Casimir IV granted the Nieszawa Statutes (Polish: "statuty cerkwicko-nieszawskie"), clarifying the legal basis of voivodship sejmiks (local parliaments). The king could promulgate new laws, raise taxes, or call for a levée en masse (pospolite ruszenie) only with the consent of the sejmiks, and the nobility were protected from judicial abuses. The Nieszawa Statutes also curbed the power of the magnates, as the Sejm (national parliament) received the right to elect many officials, including judges, voivods and castellans. These privileges were demanded by the szlachta as a compensation for their participation in the Thirteen Years' War.
The first "free election" (Polish: "wolna elekcja") of a king took place in 1492. (To be sure, some earlier Polish kings had been elected with help from bodies such as that which put Casimir II on the throne, thereby setting a precedent for free elections.) Only senators voted in the 1492 free election, which was won by John I Albert. For the duration of the Jagiellonian Dynasty, only members of that royal family were considered for election; later, there would be no restrictions on the choice of candidates.
In 1493 the national parliament, the Sejm, began meeting every two years at Piotrków. It comprised two chambers:
- a Senate of 81 bishops and other dignitaries; and
- a Chamber of Envoys of 54 envoys (in Polish, "envoy" is "poseł") representing their respective Lands.
The numbers of senators and envoys later increased.
On April 26, 1496 King John I Albert granted the Privilege of Piotrków (Polish: "Przywilej piotrkowski", "konstytucja piotrkowska" or "statuty piotrkowskie"), increasing the nobility's feudal power over serfs. It bound the peasant to the land, as only one son (not the eldest) was permitted to leave the village; townsfolk (Polish: "mieszczaństwo") were prohibited from owning land; and positions in the Church hierarchy could be given only to nobles.
On 23 October 1501, at Mielnik Polish–Lithuanian union was reformed at the Union of Mielnik (Polish: unia mielnicka, unia piotrkowsko-mielnicka). It was there that the tradition of the coronation Sejm (Polish: "Sejm koronacyjny") was founded. Once again the middle nobility (middle in wealth, not in rank) attempted to reduce the power of the magnates with a law that made them impeachable before the Senate for malfeasance. However the Act of Mielno (Polish: Przywilej mielnicki) of 25 October did more to strengthen the magnate dominated Senate of Poland then the lesser nobility. The nobles were given the right to disobey the King or his representatives—in the Latin, "non praestanda oboedientia"—and to form confederations, an armed rebellion against the king or state officers if the nobles thought that the law or their legitimate privileges were being infringed.
On 3 May 1505 King Alexander I Jagiellon granted the Act of "Nihil novi nisi commune consensu" (Latin: "I accept nothing new except by common consent"). This forbade the king to pass any new law without the consent of the representatives of the nobility, in Sejm and Senat assembled, and thus greatly strengthened the nobility's political position. Basically, this act transferred legislative power from the king to the Sejm. This date commonly marks the beginning of the First Rzeczpospolita, the period of a szlachta-run "Commonwealth".
In 1520 the Act of Bydgoszcz granted the Sejm the right to convene every four years, with or without the king's permission.
About that time the "executionist movement" (Polish: "egzekucja praw"--"execution of the laws") began to take form. Its members would seek to curb the power of the magnates at the Sejm and to strengthen the power of king and country. In 1562 at the Sejm in Piotrków they would force the magnates to return many leased crown lands to the king, and the king to create a standing army (wojsko kwarciane). One of the most famous members of this movement was Jan Zamoyski. After his death in 1605, the movement lost its political force.
Until the death of Sigismund II Augustus, the last king of the Jagiellonian dynasty, monarchs could be elected from within only the royal family. However, starting from 1573, practically any Polish noble or foreigner of royal blood could become a Polish–Lithuanian monarch. Every newly elected king was supposed to sign two documents—the Pacta conventa ("agreed pacts")—a confirmation of the king's pre-election promises, and Henrican articles (artykuły henrykowskie, named after the first freely elected king, Henry of Valois). The latter document served as a virtual Polish constitution and contained the basic laws of the Commonwealth:
- Free election of kings;
- Religious tolerance;
- The Diet to be gathered every two years;
- Foreign policy controlled by the Diet;
- A royal advisory council chosen by the Diet;
- Official posts restricted to Polish and Lithuanian nobles;
- Taxes and monopolies set up by the Diet only;
- Nobles' right to disobey the king should he break any of these laws.
In 1578 king Stefan Batory created the Crown Tribunal in order to reduce the enormous pressure on the Royal Court. This placed much of the monarch's juridical power in the hands of the elected szlachta deputies, further strengthening the nobility class. In 1581 the Crown Tribunal was joined by a counterpart in Lithuania, the Lithuanian Tribunal.
Transformation into aristocracy
For many centuries, wealthy and powerful members of the szlachta sought to gain legal privileges over their peers. Few szlachta were wealthy enough to be known as magnates (karmazyni—the "Crimsons", from the crimson colour of their boots). A proper magnate should be able to trace noble ancestors back for many generations and own at least 20 villages or estates. He should also hold a major office in the Commonwealth.
Some historians estimate the number of magnates as 1% of the number of szlachta. Out of approx. one million szlachta, tens of thousands of families, only 200–300 persons could be classed as great magnates with country-wide possessions and influence, and 30–40 of them could be viewed as those with significant impact on Poland's politics.
Magnates often received gifts from monarchs, which significantly increased their wealth. Often, those gifts were only temporary leases, which the magnates never returned (in the 16th century, the anti-magnate opposition among szlachta was known as the ruch egzekucji praw—movement for execution of the laws—which demanded that all such possessions are returned to their proper owner, the king).
One of the most important victories of the magnates was the late 16th century right to create ordynacja's (similar to majorats), which ensured that a family which gained wealth and power could more easily preserve this. Ordynacje's of families of Radziwiłł, Zamoyski, Potocki or Lubomirski often rivalled the estates of the king and were important power bases for the magnates.
Loss of influence by szlachta
The sovereignty of szlachta was ended in 1795 by Partitions of Poland, and until 1918 their legal status was dependent on policies of the Russian Empire, the Kingdom of Prussia or the Habsburg Monarchy.
In the 1840s Nicholas I reduced 64,000 szlachta to commoner status. Despite this, 62.8% of Russia's nobles were szlachta in 1858 and still 46.1% in 1897. Serfdom was abolished in Russian Poland on February 19, 1864. It was deliberately enacted in a way that would ruin the szlachta. It was the only area where peasants paid the market price in redemption for the land (the average for the empire was 34% above the market price). All land taken from Polish peasants since 1846 was to be returned without redemption payments. The ex serfs could only sell land to other peasants, not szlachta. 90% of the ex serfs in the empire who actually gained land after 1861 were in the 8 western provinces. Along with Romania, Polish landless or domestic serfs were the only ones to be given land after serfdom was abolished. All this was to punish the szlachta's role in the uprisings of 1830 and 1863. By 1864 80% of szlachta were déclassé, ¼ petty nobles were worse off than the average serf, 48.9% of land in Russian Poland was in peasant hands, nobles still held 46%. In Second Polish Republic the privileges of the nobility were lawfully abolished by the March Constitution in 1921 and as such not granted by any future Polish law.
Culture of Polish Szlachta
The Polish nobility differed in many respects from the nobility of other countries. The most important difference was that, while in most European countries the nobility lost power as the ruler strove for absolute monarchy, in Poland the reverse process occurred: the nobility actually gained power at the expense of the king, and the political system evolved into an oligarchy.
Poland's nobility were also more numerous than those of all other European countries, constituting some 10–12% of the total population of historic Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth also some 10–12% among ethnic Poles on ethnic Polish lands (part of Commonwealth), but up to 25% of all Poles worldwide (szlachta could dispose more of resources to travels and/or conquering), while in some poorer regions (e.g., Mazowsze, the area centred on Warsaw) nearly 30%. However, according to  szlachta comprised around 8% of the total population in 1791 (up from 6.6% in the 16th century), and no more than 16% of the Roman Catholic (mostly ethnically Polish) population. It should be noted, though, that Polish szlachta usually incorporated most local nobility from the areas that were absorbed by Poland–Lithuania (Ruthenian boyars, Livonian nobles, etc.) By contrast, the nobilities of other European countries, except for Spain, amounted to a mere 1–3%, however the era of sovereign rules of Polish nobility ended earlier than in other countries (excluding France) yet in 1795 (see: Partitions of Poland), since then their legitimation and future fate depended on legislature and procedures of Russian Empire, Kingdom of Prussia or Habsburg Monarchy. Gradually their privileges were under further limitations to be completely dissolved by March Constitution of Poland in 1921.
There were a number of avenues to upward social mobility and the achievement of nobility. Poland's nobility was not a rigidly exclusive, closed class. Many low-born individuals, including townsfolk, peasants and Jews, could and did rise to official ennoblement in Polish society. Each szlachcic had enormous influence over the country's politics, in some ways even greater than that enjoyed by the citizens of modern democratic countries. Between 1652 and 1791, any nobleman could nullify all the proceedings of a given sejm (Commonwealth parliament) or sejmik (Commonwealth local parliament) by exercising his individual right of liberum veto (Latin for "I do not allow"), except in the case of a confederated sejm or confederated sejmik.
All children of the Polish nobility inherited their noble status from a noble mother and father. Any individual could attain ennoblement (nobilitacja) for special services to the state. A foreign noble might be naturalised as a Polish noble (Polish: "indygenat") by the Polish king (later, from 1641, only by a general sejm).
In theory at least, all Polish noblemen were social equals. Also in theory, they were legal peers. Those who held 'real power' dignities were more privileged but these dignities were not hereditary. Those who held honorary dignities were higher in 'ritual' hierarchy but these dignities were also granted for a lifetime. Some tenancies became hereditary and went with both privilege and titles. Nobles who were not direct barons of the Crown but held land from other lords were only peers "de iure".
The poorest enjoyed the same rights as the wealthiest magnate. The exceptions were a few symbolically privileged families such as the Radziwiłł, Lubomirski and Czartoryski, who sported honorary aristocratic titles recognized in Poland or received from foreign courts, such as "Prince" or "Count". (see also The Princely Houses of Poland). All other szlachta simply addressed each other by their given name or as "Sir Brother" (Panie bracie) or the feminine equivalent. The other forms of address would be "Illustrious and Magnificent Lord", "Magnificent Lord", "Generous Lord" or "Noble Lord" (in decreasing order) or simply "His/Her Grace Lord/Lady".
According to their financial standing, the nobility were in common speech divided into:
- magnates: the wealthiest class; owners of vast lands, towns, many villages, thousands of peasants
- middle nobility (średnia szlachta): owners of one or more villages, often having some official titles or Envoys from the local Land Assemblies to the General Assembly,
- petty nobility (drobna szlachta), owners of a part of a village or owning no land at all, often referred to by a variety of colourful Polish terms such as:
- szaraczkowa – grey nobility, from their grey, woollen, uncoloured żupans
- okoliczna – local nobility, similar to zaściankowa
- zagrodowa – from zagroda, a farm, often little different from a peasant's dwelling
- zagonowa – from zagon, a small unit of land measure, hide nobility
- cząstkowa – partial, owners of only part of a single village
- panek – little pan (i.e., lordling), term used in Kaszuby, the Kashubian region, also one of the legal terms for legally separated lower nobility in late medieval and early modern Poland
- hreczkosiej – buckwheat sowers – those who had to work their fields themselves.
- zaściankowa – from zaścianek, a name for plural nobility settlement, neighbourhood nobility. Just like hreczkosiej, zaściankowa nobility would have no peasants.
- brukowa – cobble nobility, for those living in towns like townsfolk
- gołota – naked nobility, i.e., the landless. Gołota szlachta would be considered the 'lowest of the high'.
- półpanek ("half-lord"); also podpanek/pidpanek ("sub-lord") in Podolia and Ukrainian accent – a petty szlachcic pretending to be wealthy.
Note that the Polish landed gentry (ziemianie or ziemiaństwo) was composed of any nobility that owned lands: thus of course the magnates, the middle nobility and that lesser nobility that had at least part of the village. As manorial lordships were also opened to burgesses of certain privileged royal cities, not all landed gentry had a hereditary title of nobility.
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Coats of arms were very important to the Polish nobility. Its heraldic system evolved together with its neighbours in Central Europe, while differing in many ways from the heraldry of other European countries. Polish knighthood families had its counterparts, links or roots in Moravia (i.e. Poraj) and Germany (i.e. Junosza).
The most notable difference is that, contrary to other European heraldic systems, the Jews, Muslim Tatars or another minorities would be given the noble title. Also, most families sharing origin would also share a coat-of-arms. They would also share arms with families adopted into the clan (these would often have their arms officially altered upon ennoblement). Sometimes unrelated families would be falsely attributed to the clan on the basis of similarity of arms. Also often noble families claimed inaccurate clan membership. Logically, the number of coats of arms in this system was rather low and did not exceed 200 in late Middle Ages (40,000 in the late 18th century).
Also, the tradition of differentiating between the coat of arms proper and a lozenge granted to women did not develop in Poland. Usually men inherited the coat of arms from their fathers. Also, the brisure was rarely used.
The szlachta's prevalent mentality and ideology were manifested in "Sarmatism", a name derived from a myth of the szlachta's origin in the powerful ancient nation of Sarmatians. This belief system became an important part of szlachta culture and affected all aspects of their lives. It was popularized by poets who exalted traditional village life, peace and pacifism. It was also manifested in oriental-style apparel (the żupan, kontusz, sukmana, pas kontuszowy, delia); and made the scimitar-like szabla, too, a near-obligatory item of everyday szlachta apparel. Sarmatism served to integrate the multi-ethnic nobility as it created an almost nationalistic sense of unity and pride in the szlachta's "Golden Liberty" (złota wolność). Knowledge of Latin was widespread, and most szlachta freely mixed Polish and Latin vocabulary (the latter, "macaronisms"—from "macaroni") in everyday conversation.
Prior to the Reformation, the Polish nobility were mostly either Roman Catholic or Orthodox with a small group of Muslims. Many families, however, soon adopted the Reformed faiths. After the Counter-Reformation, when the Roman Catholic Church regained power in Poland, the nobility became almost exclusively Catholic, despite the fact that Roman Catholicism was not the majority religion in Commonwealth (the Catholic and Orthodox churches each accounted for some 40% of all citizens population, with the remaining 20% being Jews or members of Protestant denominations). In the 18th century, many followers of Jacob Frank joined the ranks of Jewish-descended Polish gentry. Although Jewish religion wasn't usually a pretext to block or deprive of noble status, some laws favoured religious conversion from Judaism to Christianity (see: Neophyte) by rewarding it with ennoblement.
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... the Polish nobility was a closed group (apart from a few exceptions, many of which were contrary to the law), in which membership was inherited.
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the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth of Two Nations (from 1385 until the Third Partition of 1795) paralleled the Roman Empire in that -- whether we like it or not -- full rights of citizenship were limited to the governing elite, called szlachta in Polish ... It is not truly correct to consider the szlachta a class; they actually were more like a caste, the military caste, as in Hindu society.
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...Świętochowski, on the other hand, wrote as follows: ‘If from the deeds of the Polish nobility we took away excesses and the exclusiveness of caste, ...’
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Membership in the Polish szlachta was hereditary. ... (and the family knighthood, rycerstwo, in itself) ... The paramount principle regarding Polish nobility is that it was hereditary. ... one Rudolf Lambert had successfully proven his right to hereditary knighthood (szlachectwo) ... He [Nikodem Tadeusz] was also Marshal of the Knighthood (using the word rycerz and not szlachcic ...)
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In 1784, Prince Charles de Ligne from Belgium, who was trying to obtain Polish noble status, supposedly said, ‘It is easier to become a duke in Germany, than to be counted among Polish nobles,’ quoted in Kulikowski, Heraldyka szlachecka, 27.
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- Descendants of the Great Sejm (genealogies of the most important Polish families)
- Confederation of the Polish Nobility
- Polish Nobility Association Foundation
- Association of the Belarusian Nobility
- Association of Lithuanian Nobility
- The Polish Aristocracy by Rafal Heydel-Mankoo – History of Polish titled families, heraldry, Orders
- The Inexorable Political Rise of the szlachta
- Short article on The Polish Nobility
- Digital Library of Wielkpolska
- List of Polish titled nobility
- List of szlachta
- Lithuanian nobility
- Polish heraldry
- Polish landed gentry (Ziemiaństwo)
- Polish name