A Pagan Empire Within East-Central Europe; & Poland-Lithuania and the Second Northern War 1655-1660

David Kirby | Published in History Today
  • A Pagan Empire Within East-Central Europe, 1295-1345
    S.C. Rowell - Cambridge University Press, 1994 - xxi + 375 pp. - £45
  • After the Deluge: Poland-Lithuania and the Second Northern War 1655-1660
    Robert Frost - Cambridge University Press, 1993 - xxiv + 211PP. - £40

We have in this century become so accustomed to the massive, brooding presence of a Soviet Russian empire that we tend to forget that things were not ever thus. For some 500 years, it was the Lithuanian state that dominated much of Eastern Europe between the Baltic and Black Seas.

From their original heartlands of upper and lower Lithuania north of the Nemunas river, the Lithuanian princes had by the end of the thirteenth century extended their rule over Black Rus' in the west and into White Rus' in the east. The territories over which Grand Duke Jogaila claimed sovereignty some 100 years later extended beyond Kiev towards the Black Sea. Jogaila's conversion to Christianity and his marriage to Jadwiga, the youngest daughter of the last Piast king of Poland in 1386, laid the foundations of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which was finally dismembered by Russia, Prussia and Austria in the last quarter of the eighteenth century.

The history of this union has until recently been almost exclusively interpreted to the world at large from a Polish perspective. In this interpretation, Catholic Poland assumes the civilising role, taming and Polonizing the rude pagans of the east, whose great ruler Mindaugas (c. 1238-1263) had vainly 'attempted to make the Lithuanians and Ruthenians enter into the system of western civilisation' (Oscar Halecki, A History of Poland, 1978). Eric Christiansen offered a robust re-evaluation of the pagan Lithuanians in his 1980 publication, The Northern Crusades, and a number of recent articles by M. Giedorye have thrown new light on the advent of Christianity to Lithuania before 1385.

Rowell's full-length study of the crucial half-century in which Lithuania first made a significant impact on the international stage is, however, a major contribution to the history of Europe in the Middle Ages. He shows that, far from being benighted idol-worshippers on the dark periphery of Europe, the Lithuanian princes were the equal of their Christian counterparts in diplomatic skill and political subtlety, and quite familiar with the latest ideas and technology of the Western Christian world. They were willing to harness the talents of Franciscans and metropolitans alike to serve their own political purposes, and were happy to permit freedom of worship to Christians within their scattered territories. On the other hand, all attempts by the Teutonic knights to force Christianity upon the pagans were fiercely resisted. Rowell argues at length against those historians who incline to the notion that Lithuania's rulers secretly sought to bring themselves and their subjects within the fold of Catholic Christianity, and his meticulous analysis of the documentary evidence is persuasive.

Lithuania has without doubt been largely ignored by medievalists because of the perceived lack of sources and the daunting prospect of having to master a wide range of languages in order to make serious inroads into the subject. Rowell is one of those rare beings blessed with linguistic ability, for his references include works in most of the Slavonic as well as the major Western European languages. This has enabled him to range across the entire continent, and beyond, in the quest for sources. The final result is a rich, detailed portrayal of a state in full vigour, whose rulers have their own agenda and are neither closet Catholics nor primitive barbarians.

Lithuania also features prominently in Robert Frost's study of the impact upon the Commonwealth of the Second Northern War. He takes as his starting point the dramatic collapse of the second-largest state in Europe in the summer of 1655. Already wracked by the convulsions of the Cossack revolt in the east, Poland-Lithuania had to face a massive Russian assault in 16S4. The decision of Charles X of Sweden to join the fray in 1655 brought disaster upon the Commonwealth. At first, the Polish and Lithuanian nobility hastened to make their peace with the Swedish king, whom they believed might defend them more effectively against Muscovy than the hapless John Casimir, who had to go into exile in the autumn of 1655. Charles X, however, was distinctly unwilling to take up arms against the Russians. The depredations of his army, which had learnt during the long years of war in Germany the finer points of living off the land, soon turned the nobility against the Swedes, and John Casimir's cause rapidly revived in 1656.

Although the Swedes and Russians were driven back, the 'deluge' of 1655 proved to be a decisive turning-point in the history of the Commonwealth. The economy, already in decline, was pushed deeper into crisis by the ravages of war. The Swedes, it is true, failed to gain any advantage from Charles X's hectic campaigning, and Sweden also entered a period of noticeable decline after the conclusion of peace in 1660. Muscovy, however, emerged from the wars as a major threat on the eastern frontier; and although the eventual demise of Sweden as a power in northern Europe was brought about by Russo-Polish cooperation, it was Peter the Great, and not Augustus the Strong, who was the dominant partner.

Robert Frost's study goes a long way towards explaining why the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth to all intents and purposes fell under Russian control in the eighteenth century. He believes that the Swedish deluge was a salutary shock to the Polish nobility, and created a favourable climate for reform, which the crown sought to use to push through the election of a successor to John Casimir during his lifetime. For this, John Casimir has been much criticised by those who feel that his main priority should have been reform of the Diet. Frost argues that, at least before 1660, the king was able to use the veto to good effect in managing the Diet, and that the election of a successor would have given him a vital advantage in his battle for political control, at a time when his principal opponents were either dead or discredited. It was the failure to agree upon a candidate during the war years that doomed the plan for an election vivente rege, for with the peace, factional squabbling resurfaced with renewed vigour. Worn-out by war and rebellion, John Casimir abdicated in 1668.

The spectacular decline and ultimate disappearance of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth has always aroused comment and speculation, ever since 'the first very great breach in the modern system of Europe', as the Annual Register characterised the first partition in 1772. And yet, Poland-Lithuania was not unique in its decline. Parallels between the anarchy generated by 'exaggerated liberty' in Poland and in Sweden were drawn by Gustav III in April 1772. The young Swedish king even considered a remedy to these ills Iess likely in his own kingdom, a rather gloomy prognosis dramatically proved wrong by his coup d'etat four months later. A century earlier, as John Casimir struggled in vain to assert royal authority in Poland, Frederick III of Denmark effectively emasculated the aristocratic council of state and laid the foundations for royal absolutism that was to last until 18 48.

One can draw parallels between Poland-Lithuania and Denmark, which had also suffered disastrous defeat at the hands of the Swedes. However, there were no Danish warlords to compare with the Radziwills or the Sapiehas, and Frederick III was also able to call upon a valuable ally that was unavailable to the king of Poland: the well-organised and self-confident burghers of his capital.

Absolutism did not revive Denmark's military fortunes; Frederick III and his successors did not follow the path of the Great Elector (another hard- pressed ruler who managed to turn round the fortunes of his war-ravaged state). A reformed Poland-Lithuania would not necessarily have been any more successful than Denmark in the arena of great-power politics, though it might well have been able to defend itself more effectively against foreign aggression, and a strong king would have been a powerful deterrent against factionalism and rebellion. The Danish-Polish parallel, however, should not be pushed too far. In their social structures, economies, historical and constitutional traditions, the two were very different.

If there is a criticism to be made of Frost's excellent study, it is that the more deep-seated causes of Poland-Lithuania's malaise are not fully explored. This is a study of a crucial episode, rather than a broad anAlysis of the reasons for the decline and fall of the Commonwealth. Both books under review began life as doctoral theses, and their writers have a slightly irritating tendency to set up 'historians' (often unspecified) as Aunt Sallies for them to knock down with their own interpretations. But this is a minor criticism. Both volumes are well provided with maps, genealogical tables and glossaries, and are written in a clear, readable style which is perhaps more conducive to an understanding of the complexities of Polish-Lithuanian history than the often floridly emotional texts of nationalist historians.

  • DAVID KIRBY is the author of the Baltic World 1772-1993: Europe’s Northern Periphery in an Age of Change (Longman, 1995).
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