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File:Szlachcic polski.jpg
Polish szlachcic. Painting by Jan Piotr Norblin.

Szlachta (pronounced: File:Ltspkr.png ['šlaxta]) was the noble class in Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which together formed the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The szlachta were formed in the late Middle Ages and existed through the 18th century and into the 19th century. Traditionally, the szlachta were owners of landed property, often in the form of folwarks. The szlachta enjoyed substantial and almost unrivalled political privileges until the Partitions of Poland in the late 18th century. The nobility was officially abolished during the Second Polish Republic by the March 1921 Constitution, though membership in its ranks remains widely claimed in various strata of Polish society at home and abroad.



The Polish word "szlachta" (meaning the "gentle class" or "noble class", an untranslateable term essentially encompassing the idea of gentility or nobility of blood, and treating the English words gentry and nobility as roughly coterminous: a specific nobleman was a "szlachcic," a noblewoman was a "szlachcianka"). Early Polish historians thought it may derive from the name of the legendary proto-Polish chief, Lech, mentioned in Polish and Czech writings. "Szlachta" is thought by some simply to mean "Lechitians," or "men of Lech's" (in modern Polish, "z Lecha"), probably denoting the ruling warrior class in Lech's tribe. Even to this day, some Ukrainians refer to Poles as "Lachy" (Lechitians), while Turks uses the term "Leh". Another theory states that this word derives from old German "geschlech" or "slahta" ("house, family"), like many of the other Polish words concerning nobility [for example Polish "rycerz" ("knight") comes from German "ritter" and Polish "herb" ("crest") comes from German "erbe" ("heirdom")]

A kindred term that might be applied to an early Polish nobleman was "knight" ("rycerz"), Latin nobilis (plural: nobiles), or możny (plural: możni). Some powerful Polish nobleman were refered to as magnates ("magnat").


See also: History of Poland (966-1385)

File:Unia Lubelska.JPG
"Union of Lublin" (1569). Painting by Jan Matejko, 1869, National Museum, Warsaw.

The Polish nobility probably derived from a Slavic warrior class, forming a distinct element within the ancient Polonic tribal groupings. This is uncertain, however, as there is little documentation on the early history of Poland, or of the movements of the Slavonic people into what became the territory so designated.

Around 14th century there was little difference between those called knights and those referred to as szlachta in Poland. Members of the szlachta had the personal obligation to defend the country (pospolite ruszenie), and thereby became the kingdom's privileged social class.

Szlachta rise to power

See also Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth#State organisation and politics

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 peasants or merchants, who moved into another part of the country and falsely pretended to noble status. Hundreds of such false nobles were denounced by Walerian Nekanda Trepka in his Liber generationis plebeanorium (or Liber chamorum) in the first half of 16th century. 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 a noble "republic" (Rzeczpospolita) because the king was elected by all interested members of the 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, 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 levée en masse (pospolite ruszenie).

Poland's nobility thus accumulated a growing array of privileges and immunities:

In 1355 King Kazimierz III (the Great) decreed that the nobility would no longer be required to pay taxes, or pay with their own funds for military expeditions outside Poland.

In 1374 King Louis the Hungarian approved the Privilege of Koszyce (Polish: "przywilej koszycki" or "ugoda koszycka") in Koszyce 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 (a 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 privilige 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), including the right to mint coinage.

Un 1430 with the Privileges of Jedlnia, confirmed at Kraków in 1433 (Polish: "przywileje jedlneńsko-krakowskie"), based partially on his earlier Brześć Kujawski privilige (April 25, 1425), King Władysław 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 competent 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 honor 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 Kazimierz IV the Jagiellon 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 Kazimierz II the Just on the throne, thereby setting a precedent for free elections.) Only senators voted in the 1492 free election, which was won by Jan I Olbracht. 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:

The numbers of senators and deputies later increased.

On April 26 1496, as a compensation for the unsuccessful incursion on Moldavia which had decimated the szlachta, King Jan Olbracht granted the Privilege of Piotrków (Polish: "przywilej piotrkowski" or "konstytucja piotrkowska"), 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 as 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 nobility attemped 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 strenghten the magnate dominated Senate of Poland then the lesser nobility. The nobles were conceded the right to refuse to obey the King or his representatives--in the Latin, "non praestanda oboedientia"--and to form [[konfederacja|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 3rd May 1505 King Alexander the Jagiellon granted the Act of "Nihil novi nisi commune consensu" (Latin: "nothing new without our consensus"). 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 "republic".

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 royal 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 Augustus, the last king of the Jagiellonian dynasty, monarchs could only be elected from within 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.

Transformation into aristocracy

For many centuries, wealthy and powerful members of the szlachta sought to gain legal privileges over their "equals." Few szlachta were wealthy enough to be known as magnates (karmazyni — the "crimson ones," from the crimson color of their boots). A proper magnate should be able to trace noble ancenstors 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 4% of szlachta number. Out of 1 million of szlachta, tens of thousands of families, perhaps 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 country'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 16th century, the anti-magnate opposition among szlachta were known as the ruch egzekucji praw - movement for execution of the laws - which demanded that all such possetions are returned to their proper owner, the king). One of the most imporant 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 Radziwiłłs, Zamoyski's, Poniatowski's or Lubomirski's often rivaled the estates of the king and were important power bases for the magnates.

With the partitions of Poland, the magnates finally got the recognition in law they craved. The equality among szlachta was no more, as the law systems of the partitioning powers recognized only the priviliged aristocracy and treated the poorer szlachta as normal citizens, or extreme cases, peasants.

All szlachta priviliges were finally abolished after the Second World War under the communism regime of the People's Republic of Poland.

Szlachta culture

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 toward a partial democracy (and eventually, anarchy).

Poland's nobility were also more numerous than those of all other European countries, they formed some 8-10% of the population, and in some poorer regions (e.g. Mazowsze, the area centred on Warsaw) nearly 30%. By contrast, the nobilities of other European countries, except for Spain, amounted to a mere 1-3%.

There were a number of ways to upward social mobility and the achievement of nobility. Poland's nobility, unlike France's aristocracy, was not a rigidly exclusive, closed class. Many low-born individuals, including townsfolk, peasants and Jews, could and did rise in Polish society. Thus Poland's noble class was more stable than those of other countries, and so was spared the societal tensions and eventual disintegration that characterised the French revolution. Each szlachic had enormous influence over the country's politics, in some form even greater that what is 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: I don't 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 (Polish: "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).

File:Ubior Szlachty.jpg
Polish noblemen, early 17th century.

In theory at least, all Polish noblemen were social equals. The poorest enjoyed the same rights as the wealthiest magnate. The exceptions were a few privileged families such as the Radziwiłł, Lubomirski and Czartoryski, who sported aristocratic titles received from foreign courts, such as "Prince" or "Count." All other szlachta simply addressed each other by their given name or as "Sir Brother" (Panie bracie) or the feminine equivalent.

File:Stefan Czarniecki2.jpg
Hetman Stefan Czarniecki in crimson red bekiesza. Holds buława in right hand. Note crimson shoes (buty karmazynowe), a sign of wealth and rank. Crimson color wore by wealthy szlachta led to the magnates nickname, 'karmazyni' - the crimson ones.

According to their financial standing, the nobility could be divided into:

  • magnates: the wealthiest class;
  • middle nobility;
  • lesser nobility (often referred to by a variety of colourful Polish terms such as
    • szaraczkowa - 'grey ones', from their grey, woollen, uncoloured zupans
    • zaściankowa - from zaścianek, a name for szlachta village, full of zagrody, the impoverished
    • okoliczna - 'nearby', similar to zaściankowa
    • zagrodowa - from zagroda, a poor szlachta house, often little different from a peasant's dwelling
    • zagonowa - from zagon, a small unit of land measure
    • cząstkowa - 'partial', owners of only part of a single village
    • drążkowa - when gathered, had no comfortable chairs, so they had to sit on fences and the like
    • gołota - 'naked ones', i.e. the landless, or ones who owned no land
    • panki - little 'pan' (i.e. lordling), term used in Kaszuby, the Kashubian region
    • brukowa - 'cobbled ones', for those living in towns like townsfolk
    • hreczkosiej - 'those who saw' and have to work on their own fields by themselves


Main article: Polish heraldry

Coats of arms were very important to the Polish nobility. It is notable, that the Polish heraldic system evolved separately from its western counterparts and differed in many ways from the heraldry of other European countries.

Most notable difference is that, contrary to other european heraldic systems, the coat of arms did not "belong" to a family or a clan, but the other way around, the szlachta family pertained to a coat of arms. As a consequence, it was common that many distinct, unrelated families (sometimes as many as 600) share the same coat of arms. Because of that, the symbols were barely ever parted. Logically, the number of coats of arms in this system was rather low and did not exceed 200 in late Middle Ages.

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 (or the member of the clan who "adopted them") while women inherited it after their mothers or were adopted to the family of the husband. Also, the brisure was rarely used.


The szlachta's prevalent mentality and ideology were manifested in "Sarmatism," a name derived from supposed ancestors of the szlachta, the Sarmatians. This belief system became an important part of szlachta culture and affected all aspects of their lives. It enshrined traditional village life, peace and pacifism; popularised 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 Freedom (złota wolność). Knowledge of Latin was widespread, and most szlachta freely mixed Polish and Latin ("macaronisms" — from "macaroni") in everyday conversation.

File:Jan Zamoyski.jpg
Jan Zamoyski, in crimson delia and blue silk żupan.

In its early, idealistic form, Sarmatism seemed like a salutary cultural movement: it fostered religious faith, honesty, national pride, courage, equality and freedom. As with any doctrine, however, that puts one social class above others, it eventually became perverted. Late Sarmatism turned belief into bigotry, honesty into political naiveté, pride into arrogance, courage into stubbornness, equality and freedom within the szlachta class into dissension and anarchy.

Religious beliefs

Prior to the Reformation, the Polish nobility were mostly Catholic or Orthodox. 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 Poland (the Catholic and Orthodox churches each accounted for some 40% of the population, with the remaining 20% being Jews or members of Protestant denominations). Szlachta, as the Commonwealth itself, was extremely tolerant of other religions. There were almost no conflicts based on faith, and szlachta members are known to have intervened several times to pacify religious conflicts in cities and towns. In the 18th century, many followers of Jacob Frank joined the ranks of Jewish-descended Polish gentry.

See also

External links

de:Szlachta it:Szlachta no:Szlachta pl:Szlachta ru:Шляхта uk:Шляхта