Stanisław Antoni Szczuka in kontusz, a Sarmatian attire

Sarmatian-style Karacena armor

"Sarmatism" (also, "Sarmatianism") is a term that designates the dominant lifestyle, culture and ideology of the szlachta (nobility) of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth from the 16th to the 19th centuries. Together with "Golden Liberty," it formed a central aspect of the Commonwealth's culture. At its core was a belief that Polish nobles were descended from the ancient Sarmatians.

The term and the culture were reflected primarily in 17th-century Polish literature, as in Jan Chryzostom Pasek's memoirs and the poems of Wacław Potocki. The Polish gentry (szlachta) wore a long coat, trimmed with fur, called a żupan, and thigh-high boots, and carried a saber (szabla). Mustaches were also popular, as well as varieties of plumage in the menfolk's headgear. Poland's "Sarmatians" strove for the status of a nobility on horseback, for equality among themselves ("Golden Freedom"), and for invincibility in the face of other peoples.[1] Sarmatism lauded the past victories of the Polish Army, and required Polish noblemen to cultivate the tradition. An inseparable element of their festive costume was a saber called the karabela.

Sarmatia (in Polish, Sarmacja) was a semi-legendary, poetic name for Poland that was fashionable into the 18th century, and which designated qualities associated with the literate citizenry of the vast Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Sarmatism greatly affected the culture, lifestyle and ideology of the Polish nobility. It was unique for its cultural mix of eastern, western and native traditions. Sarmatism considerably influenced the noble cultures of other contemporary states — Moldavia, Transylvania, Habsburg Hungary and Croatia, Wallachia and Muscovy. Criticized during the Polish Enlightenment, Sarmatism was rehabilitated by the generations that embraced Polish Romanticism. Having survived the literary realism of Poland's "Positivist" period, Sarmatism enjoyed a triumphant comeback with The Trilogy of Henryk Sienkiewicz, Poland's first Nobel laureate (1905).

History[edit | edit source]

The term was first used by Jan Długosz, in his 15th century work on the history of Poland.[2] He was also responsible for linking Sarmatians to the prehistory of Poland; this idea would be later repeated by other chroniclers and historians, such as Marcin Bielski, Marcin Kromer and Maciej Miechowita.[2] Miechowita's Tractatus de Duabus Sarmatiis became also influential abroad, where it was for a long time one of the most widely used reference works on the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth[2] The alleged ancestors of the szlachta, the Sarmatians, were in reality a confederacy of mostly Iranian tribes north of the Black Sea, described by Herodotus in the fifth century BC as descendants of Scythians and Amazons, and displaced by the Goths in the second century AD and had nothing to do with Poland; the legend however stuck and grew; most in the Commonwealth and many abroad believed that the Polish nobles were descendants of the Sarmatians (Sauromates).[2] Tradition specified that the Sarmatians themselves were descended from Japheth, son of Noah.[3]

In his 1970 publication The Sarmatians (in the series Ancient peoples and places) Tadeusz Sulimirski (1898–1983), a Polish-British historian, archaeologist, and researcher on the ancient Sarmatian tribes, listed a number of ethnological traits that szlachta shared with Sarmatians, including traditions, weaponry and military practices, tamgas, and relict burial costumes, giving more information on how the legend may have originated.

Culture[edit | edit source]

Politically influential Elżbieta Sieniawska, in Sarmatian pose and male delia coat

This belief became an important part of szlachta culture, penetrated all aspects of life and served to differentiate Polish szlachta from Western nobility (which szlachta called pludracy, a reference to hose, not worn by the szlachta but popular among the Westerners) and their customs. Sarmatian concept enshrined equality among all szlachta, traditions, horseback riding, provincial village life, peace and relative pacifism[4], popularised eastern (almost oriental) clothing and looks (żupan, kontusz, sukmana, pas kontuszowy, delia, szabla), served to integrate the multiethnic nobility by creating an almost nationalist sense of unity and pride of the szlachta's political Golden Freedoms.

Sarmatians strongly valued social and family ties. Women were treated with honour and gallantry. Conversations were one of the favourite preoccupations. Guests were always welcomed – relatives, friends, even strangers, especially from abroad. Latin was widely spoken. Sumptuous feasts with large amount of alcohol were organised. Male quarrels and fighting during such events were quite common. At the parties the polonaise, mazurka, and oberek were the most popular dances. Honour was of prime relevance. Men lived longer than women, they also got married later. Marriage was described as ‘deep friendship’. Men often travelled a lot (to the Sejms, Sejmiki, indulgences, law courts, or common movements). Women stayed at home and took care of the property, livestock and children. Although large numbers of children were born, many of them died before reaching maturity. Girls and boys were brought up separately, either in the company of women or men. Suing, even for really irrelevant things was common, but in most cases a compromise was reached.

Sarmatian costume stood out from that worn by the noblemen of other European countries, and had its roots in the Orient. It was long, dignified, rich and colourful. One of its most characteristic elements was the kontusz, which was worn with the decorative kontusz belt. Underneath was worn the żupan, and over the żupan would be the delia. Clothes for the mightiest families were made of crimson and scarlet. The szarawary were a typical lower-body clothing, and the calpac, decorated with heron’s feathers, was worn on the head.

Funeral ceremonies in Sarmatian Poland were very elaborate, with some distinctive features compared to other parts of Europe. They were carefully planned shows, full of ceremony and splendour. Elaborate preparations were made in the period between a nobleman’s death and his funeral, which employed a large number of craftsmen, architects, decorators, servants and cooks. Sometimes many months passed before all the preparations were completed. Before the burial, the coffin with the corpse was laid in a church amid the elaborate architecture of the castrum doloris ("castle of mourning"). Heraldic shields, which were placed on the sides of the coffin, and a tin sheet with an epitaph served a supplementary role and provided information about the deceased person. Religious celebrations were usually preceded by a procession which ended in the church. It was headed by a horseman who acted the role of the deceased nobleman and was covered in his armour. A horseman would enter the church and fall off his horse with a tremendous bang and clank, showing in this way the triumph of death over the earthly might and knightly valour. Some funeral ceremonies lasted for as long as four days, ending with a wake which had little to do with the seriousness of the situation, and could easily turn into sheer revelry. Occasionally an army of clergy took part in the burial (in the 18th century 10 bishops, 60 canons and 1705 priests took part in the funeral of one of Polish noblemen).

Political thought[edit | edit source]

For more details on this topic, see Golden Freedom.

Polish noble and two hajduks

Sarmatians acknowledged the vital importance of Poland since it was supposed to be an oasis of the Polish nobles’ Golden Liberty, surrounded by absolutist countries, and at the same time the bulwark of Christendom, fiercely attacked on all sides, by Protestants, Muslims and members of the Orthodox Church.

What contemporary Polish historians consider one of the most essential features of this tradition is not Sarmatian ideology but the manner in which the Rzeczpospolita was governed. The democratic concepts of law and order, self-government and elective offices constituted an inseparable part of Sarmatism. The king, though elected, still held the central position in the state, but his power was limited by various legal acts and requirements. Moreover, only the nobles were given political rights, namely the vote in the Sejmik and the Sejm. Every poseł (or member of the Sejm), had the right to exercise the so-called liberum veto, which could block the passage of a proposed new resolution or law. Finally, in the event that the king failed to abide by the laws of the state, or tried to limit or question nobles’ privileges, they had the right to refuse the king’s commands, and to oppose him by force of arms.

The political system of the Rzeczpospolita was regarded by the nobility as the best in the world, and the Polish Sejm as (factually[5]) the oldest. The system was frequently compared to that in Republican Rome and to the Greek polis, both of which eventually surrendered to tyrants. The Henrician Articles were considered the foundation of the system. Every attempt to infringe on these laws was treated as a great crime.

Philosophy and religion[edit | edit source]

In the sphere of religion, Catholicism was the dominant faith. Providence and the grace of God were often emphasised. All earthly matters were perceived as a means to a final goal – Heaven. Penance was stressed as a means of saving from the eternal punishment. It was believed that God watches over everything and everything has its own sense. People willingly took part in the religious life: masses, indulgences and pilgrimages. A special devotion to Saint Mary, the saints and the Passion was practiced.Religious tolerance was quite common.

Sarmatian art and writings[edit | edit source]

Poles dance Polonaise (painting by Kornelli Szlegel)

Art was treated by Sarmatians as propagandistic in function: its role was to immortalise a good name of the family, extol the virtues of ancestors and their great deeds. Consequently the personal or family portrait was in great demand. Its characteristic features were realism, variety of colour and rich symbolism (epitaphs, coats of arms, military accessories). People were usually depicted on a subdued, dark background, in a three-quarter view.

Sarmatian culture was portrayed especially by:

Latin was very popular and often mixed with the Polish language in macaronic writings and in speech. Knowing at least some Latin was an obligation of any szlachcic.

In the nineteenth century the Sarmatist culture of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was portrayed and popularised by Henryk Sienkiewicz in his trilogy (Ogniem i Mieczem, Potop, Pan Wolodyjowski). In the twentieth century, Sienkiewicz's trilogy was filmed, and Sarmatian culture became the subject of many modern books (by Jacek Komuda and others), songs (like that of Jacek Kaczmarski) and even role-playing games like Dzikie Pola.

Coffin portrait of Stanisław Woysza, 1677

One of the most distinctive art forms of the Sarmatians were the coffin portraits, a form of portraiture characteristic of Polish Baroque painting, not to be found anywhere else in Europe. The octagonal or hexagonal portraits were fixed to the head piece of the coffin so that the deceased person who, being a Christian with an immortal soul was always represented as alive, could hold a dialogue with the mourners during lavish funeral celebrations. Such portraits were props which evoked the illusion of the dead person's presence, and also a ritual medium that provided a link between the living and those departing for eternity. The few surviving portraits, often painted in a person’s lifetime, are a dependable source of knowledge about the seventeenth-century Polish nobility. The dead were depicted either in their official clothes or in a travelling garb, since death was believed to be a journey into the unknown. The oldest known coffin portrait in Poland is that depicting Stefan Batory, dating from the end of the 17th century.

Many of the szlachta residences were wooden mansions[6] Numerous palaces and churches were built in Sarmatian Poland. There was a trend towards native architectural solutions which were characterised by Gothic forms and unique stucco ornamentation of vaults. Gravestones were erected in churches for those who rendered considerable services for the motherland. There were built tens of thousands of manor houses, the majority of which was made of wood (pine, fir and larch). At the entrance there was a porch. The central place where visitors were received was a large entrance hall. In the manor house there was an intimate part for women, and a more public one for men. Manor houses had often corner annexes. Walls were adorned with portraits of ancestors, mementoes and the spoils. Few of the manor houses from the Old Polish period have survived, but their tradition was continued in the nineteenth and twentieth century.

Modern usage[edit | edit source]

In contemporary Poland, the word "Sarmatian" (Polish: sarmacki) is a form of ironic self-identification, and is sometimes used as a synonym for the Polish character.

Evaluation[edit | edit source]

In its early, ideal form sarmatism looked like a good cultural movement: it supported religious belief, honesty, national pride, courage, equality and freedom. However as any doctrine that put some social class above others it became perverted in time. Late sarmatism transformed belief into intolerance and fanaticism (but compared to countries like Sweden, Germany, Russia, France, Spain, England and others freedom and tolerance were much more common), honesty into political naivety, pride into arrogance, courage into stubbornness, quality and freedom of szlachta into nihilism.

Sarmatism, which evolved during the Polish Renaissance and entrenched itself during the Polish baroque, found itself opposed to the ideology of the Polish Enlightenment. By the late 18th century the word 'Sarmatism' gained a negative meaning.[2] It was regularly criticized and ridiculed in political leaflets like Monitor and others, where it became a synonym for uneducated and unenlightened ideas, and a derogatory label for those who opposed the reforms of the progressives like the king, Stanisław August Poniatowski.[2] The ideology of Sarmatism became a target for ridicule, as seen in Franciszek Zabłocki's play "Sarmatism" (Sarmatyzm, 1785).[2]

To a certain degree the process was reversed during the period of Polish Romanticism, when after the partitions of Poland memory of the old Polish Golden Age rehabilitated old traditions to a certain extent.[2] Particularly in the aftermath of the November Uprising, when the genre of gawęda szlachecka ("a nobleman's tale") created by Henryk Rzewuski gained popularity, Sarmatism was often portrayed positively in literature.[2] Such treatment of the concept can also be seen in Polish messianism and in works of great Polish poets like Adam Mickiewicz (Pan Tadeusz), Juliusz Słowacki and Zygmunt Krasiński, as well as writers (Henryk Sienkiewicz and his Trylogia), as well as others.[2] This close connection between Polish Romanticism and Polish history became one of the defining qualities of this literary period, differentiating it from other contemporary literature, which did not suffer from a lack of national statehood as was the case with Poland.[2]

See also[edit | edit source]

Literature[edit | edit source]

  • Tadeusz Sulimirski, "The Sarmatians (Ancient peoples and places)", Thames and Hudson, 1970, ISBN 0-500-02071-X

Sources[edit | edit source]

  • Friedrich, Karin, The other Prussia: Royal Prussia, Poland and liberty, 1569–1772, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

References[edit | edit source]

  1. ^ Simon Schama, Landscape and Memory Vintage, New York, 1995:38.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Andrzej Wasko, Sarmatism or the Enlightenment: The Dilemma of Polish Culture, Sarmatian Review XVII.2.
  3. ^ Colin Kidd, British Identities before Nationalism; Ethnicity and Nationhood in the Atlantic World, 1600-1800, Cambridge University Press, 1999, p. 29
  4. ^ In the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, in which the Sejm resisted and vetoed most royal proposals for war; for some examples and discussion, see Frost, Robert I.. The northern wars: war, state and society in northeastern Europe, 1558-1721. Harlow, England; New York: Longman's.  2000. Especially Pp. 9-11, 114, 181, 323. See also democratic peace theory.
  5. ^ Cronicae et gesta ducum sive principum Polonorum
  6. ^ See houses in Poland.

External links[edit | edit source]

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