The Polish-Lithuanian Monarchy in European Context, c. 1500-1795

By Richard Butterwick | Go to book overview

1
The Polish-Lithuanian Monarchy in International Context

R. J. W.Evans

One of the most famous characters in Polish history, for the Poles themselves, is Stańczyk, the semi-legendary jester at the court of King Sigismund I, ruler of the Polish-Lithuanian state at the height of its power in the earlier sixteenth century. In what became a household image 350 years later, the clown was captured on a patriotic canvas by the artist Jan Matejko, a solitary and desolate figure brooding in an anteroom of the palace while his betters do their suave official business in the background. Stańczyk – as the painter implies and his audience in the now partitioned homeland might ponder – is thinking outrageous thoughts about the fragility of the dual polity and the fate of its monarchs in some distant future. My role in this collection is that of a Stańczyk, an outsider with no proper entrée into the salon of Polish historiography, who can only seek to provoke by suggesting unaccustomed and unpolished approaches to its preoccupations.

The course of Polish history since the age of Sigismund I is commonly reckoned so distinctive as to be unique: more particularly by its own native commentators, but also by many outsiders. This has most to do, naturally, with the country's disappearance at the end of the eighteenth century, and I shall turn to the particularity of that event later. It was, of course, a commonplace of the age of Enlightenment, even when complete Partition still lay only on the far horizon. Rousseau, in his Considérations sur le gouvernement de Pologne, was a noted exponent of such a view: ‘It is hard to comprehend how a state so bizarrely constituted has been able to subsist for so long [. . .] The Polish nation is different in its nature, its government, its manners, its language, not only from its neighbours, but from the whole of the rest of Europe.’ 1 The ensuing political nemesis has always directed attention to the character of the Polish monarchy, especially in its relation to the corporate body of

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