Szlachta polska wobec reformacji 1548–1607

Schramm, Gottfried GND

The first chapter of the monograph offers an introductory analysis of the status quo and delineates the trajectories of the social processes taking place in the Commonwealth. The Reformation ideas impacted the majority of the Catholic countries of Europe. To a considerable degree, the victory of the movement hinged on the stance of the monarch. Wherever the sovereign remained inimical to the Reformation, the Protestants were forced to look for a counterbalance and – with a view to fulfilling their goals – relied on other authorities participating in the governing process. In many cases, such was the role of the nobility that protected their freedom and defended themselves against the gradual growth of the royal power. The nobility also enjoyed a very strong status and constituted one tenth of the population so pinning all hopes on the aristocracy as the harbinger of the victory of the Reformation was understandable. The nobility had their own forum as well, i.e. the sejmiks and both sejms – Polish and Lithuanian – where the entire estate was at liberty to express their political will. It was the sejmiks and the sejm that became the battle ground of political and denominational conflicts in the sixteenth century. The author concludes that for a considerable period the political representation of the nobility was dominated by the Protestants. Furthermore, he reflects on what stalled the dissemination of the Reformation ideas. As the Reformation in Poland began under the systemic conditions that did not differ much from the reality experienced in the countries west and south of the Commonwealth, one could justifiably expect that the development of the religious crisis would have followed a similar script.

In the second chapter of the book, the author zooms in on the general history of the territories under scholarly consideration. In the sixteenth century, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth encompassed land that was economically, socially, religiously and politically very diverse. Correspondingly, the encounter with Protestantism on the part of the society occupying different areas of the country unfolded in a disparate way. For that reason alone, it is necessary, as the author avers, to acknowledge regional distinctness. Throughout his study, Schramm analyses the activities undertaken by the Protestant nobility inhabiting the six provinces of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The author construes the Reformation as a social phenomenon, focusing on the relations between the nobility that converted to Protestantism and the royal authority that rejected it. The study provides an in-depth analysis of the denominational processes that took place in different areas of Poland. The book offers an examination of the conditions thanks to which Protestantism was able to make its presence felt in particular geographic areas and of the political groups thanks to whom the Reformation ensued in the already mentioned parts of Poland. Moreover, the author discusses also the regress that the reversal of the Reformation changes yielded. Another point of scholarly interest is the number of Protestant congregations established in each region, and how each congregation was created (and by whom). What Schramm, however, does not focus on is Livonia, whose population comprised the German nobility and which – as a region – before long embraced Lutheranism.

Schramm’s preliminary analysis is comparative in character and serves as an introduction to the general survey that follows. With regard to each region under consideration, the author discusses the same set of key topics: the time of emergence of Protestantism on a given territory; the degree to which the movement earned the following of the nobility and magnates; the social groups that the nobility, who – alongside Protestant pastors – set the tone for the then newly established religious communities, belonged to; the social conditions that determined the denominational distinctness of the Reformation milieu; the roles played by the Protestants during sejmiks; the conduct of the Protestants at decisive political moments; and finally, whether the particularistic, vested interest of regions influenced the fate of the Protestant movement. Throughout the book, the history of particular regions constitutes the foundation of the cross-sectional social analysis.

Schramm reaches a conclusion that Protestantism came to Poland from the west, and that the intensity of relations between the particular regions of the Commonwealth and the German-speaking world enables one to explain why the Reformation did not simultaneously evoke the same response everywhere. Moreover, the percentage of the nobility that joined the Reformation in particular regions varied. The only thing that the particular regions had in common was the fact that the most fertile soil proved to be the classes that ranged from the richest and the most powerful magnates to the middle-tier nobility. As a class, the minor nobility was susceptible to new ideas. However, the Reformation fared well only on the territories where the structure of the Catholic Church had been compromised. The upper echelons of the nobility differed from their less affluent counterparts with regard to their intellectual predilections, to being affected by the influence of the Renaissance, by Protestant universities, and by Humanist ideas. This significant strand of the Reformation in Poland was inextricably linked with studying in Germany, which resulted – upon the return of the young Poles home – in the dissemination of Protestant ideas in their country of origin. Still, it was not a type of education that was accessible to all the nobility – both in terms of the costs involved and with regard to the risk posed by the king’s prohibition. Education opened yet another gate – Protestant writings were met with considerable positive feedback, especially ones published in Polish.

It was under the influence of the Protestant Reformation that antagonisms between the nobility and the clergy also escalated. The sejmiks and the sejm, for which the denominational conflicts were of utmost importance, played a major role here. The conflict, which initially was limited to an internal interdenominational dispute, intensified and evolved into a full-blown strife between the forces of the Reformation and the Catholic Church. In the subsequent chapters of the book, the author considers whether the division of the advocates of the Reformation into smaller, often mutually inimical, factions, i.e. the Lutherans, the Czech Brethren, the Polish Brethren, was a factor that considerably weakened Protestantism as a movement. Schramm provides ample evidence both in defence of and against such a thesis. Ultimately, he concludes that the Protestant division did not constitute a likely reason for the fiasco of the Reformation in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

In addition, Schramm analyses the class antagonisms leading to the internal conflicts splitting the Protestant circle and their ancillary function in the Catholic fight against Protestantism. According to his research output, the nobles and the magnates were driven by estate identity rather than by religious motivation. The scholar also discusses the issue of the degree to which the tensions within the magnate milieu contributed to the re-conversion of the magnates. Schramm states that the factual decrease in the support offered by the magnates and the pronounced increase in the number of noblemen joining the Catholic Church did indeed weaken Protestantism. This process defies explanation merely by means of the social conflict between the nobility and the magnates.

In subsequent chapters of his work, Schramm juxtaposes the situation in Poland with the reality in other European countries, such as Hungary, Transylvania, and Czechia, as well as with the state of affairs in a few select Western European countries. It is against their backdrop that he analyses anti-clerical attitudes. As part of his conclusion, he opines that Poland decidedly stood out in Europe, as the primary goal of the Polish nobility was the battle against the clergy. As such, the nobles achieved considerable success as far as their own primary interests and Reformation ideas were concerned. At a later stage, however, the nobility was left far behind. The author analyses the degree to which it was all connected with the social-political configuration that was the order of the day, the trump cards of Polish anti-clericalism, and the moment the dynamism of the movement reached its end. Schramm also focuses on the origins of the conflicts between the nobility and the clergy, ranging from the question of duties and tithes to the competence of the ecclesiastical courts. The growth of the Reformation movement impelled the nobility to amplify their protests. Their resistance was founded upon the principle of hostility to the affluent and powerful clergy. The dispute over the tithes undoubtedly left its mark on the Reformation movement. What the nobility failed to do was to convincingly undermine the right of the clergy to claim tithes and, to make matters worse, the new jurisdiction was not without shortcomings. The rules concerning the participation of the Church in expenditure on defence also remained unchanged. What was achieved, however, boiled down to the curbing of the clergy’s privileges with regard to jurisdiction. Schramm considers also what measures the clergy, whom – as a class – the Reformation stirred from their self-induced lethargy and who needed some time to mobilise their own forces, could effectively employ to counter Protestantism.

Chapter four opens with the description of the consolidation of the anti-Lutheran front in Germany, the Netherlands, Czechia, and Hungary. The author states that Poland ought to be discussed in close connection with Hungary. Sigismund I the Old decidedly supported Catholicism and the majority of the nobility in Poland followed suit. The Catholic Church’s authority was thus cemented. Correspondingly, it would be superficial to state that the Protestant Reformation was prevented from further dissemination by particular activities on the part of the secular authorities, by royal edicts or by the lay authorities’ execution of sentences ordered by the ecclesiastical courts. What is of more importance here is the fact that in the face of such a strong authority no further opposition among the nobility, which could have effectively supported Protestantism, manifested itself. Although the germs of Protestantism appeared in Royal Prussia and the Greater Poland during the reign of Sigismund I the Old, their impact was marginal. The peaceful character that typified the initial period of Protestantism in Poland determined the later shape of the Reformation in the country. The Polish Protestants who did not fall victim to persecution and who did not practise zealotry (fanaticism) found it easier to renounce Protestant ideas. The opposition of the nobility to the clergy was purely political, but it still developed under the influence of Germany. The shift from anti-clericalism to the espousal of the Reformation started in the 1540s with the appearance of the first cracks in the authority of Sigismund I the Old.

Sigismund II Augustus played an ambiguous role in the course of the Polish Reformation. On the one hand, the king was willing to make concessions with regard to particular issues, such as the Eucharist under the species of bread and wine, clerical marriage, and mother-tongue liturgy, as he hoped that such concessions would seal the budding schism within the Church. On the other hand, it was due to him that the Counter-Reformation was able to snap into action – at the time of the ruler’s death the movement had already made great strides. At the beginning of Sigismund II Augustus’s reign, the king faced considerable opposition. With his marriage to Barbara Radziwiłł, the monarch won favour with some residents of Lesser Poland, which increased the competition between provinces. It was under the leadership of the inhabitants of Greater Poland that an oppositional faction was founded. The nobility also attempted to dethrone the king and enthrone a member of the Habsburg dynasty. Their plans, however, were not viable, as what they intended was to enforce the annulment of the royal marriage which was regarded as misalliance. Greater Poland, being the centre of opposition to Barbara, was also a region where the Reformation secured its primary stronghold. Yet, the author disagrees with the interpretation that the Greater Poland Protestants took advantage of the case of the royal marriage so as to – due to the widespread noble opposition – accelerate the process of carrying out their own denominational projects. Eventually, it was on the bishops’ initiative – who themselves sided against the monarch – that the political and religious conflicts became intertwined. The bishops aimed to be given special papal dispensation that would allow them to annul the king’s marriage to Radziwiłł.

The 1550s saw the tendency to unite the reforms that the nobility postulated with the activities of the king. The nobility attempted to put into practice a set of reforms concerning “the execution of goods”, the political union, and the religious freedom of Protestants. The main representatives of the new politics soon came to be noble leaders in Lesser Poland. In the 1550s, with the demise of the widely unaccepted Queen Barbara, the social unrest diminished giving rise to the temporal growth of Polish Protestantism. Sigismund II Augustus’ sympathy for Catholicism was limited – in some matters he leaned towards Protestantism, which provided followers of Western Christian Churches with development opportunities. In alliance with the king, the nobility managed to force through two projects – the execution and the union. Until his death, however, Sigismund II Augustus remained a Roman Catholic and, although he failed to convince the nobility to conform to the long-time tradition, he himself respected it seriously.

After the demise of Sigismund II Augustus, Henri de Valois ascended to the Polish throne. The Poles supported the ruler who endorsed the Catholic Counter-Reformation and whose own experience taught him that the Protestants were given to undermining the very foundation of royal authority as such. His reign was characterised by his lack of understanding of social relations among estates, a disadvantageous selection of advisors and scare interest in the matters related to the state of Poland. Henri de Valois made it clear that to him his reign constituted only a provisional stage in his career. It was the first time that the situation in Poland had been comparable to the political and religious watersheds experienced in other countries. Following the death of Charles IX of France, Henri de Valois left Poland with a view to ascending the French throne, while the Polish nobility felt humiliated and outraged. The reign of Henri de Valois did not last long enough for the political consciousness of the Protestants to be transformed and for the peace-loving gentry to turn into the reckless avant-garde, capable of galvanizing other estates into Protestant action. As expected, the goals of the nobility chimed well with the aims of the Protestants. However, the social conflict between the nobility and the magnates monopolized the debate, deferring religious questions as a result. It took the reign of Sigismund III Vasa for the return of the interdependence of the defence of noble liberties and the Protestant consciousness to manifest itself; still, the only real-life effect of such a re-emergence was the participation of Protestantism in the failure of the political revolt.

The election of Stephen Báthory, the Prince of Transylvania, as the king of Poland was determined by the social tension between the nobility and the magnates as well as regional antagonisms. The nobility did not opt to have a pro-Protestant candidate elected but only aimed to prevent the Habsburg dynasty from taking over the Polish throne. Báthory, however, was obliged to present himself as a devout and god-fearing Catholic. He also needed strong political support, which only the Catholic Church could provide him with. Still, Báthory encountered pronounced hostility, including veritable opposition on the part of the nobility. Despite dislike for him, he fairly quickly established his authority and won favour with his critics thanks to his military exploits and parliamentary triumphs. Although the king did not decree any dissolution of congregations and reacted strongly against acts of vandalism directed at Protestant churches, he nonetheless refused to broaden the scope of their freedoms. He remained nonpartisan in terms of his denominational and religious activities, including the issue of filling posts. Such conduct made him popular not only with the Catholics but also with the Protestants. During the reign of Báthory, the Protestants knew how to protect their interests. Despite being a Catholic, the king respected the rights of the Protestants and prosecuted violation against the Warsaw Confederation. However, Protestantism noticeably waned during Báthory’s reign. To Schramm’s mind, what transpired as gradual exhaustion, conditioned by the lack of real antagonism between the sovereign and the subjects. Protestantism found its faithful among a very thin elite stratum of society, which was caused by the magnates’ fear of being marginalised in a country that was visibly coming back into the Catholic fold. In many cases, conversion constituted an element of tactical politics. The power balance was rather unfavourable to the Protestants.

The abrupt and childless death of Stephen Báthory led to another interregnum, and subsequently to the ascension to the throne of Sigismund III Vasa. From the very beginning, the candidacy of a Catholic was put forward, while the Protestants did not even attempt to install their own representative, as at that stage they had already lost faith in their own leverage. Vasa seemed an acceptable candidate, who had a tolerant stance instilled in him at a later stage. His character, however, evolved under the influence of staunch Catholics. He was typified by fervent religiosity and attachment to Catholicism. As a young king, he signalled a detour from the politics of religious tolerance. The first Catholic attacks targeted the weakest link, i.e. education in larger towns was banned by local bishops. The Protestants also failed to complement the Warsaw Confederation with regulations concerning the judgment and punishment of perpetrators of acts against religious peace. Numerous acts of violence committed against Protestant churches eventually made the Protestants realise that a diametrically different attitude ought to be exercised: a more energetic mode of protecting denominational interests was called for. The Protestants understood that the king would not support them in the face of adversity. For that reason alone, the Protestants – more decisively than before – started to consolidate opposition to the monarch. In their favour, the discontentment with the king coincided with the criticism on the part of the Catholic circles.

What posed a considerable danger to the sovereign was the politics that Sigismund III Vasa practised. Numerous tumults ensued, in the wake of which the Protestants concluded that paper resolutions were of no consequence if not followed by the will of the incumbent. Schramm focuses on the analysis of the factors that led to the failure of the Zebrzydowski Rebellion. To this end, he compares the situation in Poland and neighbouring countries. All the Protestants joined the rebellion and subsequently played a major role. The rebellion was castigated as a heretic enterprise. Its centre was located in the predominantly Protestant areas, i.e. Lesser Poland, North-Western Crown Ruthenia, and Lithuania. The Polish Protestants constituted a minority and were thus forced to ingratiate themselves with as many Catholics as possible. Correspondingly, they could not afford to have the confederation presented as a dissident plot. They made sure not to seem prominent in the rebellion and emphasised its supra-denominational character – not only verbally, as was the case in Hungary, but also by means of actions undertaken. The undertaking, however, ended in a fiasco for at least two reasons: (1) the political advantage of the royalist faction, i.e. more real-life power at their disposal; (2) failure to weaken the king’s authority in the eyes of the wide noble masses. The consequence of the failed rebellion for Protestantism was the crushing of the spirit of resistance to discrimination against denominational minorities. The number of Protestants started to decline rapidly. As a result, Protestantism ceased to play an important role in the social and political life of the country.

The goal of the author of the present book was to present the events in a different, wider perspective than had done so earlier works on the subject. Furthermore, Schramm aims to show that Polish Protestantism that formed at the beginning of the reign of Sigismund Augustus was forced to conform to the then current configuration of social and political factors. With a view to understanding the fiasco of the movement, one ought to – to a large degree than before – take into consideration the role of the factors that Protestantism in Poland had to oppose. What is of crucial importance in this regard is the analysis of not only Protestantism as such but also of its opponents – the clergy, the king, and the growing number of magnates.

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