Iwona's Sources - Time for the Nobles

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Time for the Nobles

To this point, I have not written much about the Polish nobility. The reason is not that I am ignorant about the privileged level of old Poland; it was dictated by factors inherent in the subject. By and large, the Polish nobility did not take part in the Great Emigration to America in such numbers as the rural populations and workers. One can interpret this as due to their better stan­dard of living, obligations to their hereditary estates, and a sense of greater responsibility for the state of their imprisoned fatherland. It was the nobles who initiated and orga­nized the uprisings of 1830 and 1863, and created great compositions propagating our cultural heritage and fomenting powerful streams of patriotism. Obviously, there were nobles who emigrated, but not for economic reasons-rather for the sake of political protest, creative freedom, and inspiration. And it was after emigration that the greatest monuments of our national culture arose: those of Adam Mickiewicz, of the Poraj coat of arms; Juliusz Slowacki, of Leliwa arms; Count Zygmunt Krasinski; and Henryk Sien­kiewicz, of Oszyk arms.

The emigre centers of the time were concentrated in Paris, England, and Bel­gium, where activists enjoyed the support
of manors outside Poland and diplomacy on behalf of Poland. The links to the old country were constantly maintained by exchangesof frequent correspondence and excursions by emissaries acting in the name of various political camps.

Idealizing the nobles as a sacred na­tional figure would be deceptive, however, and I would be at fault if I did not mention the darker side of the noble class. There is a well-known Polish saying, Za kr6la Sasa jedz, pij i popuszczaj pasa-When a Saxon is king, eat, drink, and loosen your belt-and it best reflects the essence of the problem, although it hardly exhausts the list of vices. Disunity in making political decisions of all kids was dictated by egoism, ignorance of realities and affairs of state, and, finally fear of the magnates and of the king's reforms. Arguments and fights in the regional legisla­tures pushed aside responsible, constructive debate. The defense of the nobles' Golden Freedom won out over their most important duty, the defense of their country. The an­cient ethos of knightly pride and honor was frustrated by ignorance, corruption, and the noble class's private affairs. This sad histori­cal fact contributed to 130 years of parti­tions.

To return to the subject, during the period of the Great Emigration to America, the percent of noble emigrants was minute compared to others. In my many years of work, I have dealt only with isolated cases of descendants whose connections to noble clans were unquestioned. I will never forget a small, modest elderly lady who came up to me during a PGSA conference in Chicago. She was holding a file of scraps of paper, and she asked me to translate them from Polish. I read them and could not believe my eyes: in these fragmentary documents, worn by the passage of time, I saw original signa­tures of representatives of the most eminent aristocratic clans: Czartoryskis, Lubomir­skis, Potockis. I said, "You have treasures of your national heritage. Your ancestors were associated with the cream of the Polish aristocracy." Without a trace of emotion, the lady put the papers back in her purse, thanked me, and went her way.

The second essential reason for not talking about the nobles is genealogical fact. After all, nobles whose identity was established had personal pedigrees, perpetu­ated in numerous armorials. Their modem descendants are aware of their roots. It is time I explained what finally in­duced me to write this article. On the map of the old Commonwealth, there remains a multitude of the zasciankoioa (also called zagrodowa) szlachta-nobles whose identity was not recognized, who were marginal­ized and impoverished, whose noble titles had vanished over the course of history due to the regulations in effect. In Latin regis­ters, instead of the expected titles nobilis or generosus, we see entries about peasants, laborers, cobblers, surveyors, wheelwrights, foresters, etc. In no other country has there been a social caste as numerous as the zasciankoiua nobility in the Commonwealth.

[Translator-The adjective zasciankounj comes ultimately from za, "behind" and sciana, "wall." The idea was that these nobles, impoverished and working their own fields though they might be, stood behind an invisible wall that separated them from the peasants who lived nearby. They were usual­ly very conservative, patriotic, and religious, to the point that they were stereotyped as narrow-minded provincials. The term za­grodowy comes from zagroda, "farmstead, croft; pen, enclosure" and means essentially the same thing in this context.]

For some time, I have observed in ge­nealogical forums a growing interest in "lost coats of arms," sought in the records
of citadels, districts, the royal treasury, the royal registers, or indigenations (charters of privilege for foreigners). At one time, these valuable relics were accessible only in ar­chives and exclusively for scholars, mainly in view of their historical value. But today, copies of them are widely available in the form of microfilms and scans, and-most important-they have been granted priority status in the digitalization program of the National Digital Archives. They are being put online. In this way, an important division of Polish literature has become widely avail­able, although researching documents of this sort requires expertise and above all, a knowledge of Latin.

It is essential to learn about at least the basic aspects of Polish nobility before we proceed to search for lost arms.

The beginnings of Polish coats of arms are lost in the mists of ancient history. It is known that before 1578, the king himself bestowed coats of arms; and from 1601 on, only the regional legislatures or the nobles themselves made decisions about this privilege. The statutes, in short, demanded that those seeking titles perform service to the country, possess a landed estate, and finally, swear loyalty. The satisfied applicant returned home with a coat of arms and as­sociated privileges for his whole clan for all time.

An epoch of noble titles began, and in the 17th century, their numbers made up over 10% of the total society, many times more than in the nations of western Europe. But a word of caution: forgery also flour­ished. The later a title was granted, the more suspect that document's authenticity.

Noble status in Poland was based on the laws of democracy, which meant that all nobles were equal, regardless of the size of their estates, the offices they held, and their connections. The famous statement from ancient times, Szlachcic na zagrodzie rowny Wojewodzie-"The noble on his plot of land is the equal of the voivode"- still applies today.

Democracy also ruled when it came to inheriting; all children benefited equally (the sons inherited equal portions, the daughters received dowries). This caused rapid frag­mentation of large estates. It also contribut­ed to the loss of arms. Impoverished nobles without steady income were in no position to raise large families without earning money. And if a nobleman contaminated himself with a plebeian occupation, for example, trade or crafts, then according to the stat­utes, all his privileges were taken from him. It was not uncommon for minor nobility to serve the magnates, the owners of enor­mous stretches of land, numerous manorial farmsteads, castles and places, towns, and factories.

The key to searching for armorial nests and their protoplasts may be the surname.

Originally, first names and bynames were used, most often connected with place of origin; for instance, Jakub of Skrzecz6w. Then geographic names were converted into surnames combined with the name of a coat of arms bestowed: Jakub Skrzeczowski of Pob6g arms. But sons of this Jakub who settled in different localities obtained dif­ferent surnames derived from the names of their new family seats. The process of inher­iting surnames was transformed in the 14th and 15th centuries, and was initiated in the higher levels of society.

The statement that the surname itself indicates the location of the family seat, as for instance Bozejewski z Bozejewa [from Bozejewo], is correct, but is not the only pos­sibility. A large number of surnames devel­oped from ethnic names, occupations held, fathers' names, and bynames or nicknames.

Furthermore, if a given surname ap­pears in armorials, that is not proof of noble descent, but only a promise of chances
to connect with a given family and coat of arms. Let us also remember that a minority of surnames underwent modification, most often by addition of the ending -ski/ -cki.

The challenge of searching for unknown ancestral coats of arms is enormous and fated to involve painstaking work; paging through books may take years and still end in failure. Failure in this search does not necessarily mean there was no coat of arms; the cause may be prosaic. In bygone days, the wooden architecture was subject to frequent fires, and overflowing rivers caused irreparable destruction. Our biggest archival losses, however, are the result of numerous invasions and wars.

In conclusion, I recall the thinking of Rev. Jan Maksymilian Rowiecki, a past chancellor of the cathedral in Poznan: "I have recognize and deemed proper theneed, especially for the noble-born, to know and have information on the origins, antiq­uity, works, relationships, succession, and fortunes of one's ancestors, which the most splendid nations try to have and do not re­gret the highest costs of creating such com­positions. Neither the lowly status of one's ancestors, nor the meagerness of their for­tunes, nor a paucity of persons resplendent with honors, should hold one back from or present obstacles to creating such works. For it is known to the whole word and to those knowledgeable of the world's history that the mightiest monarchs, the most bril­liant houses had low and poor beginnings."

Iwona Dakiniewicz, Lodz, Poland <genealogy@pro.onet.pl>

[with translation assistance from William F. Hoffman]

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Last Updated on July 6, 2017