Community builder: Jan Łaski (1499-1560)

peculiarities of the Reformation in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth

The Reformation proved that religion could divide not only nations but also families. The Łaski family offers a notable example with the story of its two most prominent members, who shared the same name. The elder Jan Łaski was born in 1456 and served as archbishop of Gniezno, primate of Poland, and chancellor. He was the second most important person in the country after the king. His nephew, Jan Łaski, was born in 1499 and later became known throughout Europe as a Protestant reformer and organizer of religious communities.

It’s intriguing to consider how the young Łaski, who throughout his youth was under the protection and influence of his ambitious uncle, was swept away by Europe’s new religious current. But the young man’s patient mind, love of books and strong sense of order and justice were tortured by the state of the Catholic clergy at the time. These factors would eventually drive young Jan Łaski to begin his travels around Europe as a priest and organizer of religious communities.

Jan Łaski, portrait by Feliks Zabłocki, Arianus; app. 1875 (CC BY-SA 4.0)

The Łaski family belonged to the aristocratic class and had its roots in the area around Kalisz. The first historically confirmed representative of the family was Wojciech Łaski, who lived at the turn of the 14th and 15th Centuries and came into possession of the village of Łasko, later renamed Łask. However, the real significance of the Łaski family began with the birth of Primate Jan, who, using the income provided by church benefices, enriched his family and also later assumed responsibility for the education and career of his stepbrother Jaroslaw. Each of the sons – Jan, Stanisław and Hieronim  – also received a great deal of attention, though not always thanks to actions that brought positive results.

The intellectual development of the younger Jan Łaski took a route similar to the one followed by all Polish and Lithuanian nobility – and it led to Italy. The future reformer eventually found himself in Rome, thanks to his uncle, who, as archbishop of Gniezno and primate of Poland, was sent there in the early spring of 1513 by King Sigismund the Old to attend the Fifth Lateran Council. Thanks to the financial protection of the primate, who, after returning to Poland, pledged several villages to support his nephews, young Łaski and his brother Hieronim were free to devote themselves to their studies. It is more than likely that the road they traveled led from Rome through Bologna (1515-1518) and on to Padua (1518-1519). All three brothers already had career plans. Hieronim wanted to be a politician and diplomat. Stanisław dreamed of a military career. Having met the future French King Francis I during his studies in Bologna,  Stanisław was able to start his military career quite quickly. Due to Jan’s poor health, he was destined to become a clergyman, so he applied himself to studying canon law. It is difficult to say whether this was his real calling or whether he simply followed the tradition according to which young men of noble origin and fragile health entered the priesthood.

Bologna University Library (by Hector Buissneg; public domain)

What did Jan Łaski gain from his studies? He was a talented and very diligent student, although he lacked the true spark of genius. This diligence is apparent in his future career as a wonderful organizer of religious life, yet his lack of genius saw him fail to break any new ground in the field of theology, nor did he write any great treatise. However, thanks to his studies he mastered the basics of a humanistic education at the time. He studied Latin classics, canon law, the Italian and German languages, mastered the basics of Greek, and studied Plato and Aristotle to a modest extent. What was most important for Łaski in Bologna, was his passion for reading books, an enthusiasm which never left him. Thus educated, Łaski returned to Poland, where he was ordained a priest in the spring of 1519. Earlier, thanks to the protection of his uncle, who had paid a generous fee in the Roman Curia, Jan had received several significant church benefices from Pope Leo X, including the title of canon of Krakow, which was granted to him on 7 May 1518.

In Poland, three things awaited Jan. Firstly,  he was granted further benefices thanks to the primate’s protection. Among them was the honorable post of royal secretary, which he received in 1521. Second, he undertook the normal daily work of a priest, which did not satisfy the young humanist as he longed for books and foreign contacts. Third, he gained an understanding of the state of the church in Poland, which worried him deeply. As expressed by Oskar Bartel, author of a biography of Jan Łaski: ‘Was Łaski pleased with his professional work and with the many distinctions that were granted to him […]? It is difficult to answer these questions, but we can assume “no” because he saw around him the ignorance, greed, and envy that was the work of idlers, troublemakers, and lechers, even though many of them were wearing clerical clothing.’[1] For an honest and ambitious priest such as Jan, who had also acquired an education and learnt his manners in foreign lands, seeing the church hierarchy dominated by careerists had to be unbearable. He would finally become thoroughly discouraged by 1539 when he left the country for 17 years; at that point, he was probably already a Protestant in his heart.

Erasmus of Rotterdam, portrait by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1523 (public domain)

The religious transformation of Jan Łaski took place slowly. While working in Poland, he looked for opportunities to study and engage in interesting conversations abroad. In particular, he was interested in the new religious currents which he apparently hoped would reform the Church. It must be remembered, that until the end of the Council of Trent, all the participants of religious debates, regardless of their creed, and no matter how distant they were from Catholic orthodoxy, still considered themselves members of one, holy Catholic Church. Although the climate of the disputes was very hot, the interfaith boundaries that we know today, and do not cross, had not yet developed. In this atmosphere of widespread religious ferment and with a deep personal desire to find a way to elevate the quality of religious life in Poland, Jan accompanied his brother Jerome to France in March 1524, where the latter was sent as a royal deputy. On their way, they visited Basel, where Łaski met Erasmus of Rotterdam. Łaski’s acquaintance with this then most famous intellectual, whom he met again in 1525, had a great influence on the beliefs of this future reformer.

Erasmus was a Catholic, and formally remained one until the end of his life, but it would be difficult to say that he was orthodox. In his thinking about religion, the moral aspect was superior to the doctrinal one. Hence, Erasmus’s attitude, called irenism (from Greek “eirene” – “peace”), was marked on the one hand by a deep desire to eradicate moral corruption in the Church, and on the other – was very tolerant in its approach to differing theological views. However, despite Rotterdam’s tolerance, it should also be noted that this Dutch humanist was reluctant to embrace extremist religious movements. He was of the opinion that the Church should be reformed from within and not destroyed.

Andrzej Frycz Modrzewski, as depicted in Union of Lublin, painting by Jan Matejko, 1869 (public domain)

Jan Łaski took his peaceful attitude from Erasmus. Although he was clearly passionate in his writing, during his pastoral work in East Frisia in the 1540s, he gained a deep empathy for the ways and customs of common people. Despite striving for radical changes in the organisation of subordinate communities, he was always ready to seek a compromise whenever necessary. Jan Łaski also adopted one more thing from Erasmus: the Erasmus library,  known all over Europe, which he paid for with cash, in two installments. The collection was brought to Poland by Andrzej Frycz Modrzewski, a protege of Łaski and later the author of the book O Poprawie Rzeczypospolitej (On Improving the Polish Republic).

Jan Łaski stayed abroad for two years until his uncle’s request forced him to return home. The primate’s critics had accused him of letting his nephew wander abroad in the midst of a reformist storm. Jan, of course, began his journey home, but took a detour through Switzerland and Italy. In Basel, he learned a bit of Hebrew and undertook some short biblical studies, thanks to which he gained a deeper understanding of the Old Testament. Most importantly, however, he returned with the convictions that he had gained from Erasmus, who claimed that nothing is yet to be determined and that one must abide.

The next thirteen years in the life of Jan Łaski seemed to be comprised of a series of disasters and disappointments. In 1531, Primate Łaski, who had been a true supporter of all three brothers, died. A few years earlier, in 1526, King Louis II had died in the Battle of Mohács. This event paved the way for the battle  over the Hungarian throne between John (originally known as János Zápolya) and Ferdinand I of Habsburg. Hieronim Łaski was employed in the service of the former, as he saw it as a chance for developing his diplomatic career. Unfortunately, for Hieronim and the entire Łaski family, getting involved in Hungarian affairs resulted in financial catastrophe and severe damage to their prestige. Indeed, they were affected to such an extent that in 1534, after being accused of secret agreements with Ferdinand I, Hieronim was thrown in prison by King John, and was released only after the intervention of Hetman Jan Tarnowski.

Jan Amor Tarnowski, painting by Marcello Baciarelli, app. 1780 (public domain)

For Father Jan, the fallout from his brother’s diplomatic career was severe, both financially and emotionally. However, the difficulties he experienced in his own career were no less severe. During these thirteen years, Jan Łaski often had the opportunity to be ordained a bishop, yet each time someone else was granted the honor. He was affected by this in two ways. First of all, Łaski had inherited the ambition and political aspersions of his family. Secondly, this once again revealed to Łaski the full scale of the politicking that was corrupting the Church. The highest offices were being granted, not to the talented and honest, but to those with the power to grant appointments. This was all too much for him  and, in 1539, Jan Łaski left Poland. At that time he parted not only with Poland but also with the Church. In 1540, he married a middle class woman named Barbara (or Margarita) in Leuven. This decision meant the forfeiture of all of his benefices and wiped out all sources of his income.

In 1543, under the patronage of Countess Anna of Oldenberg, Jan Łaski obtained the post of superintendent (1543) of the local religious communities. Finally, the scale of Łaski’s organisational talents could be fully revealed. The standard of religious life in Friesland was deplorable. Although the Reformation had made rapid progress there and everyone was keenly interested in religion, the whole country was strongly divided between supporters of Huldrych Zwingli, the Anabaptists and the Lutherans. In addition, the lack of a basic education hindered attempts to raise the morality and religiosity of the population overall. In response to these challenges, Łaski managed to reorganise the structure of church life. For this purpose, he organized communities in a Presbyterian style. The heads of parishes were elected by the people, which was an old Frisian tradition. Dogmatic, administrative and liturgical issues were discussed at clergy conventions that took place weekly between Easter and St. Michael’s day (29 September). The conventions gained such great authority that letters would arrive from abroad, describing certain problems and disputes and asking for help in resolving them. Another attempt to improve the situation. was the introduction, in principle, of obligatory education for young people. One of the basic textbooks was a catechism composed by Łaski, which was widely circulated abroad in both copies and in abstracts.

Thomas Cranmer, portrait by Gerlach Flicke, 1545 (public domain)

A similar organizational success was established by Łaski in England, where he was invited by the Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer. It was the first of two visits by the Polish reformer to England. The gap between them was caused by Queen Mary’s attempt to re-Catholicize England. Łaski’s biographer says of these journeys: “Łaski, during his first short stay in England, played an important role in the reform of the English Church, and gained the respect of many English Church activists.”[2] The subsequent development of the English Reformation, which was heavily influenced by Calvinism, was largely the work of Łaski, who also recommended the Presbyterian community model from Friesland and Geneva to Cranmer and other English Protestants.

He was not able to return to Poland for many years, although he longed to. King Sigismund the Old was a gentle ruler, however, the monarch’s conservative beliefs meant that he defended the powers of spiritual jurisdiction. It would not have been a problem if Łaski had been a secular nobleman. However, the former archdeacon of Gniezno (a position received just before leaving the country) had little chance of the same understanding. Ultimately, however, thanks to the kindness of King Sigismund II Augustus, Łaski returned to Poland in 1556. Undoubtedly, he was led by a love of his country and the hope that, along with the progress of the Reformation in Poland, his organizational skills would also be of use there. He wasn’t wrong. Pińczów became his focus, as he reorganized the church and raised the local school to the level of an academy. He also joined in the translation of the Brest Bible. Unfortunately, he didn’t live to see its publication. Jan Łaski died on 8 January 1560 in Pińczów.

Jan Łaski (public domain)

The actions and attitude of Łaski the Younger do not reveal a great theologian. His theoretical theses did not go beyond the general formulas of the Reformation movement; the basis of faith was only to be found in the Holy Scriptures, whose authority prevailed over all the writings of the Church Fathers or the decisions of the Councils. Łaski recognized only two sacraments: the Eucharist and baptism. As for the nature of the first, he spoke very vaguely, defining it as a ritual in which Christ is spiritually present and which bonds a community of the faithful. Whether it concerns transubstantiation, consubstantiation or other claims about the presence of Christ in the Eucharist during the liturgy –  Łaski did not say. One could make the claim that Erasmus’s practical sense and strong anti-Catholicism formed the foundation on which the attitudes of this reformer were based.

The greatness which is lacking in Łaski’s theological speculations  can, however, be easily seen in his pastoral talents. Among his greatest achievements were the communities he built in Friesland and England, as well as indirectly in Switzerland and Germany. He not only organized but also inspired by setting an example of how to establish religious communities. Also, as an educated humanist he did not limit himself to the basic duties of a pastor. Wherever he appeared, new schools and new books appeared with him, and wherever religious life was torn apart, he managed to reconcile the community and create a more open dialogue.

[1] O. Bartel, Jan Łaski. Część I: 1499-1556, Warszawa 1955, p. 79.

[2] O. Bartel, Jan Łaski, p. 162

Author: Michał Rzeczycki
Translation: Alicja Rose & Jessica Sirotin