Screams, gunshots, and the burning of thatched roofs. Yet this was not a full pitched battle. When faced with the weakness of the state, the 17th-century Polish nobility settled their differences by fighting.
by Antoni Olbrychski
Duels in Poland are a complicated issue. Scholars of 17th-century society emphasize that violence in this period was a common phenomenon. On the other hand, records of duels are very few. Perhaps the harsh punishments restrained the militant enthusiasm of the nobility somewhat. Alternatively, maybe duelists ensured that news of their clashes did not reach their superiors. Entries in old Polish diaries make it challenging to determine what really happened. Most soldier diarists do not mention duels. But let’s look at those who described their saber-wielding adventures.
The greatest swashbuckler among these was undoubtedly Jan Poczobut Odlanicki. During his military service, he crossed sabers in several duels. The fights he described are entirely stripped of the romance we are accustomed to in literature or film. Poczobut reached for his sword even after a minor argument and dealt with his opponents briefly and brutally. He often inflicted wounds on his opponent’s hands, preventing them from continuing the duel. In the heat of the fight, there were also often forceful cuts to the head. Poczobut even wrote about one clash in which he accidentally almost killed his opponent. If he had succeeded, he would have been in serious trouble. While duel wounds were easy to hide, the absence of a soldier during the morning drills would undoubtedly have caught the eye of the command. Our diarist would not have escaped severe punishment in such a situation.
Jan Chrysostom Pasek, the most famous Polish diarist of the 17th century, described his fights in much more detail. His duels were full of dynamic cuts, screens, and leaps. There were also dirty tricks. One day, Pasek was provoked by a drunk nobleman, and although he tried to smooth things over, he was unsuccessful. A fight broke out, which Pasek won. However, he immediately had to fend off a second attacker, who turned out to be the brother of the defeated nobleman. From this clash, Pasek also emerged victorious. However, a third opponent soon showed up who suggested the fight be carried out farther away from the camp. He let Pasek lead the way and then suddenly gave him a powerful slash to the head. However, Pasek’s cap cushioned the impact. So the diarist gathered his strength, slashed the opponent in the cheek, and knocked him down with a blow to the head. The opponent’s dishonorable behavior annoyed Pasek so much that he kept beating the him with the flat of his saber until they were forcibly separated by the soldiers watching the whole event. Interestingly, in later parts of the diary, it is revealed that at least 15 different duels took place on that day in the military camp.
In theory, a foray to enforce a court sentence was legal in Old Poland. If the dispute concerned land rights, a group of armed nobles headed by a starost (a royal official) would arrive at the estate to announce the new legal settlement. He was removed by force if he could not accept the loss. However, the case was often complicated by appeals, which significantly prolonged the entire process. In addition, the lower ranks of the nobility were often ignorant of legal intricacies. Therefore, forays were often arbitrarily organized to speed up the course of the matter. Historians refer to such occurrences as “private” or “illegal” raids. They mostly just resembled brawls and featured a combination of bloodshed and robbery.
The purpose of the foray was to deal thoroughly with any neighbor causing problems. Thus a nobleman would gather supporters and arm the servants who followed him. Riding at the head of this motley crew, he would enter his opponent’s land. The element of surprise forced the nobleman under attack to adopt a defensive stance. Barricaded in his manor, he could try to repel the attack or attempt negotiation. However, the emboldened participants of the raid would often turn to robbery. In this case, nothing was left but to oppose them with arms. Firearms were brought to bear, and after breaking through doors or makeshift barricades formed of sticks, sabers, and axes, the defeated opponent would be forced to sign various documents—for example, a waiver of rights to the disputed land. In 1693, Samuel Głowiński surprised Krzysztof Grabski with a foray. Waving a gun over his head, he reportedly shouted: “… we’re going to cut you to pieces, sign your name, you so-and-so…or else we will shoot you in the head.”
During the attack, attempts were often made to surprise the enemy. However, the fact that the attacker was quite blatant in his actions remains. He did not cover his face. He loudly announced his identity and the reason for the foray. The attack was intended to constitute a new sort of legal order. Therefore, it had to be clear who the beneficiary was. However, the defeated party often wanted to avoid accepting the new reality. Then, after gathering his strength, he would organize his own foray. Once the machine of violence is wound up, it is hard to make it stop.
Robberies and assaults
The nobility comprised a larger percentage of the population in Poland than in Western European countries. However, this meant a large wealth stratification. Powerful magnates owned hundreds of villages, their own cities and armies. Meanwhile, the smaller nobles were forced to cultivate the land themselves. Poverty often drove them to crime and some never returned to living legally. A nobleman who specialized in robberies and had men under his command was called a master. In 1658, the Chief Stefan Kotkowski together with six companions (among whom there was also one woman) attacked Dobrogost Siąski, who was traveling along the road, stealing his silverware, tin dishes, and clothes. After some time, they caught the criminals. This type of robbery was punishable by death. The robbers, however, belonged to the sedentary nobility and probably avoided the severest punishment for this reason.
Violence did not only take place over the property. Fighting could break out over a matter of honor or a simple argument. In 1659, the brothers Walerian and Wojciech Rogoziński attacked Piotr Chlewski at a fair. They threw him from the saddle and then beat him with the flat sides of their sabers. Then they dragged him by his hair into the gutter. Finally, they threatened him and warned him not to take the case to court. The reasons for the assault are unknown, but the victim was not robbed. Despite the threats, Chlewski decided to pursue justice through legal means. We do not know how the trial ended. It is worth mentioning, however, that often the opposing party brought their own protest, presenting themselves as the aggrieved party. It is difficult for a modern historian today to decide who was right. Only the fact of violence remains undeniable.
Contrary to the picture emerging from court records, it is worth remembering that the former Polish Republic was not composed solely of robbers and brigands. Violence, however, was a more common phenomenon than it is today. The state’s weak central authority could not effectively settle disputes between its subjects, so the nobles took matters into their own hands. A duel could erase a stain on one’s honor faster than a lengthy lawsuit.
Author: Antoni Olbrychski
Translation: Alicja Rose & Jessica Sirotin