Gallus Anonymus. The first chronicler of the history of Poland

Secret of the author of the Polish Chronicle

In historiography and literary tradition, he is commonly referred to as Gallus and was the first chronicler of the history of Poland. The dispute over the identity of this mysterious and talented monk has occupied scholars for several generations.

by Piotr Abryszeński


All that we know about him is what he wrote about himself. He was probably a monk who took religious vows, and he called himself “an exile and a pilgrim.” In 1113, he witnessed the penitential pilgrimage of the Polish Prince Bolesław III the Wrymouth to the monastery of Saint Giles in Somogyvár, Hungary. Then he joined the ruler’s retinue and together with him came to Gniezno, then the capital of the Polish state. His style reveals a thorough education. He knew ancient authors and their texts (those that were available to readers of medieval scriptories) and researchers are convinced that when he came to Poland, he was already of a relatively mature age. Quite suddenly, probably at the beginning of 1116, there was some political conflict among the then-elite that impacted Anonymus’ career. As a result, he was forced to leave Bolesław’s court.

Bolesław III Wrymouth by Jan Matejko (public domain)

Before that, however, on Bolesław’s order, he proceeded to write down the history of the Polish state – the history we know today as the “Polish Chronicle” (Gesta principum Polonorum). The author’s anonymity is not surprising – many works of that era were written “ad maiorem Dei gloriam”, that is, “for the greater glory of God”. The author was considered to be only an intermediary between God and his recipients, and in accordance with the religious rules recommending humility and modesty, he must remain silent about his name in order to avoid  fame and honor which could lead to vanity and pride. Despite this, he did not work for free and counted on remuneration from the princely court, which he himself suggested in the introduction to the chronicle, praising the generosity of his client. He praised Poland’s beautiful landscapes, fertile lands and diligent inhabitants, as well as their love of freedom, and remarkable temperament.

He probably traveled with the prince all over the country, therefore his work could not have been created in one place, such as the ruler’s seat or in a monastery. The text itself was only dictated by him in the princely chancellery to better reflect the melody of the language and the sound effect. This work was written in rhythmic, pure and beautiful Latin, thanks to which it was probably read to the accompaniment of musical instruments.

An artist’s impression of Gallus Anonymus’ portrait by Henryk Piątkowski, 1898 (public domain)

It is to him that we owe the references to the pre-Christian rulers of the Polanie tribe – the predecessors of the first Christian ruler of Poland, Mieszko I. But they are not the main subject of the narrative. Gesta principum Polonorum is sometimes called “the chronicle of the three Bolesławs” because it emphasized the continuity of power by referring to predecessors on the Polish throne. In fact, however, most of the work is devoted to Bolesław III. The chronicler also indicated a number of positive features of Bolesław I the Brave and Bolesław II the Generous, wanting to emphasize the advantages of his patron, especially his belligerence and stubbornness. He juxtaposed them with calmer-minded rulers – Mieszko II, Casimir I the Restorer and Władysław I Herman. Nowadays, historians agree that the first two – Mieszko and Casimir – did not deserve such a negative assessment by chronicler. It is worth taking into account their thorough education, broad horizons and the difficult political situation of the young patrimonial state.

The Polish Chronicle is not only a panegyric in honor of the ruler as is so typical of the era. Anonymus used the history of the Polish state to emphasize contrasts and dramatic moments in its history. He wrote about defeats and great victories, about crimes and redemption for committed sins. His lecture was therefore a suggestion for the ruler and his successors to be guided by justice and courage in their actions, and also to remind them that even the greatest sins can be redeemed, and that a painful defeat can be turned into a glorious triumph.

Disputes over the origin of the anonymous author of the “Polish Chronicle” flared up in the 16th century. The Renaissance writer and historian, Marcin Kromer, was the first to suggest that his name Gallus meant he was a frenchman, while the Gdańsk lawyer, Gottfried Lengnich, who published a chronicle in 1749, gave him the name of Marcin Gall (Martinus Gallus) on the basis of erroneous findings. This mistake was corrected by subsequent scholars, which was assisted by the development of critical research methods in the Enlightenment era, but in the 19th century the name assigned by Lengnich can be seen in some reprints.

Beginning of Gesta principum Polonorum (Codex Zamoyscianus held at the National Library of Poland; public domain)

Currently, there are several hypotheses in academic studies regarding the origin of the chronicler. His French roots are widely questioned, hence more and more often he is simply called Anonymus so-called Gallus. In the 1960s, Professor Danuta Borawska pointed out that due to the similarity of style, the author of the Polish Chronicle may be identical to the Monk of Lido, the author of The History of the Translation of St. Nicholas the Great about bringing the saint’s relics to Venice during the First Crusade. In recent years, thanks to computer analysis of the rhythm of medieval Latin prose, Professor Tomasz Jasiński from Poznań developed an intriguing hypothesis. His observation caused quite a stir among researchers of the Middle Ages. The same phrases and expressions are repeated in both works, and in both of them there is also a characteristic way of introducing digression. So far, historians have failed to disprove this hypothesis.

Experts agree that “The Polish Chronicle” is quite objective which is not a surprise taking into account the limitations and conditions of the epoch. Clearly, discussion on the origins of the mysterious monk will continue. One thing is beyond doubt – his work, due to its values ​​and unique perspective, is one of the most important works of medieval chronicle.

See also: The denarii of Bolesław I the Brave. Poland’s first currency


Author: Piotr Abryszeński – PhD, employee of the History Research Office of Institute of National Remembrance
Translation: Alicja Rose & Jessica Sirotin