State-formation as an organized crime or local appropriation of heavenly Jerusalem?

The Polish Case Study in the late 10th–early 11th Centuries

This set of three essays is meant for the broader public and was prepared during a Humboldt Research Fellowship at the University of Regensburg. Those who prefer academic prose are advised to consult the scholarly article: “Medieval Liturgy and the Making of Poland. A Study in Early Medieval Political Identification (c. 960s–c.1030s)”. I share in the published paper selected ideas that are conveyed here in a popular format.

by Paweł Figurski


When in the 1980s numerous archeologists began to re-excavate Polish sites which had already been dug in the 1960s and earlier, they could not have predicted the significance of their undertakings. Over the last few decades, archeological discoveries have strongly challenged the previously established consensus on the emergence of the medieval Piast realm. In earlier historiography, Polish state-formation was perceived as a gradual process of consolidation in terms of population settlement, economic surplus, and political organization. This evolution was believed to have started centuries before the 960s when a mostly consensual birth of the ‘Polish state’ was seemingly sealed by the baptism of Mieszko. Today, as a result of excavations undertaken on a larger scale and analyzed with more precise tools (e.g., dendrochronology), the formation of the first Piast realm is now viewed as a revolution that occurred within one/two generations living in the tenth century. Instead of largely consensual state-building, the emergence of the Piasts was marked by violent military actions, brutal subjugation of already existing communities, and large-scale slave trade of the conquered. Polish archeologists dug up and opened Pandora’s box – the birth of Poland, instead of reflecting a Rousseauvian consensus, now seems closer to Charles Tilly’s view on state-formation as an organized crime.

Nevertheless, the early Piast state was perceived in contemporary written sources as a necessarily good thing. Such a positive assessment of the kingdom of Poland expressed the view of select medieval elite groups, as will be demonstrated later. Therefore, the question that this series of articles seeks to answer is as follows: what gave rise to the perception of the early and high medieval Piast kingdom as a savior rather than a predator?

To find the explanation for such a perplexing question, in the first essay I will set the background and describe in detail the brutal process of Polish state-formation as attested in mostly archaeological sources, striving to pinpoint the factors that enabled the emergence of the early Piast medieval state. Second, based on contemporary sources instead of modern ideologies, I will seek to illustrate, why the warlord Mieszko decided to receive baptism and introduce Christianity to his realm. Finally, I will unfold the story about the virtuous kings of Poland in the eyes of contemporary observers, local rituals, and the memories of the Piast dynasty. Here unfolds a story about the edges of the civilized world that became the centre of European events.


Author: Paweł Figurski, Ph.D.


Read more:

Chapter 1. Mieszko I – the Godfather! The Perplexing Origins of Poland

Chapter 2. Did Mieszko adore Christ? Christianization of the Slavs and the Forging of Poland

Chapter 3. (Un)Holy Piasts. The Attempted Sanctification of the Dynasty before the Collapse of the Early Medieval State