"Szlachta" derives from the Old German word "slahta" (now "(Adels) Geschlecht", "(noble) family"), much as many other Polish words pertaining to the nobility derive from German words — e.g., the Polish "rycerz" ("knight", cognate of the German "Ritter") and the Polish "herb" ("coat of arms", from the German "Erbe", "heritage"). Poles of the 17th century assumed that "szlachta" was from the German "schlachten" ("to slaughter" or "to butcher"); also suggestive is the German "Schlacht" ("battle"). Early Polish historians thought the term may have derived from the name of the legendary proto-Polish chief, Lech, mentioned in Polish and Czech writings. "Szlachta" is thought by some simply to mean "Lechitians", or "Lech's people" (in modern Polish, "z Lecha"), probably denoting the ruling warrior class in Lech's tribe. Even today, some Ukrainians refer to Poles as "Lakhy" (Lechitians), while the Turks use the term "Lekh."
Kindred terms that might be applied to an early Polish nobleman were "rycerz" (from German Ritter, "knight"), the Latin "nobilis" ("noble"; plural: "nobiles") and "możny" ("magnate", "oligarch"; plural: "możni"). Some powerful Polish nobles were referred to as "magnates" (Polish singular: "magnat", plural: "magnaci"). It has to be remembered however, that not all knights were nobles.
Today the word szlachta in the Polish language denotes any noble class in the world. In broadest meaning, it can also denote some non-hereditary honorary knighthoods granted today by some European monarchs. Even some 19th century non-noble landed gentry would be called szlachta by courtesy or error as they owned manorial estates but were not noble by birth. In the narrow sense it denotes the old-Commonwealth nobility.
Concerning the early Polish tribes, geography contributed to long-standing traditions. The Polish tribes were internalized and organized around a unifying religious cult, governed by the wiec, an assembly of free tribesmen. Later, when safety required power to be consolidated, an elected prince was chosen to govern.
The tribes were ruled by clans (ród) consisting of people related by blood and descending from a common ancestor, giving the ród/clan a highly developed sense of solidarity. (See gens.) The starosta (or starszyna) had judicial and military power over the ród/clan, although this power was often exercised with an assembly of elders. Strongholds called grόd were built where the religious cult was powerful, where trials were conducted, and where clans gathered in the face of danger. The opole was the territory occupied by a single tribe. .
Before going deeper into the history of Polish nobility, it is important to note use of the English word "knight", which can be misleading as it leads to inevitable comparisons with the British gentry. In comparison, the Polish nobility was a "power elite" caste, not a social class. The paramount principle of Polish nobility was it was hereditary.
Mieszko I of Poland (c. 935 – 25 May 992) utilized an elite knightly retinue from his army, which he depended upon for success in uniting the Lekhitic tribes and preserving the unity of his state. Documented proof exists of Mieszko I's successors utilizing such a retinue, too.
Another class of knights were granted land by the prince, allowing them to serve the prince militarily. A Polish nobleman living at this time before the 15th century was referred to as a "rycerz" (German "ritter"), very roughly equivalent to the English "knight", the critical difference being the status of "rycerz" was strictly hereditary; the class of all such individuals was known as the "rycerstwo". Representing the wealthier families of Poland and itinerant knights from abroad seeking their fortunes, this other class of rycerstwo, which became the szlachta/nobility ("szlachta" becomes the proper term for Polish nobility beginning about the 15th century), gradually formed apart from Mieszko I's and his successors' elite retinues. This rycerstwo/nobility obtained more privileges granting them favored status. They were absolved from particular burdens and obligations under ducal law, resulting in the belief only rycerstwo (those combining military prowess with high/noble birth) could serve as officials in state administration.
Select rycerstwo were distinguished above the other rycerstwo, because they descended from past tribal dynasties, or because early Piasts' endowments made them select beneficiaries. These rycerstwo of great wealth were called możni (Magnates). Socially they were not a distinct class from the rycerstwo they originated from and to which they would return were their wealth lost. .
The Period of Division, A.D., 1138 - A.D., 1314, nearly 200 years of feudal fragmentation, when Bolesław III divided Poland among his sons, began the social structure allegedly separating great landowning feudal nobles (możni/Magnates, both ecclesiastical and lay) from the rycerstwo they originated from. The prior social structure was one of Polish tribes united into the historic Polish nation under a state ruled by the Piast dynasty, this dynasty appearing circa 850 A.D.
Some możni (Magnates) descending from past tribal dynasties regarded themselves as co-proprietors of Piast realms, even though the Piasts attempted to deprive them of their independence. These możni (Magnates) constantly sought to undermine princely authority. In Gall Anonim's chronicle, there is noted the nobility's alarm when the Palatine Sieciech "elevated those of a lower class over those who were noble born" entrusting them with state offices.
After the Union of Horodło Lithuanian nobility acquired equal rights with Polish szlachta, and during centuries began to gravitate towards Polish language, although they did preserve its national awareness of Grand Duchy, and in most cases recognition of their Lithuanian family roots. In the 16th century new established theory amongst Lithuanian nobility was popular, claiming that Lithuanian nobility was of Roman extraction, and the Lithuanian language was just a morphed Latin language.
Process of self polonisation took part, although it lasted quite a long time. At first only magnates families were affected, although gradually it evolved into a wider group of population. The major effects on the lesser Lithuanian nobility took its place after Russian Empire sanctions removing Lithuania from names of Gubernya's few years after after November Uprising. After January Uprising the sanctions went further, and Emperial officials announced that "Lithuanians are Russians seduced by Poles and Chrisitianty" and started Program of Restoration of Russian Beginnings, while banning the print of books in Lithuanian language.
The Orthodox nobles' rights were nominally equal to those enjoyed by Polish and Lithuanian nobility, but there was a cultural pressure to convert to Catholicism, that was greatly eased in 1596 by the Union of Brest. See for example careers of Senator Adam Kisiel and Jerzy Franciszek Kulczycki.
Nobles were born into a noble family, adopted by a noble family (this was abolished in 1633) or ennobled by a king or Sejm for various reasons (bravery in combat, service to the state, etc. - yet this was the rarest means of gaining noble status). Many nobles were, in actuality, really usurpers, being commoners, who moved into another part of the country and falsely pretended to noble status. Hundreds of such false nobles were denounced by Walerian Nekanda Trepka in his Liber generationis plebeanorium (or Liber chamorum) in the first half of 16th century. The law forbade non-nobles from owning nobility-estates and promised the estate to the denouncer. Trepka was an impoverished nobleman who lived a townsman life and collected hundreds of such stories hoping to take over any of such estates. It doesn't seem he ever succeeded in proving one at the court. Many sejms issued decrees over the centuries in an attempt to resolve this issue, but with little success. It is unknown what percentage of the Polish nobility came from the 'lower' orders of society, but most historians agree that nobles of such base origins formed a 'significant' element of the szlachta.
The Polish nobility enjoyed many rights that were not available to the noble classes of other countries and, typically, each new monarch conceded them further privileges. Those privileges became the basis of the Golden Liberty in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Despite having a king, Poland was called the nobility's Commonwealth because the king was elected by all interested members of hereditary nobility and Poland was considered to be the property of this class, not of the king or the ruling dynasty. This state of affairs grew up in part because of the extinction of the male-line descendants of the old royal dynasty (first the Piasts, then the Jagiellons), and the selection by the nobility of the Polish king from among the dynasty's female-line descendants.
Poland's successive kings granted privileges to the nobility at the time of their election to the throne (the privileges being specified in the king-elect's Pacta conventa) and at other times in exchange for ad hoc permission to raise an extraordinary tax or a pospolite ruszenie.
Poland's nobility thus accumulated a growing array of privileges and immunities:
In 1355 in Buda King Casimir III issued the first country-wide privilege for the nobility, in exchange for their agreement that in the lack of Kazimierz male heirs, the throne would pass to his nephew, King Louis "the Great". He decreed that the nobility would no longer be required to pay 'extraordinary' taxes, or pay with their own funds for military expeditions outside Poland. He also promised that during travels of the royal court, the king and the court would pay for all expenses, instead of using facilities of local nobility.
In 1374 King Louis "the Great" approved the Privilege of Koszyce (Polish: "przywilej koszycki" or "ugoda koszycka") in Košice in order to guarantee the Polish throne for his daughter Jadwiga. He broadened the definition of who was a member of the nobility and exempted the entire class from all but one tax (łanowy, which was limited to 2 grosze from łan (an old measure of land size)). In addition, the King's right to raise taxes was abolished; no new taxes could be raised without the agreement of the nobility. Henceforth, also, district offices (Polish: "urzędy ziemskie") were reserved exclusively for local nobility, as the Privilege of Koszyce forbade the king to grant official posts and major Polish castles to foreign knights. Finally, this privilege obliged the King to pay indemnities to nobles injured or taken captive during a war outside Polish borders.
In 1422 King Władysław II Jagiełło by the Privilege of Czerwińsk (Polish: "przywilej czerwiński") established the inviolability of nobles' property (their estates could not be confiscated except upon a court verdict) and ceded some jurisdiction over fiscal policy to the Royal Council (later, the Senat), including the right to mint coinage.
In 1430 with the Privileges of Jedlnia, confirmed at Kraków in 1433 (Polish: "przywileje jedlneńsko-krakowskie"), based partially on his earlier Brześć Kujawski privilege (April 25, 1425), King Władysław II Jagiełło granted the nobility a guarantee against arbitrary arrest, similar to the English Magna Carta's Habeas corpus, known from its own Latin name as "neminem captivabimus (nisi jure victum)." Henceforth no member of the nobility could be imprisoned without a warrant from a competent court of justice: the king could neither punish nor imprison any noble at his whim. King Władysław's quid pro quo for this boon was the nobles' guarantee that his throne would be inherited by one of his sons (who would be bound to honour the privileges theretofore granted to the nobility). On May 2, 1447 the same king issued the Wilno Privilege which gave the Lithuanian boyars the same rights as those possessed by the Polish szlachta.
In 1454 King Kazimierz IV Jagiellon granted the Nieszawa Statutes (Polish: "statuty cerkwicko-nieszawskie"), clarifying the legal basis of voivodship sejmiks (local parliaments). The king could promulgate new laws, raise taxes, or call for a levée en masse (pospolite ruszenie) only with the consent of the sejmiks, and the nobility were protected from judicial abuses. The Nieszawa Statutes also curbed the power of the magnates, as the Sejm (national parliament) received the right to elect many officials, including judges, voivods and castellans. These privileges were demanded by the szlachta as a compensation for their participation in the Thirteen Years' War.
The first "free election" (Polish: "wolna elekcja") of a king took place in 1492. (To be sure, some earlier Polish kings had been elected with help from bodies such as that which put Casimir II on the throne, thereby setting a precedent for free elections.) Only senators voted in the 1492 free election, which was won by Jan I Olbracht. For the duration of the Jagiellonian Dynasty, only members of that royal family were considered for election; later, there would be no restrictions on the choice of candidates.
In 1493 the national parliament, the Sejm, began meeting every two years at Piotrków. It comprised two chambers:
The numbers of senators and envoys later increased.
On April 26, 1496 King Jan I Olbracht granted the Privilege of Piotrków (Polish: "przywilej piotrkowski", "konstytucja piotrkowska" or "statuty piotrkowskie"), increasing the nobility's feudal power over serfs. It bound the peasant to the land, as only one son (not the eldest) was permitted to leave the village; townsfolk (Polish: "mieszczaństwo") were prohibited from owning land; and positions in the Church hierarchy could be given only to nobles.
On 23 October 1501, at Mielnik Polish-Lithuanian Union was reformed at the Union of Mielnik (Polish: unia mielnicka, unia piotrkowsko-mielnicka). It was there that the tradition of the coronation Sejm (Polish: "Sejm koronacyjny") was founded. Once again the middle nobility (middle in wealth, not in rank) attempted to reduce the power of the magnates with a law that made them impeachable before the Senate for malfeasance. However the Act of Mielno (Polish: Przywilej mielnicki) of 25 October did more to strengthen the magnate dominated Senate of Poland then the lesser nobility. The nobles were conceded the right to refuse to obey the King or his representatives--in the Latin, "non praestanda oboedientia"--and to form confederations, an armed rebellion against the king or state officers if the nobles thought that the law or their legitimate privileges were being infringed.
On 3 May 1505 King Aleksander I Jagiellon granted the Act of "Nihil novi nisi commune consensu" (Latin: "I accept nothing new except by common consent"). This forbade the king to pass any new law without the consent of the representatives of the nobility, in Sejm and Senat assembled, and thus greatly strengthened the nobility's political position. Basically, this act transferred legislative power from the king to the Sejm. This date commonly marks the beginning of the First Rzeczpospolita, the period of a szlachta-run "Commonwealth".
In 1520 the Act of Bydgoszcz granted the Sejm the right to convene every four years, with or without the king's permission.
About that time the "executionist movement" (Polish: "egzekucja praw"--"execution of the laws") began to take form. Its members would seek to curb the power of the magnates at the Sejm and to strengthen the power of king and country. In 1562 at the Sejm in Piotrków they would force the magnates to return many leased crown lands to the king, and the king to create a standing army (wojsko kwarciane). One of the most famous members of this movement was Jan Zamoyski. After his death in 1605, the movement lost its political force.
Until the death of Zygmunt II August, the last king of the Jagiellonian dynasty, monarchs could only be elected from within the royal family. However, starting from 1573, practically any Polish noble or foreigner of royal blood could become a Polish-Lithuanian monarch. Every newly elected king was supposed to sign two documents - the Pacta conventa ("agreed pacts") - a confirmation of the king's pre-election promises, and Henrican articles (artykuły henrykowskie, named after the first freely elected king, Henry of Valois). The latter document served as a virtual Polish constitution and contained the basic laws of the Commonwealth:
In 1578 king Stefan Batory created the Crown Tribunal in order to reduce the enormous pressure on the Royal Court. This placed much of the monarch's juridical power in the hands of the elected szlachta deputies, further strengthening the nobility class. In 1581 the Crown Tribunal was joined by a counterpart in Lithuania, the Lithuanian Tribunal.
For many centuries, wealthy and powerful members of the szlachta sought to gain legal privileges over their peers. Few szlachta were wealthy enough to be known as magnates (karmazyni — the "Crimsons", from the crimson colour of their boots). A proper magnate should be able to trace noble ancestors back for many generations and own at least 20 villages or estates. He should also hold a major office in the Commonwealth.
Some historians estimate the number of magnates as 4% of szlachta number. Out of 1 million of szlachta, tens of thousands of families, perhaps only 200-300 persons could be classed as great magnates with country-wide possessions and influence, and 30-40 of them could be viewed as those with significant impact on country's politics.
Magnates often received gifts from monarchs, which significantly increased their wealth. Often, those gifts were only temporary leases, which the magnates never returned (in 16th century, the anti-magnate opposition among szlachta were known as the ruch egzekucji praw - movement for execution of the laws - which demanded that all such possessions are returned to their proper owner, the king). One of the most important victories of the magnates was the late 16th century right to create ordynacja's (similar to majorats), which ensured that a family which gained wealth and power could more easily preserve this. Ordynacje's of families of Radziwiłłs, Zamoyskis, Potockis or Lubomirskis often rivalled the estates of the king and were important power bases for the magnates.
The Polish nobility differed in many respects from the nobility of other countries. The most important difference was that, while in most European countries the nobility lost power as the ruler strove for absolute monarchy, in Poland the reverse process occurred: the nobility actually gained power at the expense of the king, and the political system evolved toward a mix of democracy, oligarchy and aristocracy.
Poland's nobility were also more numerous than those of all other European countries, forming some 10%-12% of the total population and almost 25% among ethnic Poles , while in some poorer regions (e.g. Mazowsze, the area centred on Warsaw) nearly 30%. However, according to szlachta comprised around 8% of the total population in 1791 (up from 6.6% in the 16th century), and no more than 16% of the Roman Catholic (mostly ethnically Polish) population. It should be noted, though, that Polish szlachta usually incorporated most local nobility from the areas that were absorbed by Poland-Lithuania (Ruthenian boyars, Livonian nobles, etc.) By contrast, the nobilities of other European countries, except for Spain, amounted to a mere 1-3%.
There were a number of avenues to upward social mobility and the achievement of nobility. Poland's nobility was not a rigidly exclusive, closed class. Many low-born individuals, including townsfolk, peasants and Jews, could and did rise in Polish society up to official ennoblement. Thus Poland's noble class was more stable than those of other countries, and so was spared the societal tensions and eventual disintegration that characterised the French Revolution. Each szlachcic had enormous influence over the country's politics, in some ways even greater than what is enjoyed by the citizens of modern democratic countries. Between 1652 and 1791, any nobleman could nullify all the proceedings of a given sejm (Commonwealth parliament) or sejmik (Commonwealth local parliament) by exercising his individual right of liberum veto (Latin for "I do not allow"), except in the case of a confederated sejm or confederated sejmik.
All children of the Polish nobility inherited their noble status from a noble mother and father. Any individual could attain ennoblement (nobilitacja) for special services to the state. A foreign noble might be naturalised as a Polish noble (Polish: "indygenat") by the Polish king (later, from 1641, only by a general sejm).
In theory at least, all Polish noblemen were social equals. Also in theory they were legal peers. Those who held 'real power' dignities were more privileged but these dignities were not hereditary. Those who held honorary dignities were higher in 'ritual' hierarchy but these dignities were also granted for a lifetime. Some tenancies became hereditary and went with both privilege and titles. Nobles who were not direct barons of the Crown but held land from other lords were only peers "de iure". The poorest enjoyed the same rights as the wealthiest magnate. The exceptions were a few symbolically privileged families such as the Radziwiłł, Lubomirski and Czartoryski, who sported honorary aristocratic titles recognized in Poland or received from foreign courts, such as "Prince" or "Count." (see also The Princely Houses of Poland). All other szlachta simply addressed each other by their given name or as "Sir Brother" (Panie bracie) or the feminine equivalent. The other forms of address would be "Illustrious and Magnificent Lord", "Magnificent Lord", "Generous Lord" or "Noble Lord" (in decreasing order) or simply "His/Her Grace Lord/Lady XYZ".
According to their financial standing, the nobility were in common speech divided into:
Note that Polish landed gentry (ziemianie or ziemiaństwo) was composed of any nobility that owned lands: thus of course the magnates, the middle nobility and that lesser nobility that had at least part of the village. As manorial lordships were also opened to burgesses of certain privileged royal cities, not all landed gentry had a hereditary title of nobility.
The most notable difference is that, contrary to other European heraldic systems, most families sharing origin would also share a coat-of-arms. They would also share arms with families adopted into the clan (these would often have their arms officially altered upon ennoblement). Sometimes unrelated families would be falsely attributed to the clan on the basis of similarity of arms. Also often noble families claimed inaccurate clan membership. Logically, the number of coats of arms in this system was rather low and did not exceed 200 in late Middle Ages.
Also, the tradition of differentiating between the coat of arms proper and a lozenge granted to women did not develop in Poland. Usually men inherited the coat of arms from their fathers. Also, the brisure was rarely used.
The szlachta's prevalent mentality and ideology were manifested in "Sarmatism", a name derived from supposed ancestors of the szlachta, the Sarmatians. This belief system became an important part of szlachta culture and affected all aspects of their lives. It enshrined traditional village life, peace and pacifism; popularised oriental-style apparel (the żupan, kontusz, sukmana, pas kontuszowy, delia); and made the scimitar-like szabla, too, a near-obligatory item of everyday szlachta apparel. Sarmatism served to integrate the multi-ethnic nobility as it created an almost nationalistic sense of unity and pride in the szlachta's "Golden Liberty" (złota wolność). Knowledge of Latin was widespread, and most szlachta freely mixed Polish and Latin vocabulary (the latter, "macaronisms" — from "macaroni") in everyday conversation.
In its early, idealistic form, Sarmatism seemed like a salutary cultural movement: it fostered religious faith, honesty, national pride, courage, equality and freedom. Late Sarmatism turned belief into bigotry, honesty into political naiveté, pride into arrogance, courage into stubbornness, equality and freedom within the szlachta class into dissension and anarchy.
Prior to the Reformation, the Polish nobility were mostly either Roman Catholic or Orthodox with a small group of Muslims. Many families, however, soon adopted the Reformed faiths. After the Counter-Reformation, when the Roman Catholic Church regained power in Poland, the nobility became almost exclusively Catholic, despite the fact that Roman Catholicism was not the majority religion in Poland (the Catholic and Orthodox churches each accounted for some 40% of the population, with the remaining 20% being Jews or members of Protestant denominations). Szlachta, as the Commonwealth itself, was extremely tolerant of other religions. There were almost no conflicts based on faith, and szlachta members are known to have intervened several times to pacify religious conflicts in cities and towns. In the 18th century, many followers of Jacob Frank joined the ranks of Jewish-descended Polish gentry.