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An Outline of Polish History to 1138

Updated on February 13, 2014

Map of Poland

Map of Poland
Map of Poland | Source

Drawing Poland's Map

The first thing one should realize about Poland is its lack of major natural borders, primarily to the east and west. A portion of a mountain range lies on its southern border (Carpathians), and a swath of sea forms its northern coast (Baltic Sea), but throughout its history Poland’s map has been borderless and in the epicenter of historically aggressive powers such as Germany, Russia, Austria and Hungary. Because of this reason, Poland has always been a hot-bed of invasion and conquest, similar to that of the Middle East.

Many rivers flow throughout the Polish heartland, the most notable of which are the Wisła (English/German: Vistula) and Odra (Oder). The Wisła winds a long course beginning in the south and flowing north while forking in many different directions along the way. It connects many of Poland’s most important cities both historical and modern. Included in its trek are Poland’s capitol, Warszawa (Warsaw), as well as Kraków (Cracow) and Bydogszcz (Bromberg), before completing its course at Gdańsk (Danzig) as it empties into the Baltic Sea.

Sharing a portion of its northwestern border with Germany, the Odra cuts into Poland from the west and gradually descends its way southeast through Silesia before disappearing across the border of the Czech Republic. The cities of Szczecin (Stettin), Głogów (Glogau), Wrocław (Breslau), and Opole (Oppeln) lie on or near its waters.

At present, Poland shares a border with Germany in the west, Czech Republic and Slovakia toward the south, Ukraine to the southeast, Belarus to the east, and Lithuania and Russia in the northeast. As we will see in later entries, Poland has had many different borders, many different neighbors, and much different topography.

Vistula River

Overlooking the Vistula River from Wawel Hill in Cracow.
Overlooking the Vistula River from Wawel Hill in Cracow. | Source

Proto-history

Timeline of Polish language roots


It can be vehemently argued that a country cannot develop without a common language. Therefore, to develop an understanding why countries of antiquity formed we must first outline the development of language. In the case of the Polish language, it developed from the Slavic family of languages which is a descendant of the Arian family of languages. The Polish language took approximately 1,500 years to develop and break from its closest language family.

Language Development

Approximate Year(s)
Path of Singularity
2000 BCE
Balto-Slavonic languages were part of Arian and/or Eastern Indo-European languages
1500 BCE
Balto-Slavonic language separates from Arian language
1000 BCE
Baltic and Slavonic languages separate
1000 BCE - 500 CE
Slavonic languages develop alongside Latin, Celtic, German and Greek
500 CE
Polish languages develops from Western Slavic dialects

Modern Polish Alphabet

Polish Alphabet
Polish Alphabet

Early Developments

Excavation sites such as Biskupin allow insight to the pre-history of Polish settlements. Following the fall of Rome, the Slavs at this time were scattered across the vast reaches of Europe. They settled in largely independent groups and soon began developing their own independent cultures. One tribe in particular had settled between the Odra and Wisła rivers near the areas of modern day Gniezno (Gnesen) and Poznań (Posen). It is believed that of this culture came the modern Polish people known as Polanie. The word Poland itself is believed to have derived from Pole, or 'field'.

Although antiquity provides bountiful literary and non-literary descriptions of other cultures, the pre-Polish writings are rather limited. Perhaps the first reference to these Polanie-like people comes from the Greek historian, Herodotus (5th century BCE) who referred to these Slavs as "Scythian Farmers." It remains to be discovered if these "Scythian Farmers" and the Polanie are one and the same.

Following the fall of Rome, the Christian faith began gaining dominance throughout the continent. The Franks and later the Teutons began consolidating power among the faith. They conducted raids and marches into the frontier which the Slavic areas were not immune to. The rise of Christianity led to both sucessful and unsuccessful warfare in the area but these Polanie could not ultimately combat the tide of Christianity.

Mieszko I

Mieszko I, leader of an area home to a large group of Polanie, had come to power through hereditary rule upon the death of his father. He fortified his significance by marrying Dobrawa, daughter to the King of Bohemia, Bolesław the Cruel. This arrangement ultimately led to Mieszko I being baptized a Christian in 966. The arrangement tied Poland closer to Western Europe and also led to an infusion of cultural development. Poland widely considers the year 966 to be its date of birth and at present remains a predominately Christian nation. This year is also when pre-history ceased and Polish history began although Poland would not call itself this name for some time.

Piast Dynasty

The Piast Family is believed to have inhabited Polish areas since the 9th century but it would not show its true prominence until Mieszko I became its ruler. With his conversion to Christianity, Mieszko I ushered his family as chief rulers of Poland which would last until 1370. Mieszko was followed by Bolesław I who would eventually become the first Polish leader to be crowned king. During his reign Bolesław I significantly expanded Polish territory while bringing Poland closer to the Holy Roman Empire and its Emperor Otto III. This increase in proximity aided young Otto III's (980-1002) decision to allow Poland to be free from paying tribute to the Holy Roman Empire. Bolesław I died in 1025 leaving rule to his son, Mieszko II.

Following the death of Bolesław I, Poland went into a period of instability caused by mostly internal issues rising from the inheritance of Bolesław I's sons. This led to an increase of costly warfare which in turn led caused Poland to lose a portion of the territory that had been gained by Bolesław I. It was not until 1040, when Kazimierz I would receive control of the kingdom, that Poland would be reunited. Kazimierz I quelled the warfare in his southern territories and won back the lands of his grandfather's kindom that had been lost. Additionally, he moved the capitol of Poland to Cracow. For these reasons and many other Kazimierz I is also referred to as Kazimierz the Restorer.

Kazimierz the Restorer

Kazimierz I (1015-1058) re-unified a broken Poland.
Kazimierz I (1015-1058) re-unified a broken Poland. | Source

Władysław I

While the rebellion against his brother, Bolesław II, was ongoing, Władysław I came to the rank of Duke of Poland in 1079. His reign is pock-marked by numerous familial clashes challenging the right to the throne. Upon his death in 1102, after breaking up vast chunks of the Polish lands, the right to succession had still not been settled. Władysław I's most significant gift to history was his construction of Wawel Cathedral in Cracow which remains one of the most popular tourist sites in Poland.

Bolesław II

Upon his death in 1058, Kazimierz I's power transferred to his son Bolesław II. Bolesław II saw increasing pressure and even rebellion from Polish nobles and would deal with this throughout his reign. He found mixed results in foreign policy as well as in war. However, he was successful at reestablishing the Archdiocese at Gniezno along with many other Christian-based segments of society. He was responsible for increasing the output of domestic coinage which further increased commerce. It is believed the Boleslaw II died by execution after a successful rebellion of Polish nobles overthrew his reign although these actions are disputed.

Zbigniew
Zbigniew | Source

The Sons of Władysław I

Zbigniew and Bolesław III

Władysław I's death in 1102 left Poland split between his two sons - Zbigniew and Bolesław III - which culminated in civil war. This war (1106) left Zbeigniew defeated and exiled while entitling Bolesław III to grab the title of High Duke. Soon thereafter, Bolesław III attacked Bohemia and was successful which permitted him to take the throne as sole ruler of Poland in 1107. Later, Bolesław III had Zbigniew blinded, an act which caused overwhelming disfavor among his peers, namely the clergy. The significance of Bolesław III's reign is heralded by his capturing of Pomeranian lands in the north of Poland. Although he was met with resistance, Bolesław III was successful in Christianizing this area although Polish control over this region died along with Bolesław III.

As with previous rulers, Boleslaw III divided his lands among his sons which led to a splintered Poland for nearly 200 years. The turmoil marked the end of the first era of Piast rulers, an era which has been referred to as Poland's "period of primitive monarchy" (Davies - God's Playground).

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