Summer AS XXXIX (2004)
Volume IX, Issue 3 (#34)

From the Nachalnik

As I mentioned last issue, we're now about to enter our tenth year as an organization. Things have changed. We no longer hold the original annual "Researching Things Slavic" class at Pennsic that got SIG kick-started. Very few members still read this Newsletter in hard copy format (although I continue to produce it as such). The membership of the listserv dwarfs the mother organization. But the general vision of the Group which I hacked out with Elizaveta after that first class in 1994 -- to create a brain trust of people who were willing to pool their knowledge and talents and share them with others -- survives. And we continue to promote research and knowledge and general trading of information. Thank you everyone!!

Sadly, lack of employment (instead of my usual excuse of being too busy at work) will keep me away from Pennsic this year, but I wish everyone who goes a great time and please be sure to show up at the party on the 16th (see below)!

Pennsic Happenings

Celebration. The big event of Pennsic from a SIG perspective will be our annual Celebration. This year it will be run by Mordak and we're on the schedule for Monday, August 16th at 6:30 PM at AS 4. Mordak needs your help: "Basically, we need folks to bring dishes, potables, books, cool Slavic stuff and music, especially music because dancing is center to the Slavic soul and this is a celebration of our little family and the activities we pursue in our enjoyment of SIG. A side of your choice and/or a potable would be very much appreciated! I figure if everyone brings something, large or small, then no one has to carry a tremendous amount of leftovers back to their camp and we all get great selection. The one thing I would really appreciate more than anything is music and books though, in that order, because some will want to dance but this is also a great chance to meet, greet and share resources with each other." Contact Mordak at

Classes. While there are a number of classes offered by SIG members, there are only two classes with a Slavic or Eastern European focus, according to the Class Schedule at this time:

Russian Costuming for Ivan the Terrible's Russia Master Mordak Timofeivich Rostovskogo. Mid-to-late 16th c. Russia. Clothing typically worn in the reign of Ivan the Terrible at all social levels and occupations, a class discussion moderated by the instructor with clothing examples provided. Construction manual, demonstration & websites provided at copy cost. Handout $3. Sun, 15th 12:00 pm AS 5; Mon, 16th 2:00 pm AS 6

Hungarian Names 101 Kolozsvari Arpadne Julia. An introduction to Medieval Hungarian naming practices, including pronunciation & a guide to available sources. Thu 12th 1:00 pm AS 5; Wed, 18th 1:00 pm AS 5.

Other Events. On Saturday, August 14th at 9pm. Jadwiga and Maria will be hosting a class/book dive at Maria's store, Dragon's Magic (across from the Barn). Jadwiga will be bringing her Polish, Bohemian and other Eastern European garb books and we'll talk about period garb and textiles with whoever shows up. Garb specialists would be especially welcome! And, if you can, bring your own resources so we can share. Contact Jadwiga at


By Alexey Kiyaikin

Borshch, like any complicated recipe, depends greatly on its humble details. This is a short survey of some complications one meets when trying to dig deeper.

Borshch, while often treated as a "Russian" dish is not Russian at all. It is a Ukrainian specialty that came to Russian cooking along with pelmeni from Perm or lapsha [noodles] from Tataria. Many details of its method of preparation are not typical of Russia. Sauteing and frying the ingredients of a soup is a typical Ukrainian approach, which Russians with their ovens never did it in period. Another difference is that Russians seldom use pork for soup base. The typical Russian meat is beef (bulls in the Ukraine were used mainly for transportation and not for food, so their flesh did not taste as good). Adding pork fat to the soup is by no means a Russian way either.

Compared with the truly Russian dishes of shchi and oukha, borshch is a newcomer to the national kitchen. When did it come? We can suggest that in the years of the Domostroi it was not a dish of a wealthy house. The very word "borshch," when used by the author of the Domostroi, does not mean a soup. It refers to cow parsnip - an herb that grows in a vegetable garden by the fence, along with the weeds. In Chapter 45 of the Domostroi ("How to Cultivate a Kitchen Garden and Orchard") he writes:

"Sow cow parsnip [borshch] all around the garden near the fence, where the stinging-nettle grows. Beginning in the spring, you can cook your own greens; you need not buy them in the marketplace. Instead, you can give them to the needy, doing God's work. If you are young, you may sell this product for something else."


"You must cultivate your orchard yourself…. Vegetables may grow undisturbed among the trees (unless the branches are thick; then nothing will grow under them).

"Sow cow parsnip [borshch] and gather fruit - fallen apples, cucumbers, melons, and the like - at the right time."

[Note: Pouncy mistranslates the word "borshch" in these instances as "beets." She is not correct.]

That is the only "borshch" mentioned in the book - cow parsnip -- an edible herb (Heracleum L.) which is a distant relative of dill and parsnip, that was still grown in the 19th Century as silage. [Note: In her translation of the Domostroi, Pouncy mistranslates the word "borshch" in these instances as "beets."] The author does not even say that the plant should grow in a bed - but just where no beds are possible: by the fence or in the thick shadow of a fruit tree!

The author of the Domostroi does mention shchi, pokhlebka, rassolnik, and botvinia, but does not mention borshch. He knows that beets can be pickled. As borshch was traditionally made of pickled beets (when you cook it with fresh beets you have to add vinegar to create a sour taste and to keep the beets red), that MIGHT suggest that borshch was cooked in this household. But I would say that he does not make any special mention of it.

Rather, in the Domostroi, we are speaking of a green soup made with "borshch" (or "borschevnik," as this plant is called in modern Russian) that might have been shared with a poor person. It is an inexpensive dish, like green shchi that is cooked from nettle or sorrel. It is a dish for tight times.

The more "traditional" borshch was yet to come, as the traditions of Ukrainian national cooking were being established. While it began as a Ukrainian delicacy, that did not make any difference. The new dish was accepted in Russian cuisine, just like pelmeni (which were borrowed at about the same time).

Several centuries have passed and borshch is now treated as the "much-more-fashionable-than-plain-shchi" holiday soup of Russia.


  • The Domostroi: Rules for Russian Households in the Time of Ivan the Terrible. Edited and translated by Carolyn Johnston Pouncy. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994.
  • Pokhlebkin, V. V. Russian Delight: A Cookbook of the Soviet People. London: Pan Books, 1978.

    Bathing in Central and Eastern Europe

    By Jadwiga Zajaczkowa

    For many years, historians have claimed that after the fall of Rome and before the Enlightenment, people seldom bathed or washed. A quick look at Central and Eastern European history debunks this idea. The images of bathhouses in German and Bohemian art, the historical mentions of bathhouses in Poland and Rus, give us plenty to work with. This article attempts to summarize the information that is available in English.

    It appears that bathing in bathhouses, specifically vapor baths (hot air or steam sweating, followed by washing or cold plunges) was the preferred method in Eastern and Central Europe. Mentions of sweat baths go back Roman accounts of the Scythians' habit of taking sweat baths: "These tents were made of thick felt, with all cracks carefully sealed up. Inside was placed a bowl full of red-hot stones, onto which cannabis seeds were thrown. According to Herodotus, the Scythians would howl with delight as they breathed in the fumes. Sitting in these tents was clearly one of their favorite pastimes." (James and Thorpe, p. 342.)

    Some writers, such as de Bonneville, suggest that the Finns acquired the habit of the vapor bath from Central Asia via Russia, but the Finns disagree. However, the Finnish sauna is quite similar to the Russian bath and the vapor baths recorded in Germany, Poland and Bohemia: "The first examples of saunas were simple pits dug in the earth, with heated stones to generate the dry, hot atmosphere. Hot stones remain the hallmark of the sauna, radiating warmth into a small surrounding room, which today is typically built of wood. Dousing the stones with water creates a vapor... Body brushes, called vihta or vahta, and birch branches, are used to stimulate the skin and a healthy sweat." (von Furstenberg, p. 93)

    Steam baths in wooden bathhouses in Russia are mentioned by the Apostle Andreas in the Russian Primary Chronicle of 1113: " They warm them to extreme heat, then undress, and, after anointing themselves with tallow, take young reeds and lash their bodies. They lash themselves so violently that they barely escape alive. Then they drench themselves with cold water and thus are revived. They think nothing of doing this every day and actually inflict such torture upon themselves voluntarily." (quoted by Allen)

    The basic bath practices appear to have been the same in most of Northern/Eastern Europe: heat up rocks or a stove in an enclosed area, that is, the bathhouse. Apply water to the rocks to create steam. Sit on benches in the steam area, naked except for hats. When bathing in public or mixed groups, one might wear a light bathing costume (linen trunks for men, or an open-sided shift for women, as in described in 15th century Baden-Baden by Poggio Bracciolini). Beat oneself with bunches of leaves to encourage circulation. After or during sweating, cleanse the body with water from tubs or buckets, or plunge into a bath, river, or snow. German bathhouses included other amenities, such as soaking pools and areas for socializing, drinking and eating, which may have been inspired by Roman baths. I have not found information about socializing areas being part of the Russian bathhouse. They may have come into the Russian bath experience due to contact with Islamic hammams [ritual bathhouses] which include such features.

    The bathhouses were apparently locations for socializing and social mixing, and in some places involved interactions between bathers of the opposite sex despite church rules. Puskareva says, "Contemporary observers reported that, in the tsar's household, the tsar and his retainers might meet in the bathhouse, which provided both bathing facilities and a sauna. However, it is unlikely that the women of the tsar's family, much less women of the lower classes, followed the same custom. Women did visit the bathhouse, but it was usually on holidays or on Saturday evenings. The tsaritsa and her daughters had their own section of the palace bathhouse. The Stoglav Church Council of 1551 prohibited men and women, monks and nuns, from bathing together,' proclaiming those who did so as 'without shame.' But the common people did not observe this prohibition, and men and women bathed naked together. In the winter, they ran out of the bathhouse naked to roll in the snow in order to cool off, without regard for curious onlookers. It took more than a century before Russian bathhouses were divided into separate men's and women's baths." (p. 98)

    Gothic-period Bohemian illuminations, featured in the Wenceslas Bible, depict female bath-house keepers in sleeveless dresses cinched at the waist with what may be a towel, waiting on male bathhouse clients with bucket and scrub-brush. The bathhouse attendants are also shown pouring water over clients and/or helping them wash.

    In Gasawa, Poland, Duke Henryk the Bearded and Duke Leszek Bialy were attacked in the baths in 1227. In 1385, when Jadwiga of Poland was apparently concerned about the appearance of her prospective bridegroom, Jagiello of Lithuania, "she was only placated after a favorite young knight of hers, Zawisza of Olesnica, had been sent to inspect Iogaila in his bath-house and reported back favorably on the details of the barbarian's body" (Zamoyski, p. 43). According to Zamoyski, in the 1400s, "There were no less than twelve public baths in Krakow" (p. 58).

    German vapor baths were obviously known in the 12th century, as Hildegarde of Bingen suggests herbs in mixtures to pour over the head in the sauna, to splash on the sauna rocks, to apply to the body and/or drink in the sauna, and to bathe in. While Throop translates the term used in the texts as "sauna," the instructions do match a steam bath created with hot rocks, on which one pours water: "One who is virgichtiget, and from it as been made a bit mad, with a divided mind and crazy thoughts, should take a sauna bath. He should pour the water in which oats have been cooked over the hot rocks. If he does this often, he will become himself and regain his health." (p. 12)


    "One who is in pain from a stone should take parsley and add a third part saxifrage. He should cook this in wine, strain it through a cloth, and drink it in a sauna. Also he should cook parsley and a third part saxifrage in water, and pour it, with the water, over the hot stones in the same sauna bath." (p. 42)


    "Wild lettuce ... extinguishes lust in a human. A man who has an overabundance in his loins should cook wild lettuce in water and pour that water over himself in a sauna bath. He should also place the warm, cooked lettuce around his loins, while still in the sauna... If a woman's womb is swelling with uncontrollable lust, she should make a sauna bath with the wild lettuce. Sitting in the sauna, she should pour the water in which wild lettuce was cooked over the hot stones. She should place the warm, cooked lettuce over her belly..." (p. 49)


    "A woman who is in pain from obstructed menses should take tansy and an equal weight of feverfew and a bit more mullein than either of the others. She should cook these in water from a freely flowing stream, which is tempered by the sun and air. Then she should put tiles in a fire, and make a sauna bath with the foresaid water and herbs. When she enters this bath, she should place the warm herbs on the bench and sit on top of them. If they become cold, she should warm them again in the same water. She should do this as long as she sits in the sauna so her skin and flesh, as well as her womb, may be softened by the humors of these herbs, and the veins which were closed might be opened." (p. 58)

    Even non-medicinal baths might be scented. Adamus Olearius, in his Persian Travel Tales of the early 1600s, comments: "The Germans who dwell in Muscovy and Livonia are very nice in their Stoves; they strew Pine Leaves powder'd, and all sorts of Herbs and Flowers upon the Floor; which, together with the Lye make a very agreeable Scent."

    It is not clear how often people bathed, though. Shahan says, "In the first volume of Janssen's History of the German People there are many details concerning the popular use of baths in Germany during the Middle Ages. Men bathed several times each day; some spent the whole day in or about their favorite springs. From the 20th of May to the 9th of June, 1511, Lucas Rem bathed one hundred and twenty-seven times, as we may see by his diary" (pp. 291-292). According to Magdalena z Wroclawia on the Slavic Interest Group list, "In my town there was a law (in XIII-XVc) which ordered every citizen to visit a public bath once a week. If someone didn't want to follow this ruled was condemned to 'tower,' or to pay some money." On the other hand, other authors suggest that some people went weeks, months or years without bathing.

    The bundles of birch-twigs employed as massage-instruments in the Russian banyas are similar to the Finnish implements; the Bohemian bathhouse keepers employed scrubbers of some kind which seem to be made of green branches tied to a stick (in a rather suggestive bundle, as shown in period pictures). Wooden buckets with bails were also depicted in the Bohemian illustrations. A thirteenth-century manuscript of Sachsenspiegel shows bathers massaging themselves with bunches of leaves (Lyons and Petrucelli, p. 364)

    Sponges, wooden buckets with bails, and wooden tubs full of water of various sizes appear in the Bohemian illustrations, in Durer's sketch "The Women's Baths," and in later illustrations of Russian baths; one appears to bake oneself in the banya, 'stove,' or bathhouse, while splashing water over oneself and others. An illustration from Jena in the Gothic period shows bathers both reclining on tiers of raised shelves or seats, and bathing in a wooden tub bath (though without the cloth lining depicted in illustrations of Western European baths). Inventories from the late 1500s in Prague mention bathtubs being stored in the courtyards of several middle-class homes.

    Apparently, bathing in a tub was part of the bride's pre-wedding duties, as "On the eve of the appointed day, the bride's mother, girl friends, and female relatives arranged a ritual bath for her. After the bride had washed, the bath water was saved; it was supposed to have magical powers transferred from her body to excite love in her future husband. Although Orthodox clergy tried to stamp out the custom of collecting the "wedding water" the custom continued into the seventeenth century..." (Pushkareva, p. 32) While we do not know whether this bath would involve immersing the whole body, it is clearly one that involves standing water rather than, or in addition to, steam or dry heat.

    Washing at other times is attested in the 16th/17th century text of the Domostroi; the author mentions washing upon arising, and before praying at the start of a new task. Ritual bathing and washing appears in the Domostroi also. The 17th century wedding ritual sections mention the groom's post-nuptial visits to the bathhouse, and the washing of the bride inside the house. The exchange of ceremonial, decorated 'towels' also appears in the Domostroi's descriptions of wedding arrangements.

    In pre-Petrine Russia, the bathhouse was the focus of childbirth ritual, according to Levin: "The usual location chosen for the delivery, at least in Northern Russia, was the bathhouse. Archbishop II'ia of Novgorod in the twelfth century formulated specific instructions on how to purify it, citing the precedent of Bishop Nifont. . . The bathhouse was warm, clean, and private. It could be placed off limits of the delivery and cleansing without disrupting village routines. Furthermore, the bathhouse had a religious significance in Finno-Ugric paganism. It served as a center for gathering, worship, religious dance, and personal repurification. The custom of giving birth in a bathhouse was ingrained to the point that women in the seventeenth century who gave birth out of wedlock and killed the newborn still went to the bathhouse for the delivery." ("Childbirth in Pre-Petrine Russia," p. 51) Puskareva points out that women underwent purificatory baths at the end of the forty days following child birth (p. 39).

    Clearly, evidence for bathing in pre-Seventeenth Century central and Eastern Europe is not sparse, even in English-language histories. Hopefully others will take up the research in primary sources and report further on period hygiene practices.


  • Aaland, Mikkel. "The Russian Bania: History of the Great Russian Bath,"
  • Allen, Nick. "May the Steam Be With You." Russian Life Jan-Feb 2004; 47:1: 22-29.
  • Calderwold, Mark. (Master Giles de Laval.) "Tubbed and Scrubbed." Stefan's Florilegium. 2002.
  • De Bonneville, Françoise. The Book of the Bath. New York: Rizzoli, 1998.
  • The Domostroi: Rules for Russian Households in the Time of Ivan the Terrible. Edited and translated by Carolyn Johnston Pouncy. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994.
  • Heise, Jennifer (Jadwiga Zajaczkowa). "The Bohemian Bathhouse Babes from the Wenceslaus Bible."
  • Hildegarde of Bingen. Hildegard von Bingen's Physica: The Complete English Translation of Her Classic Work on Health and Healing. Trans. from the Latin by Patricia Throop. Rochester, VT: Healing Arts, 1998.
  • James, P and N. Thorpe, Ancient Inventions. New York: Ballantine, 1994.
  • Lambton, Lucinda. Temples of Convenience and Chambers of Delight. New York: St. Martin's, 1995.
  • Lehman, Emma. "The Bohemian Bathing Beauties",
  • Levin, Eve. "Childbirth in Pre-Petrine Russia." In Russia's Women: Accommodation, Resistance, Transformation. Berkeley: California, 1991.
  • Lyons, Albert S. and R. Joseph Petrucelli. Medicine: An Illustrated History. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1978.
  • Pushkareva, Natalia. Women in Russian History from the Tenth to the Twentieth Century. Translated and edited by Eve Levin. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1997.
  • Shahan, Thomas J. "Baths and Bathing in the Middle Ages." In The Middle Ages: Sketches and Fragments. New York: Benzinger Brothers, 1904. Pages 286-296.
  • Von Furstenberg, Diane. The Bath. New York: Random House, 1993.
  • Zamoyski, Adam. The Polish Way: A Thousand-Year History of the Poles and their Culture. New York: Hippocrene, 1987.

    Traveling to Moscovy in the 16th Century: Part One

    By Mordak Timofeyvich Rostovskogo

    Dusty or muddy, crowded and smelly, with too many people in too small of a place, the odor of human sweat and animal dung competes with the buzz of conversation and the squeal of greased axles. A regular cornucopia of sights, smells and images combining into the total ambiance that was daily life in 16th century Moscow, colloquially called "Moskva" in local parlance. Frozen in the winter, muddy in the spring and dusty and humid during the summer, and always overcrowded, medieval Moskva was not a city so much as several microcosms of Russian life. All societal levels of the population were contained in neighborhoods that were themselves arranged in concentric circles, separated by walls with gates and sometimes, even rivers.

    For the sake of vicarious tourism, imagine for a moment that you are a traveler of some ilk, be it religious, diplomatic, mercantile or servile, either a native Rus or a visiting foreigner, a nemets. For many weeks you have traveled northward across the Rus kingdom, through endless miles of steppe, the dark soil of the steppe becoming poor and sandy soil as you enter the marshlands and endless forests of the north. From horseback you gaze in a land populated by men in drab caftans with brightly colored sashes and heavily bearded faces, the women wearing headscarves and crosses around every neck. All with the same suspicious, staring eyes and sometimes, a quick, shy smile. Every building is wooden, excepting the occasional stone or brick church. Every half day's travel along every road you encounter post guards; always curious, always with several saddled horses near at hand, fresh and ready to ride at a moment's notice. It is a harsh land populated with a rugged, stoic people used to deprivation but very populous and well fed. And always, in every village no matter how small, the ever present saunas and bath houses, noticeable by the steam curling out from under their eaves, their patrons barbarously standing outside the doors totally naked, men and women together without shame even, their sweating bodies still steaming.

    Finally, your party tops a low rise and in the distance you first see the smudge of haze on the skyline and, if you squint your eyes and focus, you can barely see a long strip of red hugging the ground underneath. You are not even surprised that you have finally arrived, only relieved. For the last three days, travel on the road has steadily grown heavier, even as the suspicious, guarded glances of passing travelers have decreased. The villages have grown larger as well, with stockaded compounds starting to appear with gates on the fringes of town, the number of languages overheard in passing becoming more numerous, mixed, eventually non-remarkable to your ears.

    Your long journey to Moskva, capital of the Kingdom of Moscovy and its Grand Prince, its Velikii Kniaz, has been long, hard and slow. In every village a church has stood, each with a bell, amongst a jumble of wooden buildings and the ever present sea of saunas and bath houses, which the Rus love almost as much as their drink and the game they call "chess." At every meal you have eaten soup in infinite variety, all of it reeking of garlic and the universal brown bread the Rus soften in their broth. In every town there stands a tavern, owned by the Velikii Kniaz, easily identifiable by the drunken forms sleeping off their imbibing in the street outside the door, sometimes clothed but often naked, or nearly so. For drink is the love of the Rus, behind even fornication, haggling and lying.

    Pious women, church bells and garlic smells, haughty grandees and merchants on horseback with servants running along behind, followed by closed carriages or sledges for their women, carefully guarded and sequestered from temptation and male eyes. The occasional glimpse of a face, artificially whitened with raven colored eyebrows, kohled eyes and impossibly red lips and cheeks in the Rus form of beauty, age indeterminate underneath. A striking mixture of the orient and light featured western people, an exotic land truly at a cultural crossroads.

    At every travel post you have noticed the same characters awaiting your arrival: a petty noble in charge, a clerk from the travelers chancellery, a priest called a pop dressed in black with a cross around the neck, chanting with three fingers raised in either benediction or as a guard against the evil foreigners bring with them. And always, several soldiers observing from the wings of the crowd, their quilted armor in drab greens and reds, knee and elbow in length over high boots, each with high wide collars protecting the neck and a domed metal cap on every head. On every hip swings the worn grip of a well-used saber riding under a strung short bow in a belt case, on the other hip a small quiver of arrows sharing space with a short hafted mace or axe and a long, viciously down curved poniard. The same gear, the same beards, differing only in color, but always the same hard, professional eyes: waiting, relaxed, but vigilant. A glance confirms that they are a mixed group, fair features competing with exotic Tatar features with wide cheeks, dark eyes and sparse beards. Sometimes even a mixture of both breeds but all hard men, obviously at home on horseback, like the centaurs of myth, horsemen. Their small, shaggy mounts aren't very impressive by the standards of horseflesh in your native land but by repute as tireless and hardy as their masters, immune to both cold and distance, able to survive on almost no fodder and less rest.

    Days later, the travelers compound has become dangerously overcrowded and tempers are in danger of exploding when your guide arrives, throwing all within the compound into a frenzy of activity, a thousand tasks being done at once. In less time than you would suspect, the first parties are disappearing through the gates into the streets beyond, a long line of travelers following their well dressed guide. The soldiers are busy shepherding the travelers, their shouts and whips keeping the parties in line and the other traffic from enveloping the column. For the first time, you find yourself appreciating them, even as you grit your teeth each time their whips crack, crack, crack above the heads in an endless staccato somewhere along your column. Ahead the long red walls of Moskva are growing closer. Behind the long, boring journey to arrive…here. In ignorance you ride on, unaware that the strangest part of your journey is just beginning.

    Nierzadem Polska Stoi (By Unrule Poland Stands): A Comparison of Western and Polish Feudalism in the Middle Ages: Part Three

    By Zygmunt z Nadratowo

    The Clergy
    The Church in Western Europe. The church was equally powerful among the Poles and the other countries of Europe, yet due to its late entry into Poland as compared to Western Europe, it had a significantly different impact.

    Thanks to horse-riding Arab marauders who attacked through Spain and into France, the stirrup had been introduced into Europe . This spelled the death knell of the supremacy of the armored foot soldier as the pre eminent, decisive arm of combat. It also changed the favored fighting form for the status-seeking nobility. However, this had serious consequences, chief among them expense. Horses required more land for food. The knight riding the horse had to bear this expense, but often could not do so solely and needed a richer, noble sponsor. These sponsors needed help as well, and eventually looked to the king. This burden first fell on Pepin the Short, the grandfather of Charlemagne. His hungry eyes fell on the only other large land holder in his domain - the Church.

    To meet this need, Pepin decreed that church lands were to be paid a very small rent, or just strong armed the church off lands altogether. Benefices that had previously been granted out of former Church property, which were supposed to revert back to the Church at some later date, were kept as secular benefices. Sometimes the Church was simply ordered to provide a package of land to needy nobles . Thus the ability to fight became a sole monopoly of the nobility. Those nobility who could not keep up with the horse-riding Joneses that could not gain a sponsoring Lord, or those who were merely status-seeking poor with fighting skill who could also not find a Lord, sank back into the mass of serfs and peasants.

    This new policy of Church land seizure, with its corresponding grant of fiefs, as well as status, had the unforeseen effect of attracting nobles of increasing importance to vassalage. It became a sought-after status symbol. It was this development that led to the downfall of the antrustis and their merger with the higher-class vassals, who eventually became cemented as the noble class .

    The Church in Poland. The Church was a late entrant into Slavic lands. In later years, the Polish have sought to project an image of national piety and Christianity non-parallel. However, the truth was much different. While it had, and continues to have, a deep and significant effect on Poles, it never dominated their judgments as other much as religion has dominated other nations (e.g., India, Germany). As seen above, the Church was well established from the earliest time in Western Europe. Since the Romans had converted to Christianity, it had followed on the heels of their legions and citizens everywhere they went. Eventually, it wound its way from Rome through the Empire's successor, the Holy Roman Empire, and made its way into Poland.

    In 955 AD, Otto I, King of the Germans, defeated a pagan army of Hungarians at Lechfeld, near Augsburg, Germany . Seven years later Otto I was crowned Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire by the Pope. Thanks to his neighboring Bohemian tribesman, the Polish King Miezsko I knew of the benefits that Christianity had brought to them, in the form of protection from, and alliance with, the powerful German tribes. The defeat of the pagan Hungarian army only years before by this same man must have weighed heavily on Miezsko, also a pagan. He could see the power of the Christian German Margraves along his border. Perhaps he thought that, if he could ally himself with his fractious but powerful German neighbors, he could preserve for himself a measure of independence. While Christian missionaries had certainly been in the area before, Miezsko used Otto's mission to the Kievan Rus as an alliance-building tool. In 965, he married Dobrava, the daughter of a Slavic Bohemian Duke - and a Christian . The following year, Miezsko was baptized. If the Polish King had felt that marriage and conversion were a needed gamble to take in order to keep his territory-hungry Teutonic neighbors at bay, he was correct - Miezsko's descendants enjoyed increasingly closer ties with the Empire . Nominally a Christian nation, the pagan culture remained strong for years to come. A missionary Bishopric was established in Poland (the first of its kind) in 966 to further increase the influence of the church .

    The persistent existence of pagan practices, along with a policy of non-violence towards them, highlights another trait among the Poles -- religious toleration.

    Large numbers of Ruthenes continued to practice the Orthodox Christian rite. Large Armenian communities existed within the large cities of south-eastern Poland. As time went on, Calvinists, Lutherans and other Protestants found a tolerant home in Poland.

    A large segment of the population was not even Christian at all. Jews made up a significant segment of the population, which increased any time there were anti-Semitic pogroms in neighboring nations. The Jews were protected by ancient legal precedents. As long as they practiced religious segregation, they were left alone, even to Christian proselytizing . In fact, Catholics, Protestants and Jews lived together in a remarkable state of harmony.

    In 1556, a woman was accused of stealing a host from a church and selling it to the Jews for an occult rite. The residing Bishop quickly had her burnt at the stake. The execution caused a tremendous public outcry. Her three other Jewish "accomplices" were to be executed the next day, but were rescued by a combined assembly of Catholic and Protestant Szlachta. On another occasion a cobbler was sentenced to death for heresy, but was rescued by the combined might of the Szlachta of three influential families, comprised of all denominations. As a noble pointed out, "It is not a question of religion; it is a question of liberty" . And if zealous Christian Prelates were disturbed by the sight of synagogues standing on Christian Polish soil, they must have been apoplectic at the sight of mosques there as well, thanks to the Crimean Tartars who earlier came to invade and stayed to settle.

    While crusading was the choice pastime of Western European nobility, it never caught on in Poland. The Tartars, the easiest target for an erstwhile crusader, were a regular and destructive nuisance. They were Moslem but had no territorial ambitions. While tons of oxygen was turned into hydrogen in pious Christian speeches against them, campaigns into Tartar lands were more police action than starry-eyed crusade. The Tartars also behaved much like the Poles own Cossack allies. Indeed, Polish nobles thought nothing of recruiting Tartars and Cossacks as allies against each other. Tartars were even admitted into the predominantly Christian Szlachta, while still Moslem:

    "Crusading, in fact, could never have been very popular in Poland. The Infidel was too close and too well known to hold much glamour; and there were wars enough as it was. More importantly, throughout the Middle Ages, the Kingdom of Poland had itself been assaulted by western crusaders, who in the pay of the Teutonic Order spent more time fighting their Catholic hosts than converting the heathen. For three hundred years, from 1226 to 1525, the struggle against the 'Knights of the Cross' exerted one of the formative influences on the development of Polish Catholicism."

    In hindsight, the conversion of Miezsko can be seen for what it was - a political convenience. Officially Catholic in 965, pagan practices continued in Poland-Lithuania until 1385. That year, the union of Poland-Lithuania became written law, one condition of which was that Lithuania convert to Christianity . However, pagan religious observances persisted there into the 1800's, and, much as western Christians have Christmas trees and Easter bunnies, still persist in minor customs to this day.

    In a country in which Catholics, Orthodox Christians, Jews and Moslems lived side by side, religious toleration had to be the order of the day to retain any cohesion at all. As thirty years of slaughter was about to commence in Germany over the consistency of Communion bread, a Polish Bishop commented upon taking over his diocese: "In very extensive areas of my bishopric, one would search in vain for a single person who has ever been to confession or Communion in his life; a single person who knows how to say one prayer or to make the sign of the Cross; a single person who has the faintest idea of the Mysteries of the Faith" .

    In the atmosphere of compromise needed for Polish society to flourish, religious militancy was never needed or wanted. The Church could not use any state institutions to enforce their will . Due to the population's personal and political outlook, the Church failed to impose a strict Christian or even Catholic orthodoxy on them. Also due to this, the Polish Church had a unique relationship with the Vatican. The Polish Crown appointed its own bishops, and then sent its candidates to Rome for their approval. When it was not forthcoming, it was usually ignored . So, unlike Western Europe, where the ascendancy and monopoly of the Church was never seriously threatened, Poland's was constantly in rivalry with other beliefs - pagans, dissenters and other schisms.

    While sharing many similarities with the system of homage and vassalage that we now call feudalism, the system Poland used had a character all its own. Religious toleration was not only a fact of life; it was supported by the nobility, if only nominally encouraged. From a communal clan based system of governance, their communal herby, or Coats of Arms, to their elected King, Poland's government was more Republican Monarchy than a Monarchical Republic. The Poles had a saying, nierzadem Polska stoi [It is by unrule that Poland stands], which neatly encapsulates the beliefs of the nobility. In 1797, the combination of a weak central government, wealth, apathy and bribes by special interest groups, made up of Poles, but operating at the behest of outside governments (Russia, Prussia and Austria) would catch up with and doom the Republic of Poland . At its fall, the union of Poland-Lithuania had existed longer than the current union of Britain-Scotland. Poland would experience a brief heyday after WWI, when it was revived as a condition of the treaty of Versailles, only to disappear into bondage and despair for the next forty years as a reluctant Soviet satellite state.

    Persona Material
    Why be from Poland? Because it offers a unique perspective on medieval Europe. The closest analog during the Middle Ages to Poland is likely Scotland with its clan structure. Poland sits in the middle of several trade routes connecting Russia and the lands to the east with the rest of Western Europe. As in other parts of Europe, Polish nobles sent their children to other Western European countries, especially Italy, for their education. In fact, during the Renaissance, the University of Krakow was inspired by the explosion of thought going on in Italy. Renaissance thought was married with a Polish outlook - and the church helped disseminate those ideas !

    Another unique Polish idea was Sarmatism. The Poles believed that they were not descended from just any old stock of Slavic warriors. They thought that they were descended from the fierce warriors of Sarmatia. These warriors lived in the Black Sea area and swept through Poland and Soth-Eastern Europe in the 500's. It allowed them to think of themselves as different from their non-Szlachta countrymen. In spite of its illogicality, the ideal of the a fierce, horse-riding, independent warrior-king found a ready home and audience among the Poles, especially since it included none of those bothersome (relatively) new Christian ideas of homage, vassalage, fealty and humility.


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  • Byzantium: Faith and Power (1261-1557). Exhibition at Metropolitan Museum, New York. March 23-July 4, 2004.

    This show was filled with treasures and included many (perhaps too many) icons. For my money the early rooms were the most interesting. In the first were a few gold earrings, medallions, seals, and signet rings. The best treasures however were more than a dozen illuminated books! Several were from Armenia and a couple from Russia. One manuscript was called Barlaam Ioasaph, and is a retelling of Buddha's life as a Christian Saint; while another manuscript was a copy of the Alexander Romance (the life of Alexander the Great). A second room held several treasures from my home town -- the inner doors from St Sophia in Novgorod, showing the Annunciation and the Evangelists. It is made from copper and gold, using a process called fire gilding. Across the room was a twelve foot high multi armed cross/tree of life, carved from wood -- the Liudogostich Cross of Novgorod, 1359. It is a mixture of Bible scenes, knotwork and inscriptions seemed rather magical to me. Further on was a Psalter from Kiev dated to 1397, the page it was opened to decorated with peacocks. What is so excellent about all the books was that you can see how the calligrapher worked, with guidelines, coloring, margin notes, and so on.

    P>The icons tended to repeat the same images (well, duh!) except for a few. The Russian Saints Boris and Gleb appear together in princely garb and I think there is a lot to learn about costumes by studying them. Otgon noticed that the cloaks are quilted, for example. Further on was an icon showing a Battle between Novgorod and Suzdal, in three panels. Panel one, the citizens of Novgorod take the icon of Mary out of her church. Panel two, they hang the icon on the city wall, where it os struck by a Suzdalian arrow. Panel three, Saints Boris,Gleb and Alexander Nevski arise to fight besides Novgorodian troops and kick ass.

    The show went on for a long way more. There were beautiful textiles, mostly religious vestments. More icons from St Catherine's in the Sinai. Manuscripts painted in Ethiopia. Manuscripts painted in Byzantium after its capture by the Turks with Arab notations next to the Greek. Late in the show were several drawings of Constantinople in the 1550s by a Renaissance artist, showing the city walls and St Sophia.

    Anyway, it was a lot of fun and I ended up with a cool icon which will look really good in my yurt.

    -- Peotr Alexeivich Novgoroski


  • Tvorimir Danilov (Mir Plemmons,17716 196th Ave SE, Renton WA 98058, 425-413-4114, mir_plemmons@ noted on the SIG-L that "I spoke late May with the proprietor of Seven Meadows Traditional Archery and Hungarian Handcrafts. She has a Hungarian bowyer making Mongol bows that looked good to me and are well received w/in An Tir's archery community. She said she's thinking of bringing in other things, clothing and such, depending on interest. She had in her booth a collection of forged arrowheads, and vests heavily embroidered. I told her I'd pass word to you all, and she seemed receptive to suggestions of what the Hungarian folks might like to buy... Hopefully she's as useful a resource as it sounded." Contact: or

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