Eurocentric and Christian Model of the World in the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth
Museum of King Jan III’s Palace at Wilanów

Passage to knowledge

Museum of King Jan III’s Palace at Wilanów

Eurocentric and Christian Model of the World in the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth Kazimierz Maliszewski

So-called hand-written newspapers – a very popular and mass (in the meaning appropriate to the time) information medium in the Late Baroque period (from 1670 to mid-18th century) – were a particularly interesting and important source, making it possible to reconstruct at least some elements of the collective mentality of the nobility, including ideas about the world. The studies I have conducted show that through this means of social communication, a wide stream of news from the country and around the world flowed into the Commonwealth, categorised in three areas: political, geographical and natural.

Based on the analysis of the newspapers we can conclude that in the Commonwealth, there was a Eurocentric way of looking at the world through the prism of a Christian European civilisation. This was – still present in the Baroque-era Sarmatian consciousness – a Christian way of understanding the world, and Europe itself, as a traditional “Christian republic”, in existence since the Middle Ages, with borders that overlapped the borders of the European continent. In the former Commonwealth, the name of our continent was used both in its geographic as well as its cultural and civilisational meaning, emphasising at the same time the belief in the superiority of Europe and Europeans over the rest of the world’s population. In general, a more or less accurate idea of the real extent of Europe’s territory existed in the Old Polish awareness – from the Atlantic Ocean to the eastern reaches of the Austrian Empire and the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, to the basin of the Mediterranean Sea to the Scandinavian Peninsula.

The general idea of the political, geographical and religious divisions of Europe was quite accurate. According to the stratification of our continent accepted in 17th-18th centuries, a latitudinal division into northern countries (Nordic) and southern countries, and not, as is done today, diving Europe along the meridians, into the East and the West. Along with other Slavic countries, as well as German and English-speaking countries, were thus found in the Septemtrio, while France, Spain and Italy, or the Romanesque world, constituted the south of Europe. When Russia, during the reign of Peter I, started to be regarded as a European state, it was included among the northern powers, alongside Sweden, Denmark and England.

In Old Polish literature, a fairly good knowledge of European geographical names was demonstrated through the use of the names of countries, geographic regions, mountains, rivers, cities and often very small towns, connected with battles, military movements, or ongoing diplomatic negotiations. They were usually written phonetically, however, with little regard for the rules of orthography – in accordance with the common practices of the Old Polish language.

In the consciousness of editors of the newspapers, Rome was the symbol of the unity of the Christian world, as well as its spiritual capital. The most important person in that world was the Pope, as the head of the Roman Catholic Church and the ruler of the sovereign Papal State. In newspapers, he was called primum totius Christianitatis Pastorem. News from the Holy See constituted extensive information sections of newspapers and were printed regularly, usually as front-page news. The correspondents were above all interested in the Pope; therefore, within each report from Rome, they wrote about the Holy Father’s health and his ecclesiastical and political activities. All kinds of grand religious ceremonies – very characteristic of the Baroque landscape of Rome – were reported on.

The intensity of press reports from Rome was particularly high during the period of wars with Turkey in the second half of the 17th century, the culmination of which was the Battle of Vienna in 1683, in which the united Christian forces were led by Polish King Jan III Sobieski. The papers showed, among others, the widespread and genuine enthusiasm that prevailed in Rome after the news of the victory at Vienna.

In Old Polish perception at the turn of the 17th and 18th centuries, Rome remained – despite the growing significance of Paris – the centre of European diplomacy, the capital of diplomatic and ecclesiastical ceremony, the meeting place for politicians, diplomats and religious officials from many countries, and finally the permanent residence of crowned women: Swedish Queen Christina (1626—1686), King Jan III’s widow Marie Casimire (1641—1716), and later her grand-daughter, Marie Clementina (1701—1735), the wife of the pretender to the English throne, James Francis Edward Stuart, known as James III (1688—1766). Many Poles at the time, both clergy and laity, had the opportunity to get to know the Holy See for themselves – either because of religious pilgrimages or as part of their journeys to study at Italian universities, including Rome.

The opinion of Jan Stanisław Bystroń should be acknowledged as true, that there was never a shortage of Poles in the city, since many of them resided there permanently, either for the various matters that were dealt with in the Papal Curia, or for the pleasure of staying in the Eternal City. Mieczysław Brahmer’s view that in Poland, the attraction of Rome grew significantly in the 17th century also appears to be correct in light of the analysed material, although even before this time, it was greater than had been previously thought by researchers. In the times of Old Poland, various descriptions and guides to Rome were known and shared, often in calendar literature. Newspaper reports about the Eternal City could therefore supplement earlier knowledge about the capital of Christendom itself, as well as the organisational structure of the Roman Curia and the Catholic Church obtained by the readers. After all, their primary informational value was the ongoing registration of the comings and goings of the Pontifex Maximus, and the goings on in Rome, which Poles in the 17th and 18th centuries still considered the spiritual and political centre of the European “Christian Republic”.

As far as the hierarchy of European countries is concerned, in traditional Polish public opinion, the leading position was ascribed to the Habsburg dynasty, who had for centuries held the Imperial crown. The Emperor was the symbol of the highest secular power on the European continent. The Imperial court, on the other hand was considered the most Catholic and majestic court in Europe, and the Emperor was seen as a true support of the papacy and the entire Roman Catholic Church, as the actual leader of the European Christian community. A constant element shaping the image of the monarchy of the Austrian Habsburgs in the collective Sarmatian consciousness was the feeling of a religious community, which inspired to jointly undertaken by Poland and the Empire political and military actions in defence of the threatened values of the Catholic religion, be it from an external enemy, such as the Ottoman Empire, or the protestants from within the German Empire.

In conclusion, a more general reflection can be raised, that it was not only through coincidence or a quirk of history that the great figure of both Polish and European culture of our times that was undoubtedly Pope John Paul II, canonised in 2014, came from our country. He was, among others, also the reason for the deepening of the various connections of Poles with Rome and the Holy See, which – as was mentioned above – were already fairly deeply seated in our recent and more distant past.

Translation: Lingua Lab

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