Szymon Starowolski, a Reformer of Polish Customs
Museum of King Jan III’s Palace at Wilanów

Passage to knowledge

Museum of King Jan III’s Palace at Wilanów

Szymon Starowolski, a Reformer of Polish Customs Michał Czerenkiewicz
44_bojka szlachty w kosciele.jpg

In April 1656 Franciszek Wolski delivered a funeral sermon dedicated to the late Szymon Starowolski, canon of the Wawel cathedral deceased a few days earlier. The baroque-style laudatory speech was published two years later. By referring to the dead as ‘the Polish Salvian’, the preacher alluded to Starowolski’s writings dedicated to current social and political matters. Salvian of Marseille, an early-Christian author of ‘On the Government of God’ (‘De gubernatione Dei’), severely criticized those Christians whose acts frequently remained in contradiction with the gospel teachings. Salvian claimed that many pagans acted more decently than Christ’s followers.

Published for the first time in ca. 1650 in Cracow was Starowolski’s work bearing an abridged title ‘Reformation of Polish Customs’. Apart from various previously written works, the publication contained also some dedicated to current state-related issues. The author called for a moral rebirth of Poles, indicated existing social injustices, degeneration of democracy among nobles as well as an overall difficult position of peasants and townsmen. He resumed the same issues in one of his most famous works wherein he put forward an amendment plan for the existing social and political system. He believed that such amendment was ‘badly needed for all classes of our Homeland, so deeply spoiled in our times’. ‘Reformation of Polish Customs revealed the author’s conviction of the existing degeneration of population and also a strongly idealistic perception of lifestyles practiced by past generations, whose customs (mores maiorum) ought to serve as a model for posterity. Starowolski became a self-proclaimed expert making social assessments, an observer capable of predicting future course of events and an educator who indicated the necessity to correct existing mistakes and put forward the right solutions. His analysis of the contemporary situation in the Commonwealth of the Two Nations persuaded Starowolski to produce a piece of writing of a moralizing nature.

When composing his treaty concerning current social and political issues, Starowolski followed in the footsteps of such writers as Andrzej Frycz Modrzewski, Krzysztof Warszewicki and Piotr Skarga. His ‘Reformation of Polish Customs is composed of twenty two chapters, wherein the author not only reprimands his fellow citizens but also proves himself an erudite skilfully alluding to ancient and later literature (Machiavelli, Lipsius, Puteanus etc.). In his description of present-day society, Starowolski uses religious categories. His catalogue of national vices reflected in the inhabitants of the Commonwealth assigns the top position to excessive pride which already in antiquity was considered a sinful root of all other sins. In so doing, Starowolski opposes nobles’ megalomania and their disregard for the Church’s teaching. He encourages to assume the attitude driven by the fear of God which he believes to be an antidote to pride. After the love of God he allots the second place to the love of Homeland, which ought to provide equality for all its citizens. Starowolski is in favour of law-abidingness which is the fundament of real freedom. These demands are directed mainly at Polish nobility (‘the noble Polish knighthood’). He interprets the term ‘nobility’ as an everlasting invitation to living a noble life. A former lecturer at the Cracow Academy, he stresses the significance of philosophy in the moral rebirth of the society. Such stand gives rise to his criticism of behaviour which we would define as hedonistic and consumerist. The author reproves for excessive drinking and dressing. He believes drunkenness to be the vice directly responsible for people converting from the Catholic to the Protestant faith. His negative appraisal does not spare the clergy either. The criticism of the society is linked with his conviction that a lot is up to the noble class. On its tasks Starowolski writes that, ‘[…] out of a certain inborn coarseness we, Poles are more than other nations prone to pride, anger, struggle and gluttony; it was other nations however that God gratified with high offices and dignities, placed like a candle on a candlestick and made shine with virtues and examples of modesty for us, lesser people.’ In the context of drunkenness and extravagance, the writer also tackles the issue of excessively lavish banquets. He opposes the practice of sitting at the table inside a host’s house armed with weapons. He points out the risk of superficial forms of politeness which are often expressions of hypocrisy and self-interest. At the same time, he gives instructions helpful in soliciting a true friendship. Another vice condemned by Starowolski is greed, its extreme form manifested in the act of swallowing coins before one’s death. Related to greed is rip-off, exemplified in activities of higher- and lower-rank nobles alike, both with and without offices. Starowolski complains about prodigality of soldiers by juxtaposing the military ideals with everyday reality. Simultaneously, he appeals to senators to take a better care of simple people. From the noble class he demands more respect for the clergy and integrity of the church property. As a traditionalist, Starowolski does not support a change of the existing social division into classes. Instead, he recommends a humane treatment of serfs by magnates. He also stresses the importance of educating young people. Apart from comments pertaining to the society at large, the author presents his reflections on the system of government. By analysing the existing legal order, he underlines the significance of justice. He reminds senators of their public responsibility and the obligation to put the public interest first. He favours precise land measurement leading to the payment of due taxes, fundamental limitation of export for the sake of internal trade and stabilization of the local currency. He believes that a nobleman should not be involved in trade which creates favourable conditions for stretching the truth and shifts away from the military craftsmanship. He recommends a renewal of alliances with the neighbouring states and a construction of fortresses, new cities and seaside colonies.

Starowolski’s standpoint alluded to those ancient figures who believed in a close interrelation between morality of the citizens and a condition of the state. Such thesis was adopted by Sallust, frequently invoked in Starowolski’s writing. ‘Reformation of Polish Customs’ draws a picture of mid-17th-century Polish society. A reader gets acquainted with a representation of Starowolski’s contemporary Sarmatians, which admittedly is far from ideal. Interestingly enough, the same Sarmatians were previously glorified by the author in his earlier works.

Starowolski’s worst scenarios were repeated in his ‘Lament of the Distressed Mother, the Dying Polish Crown, Over her Heartless, Nasty and Uncaring Sons’ and they did come true. In the latter work composed as a jeremiad, Starowolski personifies homeland in expressing the sad assertion, ‘Oh, wretched mother, on observing my sons I bestow enrooted in them all immorality of malicious mankind.’ Starowolski’s ‘Reformation of Polish Customs’ and his later ‘Lament’ alike close with an expression of the author’s belief in possible improvement of the existing situation.

We would like to inform that for the purpose of optimisation of content available on our website and its customisation according to your needs, we use information stored by means of cookies on the Users' end devices. You can control cookies by means of your Internet browser settings. Further use of our website without change of the browser settings means that you accept the use of cookies. For more information on cookies used by us and to feel comfortable about this subject, please familiarise yourselves with our Privacy Policy.

✓ I understand