The Baroque concept of theatrum mundi in the former Commonwealth
Museum of King Jan III’s Palace at Wilanów

Passage to knowledge

Museum of King Jan III’s Palace at Wilanów

The Baroque concept of theatrum mundi in the former Commonwealth Kazimierz Maliszewski
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The topos of theatrum mundi has appeared in culture and literature since antiquity. The conviction that the world is a stage was particularly strong in the Baroque – an epoch in which people realised the volatility of Fortune and the struggles of man on the stage of life with Time, Vanitas and Death. The idea of theatrum mundi in the Baroque era had a significant influence on the culture and style of the period, and shaped people’s attitudes, mentalities and sensitivities. The topos found its reflection in Polish hand-written newspapers in the 17th and early 18th centuries. Let us then try to capture the basic elements of theatrum mundi, which emerged from the content of the analysed newspapers.

It must be said above all that hand-written newspapers contained a fairly extensive (for those times) and relatively diverse information service, both national and global, framed in three dimensions: historic-political, geographical and natural. They recorded, first of all, current political and military events. They contained a huge quantity of facts from the “happening now” history in the area of current politics and diplomacy, the military campaigns being conducted, as well as the life of European courts and dynasties.

The analysis of the contents and structure of the information contained in the handwritten newspapers plainly indicates that they held a clearly Eurocentric way of seeing the world, viewed through the prism of Christian European civilisation. It was – still-present in the consciousness of the nobility in the Baroque period – a Christian model of perceiving the world and Europe itself as a traditional “Christian Republic” that had existed since the Middle Ages, with borders that overlapped the borders of the European continent. In addition to the commonly used in handwritten newspapers term Europe, other terms were frequently used interchangeably: Christianitas, Orbis Christianus, Orbis Europeo (or simply the European World), or Christiano Orbis. It should be noted that the editors of the newspapers used the name of our continent both in its geographical meaning as well as the cultural-civilisation one, stressing the belief in the superiority of Europe and Europeans over the rest of the world.

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, with the Pope as the head of the Roman Catholic Church and the ruler of the sovereign Papal State. The editors of the newspapers realized that in their times Europe, despite still forming a whole in the geographic and cultural and civilisational sense, was actually a political and religious mosaic due to the religious divisions that existed within the Christian community since the times of Reformation and growing more significant in the 17th and early 18th centuries. The Catholic correspondents laid the blame for such religious rifts on Protestants of all kinds – Lutherans, Calvinists, French Huguenots and English Puritans, who were frequently described in the papers using epithets with negative connotations: sectarians or heretics. It was considered to be the fault of the errors of all the sects – most of all Martin Luther’s followers – that caused permanent religious disputes and splits in Europe and led to a series of wars that destroyed the unity of the Christian community.

The scope of information about various European countries published in handwritten newspapers was wide and included practically the entire territory of the Theatrum Europeum. This demonstrated that the correspondents perceived the whole of European affairs and understood that the individual regions of our continent interact with each other both politically, and in the fields of socio-economic or cultural life, as well as matters of religion. at the same time, the content of the newspapers showed a clear tendency to prefer the issues of only some countries, either because of the political role attributed to them at a given time or because of their policy in relation to Poland. It was no accident, then, that the most space and attention was dedicated by the correspondents to the politics and diplomacies pursued by neighbouring countries – Austria, Russia, Tukey, Sweden and Prussia, while acknowledging that the political and military activities of France, the superpower under the reign of Louis XIV and Louis XV, as well as those of seafaring countries that frequently stood against France – England, the Netherlands and Spain - had an often profound impact on the general European situation.

The contents of the analysed newspapers can also provide the images and stereotypes of the countries and nations neighbouring Poland – Austria, Saxony Brandenburg Prussia, Turkey, Russia and Sweden, as well as the “self-portrait” of the Commonwealth built against their background at the turn of the 17th and 18th centuries. In addition to the news from the “happening now” history in the newspapers, we can also extract a separate information layer that formed certain rudimentary elements of geographic knowledge – a collection of news about cities, rivers, seas, or closer or more distant countries. They also contained a schematic set of information regarding continents and countries outside of Europe: America, the world of the Orient, including Islamic countries – Turkey and Persia, the Christian countries of the Levant, India (identified with the Mughal Empire), countries of the Far East – China and Japan, or the northern regions of Africa. A separate and significant place in the press service belonged to the broadly defined maritime issues.

In the hierarchy of European states, the editors ascribed the leading position to the Habsburg dynasty, which had for centuries held the Imperial crown. From the regularly published news regarding the neighbouring Habsburg empire emerged a traditional imaged of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation and the figure of the Emperor as a symbol of the highest secular power in the European continent, still fulfilling the role of arbiter in resolving Pan-European political conflicts. The Imperial court in Vienna, on the other hand was considered in the newspapers to be 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.

The newspapers contain a strikingly extensive and meticulous description of feasts, games, festivals, colourful parades, masquerades and all other celebrations organised with great Baroque pomp in royal courts. The editors published reports from various court celebrations that took place in Warsaw, Dresden, Vienna, Paris, Munich, or in Papal Rome on the front pages among other news. It is evident that this clearly suited the needs of readers who themselves subscribed to the custom of celebrating unusual events in both public life as well as in the family and church. Various documents from the era (including iconographic sources) show how deeply embedded in the collective Sarmatian consciousness – in the magnate, nobility and even bourgeoisie circles – was this need of festivities and celebrations, as well as following a strict code of conduct. Thus, if readers could not directly participate in court festivities, then they undoubtedly read their detailed descriptions with great interest. These relations, usually very detailed, were composed by editors according to a set outline, in which certain elements constantly repeated. The papers showed a kind of rhythm of the rich and fascinating social-moral life of the royal courts, dependent on the time of year and the great church feasts that preceded and followed them.

The image of the European socio-political reality portrayed in the handwritten newspapers of the late Baroque was clearly defined by the ways of state and monarchical thinking, considered by their editors – as representatives of the nobility – as completely natural and obvious. They fully approved the set structure of the modern European community in the spirit of a caste-state and a monarchical way of governance in the different European countries. In their press reports, they interacted with the world of ruling families and royal and magnate courts – and thus in the circles of the social elites of the time, who ruled in a given country and influenced the course of political events in Europe. They did not always agree with the fact that a different form of rightful government could exist in the European political theatrum besides the one that the emperors and kings already exercised.

The whole of individual and collective life of the Old Polish society of modern times was strongly influenced by the Christian religion, in the 17th century more and more dominated by the followers of the Roman Catholic Church. In fact, the Catholic faith also played the role of a worldview, trying to give modern man the basic answers to existential questions about the purpose and sense of human life, man’s place in the surrounding social and human environment and, more broadly, in the world and the universe. It can also be generally said that the Sarmatian ideology and mentality were tinted by the clearly religious way of looking at life and everything that was happening in it. At the time, life without God and without His participation in it was unthinkable. This was reflected in the various creations of Old Polish historiography, as well as in the handwritten newspapers being analysed here. Their editors, much like the Sarmatian historiographers, represented in their works historiographic points of view with a strong religious leaning. It may be noted, with deeper analysis of the newspapers, that the basic element of the philosophy of history professed by the correspondents (sometimes limited only to the perspective of the history “happening how”) was the fairly widely and generally understood by them idea of providentialism, that is, the recognition of the influence of divine providence on human lives and the course of history.

Much like historians and diarists, the noble editors of the analysed newspapers often referred to theological criteria when explaining historical facts. In the process of history “happening now” they saw primarily a reflection of God’s plans, despite perceiving and describing the other – human – aspect of circumstances, events and all historical phenomena. They also believed in the possibility of intervention by supernatural elements in the fate of humanity, which could happen in various ways – through mirabilia and praesagia – ominous signs foretelling future events, such as military victories and defeats in battles where God was considered to be the actual winner and man only his tool. This faith in divine providence and supernatural phenomena, expressed in almost every handwritten newspaper, was indeed typical of the mentality of people living in the late Baroque, in times which French scholar Paul Hazard described as a “crisis of the European mind”. At the same time, it should be emphasised that the theological view of the world was not limited to the less educated social groups, but also dominated the Western European scientific communities and among the intellectual elite. In turn, Catholicism penetrated the life and mentality of the Old Polish society extremely deeply, taking on original Sarmatian forms and characteristics in terms of rituals and religious practices, forming a kind of phenomenon of Polish religiousness, defining the way of seeing things temporal and eternal. The editors of the handwritten newspapers, as representatives of said society could not look at the world differently than through the prism of a religious and providentialist cult. It may be said that for them, it was a kind of cognitive imperative, resulting from being part of the Sarmatian-Catholic community, watching Europe, the world and the universe from their own perspective, and also having a specific image of God and transcendental matters.

An in-depth analysis of the contents of the handwritten newspapers allows a modern researched to at least to some extent attempt to reconstruct some features of the Sarmatian collective mentality, among others, such difficult to grasp on the basis of other sources as emotions and group psychoses associated with the aforementioned threats to the state and the Polish society in the Late Baroque. The public was especially prone to experiencing their history on the plane of emotions and moods felts together. The handwritten newspapers, at least in some way, reflected these feelings and experiences of the Sarmatian communities, reflecting the cultural climate and the atmosphere of the era.

A special and quite spectacular form of recording certain collective visions were the systematically published by editors of the newspapers so-called vision rumours – widely described all kinds of astronomical, astrological and astro-meteorological phenomena, various news about comets and meteors appearing in the sky, as well as fiery pillars and crosses. The appearance such vision rumours was usually connected with the formation of strong collective emotions, tensions and even social psychoses, arising mostly on the background of a sense of threat caused by war, plague or other disasters strongly perceived by the relevant collective. These collective psychological projections were undoubtedly fostered and perpetuated by a long period of almost permanent wars, disasters and destruction connected with them, which had plagued the Commonwealth from mid-17th century to at least the 1780s. People perceived in the sky things they were afraid of, ascribing the properties of supernatural portents to the optic phenomena appearing of a background of other celestial bodies, on the basis of which they attempted to foretell the future fate of individual countries, reigning monarchs, or future victories or defeats and disasters.

The analysed handwritten newspapers thus show, among others, how strong were the tendencies of the editors themselves, and presumably their readers and finally the whole Sarmatian collective as well, to believe in all alarmist rumours. It should be noted that news of the panic type, including the above-mentioned vision rumours, easily moved from the magnate elites to the noble masses, as well as in the other direction, since information of this type tends to have a high penetrating power. Gossip and rumours of various kinds, including news of alarming nature, were an important ingredient, more or less concentrated, of the life of European societies in the early modern period. They were the raw material for the collective imagination, as was shown in such an interesting way, based on material concerning mainly Western Europe, by, among others Jean Delumeau in his studies.

Reflected in handwritten newspapers was the characteristic for Sarmatian mentality interest in the world of wonders and curiosities, unusual and mysterious phenomena, miracles and events bordering on the supernatural. Reports of all kinds of curiosum and miraculum were presented as sensational material, which could undoubtedly interest the reader. The imagination of the Polish magnate or nobleman, as in general the human psyche of the Baroque, was always attracted to the world of wonders and irrational events. From the flood of facts and events, man tried to pick out all sorts of convergences and oppositions, omens, praesagia and oddities, to be able to make sense of the surrounding social and natural reality. Handwritten newspapers regularly provided people with an extremely rich and colourful information service on the subject.

As part of “futuristic” forecasts and fears about the future state of the whole of Christian civilisation, newspaper correspondents placed in the foreground the vision of the Commonwealth as a world threatened by both external and internal enemies at the turn of the 17th and 18th centuries. It is no accident then that present within Polish society at least since mid-17th century was a veritable psychosis of catastrophism, which found its expression in Late Baroque literature.

In can thus be said that handwritten newspapers presented a much fuller and richer picture of the theatrum mundi than traditional descriptions nationum, the commonly accepted and stereotypical characteristics of individual countries and nations also popular in Poland. These newspapers could not show the variety of colours and diversity of the reality they depicted, however. The information presented was strongly coloured by religious and providentialist elements, they were apologetic of the existing social order, based on the state-legalistic structure. They considered the order of the world, nature and history, established – as it was believed – by the hand of divine providence, to be permanent and unchanging.

In summary, it can be said that handwritten newspapers, in terms of the overall quality and range of knowledge about Poland, occupied a weighty and quite specific place in the Old Polish system of information and social communication. For the modern researcher, they are an irreplaceable and invaluable historical source for the study of Old Polish mentality in the broad sense.

Translation: Lingua Lab

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