The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth

Wladyslaw Roczniak

in Renaissance and Reformation

ISBN: 9780195399301
Published online July 2012 | | DOI:
The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth

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  • Modern History (1700 to 1945)
  • Medieval and Renaissance Philosophy


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The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth—also called the Commonwealth of Both Nations, Poland-Lithuania, the Commonwealth, or, pars pro toto, simply Poland—was at first a dynastic (till 1569) and then a federal multiethnic and multireligious union of the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, lasting from 1386 to 1795. At its height, in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, it became one of the largest (territorially), most populous, and politically most powerful of early modern European states, exhibiting , democratic, and religiously tolerant tendencies. Militarily, it stopped the encroachment of the Teutonic Knights at Grunwald (Tannenberg) in 1410, turned back the Baltic ambitions of Russia’s Ivan IV (Ivan the Terrible) in the Livonian Wars (1558–1582), and took a leading role capping the march of the Ottoman Empire with the famous victory at Vienna in 1683. Culturally, the Commonwealth became a border region and a bridge between the Latin civilization of central and western Europe (Poland-Lithuania boasted the second oldest central European university, in Kraków, and was the birthplace of Nicolas Copernicus, the father of modern astronomy) and the Orthodox and even Islamist leanings of the eastern and southern European periphery, creating fascinating mixes of Byzantine and baroque influences in artistic and folk expressions (the conglomerate Sarmatian “culture” of the Polish nobility, or szlachta, fits into this category). Religiously, the Commonwealth displayed a degree of toleration and freedom unusual for its times, guaranteed by the 1573 Confederation of Warsaw, and it became a haven for Christian dissidents and sectarians, as well as most of the world’s population of Jews (By some estimates, 80 percent of the world’s Jewry lived in 17th-century Poland). Politically, the idiosyncratic system of Commonwealth polity refuses immediate classification, but it included an elective and limited monarchy, a bicameral Diet (Sejm) with a Senate (Senat) and a Chamber of Deputies (Izba Poselska), a noble democracy, and high levels of political decentralization. Though united in the person of the monarch and their chief representative institution, Poland and Lithuania both maintained their own armies, treasuries, and state functionaries. Wracked eventually by the Counter-Reformation, a foreign-dependent and declining agricultural economy based on the persistence of serfdom, the rising currents of absolutism and authoritarianism among its neighbors, spreading political anarchy among its ruling magnate classes, and military disasters at home (the Cossack Uprising of 1648, the Swedish Deluge of 1655–1660, among others), the Commonwealth declined, disappearing entirely to the Three Partitions of Poland (1772–1795) engineered by Austria, Prussia, and Russia. Today, the Third Polish Republic sees itself as a successor state to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and its traditions.

Article.  21408 words. 

Subjects: Modern History (1700 to 1945) ; Medieval and Renaissance Philosophy

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