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6: The Heritage of the Thirteenth Century

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Toward the middle of the thirteenth century it seemed that the question of Europe’s limits would be answered by the creation of two Catholic kingdoms placed between Poland and the German colonies on the Baltic, on the one hand, and the new Russia subjugated by the Mongols on the other. Both were established simultaneously, thanks to the far-reaching Eastern policy of Pope Innocent IV. One of them was an entirely new creation: a baptized Lithuania with which most of the White Russian principalities were being united. The other was a regenerated state of Halich and Volhynia, in religious union with Rome.

    The political consolidation of the Lithuanian tribes was already in progress toward the end of the twelfth century, when their invasions into practically all neighboring countries, including the Ruthenian principalities and even Novgorod, became more and more frequent. The earliest names of their leaders are, however, purely legendary, and there is no evidence of any unified state organization. Even in 1219, when the Lithuanians made a formal agreement with the state of Volhynia and Halich, a whole series of their princes was enumerated, some of them called “seniors,” and a distinction was made between Lithuania proper and Samogitia.

    It is among the Lithuanian princes mentioned on that occasion that Mindaugas, or Mindove, appears for the first time. About twenty years later he already occupied a position of supremacy and had started uniting the whole country under his control. His successes, and the subsequent intensification of Lithuanian raids in all directions, provoked a coalition of his Christian neighbors and other Lithuanian princes whom he had deposed, so that toward the middle of the century his position seemed very precarious. He fully realized that Lithuania could survive only by becoming a Christian nation, and therefore he accepted the proposals of the Livonian Order to assist him in introducing the Catholic faith. In 1251 Mindaugas himself was baptized through a Livonian intermediary, and two years later he was crowned as a king under the auspices of the Holy See.

    The primus rex Lettovie, as he was called, directly controlled Lithuania proper in the basin of the upper Niemen. He claimed the overlordship of Samogitia with her local chieftains, and he succeeded in extending his sovereignty over most of White Russia, where relatives of Mindaugas were established in Polotsk, and also over the intermediary region between Lithuania and the Pripet marshes, divided into petty principalities. It was there that he came into immediate contact with Volhynia.

    In that province as well as in Halich, Daniel, returning after the Mongol invasion, was engaged in a difficult task of reconstruction and of settling his further relation with the khans. He, too, like the princes of Great Russia, first tried to appease them by visiting the Khan. But with a view to escaping the humiliating Tartar domination, he and his brother Vasilko first entered into relations with the papal envoys who, under the leadership of Giovanni de Plano Carpini, went through their country on their way to Mongolia, and then with Pope Innocent IV himself.

    Parallel with Rome’s negotiations with Nicaea, discussions regarding a regional union with the Orthodox peoples of Daniel’s realm were started in 1247. After the recognition of the Eastern rite by the Pope, these resulted in the agreement of 1253. Almost simultaneously with Mindaugas, Daniel was crowned by a papal legate as a Catholic king and hoped to receive sufficient assistance to liberate his country from Tartar control.

It was only natural that both kings made an agreement between Halich-Volhynia and Lithuania. In the treaty of Cheim, in 1254, they settled their frontier problems, and a common front seemed to be created against the Tartars whose advance in the northwestern direction was checked by Lithuania’s continued expansion in Ruthenian lands. The situation seemed the more propitious because Daniel had friendly relations with his Polish neighbors, who favored his union with the Catholic church as well as the conversion of Lithuania where Polish missionaries were already active.

    The various Polish duchies were, however, hardly in a position to be of much assistance, and the Pope himself could offer to that whole frontier region of the Catholic world only moral support and the usual privileges granted to crusaders. This was the main reason why Daniel, only a few years later, felt obliged to compromise with the Tartars, breaking with Rome under little known circumstances.

    Even more evident were the causes of Mindaugas  apparent apostasy. Instead of really assisting him, the Knights of Livonia claimed territorial advantages, starting with the cession of minor districts and culminating in the desire to control all of Lithuania in case of the King’s death. It is highly doubtful whether he ever ratified these promises, which were directed against the obvious interests of his people and of his own sons. The most extravagant of his charters are probably spurious or merely drafts that were prepared in the chancery of the Livonian Order. In any case, these German claims contributed to a growing opposition of the pagan element which was particularly strong in Samogitia, against Mindaugas  political program, and in 1260, after a crushing victory of the pagan leaders over the Germans in the battle of Durbe, the king himself felt obliged to join them.

    His relations with Daniel had already deteriorated. Both kings failed to coordinate their action against the Tartars, who in 1259, probably taking advantage of territorial disputes between their opponents, forced Daniel to participate in an invasion of Lithuania as well as in the second raid into Poland. The promising but premature scheme of 1253 had broken down, and the successors of Innocent IV, deeply disappointed by the defection of Daniel and Mindaugas, could consider only Poland as the last bastion of Christendom in the East. Moreover, Daniel died in 1264, and Mindaugas was killed a year before by pagan leaders who were jealous of his power. Both Catholic kingdoms east of Poland seemed nothing but a short-lived episode.

    Nevertheless that interlude had lasting consequences. There remained, first, a tradition of cooperation between the two states. In the midst of Lithuania’s internal crisis after Mindaugas, his idea of a possible succession of one of Daniel’s descendants was taken up by Voysielk (Vaisvilkas), the one of the sons of Lithuania s Catholic king who became a Christian of the Greek Orthodox faith. Voysielk, too, was killed soon after his father, his plan was abandoned, and Lithuania was governed for a dozen years by a pagan prince, Traidenis, who proved quite successful but who was opposed to any joint action with Christian neighbors. Yet his state already included so many Ruthenian lands with Orthodox populations liberated from Tartar control that the common interests with the Ruthenians of Volhynia and Halich were quite evident and perfectly realized by the dynasty which was founded in Lithuania toward the end of the thirteenth dynasty by a prince called Pukuveras.

    On the other hand, Daniel’s dynasty was far from submitting to Tartar authority as completely as the Great Russian princes of the Volga region had actually done. Volhynia and Halich were certainly in a more favorable geographical position, far away from Sarai and even more from the Asiatic center of Mongol power. But credit must also be given to Daniel’s son Leo (1264 -1301), and to his grandson George (1301—1308), who even used the royal title again, for their able policy which in spite of occasional collaboration with the Tartars, when it proved unavoidable, safeguarded the almost complete independence of their country. Under George, attempts were even made to have a separate metropolitan see created in Halich. His two sons, the last of Roman’s line, perished around 1323 while fighting the Tartars.

    Their merits in that respect were recognized in Poland, and though there were occasional conflicts between the two nations, reciprocal interferences with their internal problems and unsettled territorial claims on both sides, relations were in general rather friendly and remained close throughout the whole period. In the time of Leo, whose brother Roman was married to an Austrian princess, the house of Halich and Volhynia even participated in the typically Central European struggle for the heritage of the Babenbergs. Furthermore, the tradition of union with Rome was kept alive, and in that matter the Holy See also appealed to the last descendants of the dynasty.

    The same must be said with regard to pagan Lithuania. It is true that the fight for survival which had to be conducted against the Livonian Knights—and after the conquest of Prussia against the Teutonic Order also seemed to create a permanent hostility against the Catholic West, with frequent raids also directed against Poland. But here, too, a community of interest with a Christian neighbor became evident as soon as Poland was threatened by the Order, and in Livonia the Lithuanians took advantage of the rivalry between the archbishops of Riga and the Knights of the Sword. Occasional cooperation with the former was another opportunity for resuming plans of conversion, now no longer through the Order’s intermediary and therefore with better chances of success. From the beginning of the fourteenth century, Lithuania’s grand dukes returned time and again to these projects, realizing that paganism had at last to be abandoned if the country was to be admitted to the European community, instead of being considered a target of crusading expeditions.

In Lithuania as well as in the Ruthenian lands, the solution of that issue was largely dependent on developments in neighboring Poland.


The creation of German colonies along the Baltic, particularly in Prussia; the Mongol conquest of Russia, including the permanent danger of renewed Mongol invasions; and last but not least, the failure to establish Catholic kingdoms east of Poland, all these events deeply affected the situation of that country. Furthermore, these developments along Poland’s borders occurred in the course of a century which brought the disintegration of the Polish kingdom to an alarming climax, it being divided into a rapidly growing number of petty duchies. At the same time, Cracow was losing its position as political center of the whole country, and among its rulers, as well as among the numerous members of the Piast dynasty, a leading personality qualified to reconstruct the kingdom of the eleventh century did not appear.

    The only prince who seemed to have some chance of playing such a role in the earlier part of the thirteenth century was Henry the Bearded of Silesia. From his residence in Wroclaw (Breslau), he exercised a strong influence over all of Poland, especially in Greater Poland, where the descendants of Mieszko the Old were quarreling among themselves. And when, in 1227, Leszek the White of Cracow, who had ruled Little Poland not without success for about thirty years, was killed by Swietopelk of Pomerania, Henry the Bearded seemed the most appropriate tutor of Leszek’s minor son, Boleslaw.

    In claiming that function, however, which would have given him practical control of most of Poland, Henry met an obstinate rival in the person of Leszek’s younger brother, Conrad of Mazovia, the same who had just made the mistake of inviting the Teutonic Knights. The Prince of Silesia, where German influence was increasing, made another mistake which did not have such far-reaching consequences, but which nevertheless troubled his otherwise truly constructive policy. In connection with his repeated disputes with the local hierarchy, he approached Emperor Frederick II in the hope of regaining Poland’s royal crown with imperial support. Before these plans (which hardly had any serious chances of success) could materialize, Henry the Bearded died in 1238. His and Saint Hedwig’s son, Henry the Pious, probably had the same ultimate goal. According to the Polish tradition, he tried to reach it in cooperation with the Papacy. But Henry II’s promising career was interrupted by his death at the battle of Lignica in 1241.

    Two years later the legitimate heir of Cracow, Boleslaw, called “the Chaste,” after growing up and defeating his uncle Conrad, could at last start his personal rule in Little Poland, which he governed until his death in 1279. His long reign was threatened only once, in 1273, and not too seriously, by the claims of a rival from Upper Silesia. As a whole, however, the reign was far from being a brilliant one and it could only strengthen the impression that Poland was definitely split into a few independent duchies, some of them subdivided by the local branches of the main lines of the dynasty.

    These divisions went particularly far in Silesia, both in the main western part, where the branch of the two Henrys did not produce any prominent ruler for half a century, and in Upper Silesia, where the process of German colonization was much slower but the local princes equally insignificant. The situation in Greater Poland improved under two brothers, great-grandsons of Mieszko the Old, who cooperated against the aggressive policy of the margraves of Brandenburg, not without suffering minor territorial losses. Finally, the line of Conrad, who died in 1247 after a troublesome reign, was split into a Cuyavian and a Mazovian branch with many local conflicts in both provinces, inadequate defense against Lithuanian raids, and no foresight in relations with the Teutonic Order. The princes of Great Poland showed more interest in the fate of Eastern Pomerania, the only territory along the Baltic which was still free of German control. They concluded an agreement with the last native ruler of Danzig, Mestwin, which gave them the right of succession in case of his death.

    It meant little change in the general picture when, after the death of Boleslaw the Chaste, a prince of the Cuyavian line, Leszek the Black succeeded him, uniting his small hereditary duchy with Little Poland. It was not until Leszek’s death (who had remained childless) in 1288, that almost unexpectedly the program of reuniting Poland under a crowned king made its gradual reappearance, deeply influencing the whole situation in East Central Europe. The resumption of such plans, and their final success after so long a period of political decline and confusion, can only be understood against the background of Poland’s national development in the cultural field.

    In that respect the thirteenth century was indeed much more satisfactory. It is fully justifiable to speak of a national development because in spite of, or rather because of, the weakness of their political organization, the Polish people were meeting the challenge of the times through a growing national consciousness. They were fully aware that the futile struggles among their princes were nothing but fratricidal wars, since members of the same clans were frequently settled in various duchies.

    That clan organization of the Polish knighthood, replacing the feudal structure of Western society, was only one of the close ties which united all parts of Poland. Even more important was the ecclesiastical unity under the archbishop of Gniezno, especially as the Polish hierarchy of the thirteenth century included very prominent leaders. Among these were Archbishop Henryk Kietlicz, who introduced the reforms of Innocent III at the beginning of the century, Bishop Pelka of Cracow, who promoted at its middle the canonization of Saint Stanislas as a symbol of Poland’s unity, and another Archbishop of Gniezno, Jakob Swinka, at the end of the period.

    The latter was deeply impressed by the danger of German penetration into Poland, and under his inspiration the synods of the Polish clergy passed resolutions in favor of the Polish language and the independent development of the ecclesiastical life ~f the country. It was indeed in opposition against German influence that a genuine feeling of national community was appearing at a comparatively early date, while on the other hand, the struggle against non-Catholic and even non-Christian neighbors in the East strengthened the awareness of cultural community with the Latin West. The role of the Church was favored by the general atmosphere of the century which in Poland, no less than in Western Europe, produced a large number of men and women, including members of the dynasty, who were famous because of their saintly lives, and some of whom were eventually canonized or beatified. Greater than ever before was also the part played by religious orders. Benedictine and Cistercian monasteries were centers of cultural life, and the recently founded Franciscans and Dominicans soon became very popular in Poland and active as missionaries in her border regions.

    It was the same Archbishop Swinka who supported the idea of restoring the royal dignity, and who was ready to crown the candidate in Gniezno. There was, however, a danger that if crowned in Gniezno, which remained the ecclesiastical capital of Poland, such a monarch would be regarded as King of Greater Poland only, the region specifically designated by the name of Polonia. The reunion of Greater Poland with Little Poland, where the political capital had been placed in the city of Cracow, was therefore particularly urgent.

    With such prospects in mind, the successor of Leszek the Black as Duke of Cracow, again a Silesian Henry surnamed “Probus,” before dying after a very brief reign in 1290, decreed in his will that Little Poland should be inherited by the last representative of the line ruling in Greater Poland, a very promising young prince named Przemysl II. Other dispositions of Henry’s elaborate testament were supposed to promote the unification of the Silesian duchies and of these duchies with the rest of Poland. Insufficiently prepared, however, that plan of action met with serious difficulties because various other princes raised claims for the possession of Cracow. And it was particularly dangerous that one of them was a foreigner, King Václav II of Bohemia.

    In all previous dynastic rivalries only members of the native Piast family appeared, and amidst all the divisions of the country no territory ever came under foreign rule. Now such a threat was the more serious because the king of Bohemia was one of the princes of the Holy Roman Empire whose rule could lead to the inclusion of Poland in that Empire, something which had been carefully avoided for so many centuries. Because of lack of unity among the Piasts, Przemysl had to recognize Václav’s control of Cracow and be satisfied with Greater Poland only. But as a compensation, he united with his hereditary duchy the important province of Pomerania, where he succeeded to Mestwin in agreement with earlier negotiations. And his prestige was so great that one year later, in 1295, he was crowned as King of Poland, the first after Boleslaw the Bold who had ruled more than two hundred years before.

    Unfortunately he was assassinated the next year, probably at the instigation of the margraves of Brandenburg who feared the rise of a Polish kingdom with access to the Baltic Sea. And again conflicting claims of Polish princes for his succession facilitated the intervention of the King of Bohemia, who in turn was crowned as King of Poland in 1300, uniting at the same time Cracow and Gniezno.

    That serious threat to Poland’s independence both from Bohemia and from the Empire provoked, of course, a national reaction which was only waiting for a leader. One of the princes who had played a rather minor role in the troubles of the last decade, Wladyslaw Lokietek of the Cuyavian line, was to satisfy these expectations very soon. But in order to understand both the temporary predominance of Bohemia and its failure, the thirteenth-century development of that country must be considered in connection with the whole Danubian region.


The fate of Bohemia was always inseparable from the history of her Danubian neighbors, Austria and Hungary. Like Bohemia, the former was part of the Empire, with a German majority, which dominated the conquered Slovenes of Carinthia, Styria, and Carniola. Hungary, on the contrary, was as independent of imperial overlordship as was Poland. In all three Danubian countries, national dynasties had been well established from the beginning. These included the Babenbergs in Austria, the Árpáds in Hungary, and the Premyslids in Bohemia. But in 1246 the death of the last Babenberg, Frederick the Warlike, in a battle against the Hungarians, provoked a serious crisis which clearly divides the thirteenth-century history of the Danubian region into two parts.

    In the first half of that century, Hungary continued to occupy the leading position. The reign of Andrew II (1205—1235), with his participation not only in the affairs of Halich but also in one of the crusades in the Holy Land, greatly increased the prestige of the kingdom which in 1222, only seven years after the English Magna Charta, received in the Golden Bull a similar charter of liberties for its powerful nobility, probably under the influence of the assises of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. The equally prosperous development of Hungary under Andrew’s son Béla IV was suddenly interrupted by the Tartar invasion of 1241 which left the country as badly devastated as Poland.

    With the exception of a brief passage of the Tartars through Moravia, the Bohemian Kingdom had escaped a similar destruction, and strengthened by the long and successful reign of Václav I, was therefore in a better position when both neighbors claimed the succession of the Babenbergs. After a few years of confusion, the Austrians elected Václav’s son in 1251. Two years later, upon the death of his father, he also became King of Bohemia as Premysl Otakar II. He had, however, to face the opposition of Hungary and most of the Polish dukes were also involved on both sides. The first phase of the struggle resulted in a division of the Babenberg heritage, with only Austria proper left to Bohemia. It was not before 1269, when Hungary’s power was weakened under Béla’s son Stephen, that Otakar extended his domination over Styria, Carinthia, and Carniola, thus uniting the Slovenian territories of Austria with his Czech kingdom also.

    Such a union might have strengthened the Slavic element which was still predominant in these Austrian provinces, and it also might have re-established the contact between Northern and Southern Slavs which had been separated by German and Magyar advance. But it would be anachronistic to interpret Otakar’s policy from the point of view of ethnic nationalism. Even in his Slavic kingdom he so strongly favored German colonization, as his predecessors had done, that he lost the general support of the Czechs in his decisive struggle against a third competitor, Rudolf von Habsburg, although at the decisive moment an appeal addressed by his chancery to all Polish princes raised the issue of a common defense of Slavs against Teutons.

    Originally, Otakar’s fight against the founder of the Habsburg dynasty had nothing to do with any national antagonism and was not motivated by the problem of the Austrian succession. During the long interregnum after the fall of the Hohenstaufen, the ambition of the King of Bohemia reached much further; he hoped to be elected King of Germany and thus gain the imperial crown with the support of the papacy. Such a solution would have made the ties uniting Bohemia and her new Austrian possession with the Holy Roman Empire of the German nation even closer than before, although under a dynasty of Slavic origin the character of the Empire could have undergone a very substantial change. Only when that plan failed and the electors preferred to choose a less powerful ruler in the person of the Count of Habsburg, Otakar had to defend at least his Austrian acquisitions against the claims of Rudolf I who wanted to create there the hereditary domain so sorely needed by his family.

    Even limited to the Austrian issue, the struggle had a lasting importance for Central Europe. Otakar’s victory would have included Austria, with her Sloven provinces, in the eastern, non-German part of Central Europe, and the Premyslid power would have remained so great that the suzerainty of the Empire would have become entirely fictitious. But when in 1278, after an indecisive treaty concluded two years earlier, the King of Bohemia was defeated and killed in the battle near the Morava River north of Vienna, Austria, definitely secured by the new imperial dynasty of German origin, became a basis not only for Habsburg influence in the Empire but also for the dynastic policy of the German Habsburgs in East Central Europe, even beyond the limits of the Empire and those of the Danubian region.

    These were, of course, prospects of the future. What happened immediately was a decline of Czech power, particularly during the minority of Otakar’s son, Václav II, with a corresponding growth of German and imperial influence in that Slavic country, influence which through Bohemia and Moravia penetrated even into Polish Silesia more than ever before. Under the pressure of Albrecht I, the second Habsburg on the imperial throne, his younger brother Rudolf was even temporarily elected King of Bohemia in 1296, and only his early death prevented serious troubles to the legitimate heir to the crown.

    The position of Václav II was of course strengthened by his successes in Poland, which in the light of the critical situation of Bohemia appear particularly important for the Piemyslid dynasty but at the same time very precarious. Even more so was another unexpected success of the King of Bohemia and Poland, when in the year (1301) following his coronation at Gniezno, his son became king of Hungary.

    That kingdom which had sided with Rudolf von Habsburg against the Czech rival of the Árpáds, and which now, after 1278, was again an immediate neighbor of a German power, entered an even more serious period of decline under rather insignificant rulers. When Andrew III died in 1301, as last representative of the dynasty, the problem of succession opened a protracted crisis. The union with Bohemia, and through her king with Poland also, could have been a solution of the basic issues of East Central European history of much greater significance and chances of success than the abortive Austro-Bohemian union under Otakar. But it was a purely dynastic combination, insufficiently supported by Václav’s personal ambition. When he died in 1305 it was doomed to failure even before his son and successor Václav III, opposed in both Hungary and Poland, was assassinated in the following year.

    Now, in 1306, a crisis of succession was also opened in Bohemia, and it is no wonder that Albrecht I immediately seized that opportunity to proclaim that the Bohemian kingdom was nothing but a fief of the Empire and therefore at his disposal. This was a misinterpretation of the bull of 1212, but it was greatly facilitated by the disappearance of the national Czech dynasty. Less dangerous was the situation of Hungary, where the Empire could not raise any similar claims. But neither that country nor Bohemia was ever to have a national dynasty again, while for Poland the sudden disappearance of the last two Premyslids was the best opportunity to liberate herself from foreign rule and from any possible imperial interference, under the rule of one of the still numerous representatives of the native Piast dynasty.

    But for Poland, too, as well as for the whole of East Central Europe, it was of primary importance how the struggle for the vacant crowns of St. Václav and St. Stephen would be decided. The establishment of a German dynasty in one or both of the neighboring countries was obviously bound to threaten the friendly relations which in general had prevailed before. It was therefore very alarming that not only the Austrian Habsburgs but also the Wittelsbachs of Bavaria appeared among the various pretenders who for several years tried to gain possession of Hungary and Bohemia. And it was very favorable to Poland’s interests and to the free development of the Danubian region that in Hungary, where a decision was already reached in 1308, one of the French Anjous of Naples, Charles Robert, emerged as the successful candidate. With the support of the papacy, which was equally friendly to the Polish princes, he established a dynasty there, which, although of foreign origin, continued Hungary’s independent tradition and checked the possible progress of German influence.

    Entirely different was the solution which two years later ended a similar crisis in Bohemia. Here it was one of the candidates of German origin there was practically no other who replaced the Premyslids. It is true that John of Luxemburg came from Germany’s extreme West where French influence was considerable. But in the person of his father, Henry VII, that formerly rather modest house had reached the imperial dignity a few years before, and therefore after gaining possession of Bohemia was to connect her very closely with the Empire. Furthermore, the successor of the Premyslids was strongly convinced that he had also inherited their claims to the crown of Poland, and he decided to continue their Silesian policy which had already brought some of the local dukes in that border province under the suzerainty of the Bohemian crown.

    The near future was to show that in spite of his lifelong French sympathies, this German King of Bohemia would be one of Poland’s most dangerous opponents. In intimate cooperation with the Teutonic Order, he represented the trend of German expansion toward the East. Furthermore, his successors’ relations with Hungary were to lead, toward the end of the fourteenth century, to the establishment of Luxemburg rule in that country also. The simultaneous developments in both kingdoms at the beginning of that century were therefore much more than changes of dynasty. Coinciding with the rise of Moscow and with the sudden appearance of the Ottoman danger, they introduced new elements into the medieval tradition of East Central Europe and made that moment an important turning point in the history of that whole area.

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