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I love it when people start telling me about Polish history. Closing my eyes, resting my chin on my hand and snoring lightly are all signs of deep concentration and interest, honestly. Over the years I’ve dozed through numerous fascinating lectures on Polish history. I’ve followed this up with literally minutes of internet research and I can now bring you my definitive version of What Happened in Polish History:
When early Polish humans first migrated onto the great central European plain they weren’t so very different from the Polish humans of today. The very first early Polish human to arrive immediately set up a border control and customs point and asked to the see the triple-visa-stamped passports of the all the other early Polish humans behind him. This caused some confusion and delay for a while since nobody had yet invented the passport, or writing, or paper. After a couple of thousand years, however, this was all sorted out and the early Polish humans got down to business with all their paperwork in order.
Many people ask how Poles came to be called Poles. I made this mistake once and this is what I heard, possibly: One of the early Polish humans looked around one day and said “Hey guys, you do realize we’re living in a field don’t you?” The other early Polish humans thought about this for a while and decided that this was indeed a very wise observation. From that day onwards they called this guy “Pole,” which was the early human Polish word for “guy who lives in a field.” Incidentally, Pole had a brother called Lech, who invented beer, another brother called Czech, who invented putting jam on everything, and a third brother called Russ, who invented alcoholism. They were a pretty influential family.
The Middle Ages
Later, when most of the early Polish humans were middle aged, they decided to start having kings and stuff like that. It was fashionable at the time. The first king of Poland was a chap called Mieszko the First, which was lucky, if it had been his brother Pawel the Fourteenth things would have become very confusing very quickly. Mieszko had a huge beard and was a bit of a lad. Apparently he married his second wife after abducting her from a monastery. I was under the impression that only men lived in monasteries but hey, perhaps he got confused by the frocks.
Mieszko’s first wife is credited with bringing Christianity to Poland. The story goes like this:
965 Mieszko marries some cute Czech lass who’s a Christian
966 Mieszko is baptized as a Christian, trims his beard, stops spending so much time out drinking with the lads, buys some new shirts, etc.
967 Mieszko’s wife tragically dies in a beheading/horse trampling accident. Mieszko goes looking for another wife… in a monastery.
A Bit Later
In another stroke of uncanny luck the greatest king of this period was called Kazimierz the Great. It was particularly lucky bearing in mind that his father was called Władysław Łokietek, which roughly translated into English means Vladislaus the Short Arse. All Polish people know this sentence about Kazimierz the Great: “Zastał polskę drewnianą a zostawił murowaną.” As far as I can make out this means something like “He saw Poland was made of wood and got stoned” but apparently it means that he rebuilt everything that was made of wood in bricks and mortar. This must have kept him pretty busy because, despite being king for almost 60 years, he failed to have any legitimate children. The other thing everyone knows about Kazimierz is that he invited lots of Jews to come and live in Poland. The former Jewish district of Krakow, Kazimierz, is named after him. The whole Jewish thing didn’t work out too well in the long run, but he wasn’t to know.
The Jagiellonian Dynasty
When old Kazimierz died without any legitimate heirs there was a fair amount of head scratching and late night vodka drinking until somebody came up with the genius idea of getting a 13-year-old Hungarian girl, marrying her to a bone-headed Lithuanian chap and calling the pair of them king and queen – an event in Polish history known as the Night of the Seventeen Bottles and One or Two Beer Chasers. It seemed like a good idea at the time.
The new queen was a lass called Jadwiga and the new king was a lad called Władysław Jagiełło (who still holds the world record for the most ł’s in a name). Jadwiga enjoyed flower arranging, inventing universities, and being a virgin. Władysław enjoyed killing Teutonic Knights, drinking games, and deflowering virgins. They had a rare old time and started the Jagiellonian Dynasty, or at least one of them did. Jadwiga later became a saint, but I’m not sure if this was a reward for marrying a lunatic Lithuanian or something else, like seeing Jesus or something.
The Jagiellonians trundled along for a good time having heirs and ruling and generally being historic until it all came unstuck with a chap called Zygmunt the Old. The lad Zygmunt made the mistake of marrying a bolshy Italian chick called Bona Sforza, who apparently turned up at the wedding with several shopping bags full of vegetables (that’s what they tell me). Sixteenth century Italian nobles are famous for two things: introducing people to the Renaissance and poisoning people – guess what happened next.
Having introduced drawings of impractical helicopters, hairy rhinoceroses, and the heliocentric theory to the Poles Bona Sforza set about poisoning family members just to complete the program. This was a shame because her son, Zygmunt Augustus, had just married a cracking six-foot Lithuanian blonde called Barbara Radziwiłłówna. Apparently she invented lipstick, pouting, and hot pants and was a major hottie. Bona Sforza, who was a short hairy Italian chick, didn’t take kindly to this and slipped Barbara one of her courgette-and-strychnine pizzas as a wedding present. Her evil work done she scuttled off back to Italy, where she was promptly poisoned by some other guy as part of a New Year’s Eve prank.
The Golden Szlachta (or something)
All this time a bunch of rich folk known as the szlachta had been gradually establishing the treasured Polish traditions of bribery, nepotism, and incomprehensible bureaucracy. They had all the money and various kings came to them over the centuries asking for wads of cash for projects such as killing Teutonic Knights, marrying long-legged Lithuanian blondes, or inventing universities. Typical conversations went something like this:
King: Hey szlachta, how about some cash so I can invade Bohemia and marry a smooth-faced young monk wearing a frock?
King: Oh go on! It’ll be a massive laugh. There’ll be pillaging and raping and all sorts of fun!
Szlachta: I suppose we could let you have a small loan in return for one or two minor favors…
King: Such as?
Szlachta: Nothing serious. You know, maybe, the right to tax the hell out of our tenant farmers and *ahem* vote for the succession to the throne.
King: What was that last part?
Szlachta: Nothing. Nothing serious. Just sign this and you can have the cash.
King: Well that’s alright then… where’s my pen.
When Zygmunt Augustus eventually retired to the pavilion without proper heirs the szlachta took it upon themselves to start ‘electing’ kings. This was a project with varying degrees of success.
The Elected Kings
The first elected king was a French chap called Henryk Walezy. Young Henry arrived in Poland, had a look around, popped into the local post office, and then buggered off back to France a few days later. “Nobody knows why he left” say the Poles, “I can have a damn good guess” says me. After that they started putting ads in Gazeta Wyborcza and on craigslist “Wanted: King of Poland, short hours, loads of Lithuanian blondes.” Another elected king was the Hungarian lad Stefan Batory. Unfortunately he completely missed out on the Lithuanian blondes and married Anna Jagiellonka who is unkindly remembered as the ugliest ever queen of Poland. She was very good at bigos though.
Another applicant was Zygmunt III Waza who made the decision to move the capital from Krakow to Warsaw. Us Krakow residents have this to say about the decision: Zygmunt Waza was Swedish, Warsaw is much closer to Sweden than Krakow is, a short while later Sweden invaded Poland and captured the capital city. Nice.
Next week on What Happened in Polish History:
A load of Swedes turn up and cause a flood (somehow)
Poland invents partitioning
Jan Sobieski gets it on with a French chick